The Sundance Pass hike is an outstanding point-to-point trek that takes you through the heart of Montana’s Beartooth Range – the highest range in the state. The hike features multiple subalpine lakes, wonderful campsites, and a stunning alpine pass over 11,000 feet in elevation.
Hike at a Glance
Location: Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area near Red Lodge, Montana
Type of Hike: Point to Point (two cars required)
Distance: 20.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,418 feet* (4,703 feet if hiking in reverse direction)
Max Elevation: 11,038 feet
Min Elevation: 7,185 feet
Starting Point: Lake Fork Trailhead
Ending Point: West Fork Rock Creek Trailhead
You can either complete this as a long dayhike or as a 3-day backpacking trip. Honestly, both are great options depending on your preference and how much time you have. My group and I chose to do this as a 3-day hike and it was certainly nice to be out there for a few days.
Which Direction to Take
The two trails you take on this hike make a horseshoe shape, but start at two different trailheads and therefore a loop isn’t possible. The good news is that the trailheads are only about 40 minutes from each other, so it’s a pretty easy shuttle – but you do need two cars or to make prior arrangements to be picked up/dropped off.
My group started at the Lake Fork Creek Trailhead and ended at West Fork Rock Creek Trailhead. We camped at September Morn Lake the first night (mile 7.2) and Quinnebaugh Meadows the second night (mile 16).
I thought doing it this direction worked out well and both of our campsites were outstanding. I would recommend going this way if you want to bite off some mileage on your first day and save an easy hike out for the last day.
If you’d rather start with an easy day followed by longer mileage the second day, then do this hike in reverse starting from West Fork Rock Creek and camping at Quinnebaugh Meadows on the first night. Also, you’ll start 700 feet higher at this trailhead compared to Lake Fork Creek, so your overall elevation gain is slightly less.
Permits and Regulations
You do not need a permit to hike or camp in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. It’s still a good idea to sign in at the trailhead registers with your plans, for safety reasons.
Wilderness regulations include camping at least 200 feet away from any lake, stream, or trail. Also, group sizes of more than 15 people are not allowed.
Dogs ARE allowed on this trail. We took our two black labs and they had a blast.
Leave No Trace
As backcountry travelers, it is our responsibility to minimize our impact on the wilderness areas we use, both for the sake of the ecosystem and for the sake of other wilderness users. The last thing anyone wants is to come across a campsite full of trash.
Here is a quick rundown of the 7 Leave No Trace Principles:
Plan Ahead and Prepare: Check local conditions, be aware of any fire bans or wildlife closures.
Camp on Durable Surfaces: Set up your tent in an area that avoids trampling vegetation as much as possible, and also camp at least 200 feet away from water – both to protect the water from human impacts (food, human waste, etc.) and to give wildlife a buffer to travel along the water’s edge undisturbed.
Dispose of Waste Properly: This is a big one, and sadly tends to be neglected by many parties. Pack a trowel with you and when you “have to go”, dig a hole and bury your poop, at least 200 feet away from water and trails. Also, carry ziploc bags to pack out your used TP – please do not leave used TP as this is an (especially disgusting) form of littering.
Leave What You Find: Leave previously made fire rings as you found them without breaking them down or altering. Do not dig trenches or platforms for your tent.
Minimize Campfire Impacts: Use existing fire rings. Use dead wood for fuel and refrain from breaking branches off of live trees. Most importantly, please be extra thorough about properly extinguishing your fire, and use more water than you think you need. Western U.S. forests are susceptible to fires during the summer dry season and unattended campfires are one of the most common causes of forest fires.
Respect Wildlife: Observe animals from a distance and do not approach. Store food properly.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Be courteous, avoid excessive noise that could take away from the outdoor experience.
Lake Fork Creek to September Morn Lake
The first leg of this hike gains about 2,600 feet over 7.2 miles. The first 5-6 miles are heavily wooded, but you do follow the scenic Lake Fork of Rock Creek. There is also an easy side trip to Lost Lake about 5 miles in, which is a good spot to take a break.
After 6 miles, you’ll pass a trail junction to Keyser Brown Lake. Hang a right at this junction, and then the trail starts to climb more steeply out of the valley with views really beginning to open up as you approach September Morn Lake.
There are several great areas to camp near September Morn Lake, opposite of the trail from the lake (remember to camp at least 200 yards from the lake).
September Morn Lake to Sundance Pass
This stretch is only 1.8 miles, but it’s a tough 1.8 miles with over 1,200 feet of elevation gain to reach the 11,037-foot pass. The scenery opens up quickly beyond the lake and you’ll have excellent views looking ahead toward the pass and back down the Lake Fork Valley.
Sundance Pass itself is exceptional and is a great place to hang out for a bit as long as the weather is good. Be warned, it can’t get quite windy up here.
Sundance Pass to Quinnebaugh Meadows
The steep descent down the west side of Sundance Pass toward Sundance Lake is the most beautiful stretch of the entire hike. Glaciated mountains and turquoise lakes and streams can be seen from here.
Sundance Lake is a stunning lake, but you’ll have to enjoy it from a distance as there is no easy way to get down to its shoreline with steep terrain surrounding it.
The rest of the hike to Quinnebaugh Meadows features a gradual descent with forested sections interspersed with open scenery and good views both in front of and behind you.
Quinnebaugh Meadows has camping options, the best of which are found before you a creek crossing that is located just prior to the junction with the Lake Mary Trail. If you come to this creek crossing, turn around and search for a campsite beforehand.
Quinnebaugh Meadows to West Fork Rock Creek Trailhead
The final 4.3 miles make for an easy and relaxing trek back to the ending point of this hike. This section is also quite scenic with many open meadows and views.
Best of all, if you hike here in August, you’ll be treated to tons of wild raspberry bushes – I saw more wild raspberries here than I have ever seen anywhere in the Rockies, and they were delicious. Enjoy the raspberries, but remember that wildlife depend on these berries for food sources as well, so be sure not to hoard all of them and leave some for the animals (and other hikers!) to enjoy.
There are several worthy side trips you can take on this hike, although it would really only make sense to do so if you’re doing this as a backpacking trip as 20.3 miles is already a lot for a dayhike.
Lost Lake is the easiest side trip and is only located 0.3 miles from the main trail.
Black Canyon Lake is a more difficult side trip and adds another 2 miles of steep climbing (one way) on rocky terrain. This would be a better side trip if you’re planning to spend more than 3 days on this trip.
Keyser Brown Lake is another easy side trip and is 0.7 miles off of the main trail.
Whitetail Peak is the most accessible summit from this hike. To reasonably add Whitetail to your trip, you’ll need to add a fourth day and do this as an out-and-back day trip from your camp at September Morn Lake. This peak is rated Class 3 (scrambling, no ropes required) and is the 5th highest peak in Montana.
Lake Mary is a beautiful side trip accessible from Quinnebaugh Meadows. It’s a 1.5-mile hike off of the main trail to reach this lake, but it’s a steep climb with about 1,200 feet of elevation gain.
When to Visit
The hiking season for this trail is short as snow lingers late into the year and often arrives early in the fall. Mid July through mid September is generally the best window, but this varies from year to year. In some years, you may be able to do this with minimal snow issues through the end of September.
Wildflowers are at their best in late July and early/mid August, but mosquitoes and blackflies are bad from July through the first half of August – so wildflower season is a trade-off. I did this trip at the end of August and there were no bugs, which was really nice. September offers more solitude and beautiful fall colors, but the days are also shorter and the nights colder.
During July and August, high temperatures between 9,000-10,000 feet in the Beartooths are typically in the 60s and lows are in the 30s to 40s, while Sundance Pass is colder during the day and can sometimes be windy.
In September, average highs are in the 50s and average lows in the 20s to low 30s. Snow can fall at any time of year at these elevations, but the first “real” snows of the fall usually occur in September. These first snows typically melt quickly as multi-day stretches of dry and sunny weather are also common in September.
Thunderstorms are very common in the Beartooths during midsummer and can develop quickly, so plan to time your ascent of Sundance Pass for early in the day if storms are in the forecast. Thunderstorms are most common in July and early August, and less common in late August in September.
Of the three summer hiking months, July is the wettest and September is the driest in terms of average rainfall. October is also relatively dry with similar precipitation to September. Of course, most of the precipitation that falls in October is in the form of snow and by this time of the year it likely won’t melt.
There is no shortage of water on this trail. The only dry stretch is during the ascent/descent of Sundance Pass with little water between September Morn Lake until you reach the tributary that drains into Sundance Lake. Just make sure to fill up enough at September Morn Lake to get you through your climb over the pass and you’ll be totally fine.
The Beartooths are a paradise for big game mammals. Wildlife you may see on this hike includes moose, elk, deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves.
The grizzly population is sizeable in the Beartooths, so be sure to carry bear spray, make plenty of noise, and hike with a partner (or better yet, two partners). My group did not encounter any bears on this hike, but we did see two moose.
There are no routefinding challenges on this hike as the entire hike features an easy-to-follow and well-marked trail. Some of the side trips mentioned do have some routefinding challenges, most notably Whitetail Peak.
Getting to the Trailhead(s)
This hike starts and ends on two different trailheads, but fortunately the trailheads are only 40 minutes apart and close to the town of Red Lodge. The access roads to both trailheads are on improved dirt/gravel roads that are accessible by passenger cars, and are also well-marked.
Footwear: I’m a big fan of trail runners versus boots and love my Hoka Speed Goats. If I were expecting to encounter long stretches of fresh snow on the trail during a late season trip in September, then I would go with my Saloman X Ultra 3 Mid GX, which are sturdier/higher top versions with a trail run design that are also waterproof.
Ultimately, the best trail shoes for you are whatever fits you the best and I recommend trying on shoes rather than buying online. But I offer my own experiences to at least point you in the right direction as to what “type” of shoes work well on this hike.
Backpack: For big day hikes, I have used the Osprey Talon 33 for years and love it. It fits comfortably and is just the right size to carry the essentials for a big hike at elevation, without weighing you down too much.
For backpacking, I have used numerous Osprey packs and think that you really can’t go wrong with this brand, provided the packs fit your frame well.
Hiking Poles: I never hiked with poles until a couple of years ago when I was recovering from knee surgery (torn meniscus) but ended up loving them and now I always hike with poles. They are helpful on the steeper, talus-y sections ascending and descending Sundance Pass on this trip. I currently use a pair of locally-made poles that I picked up in New Zealand, but I’ve had good experiences using Black Diamond poles as well.
Tent: For 2 humans and 2 dogs, we use a Sierra Designs Meteor Lite 3 tent and have found it to be a good weight/space ratio that is also well-ventilated.
Water Filter: I like the Katadyn Hiker Pro filter, it’s easy to use, pumps fast, and overall works great. I always pack extra iodine tablets and/or purification tablets too, just in case there is ever a filter malfunction.
Cooking: I’ve become a big fan of the JetBoil due to its simplicity and efficiency.
Food Storage: I recommend a Bear Canister or an Ursack bear bag that you can properly hang. Note: bear canisters are not required in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Trail Map: I highly recommend the Beartooth Mountains Map from Beartooth Publishing.
Clothing and Other Gear:
- Wool socks
- Softshell pants
- Rain pants
- Short sleeve shirt
- Long sleeve shirt
- Outer shell waterproof jacket
- Down jacket
- Wool hat
- Lightweight gloves (or thicker gloves if cold weather is forecasted)
- Bug spray
- Bear spray
- First aid kit
- Personal locator device
- Sleeping bag and air mattress
This is just a list of some of the key items I recommended for this hike. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive list.
Post Hike Meal
Red Lodge is close by and has many excellent restaurants. If you happen to finish your hike by lunchtime, then I highly recommend Cafe Regis. This place has an excellent outdoor garden where you can eat, and they incorporate veggies and fruits from their garden into their meals. They also serve breakfast for lunch, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Where to Stay Before/After Your Hike
There are tons of options whether you are looking for free camping or looking to stay in a room in Red Lodge. There are reasonably priced hotels in Red Lodge, which can be a nice luxury after a multi-day hike.
For camping, Lake Fork Road is one option. Check out freecampsites.net to get some ideas for the area, but seriously there are tons of options near Red Lodge.