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East Rosebud Creek flows from the Beartooth Mountains.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Where the hell is Roscoe? Just tell folks it’s on the way to East Rosebud.

You may have seen the Grizzly Bar’s most famous non-food merchandise stuck to vehicle bumpers around Montana, bluntly asking about the location of a small outpost in the Beartooth Mountain foothills. It’s less than a tank of gas away from Billings, and only a few more miles from one of Montana’s most accessible mountain lakes and the Beartooths’ most famous trail.

Start out with a jaunt west along I-90 to Columbus before going south through Absarokee on Highway 78. Several fishing access sites just off the highway provide fly-casting opportunities along the poorly-named Stillwater River. It’s noted more for its rushing, fast-paced waters, but ample rainbow and brown trout can be found lurking behind boulders between Absarokee and Columbus.

Continue south for about 13 miles. You won’t miss the Roscoe turnoff if you blink, but it could be a close call. Turn right on one of two closely-spaced roads that trundle through Roscoe. You can’t miss the Grizzly Bar; the road passes within 10 feet of the front door, but it’s probably the sculpted grizzly bear prowling the roof that’ll grab your attention. Burgers and steak always taste better after a hike, so continue further south on East Rosebud Road.

The winding paved path soon gives up to gravel; take a right over a cattle grate not quite four miles later, staying on East Rosebud Road. The bumpy dirt can be anywhere from one of the better trail-access roads in Montana to deeply rutted and potholed, depending on if it’s had a recent facelift, but it’s always navigable for any sound vehicle, including sedans.

Ranches and homes dot the road as it slices deeper into the mountain valley. Slopes rise up as another stretch of pavement intersperses the road before turning back to dirt. As you pass the turnoff for the Phantom Creek Trailhead, you’re getting real close.

East Rosebud Creek ducks in and out of view, sometimes rushing, calm at other times. A last bridge over the creek is near a boat launch and picnic area for East Rosebud Lake.

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East Rosebud 2

A view of East Rosebud Creek looking south toward the Beartooth Mountains.

The trail

Much of the lakeshore is privately owned. The East Rosebud Creek area was originally assigned as part of the Crow Indian Reservation before shifting boundaries landed it in the hands of a former Indian agent; he eventually sold it to developers who parceled out cabin properties.

Fishing on the lake can be hit or miss; like many mountain lakes, the good days can be fantastic but the fish aren’t always biting. It’s one of the few true mountain lakes in southeast Montana where boaters can easily navigate. Canoers or kayakers can paddle around the lake on calm days.

The dry-footed can scoot around the east side of the lake on the main road to the East Rosebud trailhead, slipping past a small campground. Expect some company. They don’t call it the Beaten Path for nothing.

The East Rosebud Trail winds its way across the Beartooth Mountains, past spectacular lakes and stark plateaus, to another parking lot outside of Cooke City about 26 miles away. The full trip is usually completed over several days. That it took 43 years to blaze the full trail reflects just how deep it cuts into the heart of the wilderness. 

In 1949, when the trail was less than halfway to Cooke City, forest supervisor Roy A. Phillips predicted its popularity.

"...this will be a heavily used recreation trail and should be located and constructed to high standards," he wrote in a letter. 

In addition to scattershot funding and challenging terrain, distractions for crews ran from accordion-playing cooks to fruit juice wine and homemade canvas-tent saunas. One time, a ranger arrived to find workers playing cards in a tent and fired nearly all of them in a fit of rage, according to Chris Branger, who worked on the trail during his teenage years in the 1950s for 98 cents an hour.

The Forest Service got serious in the 1960s and finished the trail in 1964; a press release said "this trail traverses some of the most spectacular country in the Beartooth Primitive Area."

The section between the trailhead and Elk Lake, three miles away from the East Rosebud parking area, might now be the busiest section of trail in the Beartooth Mountains.

What passes for busy in the Beartooths would be considered a slow day in many scenic Montana locations. Yellowstone National Park draws off most tourists, and the trail is just far enough from Billings and Bozeman to avoid being choked with day hikers.

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East Rosebud Creek winds out of the Beartooth Mountains in this aerial view.

Lake country

In late summer and fall, look for huckleberries and raspberries on the way to Elk Lake — which, ironically, isn’t known for roaming elk — and bring a fishing rod for brook trout. While fly-fishing inspires a near-religious conviction in many Montanans, blasphemous spinning tackle has been known to bring in a few fish as well, and Elk Lake is a great spot for beginners.

Hang out on a small beach where the trail first meets the lake, or lounge on rocks near the lake’s inlet. Remember that this is wilderness country, and practice leave-no-trace ethics. Keep an eye out for wildlife as well and always hike with bear spray.

Ambitious day hikers can continue up the valley. The terrain gets steeper, and a section of trail parallels a healthy dropoff at one point. But the route has some prime raspberry bushes and the view of Rimrock Lake — about 2 miles from Elk Lake — is superb.

Wind rushing through the valley might seem as if it could blow you clear back to Roscoe, but grab on to bridge railings and soak up the view as mountains splay out beyond the shimmering, glacier-blue lake. Steep, rocky walls make camping here a non-starter, but overnighters can find good sites at Rainbow Lake, another scenic spot about three miles up the trail.

In "Hiking the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness," author Bill Schneider declares, "many people who know the Beartooths say the East Rosebud is the most scenic valley of all. It's filled with lakes and waterfalls that would be major tourism attractions anywhere else... This trail touches the true essence of the Beartooths."

Side Trips

For day hikers, anything beyond Rimrock, a 10-mile round trip, becomes a challenging distance; remember that going down a steep trail can seem just as tough as going up. And keep an eye to the sky, as thunderstorms have been known to quickly interrupt beautiful afternoons. 

For hikers that are true gluttons for punishment with basic backcountry skills, other lakes can be rewarding side trips. The Snow Lakes lie a few miles to the east of the trail between Elk Lake and the trailhead, but it’s a gnarly few miles, defined by bushwhacking through downed timber and boulder hopping. Even the best-conditioned hikers will find cause to re-evaluate their life choices. But if you make it to the lakes, thick, pink-meated rainbow trout await, and the climb offers spectacular views of the East Rosebud valley.

On the other side of the valley, Arch Lake is another brutal bushwhack that’s been known to reward ambitious hikers with sublime lake views and an iconic rock arch, plus trophy cutthroat trout fishing.

Those in search of golden trout can start at the nearby Spread Creek Trailhead, which climbs about six miles to Sylvan Lake and holds a clan of goldens so robust that Fish, Wildlife and Parks extracts eggs from the lake to help populate other water bodies. 

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Grizzly Bar and Restaurant

The Grizzly Bar and Restaurant in Roscoe.

Pit stop

The wiser choice for East Rosebud day-trippers is to snack on more raspberries going back down the trail and relish the thought of one of Montana’s best burgers being a short car ride away.

The Grizzly Bar has changed over the years, evolving from a biker-heavy roadhouse to an all-types sit down restaurant, which often merits a good hat and clean boots. The sturdy wood bar endures. Ripe-smelling hikers sit alongside local ranchers or homeowners, and of course bikers too; often, the restaurant is a destination in itself.

It’s hard to go wrong with any burger, but the restaurant’s namesake sandwich — the Grizzly Burger — is always a good choice. Wash it down with a Red Lodge ale that’s brewed just down the road. For those willing to spend an extra buck, the Grizzly Bar’s steaks are as thick as a grizzly’s paw. The menu also offers more diversity for those looking to branch out.

The iconic bumper stickers asking "Where the hell is Roscoe?" won't add much to your dinner tab. You'll likely find yourself wanting to make a second trip, once you know how to get there. 

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Grizzly Bar and Restaurant

A bone-in rib steak with baked potato and sautéed zucchini from the Grizzly Bar and Restaurant in Roscoe.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.