Froze to Death Plateau- Beartooth Mountains
There are few places on this planet that are truly named well. Covered with ice and snow 11 months out of the year, Froze to Death Plateau more than lives up so its name. At this plateau, snow is possible any time of the year, and the air conditioning is always on. If you hike up to this plateau, you’ll be rewarded by the scenery- the West Rosebud and Phantom Creek valleys are breathtaking, to say the least.
On the topic of breathtaking, the high altitude and steep trail make this hike a moderate hike. Weather at this altitude can also rapidly change, so be sure you are both in good shape, and prepared for the weather. With a name like Froze to Death Plateau, it goes without saying that you’ll want to carry a warm jacket, at least.
From the West Rosebud trailhead, this hike begins with a short stroll up a gravel road. Walking up this road, you pass by an informational plaque about the construction of the Mystic Lake dam. This plaque is an interesting read, covering the dam’s construction during the 1920s, and challenges that the dam’s engineers faced. Continuing down the trail, you walk within view of the powerhouse, and employee housing. A short distance down the trail, a small bridge allows time to pause and view the full length of the 2,689 foot long penstock. When you’ve finished admiring the dam operations, continue up the trail.
Hiking up the trail, you enter a mature lodgepole and aspen forest. The trail continues through this forest for approximately 2 miles, allowing easy access to water. After 2 miles, the forest ends at a rock field, which is a chore to cross in the mid-day sun. It’s best to cross this exposed rock field in the morning, or in the evening (if you plan on camping at Mystic Lake). After this rock field (which offers great views of the West Rosebud valley), a scenic overlook appears.
From this overlook, you can view Mystic Mountain, Mystic Lake, and your destination- the Froze to Death Plateau. At this point, the hike has a couple of options: you can camp at Mystic (with a good population of rainbow trout), and day hike to the plateau; or you can day hike to the plateau, and out on the same day. Regardless of which option you choose, the trail to Phantom Creek Trail # 17 appears on your left, approximately 300 yards into the forest along Mystic Lake’s shore. Turn left at this junction.
The next section is the most difficult portion of this hike- the trail immediately starts switchbacking up the steep sides of the plateau. This section of the trail has switchback after switchback, climbing 2,400 feet in only 2.5 miles. While hiking this portion of the trail, spectacular views of the West Boulder drainage can be seen, with Island Lake visible just before the plateau. As you hike the last stretch to the plateau, the trail begins to flatten, and the wind begins to blow.
Life on the plateau is harsh- grasses and lichens are the only plants at this altitude. The cold weather, high winds, and heavy snowfall keep all but the heartiest plants from surviving. The few flowers that do bloom at this altitude are rare or threatened species- tread lightly! The cold wind blows constantly- a perfect way to cool off from a tiring hike up to the plateau. From the plateau, the trail leads in two directions- south towards nearby Slough Lake, or west towards Froze to Death Mountain, Tempest Mountain, and the base camp for climbers aspiring to climb Granite Peak.
If you’re not planning on climbing a mountain, Phantom Creek trail also continues down the other side of the plateau, and to Slough Lake. This hike could be a shuttle hike if you arrange transportation from the Phantom Creek trailhead. The West Boulder trailhead is slightly higher in elevation than the Phantom Creek trailhead, making the West Boulder trailhead the logical starting point on a shuttle. However, if you plan on hiking back down the way you came from Mystic Lake, at least stroll over to view the Phantom Creek drainage- the scenery will not disappoint.
When you’ve had your fill of the alpine scenery, hike back down the trail to your vehicle at the West Rosebud trailhead. If you are lucky, the usual afternoon thunderstorms will have missed you. If not, look on the bright side- these last 6.5 miles are nearly all downhill.
Pictures of Froze to Death Plateau
Directions to the West Rosebud Trailhead
From Absarokee, head south of town on Highway 78. Turn right a couple of miles outside of Absarokee, onto Highway 419 (there will be a gas station at this turn). Drive down Highway 419 for 6 miles, passing through Fishtail. Once you drive through Fishtail, drive one more mile down Highway 419, and then turn left onto West Rosebud Road. Follow this road for seven miles, turning left at the sign to Mystic Lake. Travel down this gravel road for about 14 miles (passing Emerald Lake and West Rosebud Lake), and park at the trailhead. This is the end of the road (the rest of the road is closed to vehicles), hike up the road to the trailhead.