Choosing our second favorite ride of the 2015 season seemed easy because it was another one of our favorites from our explorations of the northwest region of Yellowstone National Park. Specimen Creek was a beautiful ride in Montana. This ride seemed to have everything that you could possible ask for in a trail ride. This is a 22 mile loop that had lush green forests, along with huge burnt sections of forest, from the 2007 Owl Fire that burned more than 2000 acres in the northwest corner of the park. You will also ride through pretty meadows with the creek running through it. You will climb up to 9600 feet to a spectacular view of mountains and cliffs in all directions. There are numerous lakes along the way and beautiful canyon views. This was one amazing ride for the books!
Finding the Specimen Creek Trailhead
From West Yellowstone: From the center of town drive north on U.S. 191 towards the town of Bozeman for approximately 26.6 miles. The trailhead will be on the right just past the bridge that crosses Specimen Creek. This is a nice sized parking lot with a loop around parking system just off the highway.
Specimen Creek Trail Description
You will find a map at the bottom of this post that we created using the Suunto Ambit 2 watch app. This was a rough outline of the trail we took and it has us going up to Shelf Lake, but we cut that out due to time constraints.
This will be the first trail sign you will come across as you begin your adventure. If you will take notice, on this sign there is access to Bighorn Peak which is where we took you to in our last trail ride, the Black Butte. During all the research we did for these two trails, we found that there is almost an infinate trail system in this area. All the trails seem to connect in some way or another making for a lot of different loop options or even in and outs. As for this trail, you will be visiting Cresent Lake and High Lake.
For the first two miles of this trail you will be meandering though a forest that borders Specimen Creek. At the 2 mile mark you will come to a junction with the option of either continuing on to the left, making for a clockwise loop, or going onto the Sportsman Lake Trail and making a counterclockwise loop. It really can be done in any way you choose, however we decided to take a right here and go onto the Sportsman Lake Trail.
As you continue onto the Sportsman Lake trail there is a drastic change in the scenery as you start to see the affects of the Owl Fire. This section of the trail is about 4.5 miles long and takes you through a few foot bridges that cross over the North Fork of Specimen Creek.
You will also start to gain some elevation during this section as the trail starts a semi steep, switchback climb, through burnt trees. There is some slight side hill here and as you gain elevation you will be able to look down on the North Fork of Specimen Creek. We did this ride in late August when the fall colors were just starting to take effect. You will see some of these pretty colors in our pictures during this section of the trail.
As you come to the end of the Sportsman Lake trail, you will come to a junction head left towards High lake you will have about 2.9 miles before you reach your next sign. If you continue straight at this sign the trail will take you to Mill Creek. We took a left here which took us to High Lake. This was our first of three lake visits during the trip. We decided to tie up the horses and make this our stop for lunch.
As you get ready to leave High Lake, you will notice a few trails going in a couple different directions. That is because there are a few campsites located at the lake. We took the trail that went around the right side of the lake.
This next section of the trail has got to be one of the prettiest parts of the ride. It is a longer section that goes about 6.5 miles and you start to do some serious climbing once you leave High Lake. After going through a lush meadow that leads you around the lake, you go back into a forest for a climb that brings you to a rugged scenic overlook that is about 9600 feet in elevation. However as you are climbing through the forest you will begin to catch a glimps of the view that is waiting for you at the top. As you begin to get to know us, you will find that we become very excited when we can feel a view coming on. So once again, we parked our horses and took a short hike through the trees to the ridge of Yellowstone’s rugged northwestern border. We enjoyed this view for a moment before we climbed back on our horses and continued up to along the ridge where the trail opened up and we really got an amazing view of the Gallatin Range. Be sure to stop here and get those pefect shots as we did 🙂 It is always amazing to come across these spectacular views while out on the trail and we never take them for granted and always soak up the view as much as we can.
As you continue on down the trail be careful, as the trail becomes a bit harder to follow as the elevation gives way to rockier terrain. Be on the look out for the orange blazes and the other obvious marks that will lead you in the correct direction.
The trail will then decend and you will start to lose elevation. The trail will lead you through some water crossings, rocky terrain, a small lake and forest. Before long you will see another small lake to your right. This lake is called Sedge Lake.
Continue on the trail a little further and you will come to one of the most beautiful high mountain lakes we have ever seen called Crescent Lake. It is surrounded by thick forests and tall jagged peaks. The water had that cool almost greenish color to it. Unfortunately we weren’t the only ones here at this time. It was actually a kind of populated spot as there are numerous camp spots located right on the lake. We still took this time to enjoy the tranquility of the lake and all its beauty. It really was a sight and it just added to the perfection of this ride.
Reluctantly, we had to leave Crescent Lake. There wasn’t much left to this section of the trail after leaving the lake. The trail takes you down into some switchbacks through the forest until you come to another junction in the trail.
When you get to this junction you will have the option to either take a right and head up towards Shelf Lake or take a left and head back on Specimen Creek. Originally we were going to go up to Shelf Lake and then turn around and come back. However, with Shelf Lake being another 2 miles there and two miles back, we decided not to put that extra mileage on our poor horses that had already done so much work. So unfortunately, we headed back on Specimen Creek trail. Even when the trail is long, it is always a sad time when we realize that we are headed back to the the truck. Even though we still had roughly six miles to go, we knew that would go by in an instant and another perfect ride would come to an end.
The last six miles is relatively easy terrain and takes you through many stream crossings where your horses can get plenty to drink after a hard days work. You will also be going through another section of burnt trees. After traveling about 4 miles you will merge back into the trail you started on at the beginning of your journey. Remember to always be prepared with rain slickers and coats. In the last few miles of this trail the weather turned and we got slightly downpoured on. However we were on such a high from the views we experienced that day that the rain was almost refreshing.
Where to Camp?
A lot of people ask us where to camp on our rides. We live about 2 1/2 hours from this trailhead. We just get up early and head for the hills and drive back the same night. There is a camp sight located at the end of the Sportsmans Lake Trail that is for stock parties only. It is located 0.2 miles from the main trail and you have to cross the East Fork of Specimen Creek to reach the campsite. Reminder anyone interested in spending a night with your horses in Yellowstone Park must contact the West Yellowstone Visitor Center at (307) 344-2876 to obtain any necessary back country permits.