Note: This is an account of a hike to George Lake I sent to a friend of mine. It is a lot more personal than most info here and I hope you find it useful.
Wednesday June 18, 2003. I arrived at the George Lake trailhead at about 9:00. The trail and lake are part of the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The trailhead is up the Pine Creek drainage and the parking area is on the right (south) just before the campground. At one time the trail took off from the Pine Creek Trailhead but now has its own parking area.
George Lake is south of Pine Creek and the trail travels along the tree line just above private property in Paradise Valley. The trail was constructed in the late 1980s by a local sporting group after a private landowner closed off the historic access. The trail is 5 – 5½ miles in length and gains about 2,000 feet in elevation. However, there is a significant creek crossing that adds about 1600 ft of vertical on a round trip.
George Lake is a small lake, about 4 or 5 acres. It is quite shallow and doesn’t sustain fish. I’d known about it for many years but never had a desire to go there. In fact, almost everyone I know who has tried to get there has not been able to find it. This is because the last ½ mile or so of trail was never really finished.
On this day I wanted a good hike to get a tiring workout. With snow still in the shadows I was afraid that many of the trails I considered more desirable would be sloppy with mud or deep in snow so I decided that George Lake was a good choice. After about a half mile I arrive at a trail sign indicating George Lake is 5 miles. Scrawled on the sign is the comment “There is no lake! The trail just ends”. Of course this fits with what I already had heard.
It begins as an easy trail and I set a swift pace. The trail climbs gradually as it crosses the mountainside and I make pretty good time. The trail is in good shape and is wide and clear. After a 20 minute hike I hear the jack hammer sounds of a woodpecker pounding away. In fact, I hear two, one close and one off in the distance. A short stop reveals that the closer bird is high in a dead tree above me. Needless to say, I can’t get enough of a look to make an ID.
It’s a nice day to be hiking in the woods and off to my right I get occasional views into Paradise Valley. The Yellowstone River snakes through the valley. Swollen and brown it flows swiftly, racing to get to North Dakota as quickly as possible. There it will visit a series of artificial reservoirs losing its energy and its ability to recharge the flood plain.
After hiking for about an hour and a half I reach the approach to Cascade Creek. Cascade sits far below me in the ravine it has carved out of the Mountains. I follow the twisting trail down to the creek. where I cross on a downed tree. I pick up the trail and begin the long upward climb to get back out of the Cascade drainage.
It’s here that the trail begins to deteriorate. What was a nice, level and well maintained trail becomes a narrow track. As I reach the ridge line that defines the Cascade drainage I turn up hill and follow the trail nearly straight up. Unfortunately this is all the farther that trail maintenance crews have gotten in recent years. Although I can follow a clear trail it is frequently crossed by downed trees. Sometimes they are singles and other times there are big stacks. Climbing over the trees and climbing up the hill I’m following a trail that is rapidly vanishing.
I reach a point where the trail vanishes into a massive pile of downed timber. Careful scouting shows that by going straight up the hill I can find the trail above me. I stop to build a cairn so that I find this spot on the way down. I am nearing the top of the ridge that I am climbing and I see that there will be some sort of level bench ahead. It must be on this bench that the lake is found. However, the trail is almost gone. I am following the blaze marks on trees until they vanish and I am left with no indication of a trail anywhere.
I’m determined to get to George Lake but I also don’t want to get lost. The trail I’ve been following is very faint and if I just take off cross country I’m not likely to find the trail when I want to leave. I spend ten minutes searching for a landmark, trail sign, blazed tree or anything to indicate my path. I know where I think the trail should go but there is no sign that is correct. Before I give up I will try one more thing. I build a cairn out of sticks and branches that I can use as a landmark and I set off in the direction I think the trail should go. I have decided to walk until I can?t see my mark anymore.
As I reach the limit to go without losing my way I see a faint trail. A few yards more and I realize that I’ve found the trail – the poorly defined, non-maintained, barely visible trail. I will push on. Five minutes later I hit the lake. The trail ends at the lake – literally at the lake. It is cut through the trees right to the lake shore. Trees surround the lake to the very shore on all sides. Across the lake I see snow banks on the lake shore and a myriad of insects swim in the waters.
I sit by the shore and have a drink of water and a granola bar. It’s 12:30 and it has been a real effort to get here. I am not enjoying this because there is a nagging voice that says I need to follow my trail out before I get lost. No more than five minutes and I’m on my feet heading back. My fears are totally misplaced and I unerringly find my trail out. Past the cairns, through the downed trees and back on the trail. As a bonus, soon after leaving the lake I’m treated to the sight of several Elk moving away from me through the woods.
By this time I’m confident of achieving my other objective of getting a good workout. I am getting tired and am thinking that it will be nice to knock off the 4-5 remaining miles. I set a good pace and head down the hill. As I walk I see a trail branching off that I don’t remember from the trip up but I’m tired and don’t explore. I continue down, straight down! This doesn’t seem right. I don’t remember going up this much hill but I’m on a good trail, well maintained with blazes on the trees. This must be right – wrong!!!
I finally breakout into meadows of wild flowers and I know I’m in trouble. All of the meadows were far below me as I hiked up. If I’m in meadows I’m on private property. I screwed up big time. For the past 20-30 minutes I have been walking straight down now I must turn around and go straight up.
As I trudge up I worry and worry. Although I’m on a definite trail that is marked and has seen feet, I know it’s not where I should be. I’m tired, my knees hurt and I know I am 4-5 miles from my car. What if I hike up and up and only get back to the lake. Maybe I’m wrong to keep going up but if I go back down and that is wrong then I have to go up all this again. Realizing that I must be decisive I set my sights on getting to the place where I noticed the side trail. I continue to trudge up until I reach that point and start down the other trail.
I quickly realize that this is the right trail. It’s leading me back down to Cascade Creek and I am back on track. Unfortunately, I’m exhausted, I’m sweating hard and I’m almost out of water. At least I know where I am and where I’m going. As I hike I think about the wrong trail. It almost certainly was the old trail to the lake. The trail that was abandoned when the access across the private property was eliminated. That explains why it was a “real” trail and why the trees were blazed. I just wish I would have been more observant on my way up so I had noticed it joining our trail.
Back down to Cascade Creek where I successfully cross the log on shaky legs. Now the climb out of the creek. From there it is mostly downhill to the car. Just up from the creek I encounter a young couple and they are more lost than I was! They thought they were on the trail to Pine Creek Falls! I explain their problem and they turn around and head back, quickly leaving me in their wake.
For me it is a long, painful, uneventful walk back. My pace gets slower and slower – I am beat. Finally I reach the trail sign and know it is only a half mile to my car. My pace has slowed to a crawl and I’m barely moving. Thank goodness it’s all downhill. At last I reach the parking area.
In all this was an OK hike. I had a lot of enjoyable hiking and If I hadn’t gotten lost on my way back it would have been about the right length to leave me very tired which is what I wanted. I got a very intense workout and went to a place where few go, where I had never been and where I will likely never go again.
Here are some nearby trails: