Crazy Mountain Backpacking - Cottonwood Creek

June 28th, 2009

Cottonwood Lake basin in Crazy Mountains

West side of the Crazy MountainsWith the end of June in Montana comes the beginning of high alpine camping trips. The overlap season is always a little difficult - the high country is too snowy to hike and approach from the valleys is too dry to ski. We had so much snow last year that over the 4th of July I went on a ski camping trip in the southern Madisons! There was less snow this year so I didn’t bring my skis, but even at the end of June we packed ice axes just in case.

Hiking up Cottonwood Creek in the CraziesI had never been into the Crazy Mountains in the summer time. I had heard there was great fishing in the high lakes though, and since I finally confirmed my Montana residency and got a fishing license it seemed like just the place to go. Also, my girlfriend is leaving Montana in the fall for Med School in Nebraska, so our goal for the summer is to enjoy as much of Rockies as possible. It starts here. :)

FS map of Crazy Mountain trailsWe chose the Cottonwood drainage because it’s one of the shorter ones, and during my winter forays I’d never been to the west side of the mountains so I wanted to check it out. Plus Cottonwood Lake has fish in it! After getting lost in the tangled maze of private ranch roads in the foothills, we arrived at the trailhead. We had a late start after our Friday night but it’s no accident I picked a short - 5 mile-ish - hike so we were fine. The Cottonwood trail meanders very gently uphill for the first few miles, then shoots up like a rocket. Right where the trail gets steep and veers off of the ATV trail there was a gate and “Private Property” signs, which reminds me of an amusing thing about the Crazies: a lot of the range is private land. Old mining claims, I assume? But literally, the highest peak in the range - Crazy Peak - is on private land. Look at the checkerboarding on the map to see what I mean. It’s strange to me.

Lower Cottonwood PondShortly before getting to the lower of the two small lakes, we hit snow. One the charms of early season hiking! It was firm enough to walk on easily most places, but it made finding the trail difficult. There was one single set of tracks which helped us until we caught up to the source. They were made by a gentleman who had drawn a goat tag for the fall hunting season, and was scouting the territory. A challenging hunt, for sure! We passed him and gave up trying to keep on the trail. It was clear where we were headed, and soon we found the lower pond.

Crazy mountain lens flare!

Creek crossingAplenglow on the Grasshopper wallomg couples camping!

It was quickly approaching dinner time and we were tired and wet from the snow, but I wanted to check out the upper (bigger) lake. A half hour more tired and wet we did get to the second lake and the beautiful rock-walled basin - only to see that it was still frozen. No fishing to be had, and no dry camping spots either! So we had to hike back to the first lake. The upper lake remains for another day. Stunning scenery up there!

End of the sunset in the Crazies

Marmots have been hereThat night, since our shoes were sopping wet from all the snow we hiked in, I though I would be clever and place mine out on the rocks where the sun would get them early in morning. You know, so they could dry a little quicker. The rocks were a ways from the tent, but, who would mess my shoes way up here in the mountains? I wasn’t worried. But the answer to that is actually: marmots. Damn dirty marmots!Damn, dirty marmots. We slept in a little that morning, and around nine I peeked out of the tent to check on my shoes and socks. A posse of five or six marmots was milling around them. Crap. I ran out of the tent and confirmed the damage: the backs, laces and tongues of both shoes were shredded, one sock was chewed roughly in half and the sock was just gone. Everything close to the tent was fine - it was just my footware I was so cleverly drying! Thankfully I had spare socks and could still sort of lace up my shoes, but watch out for those furry little bastards! They’ll get ya.

I hadn’t gotten to fish the first day, but the next morning I cast my first Montana line into the little lower Cottonwood pond. Parts of it were still drifted in, but there was plenty of open water to fish. I’m not sure why I waited this long to get into fishing. It’s a perfect chill-out activity up in the mountains! Though it seems the only way anyone tries to catch fish in Montana is with fly gear anymore, I opted for a cheap spin fishing setup with a collapsible “backpacking” rod. It worked like a charm! I caught a little trout in about five minutes. They were probably just hungry after the long winter… but I can’t wait to do some more fishing!

Collapsible camping fishing rodEvan - the fearsome trout slayerMy first Montana fish! Awww

Neptune's- Brewery in Livingston - Thai food and beer!Our hike out was nice and uneventful. We stopped in at the Neptune Brewery for a cold pint (Toad Back Bock!) and some fried alligator, and counted it a successful trip!

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6 Responses to “Crazy Mountain Backpacking - Cottonwood Creek”

  1. i remember hiking up Cottonwood in September a couple years ago and getting caught in a Crazy Mountains September blizzard. Sounds like you had an interesting adventure as well.

  2. Not a rainbow, dude

  3. @Kurt Yeah I guess not. No pink coloration. Cutty maybe? Same spots all the way out to the tail. No obvious “cutthroat” markings though, like I’ve seen on some. I don’t know much about fish, obviously.

  4. Looks like a bull trout.

  5. I dunno Cyrus, they have pink or yellow spots (not black/brown like this one), and no spots on the fins or tail.

    I’m pretty sure based on the dark spots now that it’s either a brown trout (although it has more spots on the tail, like a rainbow), or maybe still a rainbow (because of the spotted tail - even though in the picture it appears to lack the pink lateral line).

  6. Thats a cuttthroat

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