Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Located in the Gallatin, Shoshone and Custer National Forests in Montana and Wyoming.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness lies on the Montana-Wyoming border on the Gallatin, Shoshone and Custer National Forests near Yellowstone National Park.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness derives it's name from the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountain Ranges. The Absarokas are named after the Crow Indians (Absaroka being the Indian name for Crow) who inhabited much of south-central Montana prior to the white man's entrance into the area. The Beartooth Mountains were named after the likeness between a jagged mountain peak in the range and a bear's tooth.

The Beartooth Primitive Area (225,855 acres) and the Absaroka Primitive Area (64,000 acres) plus a considerable amount of roadless lands surrounding these two areas now form the Wilderness. The primitive areas were originally set aside during 1932 to protect their natural state.

In accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964, President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation that created the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness on March 27, 1975. Inclusion of the Absaroka-Beartooths in the National Wilderness Preservation System was a long time effort of the late U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf (D-Montana), who introduced the original bill and was its primary advocate. Metcalf died January 12, 1978, less than three months before his goal was realized.

This vast wilderness contains two distinctly different mountain ranges. To the west lie the Absarokas characterized by stratified volcanic and metamorphic rocks forested valleys and rugged peaks. The Absarokas form a chain of mountains that includes the spectacular peaks east of the Paradise Valley between Livingston and Gardiner the northeastern corner of Yellowstone Park Pilot and Index Peaks south of Cooke City and the North Absaroka Wilderness in Wyoming. The Absarokas are home to a variety of wild animals notably the threatened grizzly bear.

The eastern side of the wilderness is dominated by the high granitic plateaus of the Beartooth Mountains. Hundreds of lakes lie among the bald rock and alpine tundra of the plateaus. This country is starkly beautiful but extremely fragile with unpredictable changes in weather. Wildlife that you may see includes moose mule deer mountain goats and bighorn sheep.

The ranges that comprise the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness are different - in climate, elevation, plant communities and wildlife. As a response to variable ecological conditions wilderness managers have divided the Absaroka-Beartooth into the east and west units. The high plateaus draining into the Clark s Fork and deep glaciated valleys of the forks of Rosebud and Rock Creeks comprise the east unit the rest of the wilderness is in the west unit.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is home to many wild creatures, among them some of the large mammals that evoke a feeling of true wildness: the bighorn sheep, mountain goat, moose, elk, and bears.

The forested valleys of the Absarokas support most species of large game animals. Deer, elk and moose may be seen in much of the area. The high barren ridges of the Beartooths support relatively little wildlife, although you are likely to hear the sharp call of the pika among the rocks, and occasionally mountain goats are seen. Golden eagles, falcons, and hawks may be spotted soaring above the crags.

One of the most intractable and stirring of the wildlife species in the wilderness is the grizzly bear. The Absaroka-Beartooth is on of the last strongholds of the great bear in the Yellowstone area.

At various times in the past, trout have been introduced in many of the lakes. Some now provide fishing for cutthroat, rainbow, and brook trout. Some lakes have very large fish, but most produce trout of the pan-sized variety due to short growing seasons and extremely cold water. In the Absarokas, several streams support native cutthroat populations, and one contains a rainbow trout fishery. Five of the larger lakes also contain cutthroat. Fishing in the Beartooths is limited almost exclusively to the high Mountain lakes.

The Wilderness includes a wide range of vegetation zones, influenced by elevation and local climate. At lower elevations from 6,000 feet to treeline, broad grass-sage meadows alternate with deep coniferous forest. Some of the common trees you will see in the wilderness are lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, and douglas fir. Near treeline, whitebark pine can be found. Wildflowers abound in the lower meadows throughout the summer and into the fall.

Treeline occurs between 9,000 and 9,500 feet in most areas. Above the last of the stunted mats of Krummholt (the dwarf form that trees adopt at high elevations) is a windswept world of alpine tundra. Vegetation is low to the ground and adapted to take advantage of pockets of warmth and moisture in the rocks. Although the alpine landscape appears barren, closer inspection of the hardy plants that thrive at this elevation reveals a myriad of dwarf wild flowers, lichens, and shrubs.

The plants in the wilderness evolved in this harsh climate over millions of years, and adaptation to the environment has made them hardy and strong. Yet they remain in a delicate balance that can be destroyed if they are disturbed.

The wilderness is a geological showcase of contrasting rock types, glaciation, and active land movement. The Beartooth Mountains are composed primarily of Precambrian granite. This granite has been uplifted and exposed, forming broad, gently sloping plateaus that rise to over 12,000 feet above sea level. Granite Peak, the highest mountain in Montana, is in the Beartooth Mountains.

The Absarokas, in contract, are dominated by stratified volcanic rocks of a much younger age. Erosion by glaciers and rivers has formed these mountains; steep rugged ridges alternate with forested valleys. Petrified wood and geodes may be found in the volcanic rock.

During the past several thousand years, glaciation has carved the mountains into deep U-shaped valleys with serrated ridges. Remnant alpine glaciers remain today on the Beartooth crest. You will find parallel grooves, or striations, on rocks, which mark the grinding passage of ancient glaciers.

Scenic Variety

The wilderness visitor can view many unique biologic and geologic features in the Absaroka-Beartooths. From the mountain peaks, tundra plateaus, lakes, and basins of the high elevations to the midslopes and deep canyons and valleys below, the Absaroka-Beartooth offers scenic panoramas. The visitor may prefer the views of the ragged rock peaks and sheer rock walls that plunge to talus slopes and canyon bottoms in the Beartooths, or perhaps the Absarokas will be more appealing where the dense forests at the lower elevations contrast nicely with the many intermingled mountain meadows before giving way to alpine meadows and patches of subalpine forest.

Glaciers: Much of the wilderness has been heavily glaciated. What were once V-shaped valleys are now U-shaped with near vertical rock headwalls exposed by the slow ripping movement of massive glaciers. Rocks and other debris have been deposited along the way. Glacial rock is strewn across many of the plateaus.

Mountain Peaks: The Beartooths contain numerous peaks above the 12,000 foot level. One, Granite Peak, is the highest in Montana at a lofty 12,799 feet. Granite Peak is actually one of a series of peaks in the Beartooths that roughly join to form a semicircle. Most of the peaks are barren, steep, rocky masses. Here, only lichens, snow algae, and an occasional wildflower can survive under these harsh conditions.

The peaks in the Absarokas are not nearly as high (Mt. Cowan is the highest at 11,206 feet) or nearly as numerous as the Beartooths: although some are very rough and rugged. In sharp contrast to the Beartooths, almost all of the Absaroka country has some sort of vegetative cover except for the very highest peaks and ridges.

Lakes and Streams: More than 640 lakes dot the landscape, most in the Beartooth country and along the high plateaus. Perched above deep canyons and tucked into basins and glacial cirques, each high lake presents a unique and idealistic setting for a wilderness experience. Many are quite small (pond size) but some do cover larger areas.

Innumerable streams wind their course through the wilderness. The clean, clear water that emanates from nine major drainages is a major contributor to the Yellowstone River system. The Absarokas are particularly abundant in streams.

Plateaus: The high plateaus add yet another dimension to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Many are located above timberline, usually around 10,000 feet elevation, and bear a strong resemblance to arctic tundras. These relatively flat plateaus characteristically break off sharply to intervening canyons and steep finger ridges. Plateaus below timber line are characteristically open and grassy.

Arctic tundra plateaus such as Beartooth and Hellroaring provide a unique, but extremely fragile, ecosystem. Most of the vegetation can be found around lakes and along stream courses, or in the few small parks situated in the lower areas. Several plateaus are quite scenic and contain high mountain lakes.

Plant Life: Buttercups, Shooting Stars and other wildflowers literally follow the retreating snowbanks each spring. The growing season in the Beartooths is particularly short, usually lasting a scant 6 to 12 weeks (June to August). In the Absarokas spring bloom arrives a little earlier and lasts a little longer.

Despite nature's harsh elements, the wilderness still supports a variety of plant communities. From the rock outcrop, snowfields, and alpine ridges that stand high above the forests, grasslands, and mountain meadows, the diversity in vegetation represented by each ecosystem is characteristic of this land.

For more information contact: Shoeshone National Forest , or Gallatin National Forest , or Custer National Forest




Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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