Mystic Lake, Montana, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - West - Montana - Yellowstone Country -

One of the prettiest lakes in Montana’s Yellowstone Country is Mystic Lake. This beautiful lake sits at 7,637 feet above sea level in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and can be reached only by a more-than three-mile trail. The trail is somewhat steep in spots, and can be dangerous in bad weather, but that doesn’t keep it from being the equivalent of backwoods-busy on warm summer week-ends. Tucked into the Beartooth Range nearly within sight of Granite Peak, the highest in Montana, most people are amazed to discover that Mystic Lake is actually a storage reservoir for hydro-electric power generation downstream. The power generation area was later included in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area by an act of Congress.

Although originally a natural lake, a dam was built across the outlet to West Rosebud Creek in the early 1920s which enlarged Mystic Lake to hold up to 21,000 acre-feet of water. There is no official depth or size published for this mountain lake, but at least one person has attempted to determine the depth and reached a level of 205 feet. All materials to build the dam and its original wooden aqueduct were packed in by mule along the rudimentary trail created for the purpose. Today, that trail is used for hiking to the lake by nature lovers and trout fishermen. Only foot power is now allowed on the trail; horses are excluded. The trail is open from May to October, but the road to the trailhead may be in poor shape at times. (Check with the Forest Service about horse riding on other area trails.)

The trail to Mystic Lake begins at West Rosebud Road, about six miles from the village of Fishtail. The access road passes West Rosebud Lake and Emerald Lake before reaching the parking area for the Mystic Lake trailhead. The Emerald Lake Campground is a Forest Service campground with water and toilet facilities. A Ranger Station is located here with maps, information and a location to purchase passes and pay for camping permits. The trailhead itself is located near the power generating station; it is here that electricity is generated after being piped down the canyon. PPL Montana works hard to make sure that the ecology of the region is protected and recreational operations are optimized within the area of their operations. Downstream of the generating plant, spring whitewater rafting is popular on West Rosebud Creek, with water releases timed to provide optimal rafting opportunities; release times are posted on the PPL Montana website. The parking area at the trailhead can be crowded with rafters and trail hikers.

The trail climbs about 1,200 feet before reaching Mystic Lake and is quite steep in some places. The area is heavily wooded, interspersed with mountain meadows that display an astonishing variety of wildflowers in spring and early summer. Grizzly bears, mountain goats, elk and mule deer, smaller mammals and several species of birds inhabit the area, although the larger mammals are seldom seen due to the nearly constant presence of hikers. The snow-capped peaks surrounding the trail create an awe-inspiring vista, although Granite Peak can’t be seen until after one passes Mystic Lake. The lake is not the end of the trail; other trails branch off the main trail, including a multi-day backpack hiking trail to Granite Peak. Immediately beyond Mystic Lake, Island Lake occupies another basin in the valley. The more hardy hikers enjoy continuing on toward Island Lake as the trail climbs to overlook Mystic Lake in all its glory. The area is prone to wind and rainstorms are not uncommon, so hikers need to be prepared for inclement weather. Mystic Lake can get downright choppy on any given day.

A great many fly fishermen take the trail to Mystic Lake because they know the lake is an excellent trout fishing location. The deep, cold waters hold brook trout, rainbow trout and cutthroat trout, but the cutthroat appear most numerous and grow to good size. Most appear to be in the 10-16 inch range, but occasionally even larger fish are caught. The creel limit is five fish, and anglers must be properly licensed. Dispersed camping is permitted around the lake, although the best spots are on the south side. Because fire danger is often high, a backpack stove is recommended. A full list of regulations and recommendations can be obtained from the ranger station along with any necessary permits.

Located about 80 miles southwest of Billings, the Mystic Lake area lies within the Custer National Forest. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area covers over 900,000 acres within the Custer National Forest, Gallatin National Forest and Shoshone National Forest. This scenic area is a favorite of hikers and mountain backpackers, who can either find space at one of the two campgrounds in the lower valley or treat themselves to a soft bed and good breakfast at one of the lodges or bed & breakfasts located near the tiny village of Fishtail, 20 miles back up the road. The Town of Absarokee is another five miles beyond. Fishtail holds a quaint general store that has been in operation for over a century. Visitors can pick up a bite to eat or general supplies in Fishtail. Larger Absarokee holds a wider variety of services, quaint shops, several steakhouse/saloons and a listing of all of the forms of lodgings in the area, from private rentals to resort-style lodges and cabins.

Even bigger and particularly geared to tourism, Red Lodge is about 40 miles by road from the trailhead for Mystic Lake. As Red Lodge serves as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park via the Beartooth Highway, it has a wide variety of lodging choices and multiple locations to enjoy both summer and winter sports, bicycle tours, horseback riding, ATV riding, fishing and camping, along with nightlife and many dining choices.

Viewing the Beartooth Range from afar is an awe-inspiring sight. Seeing it up close from Mystic Lake, however, brings the immensity and majesty of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area into the realm of the personal. Visitors can feel the grandeur of these mountains when they see the hidden valleys and the lakes they hold. The perspective can be life-changing, humbling, and empowering. So, make the trek to Mystic Lake and gain the power within that comes from trekking amid the mountains piercing the clouds of the Big Sky Country.

*Some statistics are estimates.

Things to do at Mystic Lake

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Whitewater Rafting
  • Camping
  • Campground
  • Cabin Rentals
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • National Park
  • National Forest

Fish species found at Mystic Lake

  • Brook Trout
  • Cutthroat Trout
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Trout

Mystic Lake Photo Gallery

Mystic Lake Statistics & Helpful Links

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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