Lakes Along The Beartooth All-American Road

by Gary Rafferty

Boasting thousands of high mountain lakes and hundreds of miles of crystal clear streams, the headwaters of the only wild and scenic river in Wyoming, doesn’t get any wilder than on U.S. Hwy 212, also known as the “Beartooth Pass All-American Road.”

beartooth fishing Breathtaking Hwy 212


There are Rocky Mountain adventures awaiting every fisherman who visits the Beartooth Wilderness area. Trek to a high mountain lake; fish a pristine stream; cast into a deep pool, or practice fly-casting while surrounded by granite peaks reaching up to 13,000 feet high. The Beartooth’s All-American Road allows access to truly wild (and lightly fished) waters. You can fish some of these lakes from the highway or a dirt road, or hike into the backcountry. Hiking to more remote Beartooth mountain lakes is not for the weak-hearted, but affords anglers the opportunity to fish some of the most grand and secluded areas south of Alaska. Standing on a rock surrounded by “purple mountains majesty” can be a great place for a new fisherman to learn the art of casting. Virtually all the lakes in this area south of the Montana/Wyoming border feed the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone drainage (see article on stream fishing this stream). Remember to carry your insect repellent and bear spray if you stray far from the road!


Lily Lake is a small gem tucked away from the tourist traffic headed west to Yellowstone or northeast to Montana. The Lily Lake access road is located 1 ½ miles east of the junction of Hwy 212 and Hwy 296. Take the access road north to the parking area. Lily Lake is worth wetting a line as it has good populations of rainbow trout and grayling, each of which is more readily caught by the canoers and float-tubers that get away from the shore. No motors are allowed on Lily Lake. The fishing at Lily Lake can be good on a cloudy summer or autumn day when the fish can be seen rising steadily to midges, mayflies and lesser numbers of caddis. If you are staying at a campground nearby, the lake is a great place to spend the last few hours of daylight casting dry flies and emergers. Try using griffis gnats, palomino midges or baetis emergers in the sizes 16 – 20. If you do not get a fish to strike within a few seconds of your fly hitting the water, use the strip-tease method and twitch your fly a few times before false casting again. Fly and a bubble spin casters still do well with an orange asher, which is merely a griffis gnat variant with bright orange body. While in the area, make sure you take the short hike to Lake Creek Falls.


Two large and popular waters on Hwy 212, a few miles west of its junction with Hwy 296, are Beartooth Lake and Island Lake. Each has a campground and picnic area, as well as a boat launch, where wakeless boating is authorized. The lakes holds four different species of trout, with an occasional “bonus grayling” appearing at the end of the line. The scenery is beautiful, the air is fresh and the fish are (mostly) willing…especially in the summer at dawn and dusk. Pull into the Beartooth Lake picnic area and campground, and visit one of the most breathtaking and easily accessible high mountain lakes in the West. Nestled at the base of Beartooth Butte, pictures of Beartooth Lake often reflect this amazing geological wonder. See this picture at: Easy access to the shoreline of Beartooth Lake makes it a popular destination, and the U.S. Forest campground is a favorite stop of highway travelers…if just to use the restrooms and take for snapshots.

beartooth fishing  

At the southwestern end of Beartooth Lake, the waters of Beartooth Creek flow out under the Hwy 212 bridge, over massive glacial boulders, and tumble towards the falls. The larger inlet to Beartooth Creek allows pocket picking for small trout for about two miles en route to Beauty Lake (sections of this hike are very steep).


From Beartooth Lake, travel west on Hwy 212 to reach Island Lake. Here another campground, more fishing, and added spectacular views await you. But hold on, it gets even better.

beartooth fishing  

Some other photo and fishing opportunities are available to the north of Island Lake where a short rough hike takes you to Night Lake. You can also hike to the east side of Island Lake and follow its outlet creek down to Little Bear Lake. Little Bear Lake’s outlet creek leads you down hill about a mile to the Chain Lakes. Approximately 2 miles east of the Island Lake campground, you can pull off Hwy 212 and make a short hike north to Long Lake. East of Island Lake, the Beartooth All-American Road takes you up (and up) to the “Top of the World” over Beartooth Pass. Each sharp bend in the road takes you ever higher, where the vistas and panoramic views get more spectacular. At each scenic turn, you can glimpse more of the numerous alpine lakes below you. Several trailheads near the road lead you up (but most lead you down) through wild bear, cougar and wolf country to secluded fishing, hiking or climbing.

beartooth fishing  

Do not go very far from the road without a buddy. For those who do not climb or fish, awesome photo opportunities await you. Feel free to stop at any of the pull-offs, climb a short distance and do your best Julie Andrews impersonation, as the mountains of the Beartooths are similar to the European Alps and are “alive with the sound of music!” If you have the time, continue west and then north into Montana where Austrian-like canyons and valleys surround you along the headwaters of Rock Creek enroute to Red Lodge, MT.

Read an article about Beartooth Streams:
Stream Fishing Along The Beartooth All-American Road and the Chief Joseph Highway

National Geographic topo maps Wyoming Buy a topo map for this area, NE Yellowstone National Park