Hiking the Crescent & High Lakes Trail
Crescent Lake, Yellowstone National Park
Hike #4, Specimen Creek Trail to Crescent Lake & High Lake
Specimen Creek Trailhead WK3
Northwest Section - Light Traffic
Yellowstone National Park

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Location: Northwest Section (See map to the right)
Difficulty: Difficult - Out-and-back, overnighter or lollipop loop
Distance: 21.6 mi/34.7 km as a lollipop loop
Elevation Gain: 2,485 ft.

Backcountry Camping: Yes. 7 sites - WE1, WE4, WE6, WD1, WD4, WD5 & WD6
Click here to view a list of backcountry campsites for this area.

Full Description: Read the full description or view photos of this hike.
Topo Maps: Beartooth Publishing - Yellowstone National Park

Finding the Trailhead - Specimen Creek (WK3)
From Bozeman:
Drive 61.6 miles south on route 191. After you enter Yellowstone National Park you'll pass the Daly Creek and Black Butte trailheads. The Specimen Creek parking lot will be on the left just before the bridge.
Get Directions from Bozeman

From West Yellowstone: From the center of town drive north on U.S. 191 towards the town of Bozeman for approximately 26.6 miles. The trailhead will be on the right just past the bridge that crosses Specimen Creek.
Get Directions from West Yellowstone

NOTE - Backcountry permits can be obtained in West Yellowstone at the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center - (307) 344-2876.

Read more about obtaining Yellowstone Backcountry Permits.

Specimen Creek Trailhead Location


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Crescent Lake & High Lake Overview Map
Crescent Lake & High Lake Trail Stats

Trail Details
Trail Condition: Excellent to Fair
Difficulty: Difficult
Total Mileage: 21.6 mi /34.7 km as a lollipop loop
Type of Hike: Out-and-back, overnighter or lollipop loop
Wow Factor: Alpine lakes, mountain scenery, wildflowers
Elevation Gain: 2,485 ft.

Nearest Towns: Big Sky, Bozeman & West Yellowstone
24.4 miles south of Big Sky, MT - Get Directions
61.6 miles south of Bozeman, MT - Get Directions
26.6 miles north of West Yellowstone, MT - Get Directions

Trailhead Coordinates
Latitude: 45.012310
Longitude: -111.081653

Crescent Lake Coordinates
Latitude: 45.091338
Longitude: -111.013455

Approx. Elevations
Trailhead Elevation = 6,915 ft.
Maximum Elevation = 9,400 ft.
Elevation Gain = 2,485 ft.
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Crescent Lake & High Lake Photo Gallery
Crescent Lake & High Lake Trail Description

Specimen Creek Trail to Crescent Lake and High Lake (WK3) - Light Traffic

A trip to Crescent Lake and High Lake will take you on a journey across the backbone of the Gallatin Range. You'll travel through forests of lodgepole pine, fir and spruce, you'll camp beside crystal clear mountain lakes and gaze across miles of unbroken wilderness.

The first 6.0 miles of the Specimen Creek Trail covers relatively gentle terrain until you reach the junction with the Crescent and High Lakes Trail at mile 6.0. The scenery doesn't vary much through this heavily forested drainage, alternating between lodgepole pines and small meadows that border the creek. An incredible variety of wildflowers provide splashes of color against the green grasses that flank the lower portion of the trail.

As you reach mile 2.0 and the junction with the Sportsman Lake Trail (heads right, east) the remnants of the 2007 Owl Fire are clearly visible. The new grasses and wildflowers growing in this old burn seem more vibrant against the backdrop of scorched and blackened trees left behind by the fire. From this location the hike can be done in either direction but for this description we will continue heading north (left) along the North Fork of Specimen Creek.

Just past the junction with the Sportsman Lake Trail is campsite WE1 (★★). This is the first backcountry campsite along the trail and it's located just 2.1 miles from the trailhead. WE1 is not a very attractive site because fire has damaged the trees surrounding the cooking area but it is located at the edge of a beautiful meadow adjacent to the creek. Both the North and East Forks of Specimen Creek converge at this location. Small cutthroats and rainbows can be found in this beautiful tributary of the Gallatin River.

At mile 4.1 the trail enters a large meadow where you'll need to ford a braided section of the North Fork of Specimen Creek. During the summer you may find a few low spots along the creek where you can hop across but I would go prepared to ford the stream in either a pair of sandals or in bare feet. If you cross the right channel you'll avoid having to ford the creek a second time. After reaching the opposite bank the trail enters the forest once again and meanders through thick timber for the next mile until you reach campsite WE4 (★★★) at mile 5.0. This is another nice site that sits at the edge of a long sloping meadow surrounded by mature lodgepole and spruce-fir forests. Meldrum Mountain lies to the east and a craggy ridge that ascends toward Bighorn Peak can be seen through the trees just behind the camp.

After hiking another mile through this dense forest you reach the junction with the Crescent Lake - High Lake Trail (right, east). Here you'll need to cross the North Fork of Specimen Creek for the second time. In the spring this can be a difficult task but in July a partially submerged log to the right offers an easy way to hop across. From this juncture the trail begins gaining elevation but the climb to Crescent Lake feels much easier because the pitch of the trail is nicely angled.

The next 1.25 miles to Crescent Lake is heavily wooded with an occasional view down into the steep drainage to the northeast. Just as you reach Crescent Lake the tent area for site WE6 (★★★★) is located to the left of the trail. The fire pit and cooking area are located to the right along the northern edge of the lake. The food storage pole can be found on the opposite side of the small creek that exits the lake.

Crescent Lake is surrounded by thick forests to the north and east and tall jagged peaks to the south and west. While we ate lunch a pair of common goldeneyes swam quietly near the campsite, disappearing briefly as they dipped below the surface of the lake looking for aquatic insects. It was peaceful here except for the hum of mosquitos that swarmed in the sky around the lake. In June and July you'll want to pack the bug spray or you may find yourself hiding in the tent to escape these voracious insects. The view of the jagged peaks surrounding the lake is spectacular and this campsite is a gorgeous destination located high in the Gallatin Range.

After leaving Crescent Lake the trail climbs very steeply—so much for the gentle grade—but the ascent only lasts for three tenths of a mile before it levels out and begins heading northeast. From this elevated vantage point you can look west through lichen covered trees toward the Sky Rim Trail which traverses the sharp ridge between Shelf Lake and Bighorn Peak. A small pond appears to the right and the trail begins descending once again. This is always a bit discouraging because the thought of sacrificing any altitude is never easy but before long you begin climbing once again toward the highest and most scenic point along the Crescent-High Lake Trail.

For the next 2.0 miles this section of the trail becomes a bit harder to follow as the elevation gives way to rockier terrain that sees very little foot traffic. In some places the orange blazes are very obvious and in others they become almost nonexistent but careful inspection always reveals the proper route. This is also the most picturesque section of the trail with a number of breathtaking panoramas extending in every direction. The broad slopes of Electric Peak tower above the landscape to the southeast and miles of spruce and fir trees descend to the west. The elevation here is about 9,400 ft. and the first overlook you reach provides a view northeast toward Paradise Valley and the peaks of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.

As you continue along this ridge you'll be hiking along the park's rugged northwestern border, following the elevated topography between the numerous high peaks of the Gallatin Range. The views are now concentrated to the south and west as the trail begins descending toward High Lake. At around mile 10.8 however, you can sneak one last view toward the northeast by walking a short distance through the woods to another spectacular overlook. The trail along this ridge isn't terribly difficult but there are a few short steep descents as you make your way to the lake.

At mile 11.1 the trail enters the north end of a long sloping meadow that descends toward High Lake. You'll follow the eastern edge of this lush meadow until 11.6 when you reach the junction with campsite WD5 (★★★★). There are a number of trails leading to the edge of lake and it's easy to miss the indistinct path to the campsite but if you keep an eye out for the small metal sign near the northeast end of the lake you can pick your way to this campsite. Site WD5 is 0.1 mile from main trail and crosses a marshy area to reach the site. A number of small feeder streams enter the lake from the north but they are easy to cross. This is a nice campsite located in a stand of pines on the northwest end of High Lake. High Lake is the headwaters of the East Fork of Specimen Creek.

Continuing on past WD5 the trail follows the edge of the lake south to campsite WD4 (★★★). A path next to the lake heads right to the campsite but the entrance is actually a little farther up the hill. WD4 is set back from lake but has a nice view across High Lake from the waters edge. The area near the food storage pole is well worn and and there are plenty of spots in the area to pitch a tent.

After leaving High Lake the trail descends at a gentle grade to the junction with Mill Creek (left, northeast). If you're hiking out from High Lake this trail sign indicates you have 9.7 miles to go until you reach the Specimen Creek Trailhead. For the next 3.3 miles the trail follows the North Fork of Specimen Creek through a series of small meadows and dense pine forests. There are a few small hills through this area but overall the descent is rather pleasant and makes for easy hiking.

At mile 15 you'll reach the junction with the Sportsman Lake Trail (continues left, southeast). The Sportsman Lake Trail also provides access to the north end of Fan Creek. From here it's 0.1 miles to the junction with campsite WD6 (★★★★) which is located 0.2 miles from the main trail. This site is for stock use only and sits at the northeastern edge of large meadow. A ford of the East Fork of Specimen Creek is required to reach the campsite.

The trail now heads due west through dense pine forests along the western section of the Sportsman Lake Trail. At mile 16 a small footbridge crosses the North Fork of Specimen Creek before reaching the junction for campsite WD1 (★★). Site WD1 is heavily wooded and doesn't offer much in the way of scenery.

For the next half mile the trail remains in the woods as you gradually descend alongside the creek. At mile 16.5 the hillside to the right shows the effects of the 2007 Owl Fire as the trail makes its way through a patchwork of burned and unburned forest. At mile 17.5 the trail crosses the creek once again on another footbridge and continues for another half mile through forests of fir and spruce. At mile 18 the trail leaves the canopy of the forest and once again enters another area scarred by the Owl Fire. The trail climbs and descends a series of small hills as you work your way through this forest of standing dead trees. At mile 19.5 a sturdy footbridge crosses the creek one last time before rejoining the Specimen Creek Trail at 19.6 miles. From this trail junction you'll head left (west) and retrace your footsteps for the next 2.0 miles as you return to the Specimen Creek Trailhead.

This is another great 2-3 day loop located in the Gallatin Range that can be combined with trips to Shelf Lake, Sportsman Lake and Fan Creek.

Click here to download your FREE Yellowstone Backcountry Trip Planner - Contains backcountry campsite information, backcountry permit information, park service phone numbers, bear management information and hiking/backpacking checklists.

WARNING: YOU MUST BE WELL PREPARED and carry the necessary equipment to make your hike a safe one. You are responsible for your own well-being while trekking in these remote wilderness locations. Help or rescue can be hours or even days away.

Read more about obtaining Yellowstone Backcountry Permits.

Nearby Hiking Trails
Daly Creek (Trailhead WK1) - Provides access to the north end of the beautiful and rugged Sky Rim Trail.
Black Butte (Trailhead WK2) - Climbs to the jagged summit of Bighorn Peak and connects with the Sky Rim Trail.
Specimen Creek (Trailhead WK3) - Provides a direct route to Shelf Lake. Access to Crescent/High Lake and the Sportsman Lake Trails.
Bacon Rind (Trailhead WK4) - This trail exits the park to the west and climbs to the Skyline Trail in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
Fan Creek (Trailhead WK5) - A secluded valley that connects with the Sportsman Lake Trail.
Fawn Pass (Trailhead WK5) - A long but rewarding day hike into the heart of the Gallatin Bear Management Area (BMA).
Bighorn Pass (Trailhead WK6) - Another beautiful mountain pass located high in the Gallatin Mountains.
Gneiss Creek (Trailhead WK7) - A quiet stretch of trail that is as flat as it is long.

Nearby Campgrounds
Bakers Hole - May to Sept. - Bakers Hole Campground is located 3 miles north of West Yellowstone and has 73 sites and vault toilets. Electrical hookups are available for 33 sites. Campsites are $16.00 + per night. Reservations are not accepted - Get Directions from the Specimen Creek Trailhead to the Bakers Hole Campground.

Taylor Fork Road - Open All Year - Taylor Fork Road is approximately 7.2 miles north of the Specimen Creek Trailhead on route 191. Campsites are free. The first few sites are located about a mile from US 191. Forest service road (FSR 134) follows Taylor Creek west and extends deep into the Madison Range/Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area, and provides access to numerous hiking and mountain biking opportunities within the Gallatin National Forest - Get Directions from the Specimen Creek Trailhead to the Taylor Fork Primitive Area Campsites.

Red Cliff Campground - May to Sept. - Red Cliff Campground is approximately 15 miles north of the Specimen Creek Trailhead on route 191 and has 67 sites and vault toilets. Electric hookups are available for 26 sites. Campsites are $15.00 per night. Located along the Gallatin River between Big Sky and the northern boundary of the National Park. Bozeman Ranger District/Gallatin National Forest - (406) 587-9054 - Get Directions from the Specimen Creek Trailhead to Red Cliff Campground.

Yellowstone National Park Backcountry Permits
All overnight backcountry permits for the northwest section of Yellowstone National Park can be obtained at the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center on the corner of Yellowstone Ave. and S. Canyon St./route 191 in West Yellowstone. - (307) 344-2876. Read more about obtaining Yellowstone Backcountry Permits.

Post Hike Meals
After a long day in the mountains refuel at one of the following restaurants on your way back to Bozeman.

The Corral located on route 191 - Burgers & Beers - Get Directions
The Wrap Shack in Big Sky - Fresh, healthy and affordable food. Get Directions
Choppers Grub & Pub in the Big Sky Town Center - Get Directions

If you're heading back to West Yellowstone try one of these local restaurants.
Wolf Pack Brewing Co located at 139 North Canyon Street in West Yellowstone - Get Directions
Wild West Pizzeria at 14 Madison Avenue in West Yellowstone - Get Directions

Maps for Hiking the Crescent & High Lakes Trail
Beartooth Publishing Outdoor Recreational Maps
These maps from Beartooth Publishing will cover all of Yellowstone National Park as well as Bozeman/Big Sky/Gallatin Range/Madison Range and West Yellowstone.
For more information regarding these maps click here.

Directions to the Specimen Creek Trailhead

Click the map to launch Directions
from West Yellowstone to the
Specimen Creek Trailhead.


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