In the cold, dark days of winter, set your mind to summer rides. One of our favorite summer destinations is the Kersey Lake Trailhead horse camp, located three miles east of Cooke City, Montana.
This horse camp makes for an attractive summer-riding package. First, at 7,500 feet elevation, it has temperatures in the 70s when lower elevations are in the 90s.
Plus — location, location, location! Kersey Lake Trailhead horse camp borders the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area and is 10 miles from the northeast Yellowstone National Park entrance.
You’ll be surrounded by endless riding opportunities, pristine lakes, vistas that feed the soul, and abundant wildlife.
One highway traverses this area: the Beartooth All-American Highway 212. This highway begins its spectacular route near Red Lodge, Montana. It travels over Beartooth Pass (10,947 feet), and crosses three National Forests before reaching Cooke City, Montana.
The Horse Camp
The Kersey Lake Trailhead and Horse Camp is located about three miles east of Cooke City. There are four roomy corrals, a big parking area, toilet facilities and no camping fee.
Fragrant pine trees provide welcome shade; mountains unfolding in the distance offer a restful view.
For horses, there are two sources of water: one is from a nearby creek and the other is from a water tap at Colter Forest Service campground, a mile up the road toward Cooke City.
The camp host at the Colter campground is very friendly. When we asked permission to get water, we also asked about the unusual sign at the campground entrance, “No tent camping allowed.”
He said that a few summers ago, two campers were mauled by a grizzly bear, one fatally. Both attacks occurred on the same night in nearby Soda Butte Campground.
The campers had followed safe-food-storage rules, but had food odors on their clothing, which likely attracted the grizzlies to their tents.
The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
The 944,000-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area lies in south-central Montana. This region is considered part of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Our 6-year-old Missouri Fox Trotters, Nate and Cowboy, were ready to leave the corrals and seek adventure. We started by heading over to Russell Lake, which is roughly 6.5 miles from our camp and has a 1,300-foot elevation gain.
Leaving camp, we headed to the right of the Skyline Guest Ranch and Guide Service’s barn and crossed the Broadwater River. For a mile, we followed an old road until we came to an unmarked junction. Here, the road veers left, but we continued straight ahead.
After two miles, the trail begins to climb, leaving sheltering pines and soft soil. The trail was rocky in places. Then shrubby bushes replaced trees, and we saw Kersey Lake—a sparkling blue sapphire.
The majestic Beartooth Mountains were visible in the distance. We stopped our horses and took a few moments to appreciate our magical surroundings.
When we reached the junction to Big Moose Lake, we turned left. At the Fox Lake trail junction, we were roughly 2.5 miles from Russell Lake.
Continuing to Russell Lake, a portion of the trail went through a canyon; gray granite walls towered to our right.
After working our way out of the canyon, we found a 700-foot climb to Russell Lake. Our horses navigated their way up the rocky trail, did the big step up onto the slab rock, and carefully walked across it.
Russell Lake is a worthy destination and a good lunch stop.
The next day, we headed to the Kersey Lake trail. We followed the trail for a while, and then turned right onto another trail that leads to Lily and Vernon lakes, just two miles away.
This is a good trail, but it’s steep in places. You definitely want to check your cinch before heading down!
The first lake, Lily Lake, is small and shallow. Vernon Lake is the destination lake. There’s a comfortable campfire spot, lots of jumping fish, and welcoming hordes of mosquitoes!
Here’s a trade-off to keep in mind: in July, at low elevations, you have hot, humid weather and some mosquitoes; at high elevations, you have less humidity, cooler temperatures, and starving mosquitoes!
To take a break from mountain riding, we decided to head to Cooke City. Like many small Western towns in the 1800s, Cooke City was a thriving mining town.
Present day Cooke City is a rustic, old-fashioned tiny town. It boasts 75 year-round residents and a fascinating grocery store in operation since the late 1800s. There’s no cell-phone service, no newspaper, and no wireless connection.
Nate and Cowboy wanted to check out the town! We parked our trailer at the edge of town, rode them to a bar/café, and tied them to the hitching rail.
Within minutes, our boys were eating carrots that magically appeared from the café’s kitchen.
While in Cooke City, we rode up to Republic Pass. On the west end of town, there’s a Republic street sign. Turn south, and park at the first large parking area before the bridge.
Ride across the bridge beyond the parking lot. Go left, and follow the road a quarter mile until it dead ends. There, you’ll see remnants of the old Mayflower mine.
Head back to the bridge, turn right, and begin riding up a rough dirt road 1.3 miles to the Republic Pass Trailhead. This dirt road is passable for small rigs only.
Finally, we arrived at the trailhead and began riding toward Republic Pass, which borders Yellowstone National Park.
The soft dirt trail was a joy to ride after so many rocky trails. Even though the trail is continually climbing, it’s a gentle climb, with rolling hills, meadows splashed with wildflowers, and views of Woody’s Ridge.
After six miles, we neared the base of the pass and turned around. From that point on, the trail has a steep climb to the pass, and much of it was still under snow, even in July.
Photos by Kent and Charlene Kent
Seasoned trail riders and equine photojournalists Kent and Charlene Krone enjoy sharing their riding adventures in the United States and Canada.