Paradise Valley. Sounds like a place you’d like to be right about now, huh? I know I would. The Paradise Valley lies at the base of the towering Absaroka Mountains in southwest Montana, running most of the distance between the town of Livingston and Yellowstone National Park.
Fun way to determine if someone grew up in southwest Montana – ask them how to say Absaroka (hint: it’s pronounced ab-ZOAR-ka).
The Absarokas are beautiful. They’re also massive mountains, so hikes up into them tend to be difficult. Case in point: Pine Creek Lake.
The trailhead for Pine Creek Lake is east of US Highway 89 in the Paradise Valley. Take Pine Creek Road across the Yellowstone River, then turn right on East River Road and left on Luccock Park Road. Follow that road to the end, to Pine Creek Campground and the Pine Creek trailhead.
Approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) up the trail is Pine Creek Falls. It’s not an overly steep hike to the falls, so it’s a popular location; however, most people don’t go past this point. Beyond the falls, the trail begins to climb. 3,000 feet (915 m) in 4 miles (6.4 km), to be exact. It’s steep. Very, very steep. It’s one of the more difficult hikes I’ve ever done. But the trail switchbacks through forest, meadow, and fields of rocks and when it opens up, a glance over our shoulders revealed the Paradise Valley 3,000 feet (915 m) below.
Finally we reached a small lake fed by a waterfall. The water was a bright, clear blue…but this was not Pine Creek Lake. However, once we hiked around and up over the rock wall on the far side of the lake, we were treated to a view of the tiny Jewel Lake and the much larger Pine Creek Lake.
Smooth rocks line the shore of the lake while enormous mountains rise up in every direction. It was a perfect place to relax, have a picnic on the lakeshore, and contemplate how tiny I really am.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the trailhead is located at Pine Creek Campground – 266 Luccock Park Road, Livingston, MT
- Fees & passes: parking is free, camping is $15 per night (no hookups)
- Hiking: Pine Creek Trail – 10 miles (16 km) round trip, approx. 4,000 feet (1220 m) elevation gain
- Other: weather changes quickly in Montana; don’t get caught without a rain jacket!