Custer National Forest Overview

The Custer National Forest is made up of small pockets of timbered buttes and grasslands scattered across three states—Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Its southwest section is one of the gateways to Yellowstone National Park, and as such is part of the greater Yellowstone area, one of the largest intact temperate ecosystems left on the planet.

Wildlife can be spectacular. The Beartooth Mountains are the crowning scenic glories of this forest, offering some of the best hiking and fishing around—and a scenic byway that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The area is well known for lake and stream fishing, and also provides habitat for mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, white-tail deer, mule deer, mountain grouse, black bear, cougar, and bobcats. Although all these animals and birds occur in the area, there are no large populations of any of them. Occasionally grizzly bear are seen in areas of the wilderness located on the Custer.

The Sioux Ranger District, located in the southeast corner of Montana and the northwest corner of South Dakota, is often, and justly, described as "islands of green in a sea of rolling prairie"—hills or mesas of ponderosa pine rise above rolling grasslands. One of the largest populations of Merlins (a small falcon) known in North America occurs on the District.

South-central Montana's Ashland Ranger District offers a variety of topography, varying from rolling grasslands to steep rock outcrops. Vegetation varies from prairie to dense stands of ponderosa pine. There are three riding and hiking areas on the Ashland: Cook Mountain, King Mountain, and Tongue River Breaks. These areas offer solitude in the middle of what's truly Big Sky Country.

Hike the Beaten Path
East Rosebud Trail (aka Beaten Path) showcases all the beauty, austerity, and emptiness and majesty of the Beartooths. Twenty-six miles of Beaten Path alone, this area is a great introduction to the region's richness, diversity, and starkness, traveling through the lowest bottomlands and the highest plateaus. Along the way, the route skirts dozens of trout-filled lakes and stunning but unnamed waterfalls. It penetrates rich forests and wanders the treeless, lichen-covered Beartooth Plateau. There are plenty of secluded campsites on this difficult but lovely trail.

Drive the Beartooth Scenic Byway
The Beartooth Scenic Byway is a "must" day trip. The Byway (part of U.S. Route 212), generally open only May through September, is possibly this nation's most beautiful and spectacular scenic drive. Its length is 68 miles from Red Lodge, Montana, along the southern edge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, over the Beartooth Plateau, to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Even in mid-July you will be able to play in large snow fields, pass by 15 foot cuts of snow, and experience breathtaking views.

Climb Granite Peak
At 12,799 feet, Granite Peak is the highest point in Montana and a much-loved destination for climbers. The climb is mostly Class 3, with a few short Cass 4 stretches. The entire route can be climbed without any technical gear, but roping and belaying might be necessary, so bring gear, including an ice axe. Plan for a four-hour climb and a three-hour descent.

Ski Silver Run
If you're looking for some great cross-country skiing, the Silver Run trail has four loops of 4, 7, 11, and 15 kilometers in an austere nordic enviornment. Offering both groomed and ungroomed trails, the Silver Run trail provides off-season opportunities for mountain bikers, horseback riders, and hikers.

Fish Rock Creek
Rock Creek is one of many small tributary streams that offers scenic mountain getaways for the fly-fishing fanatic. Like most rivers and streams on the Custer, Rock Creek reaches prime fishing condition by late June when spring snowmelt runoff recedes. Fishing on the larger rivers in late winter and early spring has also become increasingly popular in recent years. Wade fly-fishing is the most effective way to approach Rock Creek. In the Custer, you can expect to catch Yellowstone cutthroat, rainbow, brown, brook, and golden trout, as well as arctic grayling, black bullhead, crappie, and largemouth bass.

Spot Some Wildlife
One of the first things you'll notice when visiting this forest is all of the warnings about bears—that's because you may see a few, black or grizzly. Mountain lions and bobcats dwell in this forest as well, but they'll notice you before you notice them, and, unlike bears, they tend to keep their distance. The forest is scattered across three states; you may see antelope and bison in some grasslands areas, deer and elk in others. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles and red-tailed hawks.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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