If you hike to gorgeous Pine Creek Lake in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and have a summit in mind, chances are you’ll aim for Black Mountain. And why not? It’s a beautiful peak in a magnificent setting.
But if you’re up for something a little different, if you’re interested in the sensation of feeling you may be standing where no one else has ever stood before, consider this route instead. I can’t imagine Black Mountain ever gets crowded, but the McKnight Ridge experience should virtually guarantee that you’ll have some of America’s most inspiring scenery all to yourself. Your reward: an ocean of snowy mountains marching to the south and east as far as you can see; come and behold alpine heaven.
Getting ThereThree miles south of Livingston, turn east off U.S. 89 over a bridge across the Yellowstone River. Drive south for 8 miles and then turn east onto Pine Creek Road (FR 202), and that leads 3 miles to the trailhead, where there is a Forest Service campground (fee).
From Pine Creek Lake: at least one mile and 1000’. It's a long day if all done as a day hike from the TH; it's a few hours to half a day if done from a camp at Pine Creek Lake.
“McKnight Ridge” is the long ridge east of Pine Creek Lake that connects Mount McKnight with Black Mountain.
From the trailhead, follow the well-maintained trail for 5 miles and 3000’ to Pine Creek Lake. To really enjoy this area, I recommend backpacking in. Start early so you can make camp well before noon, relax for several hours, and then head for the ridges, weather permitting. The next morning, climb Black Mountain, relax, break camp, and hike out.
Hike south along the east side of the lake until you reach an inlet stream and a small waterfall at the southeast end of the lake. Then hike left (east) to the talus slopes above. The footing is often loose, but the going is not dangerous in dry conditions. Watch out for the flowers and plants; they have a tough enough time surviving here without their being trampled on by people.
Keep hiking up and aim for a spot on the ridge that suits you. Depending on the way you go, you will reach the ridge crest via Class 2 hiking or a little Class 3 scrambling. If the going gets harder than that, go back a little bit and find an easier way up unless, of course, you welcome the added challenge.
You could simply make the crest itself your destination. You will have all the knockout views you could ever want. Gaze west past Pine Creek Lake, across Paradise Valley, and to the Gallatin Range. Turn south to appreciate the different perspective of hulking Black Mountain. Face north to view more of the Absaroka neighborhood and to contemplate an ascent of Mount McKnight. Best of all, drink in the intoxicating scene to the east and southeast: hundreds of mountains in a roadless wilderness running for what seems like forever. Somewhere out there, the Absarokas end and the Beartooths begin, but knowing exactly where won’t really matter as you just stare, stare, stare. And don’t forget to look straight down at McKnight Lakes and the surrounding basin. There are no trails down there, and that country’s about as wild and as close to pure wilderness as any you’ll find in the Lower 48.
Oh yes, you could just hit this ridge, enjoy what it reveals, and then head back.
But you will more likely than not feel the need to wander. If so, you have three choices. The first is to descend the other side of the ridge. That, however, is likely to become more than just a day trip. The second is to turn north and ascend Mount McKnight. Why I didn’t do that is something I sometimes wonder about, but the truth is that the scene to the south/southeast just had too much pull. And traversing the ridge southward is the third option. Just start heading toward all that incredible scenery.
Heading south on the ridge, you’ll usually be walking but will occasionally encounter Class 3-Class 4 sections that have the kind of exposure that both chills and thrills. At times, the ridge is little wider than the ground your boots are covering. Often, the rock is loose, quite typical of the Absarokas.
The ridge descends steeply to a notch and then rises again to connect with Black Mountain’s east ridge. I was running out of daylight when I was up there and had to scrap my wish to travel all the way to Black Mountain’s summit and then descend its standard route back to Pine Creek Lake and camp. I never reached the notch, either, which from my vantage point appeared to possibly require technical moves to climb or bypass. Instead, I descended a scree slope to the small glacier tucked in at the base of the ridge’s west side (see topo image) and followed the glacier to its end, where a stream emerged from beneath it and ran to Pine Creek Lake. Just for variety and fun, I followed the lake’s western shore back to camp, finding in one spot some low cliffs rising directly above the water. Rather than bushwhack above and around the cliffs, I climbed along their faces, sometimes hanging directly over the water. I made it back to camp a few minutes before sunlight left the cirque for the day. If I ever go again, I plan to start the route early enough so I can do McKnight, the ridge, and Black Mountain all in one epic, hopefully incomparable outing.
This route was not my first off-trail hike or climbing/scrambling experience, but it was one of my earliest and stands out as my best. It changed my entire perspective about the mountains, the outdoors, and life in general. In a sense, it ruined me, but I harbor no regrets.