NEAR RED LODGE — The Sundance Pass is one of the most beautiful and popular through-hikes in the Beartooth Mountains. It goes between the Lake Fork and West Fork trailheads - just south of Red Lodge - with most starting on the Lake Fork side after dropping off a car at West Fork. It's one of the easier through-hike car shuttles, at just about 40 minutes between the trailheads.
The total distance used to be about 20 miles, but the beginning of the Lake Fork trailhead now sits about two miles farther back because floods in June 2022 washed away the bridge that allowed car access to the original trailhead.
While 22 miles might sound like a lot, the views at the top make the journey more than worth it.
I set off with my wonderful wife, several friends and our dogs on a two-day, one-night trip. Good company is key.
"It’ll make the hard parts a lot more manageable," said fellow backpacker Michale Hoagland.
The first several miles of the Lake Fork trail are fairly flat, extremely beautiful and this time of year, full of huckleberries.
About five miles in, hikers will have only climbed about 1,000 vertical feet. But once they cross a bridge near mile six, that all changes. A 1,400-foot climb over the next mile and a half will test the legs, especially those with backpacks who plan to camp.
At least one companion had the right attitude.
"It's a lot of work, but if you’re gonna walk, you might as well walk somewhere like this," Aaron Wipf said.
The climb takes you to September Morn Lake, a popular camping spot along the Lake Fork trail. September Morn sits just below the tree line, at 9,800 feet above sea level. There were a couple of other groups already there when we arrived in the late afternoon, but we still found plenty of space to stake down our tent and enjoy a well-deserved meal. Watching a campfire until the stars come out is always the way to end the night.
From September Morn, Day 2 starts with the last hard stretch: two miles of trail, up another 1,250 feet to the top of Sundance Pass. Persevere, because the 360-degree views at the top are worth every step. Look east and hikers will see just how much work they've done to get to this point. Look west and the bright glacial lakes of the West Fork of Rock Creek drainage will shine, even in the shadow of some of the highest peaks in the Beartooth range. Whitetail Peak, the fifth-highest mountain in Montana at 12,551 feet is southwest.
"It made all the hard parts feel worth it," Hoagland said of the view at the top. "Every time you turned around, there was another breathtaking thing to see."
While it would be fun to stay there all day, hikers still have about 10 miles down West Fork Trail No. 1 to get out. If the weather cooperates, it's a beautiful trip through lodgepine forests and mountain meadows, the most popular of which is Quinnebaugh Meadows, which is another popular campsite for backpackers compelled to stay another night.
The weather didn't cooperate for us, raining most of the way once we reached the valley floor. But even near the end of a tough journey out, the answer to one question says it all:
Was it worth it?
"Yes, it absolutely was," Hoagland said without hesitation.
"Oh absolutely," Wipf agreed.
A trip the four of us will never forget.