Get outside: Mystic Lake’s intriguing winter ice

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Few places in the Beartooth Mountains show seasonal change more starkly than Mystic Lake. 

Like other spots in so many plateau valleys, the wildflowers come and go, the snow piles up and melts, and the bears roam and snooze. 

But human influence has given Mystic Lake a couple of unique traits. 

The trailhead is unusually accessible in winter for the Beartooths. The West Rosebud Road is plowed because of the NorthWestern Energy power station that sits near the trailhead. 

A dam at the outlet of Mystic Lake was built in 1926, two years after the Montana Power Co. blasted a 1,000-foot tube through the lake bed to channel water into a flow line and down to the power station. 

NorthWestern draws down the lake in the winter to keep ice pressure off the dam. This leads to a drastic reduction in the size of the lake; in early June it leaves much of the usual lake bed bare, but it soon swells and pours through the dam. 

As it freezes in winter, the drawdown creates interesting ice. 

Mystic Lake winter

Mystic Lake’s ice captures frozen bubbles. 

Wind tends to sweep away snow earlier in winter, revealing beautiful ice patterned with bubbles and other imperfections that shine in the sunlight. As the water level drops, the ice becomes unstable. 

In mid-December there was still a solid boot track up to the lake — a six mile round trip — though powerful winds threatened to drift snow over it. As the snow accumulates, snowshoes become strongly advisable, and travelers need to be wary of several narrow sections of trail with potentially unstable snow. 

Winter winds tend to howl at the pass overlooking the lake, but a quick trip down to the shore is worth it for a better look at the frozen surface. 

As the lake melts in the spring, the unstable ice tends to crash down and form icebergs. Snow can cling to the trail into June, but determined travelers can reach the lake any time of year. 

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