The West Fork Road that slices into the Custer Gallatin National Forest just outside Red Lodge isn't gated until Dec. 1. Unfortunately, there's no gate for common sense.
I harbored ambitions of reaching the Timberline Trailhead, well into the unpaved road section, during the second weekend of November despite ample early season snowfall. The road is plowed until a few miles before pavement runs out; from there, snow, existing tire tracks, and your vehicle's snow-worthiness determine access.
The road was tracked and navigable for high clearance vehicles with rugged tires, but I elected to switch to the Basin Lakes Trail — an eight-mile round-trip trail that rises about 2,100 feet to a pair of mountain lakes.
Tire chains and a snow shovel are wise — perhaps essential — items to bring on such a drive. An ice-scraper and snowshoe can be used as makeshift shovels to dig out a vehicle spinning its tires in a foot of wet snow if one enjoys unnecessarily hard work.
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Early season snowfall can create a conundrum about the best way to travel once on foot: Is there enough snow to make snowshoes worth the extra weight, or is it worth slogging through with only boots?
The boots seemed to be a good bet on the Basin Lakes Trail until climbs on the upper stretches, where the wet snow deepened and my post Halloween-candy fitness flagged.
It took me more than twice as long to hike to the upper lake as a usual trip on dry ground, and it felt more than twice as hard — a prudent reminder that winter travel is a different beast that requires more thorough preparation. But the chance to see seasons evolve at a beautiful spot is worth having to dig a little deeper.