Upper Basin Creek Lake

Ice covers all of Upper Basin Creek Lake except the outlet in this November photo. 

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. 

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. 

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