Hike Distance: 5.6 miles – 14.8 miles
Difficulty: 3 – 4
Time to complete: 3 – 10 hours
Seasonality: June until September
Dog friendly: yes
Fees and Permits: none
Pilot Creek is a beautiful trail through lush forests, open meadows, and interesting old burns. This trail has it all – incredible views, a variety of habitats, access to water, and not a lot of elevation gain. You can hike anywhere from 5.6 miles to 14.8 miles round trip and because it’s located in the Shoshone National Forest, you can even bring the dog.
What Makes it Great
The views are what set this trail apart. Although you start hiking in the valley, you soon climb just high enough to see the Beartooth Plateau, Clay Butte, Jim Smith Peak and views of Pilot Peak over your right shoulder. You can also look up-valley to the heights of Republic Pass and the back door to Yellowstone National Park.
This is just a downright fun trail. The first 1.5 miles is off and on a continuous uphill, but it’s not so steep that you want to quit. After that, the trail levels out and rolls along on the side of the mountain. Finally, the last 1.5 miles is a real lung burner as you get to the base of Republic Peak. But with the incredible scenery, you won’t even notice the grade.
Who’s Going to Love It
Pilot Creek Trail is perfect for hikers who get bored slogging through endless forests, or open sagebrush. The route climbs to the cliffs above Pilot Peak and a lush, deeply vegetated forest, reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. Next, comes an open, grassy meadow, then you’ll traverse through a remnant of the great Yellowstone Fires of 1988. There’s plenty of views and vegetation to keep you occupied. Look up high on the slopes, where you’ll see avalanche chutes and waterfalls. Below you roars Pilot Creek, fueled by snowmelt from the upper peaks.
The trail is easily divided up for distance. You can hike to a creek crossing at 2.8 miles, making the out and back round trip 5.6 miles. This is a solid distance for beginner hikers or families with younger children. The second option is hiking to the North Absaroka Wilderness boundary at 3.8 miles or continuing to the very end of the trail at 7.4 miles one way. Due to the distance and the very real possibility of afternoon thunderstorms, the full hike would be appropriate for experienced adventurers. Your reward for having done the full hike is a beautiful convergence of the valley and surrounding mountains at the base of Republic Peak.
From Cody, take Wyoming 120 to the Chief Joseph Highway, Wyoming 296. Continue to the intersection with the Beartooth Scenic Highway, US Hwy 212. Turn left for 4 or 5 miles. The trailhead isn’t marked, but watch on your left and you’ll see a large parking lot – if you get to the Fox Creek Campground you’ve gone too far. Drive to the end of the short dirt road to the trailhead – this area is heavily used in the fall by outfitters so there are corrals and stock feeders at the parking area.
This is definitely grizzly country. Be sure to bring bear spray. Also, there’s zero cell service and the nearest phone and/or emergency services is at Cooke City, Montana.