As the weekend approached, I once again found myself in pursuit of a short-ish trail without much elevation gain that the kids and I could enjoy together. Friends suggested that Maybelle Lake would fit the bill, with the bonus of good cutthroat trout fishing at the lake. A 1.6 mile hike sounded perfect.
I consulted “Hiking Wyoming’s Cloud Peak Wilderness” by Erik Molvar and learned that the drive into the trailhead would be on a Jeep path. The book was published in 1999, and I’ve found some pieces of information to be outdated or inaccurate now, so I was skeptical that the road could be that bad. After about a quarter of a mile on FSR 430, it quickly became apparent that the road is that bad; you absolutely need four-wheel drive and high clearance to get through. Alternatively, there was quite a bit of four-wheeler and side-by-side traffic. It is hard to adequately describe how rough the road is in places and how many boulders there are to avoid. The road follows along East Tensleep Creek where numerous anglers were trying their luck.
It took us about 45 minutes to drive 4 miles to the trailhead, which is not marked “McClain Lake” as Molver describes. The trailhead is marked FST 79.
The trail starts at the edge of the treeline just north of East Tensleep Creek – look for the Forest Service trail markers.
You quickly enter a dense forest where mosquitoes proliferate. You’ll want more bug spray for this hike than you would think necessary. The view opens up a bit to a boulder field with willows and a glimpse of Bighorn Peak in the distance.
At 0.6 mile you come to your first stream crossing. As you approach the stream, look to the right to find your crossing. Route finding is not always easy on this trail, and we spent several minutes trying to decide where to cross the stream and where the trail picks back up on the other side. When you pick up the trail on the other side of the stream, you enter Cloud Peak Wilderness.
The trail is minimally traveled, and there are fallen trees across the trail in multiple places; watch for blazes on trees and cairns to guide you. This is the first hike the kids have been on that finding the route was tricky and cairns and blazes were needed to guide us. Finding the cairns became a bit like a hidden picture game for the kids as they looked ahead to see how the trail bent and twisted.
The trail continues across a boulder field and then back into the woods; the incline is so slight you will not feel that you are gaining a little bit of elevation. Just before the 1.5 mile mark, you’ll start up one last pitch before ending at Maybelle Lake at the base of Bighorn Peak, and it really is a stunning view of Bighorn Peak.
Once we arrived at the lake, we enjoyed our picnic lunches and our son tried his luck fishing while the girls swam in the lake. The hike itself is easy – you only gain about 500 feet in elevation – but the adventure factor felt high owing to the bumpy ride in and the route-finding along the way.
We were the only people at the lake when we arrived, but a couple of hours later when we were heading back, we encountered several backpackers who were going to spend the weekend camping at the lake.
We didn’t encounter any wildlife, but we did find moose tracks (both baby and mama, which had this mama a little concerned) and lots of bear scat around the lake.
The fishing was good enough that Aidan, who is 11, wants to go back and try his luck again – the drive was worth it in his estimation. Claire, 13, liked that this trail was much less traveled than most we hike. Frannie was not impressed with the drive to the trailhead and has requested that the next hike be closer to the highway and include a better picnic.