This mostly level trail hugs the north rim of the Clarks Fork River and its impressive gorge. The easy five mile out and back route meanders through open, rolling country and makes for a good leg stretcher on your way to Cooke City.
As with the other trails off the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, the drive to the Clark's Fork Trail is through some spectacular country. You’ll find the trailhead about an hour northwest of Cody. This area is popular for all sorts of recreation, from hiking to extended backpacking, fly fishing, kayaking and general sightseeing. The Clarks Fork Trail is nearly 10 miles long in total distance and offers access down to the bottom of the gorge, but isn’t recommended for novices.
What Makes It Great
The first 2.5 miles of the hike are perfect as an easy outing for families. After leaving the parking area, the trail rambles through some open, sagebrush and grass-covered flats strewn with rocks which at some point in the distant past tumbled down from the surrounding mountains. There’s a trickle of a stream you can leap across and a pond to the south of the trail. This trail isn’t known for a lot of shade, so take extra water. There are two more creek crossings where, unless the water is raging, you won’t even get your feet wet. The first at .7 miles is the point where you’ll hop over Ghost Creek and the second is at 1.4 miles. From here the trail enters a forested section, finally reaching a wooden bridge over Beartooth Creek which flows from the north. Experienced backpackers can keep hoofing at this point, but you can return the way you came.
Who is Going to Love It
For a quick, non-strenuous foray into the Sunlight Basin area, this is the best trail. It combines a scenic drive, a beautiful hike along the southern base of the Beartooth Plateau and a chance to end your day at the quaint, yet bustling hamlet of Cooke City, Montana for a beer and brew. Although this is bear habitat and you should bring bear spray, the open nature of the landscape means you have less chance of startling a bruin. That makes it a great place for families even with younger children.
While you’re hiking remember this is the canyon Chief Joseph led his band of mostly elderly, women and children plus 2000 Appaloosa horses through in an effort to escape the US Army.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From Cody, take WY-120 16.8 miles and turn left (west) onto the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway/
State Highway 296, Drive another 40.9 miles through the enclave of Crandal. Just past the Painter Outpost turn right onto Forest Road 407. The trailhead will be .2 miles from the main road. You car will have ample room in the parking area. There are no fees and leashed pets are welcome. Take some extra water for your canine companions. It'll take you at least an hour to get to the trailhead.
You can stop at the Painter Outpost for sustenance before or after the hike. They even have gasoline available, although you’ll pay a hefty price for it. Be sure to stop at the Sunlight Creek overlook and walk out on Wyoming’s tallest bridge. You can get some decent views of the Clark's Fork Canyon here.