The Custer National Forest has a variety of recreational activities which appeal to a broad spectrum of the public. Please view specific district pages for more information about activities available in those areas.
Great things await the visitor to Custer National Forest. The Custer has three Ranger Districts, encompassing 1.2 million acres of pristine subalpine wilderness, prime game habitat, and some of the richest heritage sites in the nation.
These public lands support habitat for mountain goats, grizzly bear, black bear, elk, deer, grouse, wild turkey, and a host of other fascinating species. As well, the Custer provides a variety of "habitats" for recreationalists, with an extensive array of campground sites, dispersed camping areas, and hiking trails.
The Beartooth Ranger District is the part of Custer National Forest adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. The Beartooth Mountains are a portion of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness which is located on the Custer, Gallatin and Custer National Forests. This Wilderness offers a variety of wilderness related recreation experiences.
The Beartooth Ranger District is about 65 miles from Billings, Montana, the largest city in Montana, and therefore receives heavy recreation use. The area is also a popular area for deer, elk, and bighorn sheep hunters, as well as fishermen.
Red Lodge Mountain Ski resort is also located on the District. In addition to downhill skiing, there are two ski touring trails that provide about 18 kilometers of cross-country skiing. The Lake Fork skiing touring trail offers two loops of 3 and 7 kilometers. The Silver Run trail has four loops of 4, 7, 11 and 15 kilometers. The Silver Run trails complex provides opportunities for mountain bikes, horse, and summer hikers, in addition to winter ski touring.
There are four National Recreation Trails on the District. They are: Wild Bill Lake, Parkside, Basin Lake, and Silver Run.
The Beartooth Highway, a National Forest Scenic Byway, traverses the mountains from Red Lodge to Cooke City, and the northeast entrance to Yellowstone Park. This highway climbs to the 10,947 foot elevation at Beartooth pass and passes through the lands of the Custer, Gallatin and Custer National Forests.
There are a number of camp and picnic areas on the District, providing destination type use, and also serve as popular jumping-off places for day hikes into the Wilderness. The facilities at Wild Bill lake are designed specifically for persons with disabilities; ramps for wheel chairs provide access to the lake for easy fishing and docks are also provided.
About 345,000 acres of the 945,000-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is located on the Beartooth Ranger District. The A-B wilderness lies in two States, (Montana & Wyoming), and three national Forests. Within the Custer portion of the Absoraka Beartooth Wilderness, there are about 180 miles of maintained foot and horse trails. The area is well known for lake and stream fishing, and also provides habitat for mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, white-tail deer, mule deer, mountain grouse, black bear, cougar, and bobcats. Although all these animals and birds occur in the area, there are no large populations of any of them. Occasionally grizzly bear are seen in areas of the wilderness located on the Custer National Forest.
Granite Peak is located on the boundary between the Gallatin and Custer National Forest. This is the highest point in Montana, and is a very challenging scramble type climb.
The Beartooth Mountains are composed of a massive block of Precambrian crystalline rock, including the Stillwater Complex. This complex contains the largest known platinum and chrome deposits and the second largest nickel deposits in the United States. A platinum and palladium mine has been developed.
The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Territory is located on the eastern edge of the Pryor Mountains. The Wild Horse Territory extends to the east and south on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Park Service. The wild horses are managed by the BLM. The Pryors contain some very steep terrain and some of the canyons are deeply incised in the limestone. Recreation opportunities include deer and small game hunting, hiking, and snowmobiliing. Many primitive trails and old mining roads provide easy motorized access. The Pryor Mountain Unit is largely managed for dispersed recreation except for Sage Creek campground and Big Ice Cave Picnic Area.
Custer National Forest has about 1,300 documented species of plants. Lower elevations often have sagebrush and grass-dominated vegetation types, while various combinations of species dominate forested areas. These include lodgepole pine, which along with Rocky Mountain juniper, douglas fir and quaking aspen are found at elevations up to 9,000 feet (2,700 m). At higher elevation sub-alpine fir, Engelmann spruce, whitebark pine and limber pine, are common, each occurring up to timberline. Along lower elevation riparian corridors, cottonwoods and willows are typically dominant. Numerous plant species are endemic to the region. Among them, the whitlow grass, fremont bladderpod, shoshonea, and the north fork easter daisy provide vivid white and yellow flowers during the spring and summer.
Exotic species are usually introduced accidentally into the forest from vehicles, traveling many miles from their native habitat. In most cases, these exotic plant species are found near roadways and campgrounds. The mountain pine beetle is a naturally occurring insect species that is known to infest forest groves, and is particularly common in areas with numerous lodgepole pines and fir trees. During strong infestations, the beetle can wipe out huge areas of forest, increasing wildfire potential and reducing habitat and the sustainability of the forest. The Forest Service has an invasive species control effort that identifies and attempts to contain the further spread of non-native plants.
Since the migration of the endangered grey wolf into Custer National Forest after the successful Wolf Reintroduction Program in the Yellowstone region commenced in the late 1990s, virtually all of the known 50 mammal species that existed prior to white settlement still exist.
An estimated 125 grizzly bears roam between the forest, Yellowstone National Park and the two other National Forests that border the Custer. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the lower 48 states list the grizzly as a threatened species, and the forest is one of their last strongholds. For what are considered to be "problem bears", non-lethal traps are set to capture them so that they can be relocated to remote areas, away from civilization. In the case of the grizzly, each captured bear is tranquilized and then ear tagged with an identifying number. Each number is registered, and if the bear continues to return to areas where they pose a risk of imminent threat to human safety, they are exterminated. The grizzly recovery efforts implemented by federal agencies have often been the subject of major disagreements with local landowners and surrounding municipalities. This situation occurs less frequently with the smaller and less aggressive black bear, of which an estimated 500 reside in the forest. An active management program, in conjunction with other National Forests and National Parks within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, works cooperatively to maximize human safety and to ensure habitat protection for both species of endemic bears. Visitors are mandated to store their food in their vehicles or in steel containers found in campgrounds, and bear-proof trash receptacles are located in the front-country zones throughout the forest. In the backcountry, food must be stored some distance from campsites, and other related precautions are enforced to help prevent bad encounters.
The mountain lion (also known as the puma or cougar) and the gray wolf are the major carnivores that inhabit the forest. The nocturnal mountain lion is rarely seen and their numbers are not known, but evidence such as numerous paw prints suggests they are widespread. The wolf has migrated into the forest from Yellowstone National Park but is less common in the forest. The population of wolves is hoped to increase over time for this endangered species. Other omnivorous mammals in the forest include the wolverine, coyote, bobcat, weasel, marten and ferret. Additionally, the beaver, marmot, pika, raccoon and badger are commonly found throughout the forest.
Native herbivores such as the moose are found in small numbers near waterways, especially at lower elevations. Elk (also known as wapiti), mule deer and pronghorn (also called pronghorn antelope) are some of the most commonly seen mammals and there are some small populations of bison. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats inhabit the rocky terrain and highest elevations. During the winter, the largest bighorn sheep herd in the lower 48 states congregate in the region around Dubois, Wyoming; however, their numbers since 1990 have been greatly diminished due to disease and coyote predation.
An estimated 300 species of birds are found in the forest at least part of the year. Bald and golden eagles are more common now than they have been for decades and tend to inhabit areas near waterways. Peregrine falcon, merlin, hawks and the great horned owl are other birds of prey that have become more widespread. The gregarious black-billed magpie and Clark's nutcracker (in the crow family) frequent areas near campgrounds and lakes. The trumpeter swan is found in very limited numbers, primarily in or near lakes and streams. Other waterfowl such as the great blue heron, white pelican, Canada goose and numerous species of ducks are also seen. pheasant, sage grouse and wild turkey are widely distributed across the open sage lands.
There are eight species and subspecies of trout present in streams in the Forest, with the cutthroat trout being the only species native to Wyoming. The Yellowstone cutthroat trout is found only in the forest and adjacent parks and is one of four subspecies of cutthroat trout in the forest. Additional game fish species include arctic grayling, mountain whitefish and the shovelnose sturgeon.
There are few reptiles in the forest; however, several snake species including the venomous prairie rattlesnake can be found at lower elevations along with other reptiles such as the western painted turtle and the ornate box turtle. Amphibians such as the Columbia spotted frog, tiger salamander and the boreal toad are relatively common. Insects such as mosquitoes and black flies can be pesky in the spring and summer and at the highest altitudes are known to be very bothersome.