The Trask Lakes lie in the Flint Creek Range just west of Deer Lodge but unless you have a high clearance vehicle, getting there is a bit stressful. The last 12 miles or so traverses dirt roads ranging the spectrum of quality from moderate stretches of cow shit-scattered gravel to what might be described as bisections of miniature ravines. I kept my Chevy Spark in first gear for at least the last five of those miles and still felt a bit uneasy about it. Fortunately, the weather was fine, because I would have aborted the trip in more uncertain conditions.
This is a simple out-and-back hike to Lower Trask Lake with options for camping and fishing at the lakes, which are scattered across a large basin above Rock Creek Lake (really a reservoir). While the hike is rewarded with excellent views, getting there involves a fairly humdrum forest walk. Though very well maintened by the Forest Service—foot bridges are conveniently placed over streams and muddy banks—the trail is littered with loose stones, nearly causing me to twist an ankle on several occassions.
The path closely follows Rock Creek for most of the way, which means water is abundant. I filled up at the lake for my return trip, but could easily have dispensed with more water weight than I did at the outset, simply filling up as needed from the numerous streams. I can’t imagine what the conditions are like in the early summer, but I’d guess very, very wet.
Once you arive at the lakes, the trail continues alongside several others, making for good additional trips if you choose to camp. The fishing is said to be excellent. Alas, that was not my intention and after snapping a few pictures, I headed straight back.
It took me a bit of effort to dig up any information on the lakes’ namesake, but I seem to have found it at a defunct school in nearby Deer Lodge: the Montana Collegiate Institute, which opened in 1878. As the Monta Historical Society explains:
The nonsectarian, coeducational college offered both high school classes and a classical graduating course “as comprehensive and thorough as that of most seminaries and female colleges.” Architects H. DeWitt and Henry L. Gay of Chicago designed the institute’s first building. However, the building committee stripped the design of much of its ornamentation after it received the initial construction bids.
Unfortunately, the institute closed within a year under financial strain and was acquired by the Presbyterian Church, which opened a private liberal arts college on the site and, in 1883, renamed it the College of Montana. In the process, they also named the original building at the site Trask Hall for a Mr. Alanson Trask of New York City, who balanced the remaining $6,000 of debt incurred by its construction and paid the salary of the school’s first president for a period of three years. The Reverend George Edwards’ describes the affair:
Despite the monetary salvation he seems to have bestowed upon the school, there’s no evidence I can find that Alanson Trask remained in Montana for very long or established any further connection with the territory.
The College of Montana eventually closed in 1900 and exchanged hands several times reopening intermittently until 1917, when the school was shuttered for good. In 1982, Trask Hall was listed in the Register of Historic Places.
I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to conclude that the lakes lying only a few miles to west of the school were also named after the mysterious benefactor from New York. It would be a pretty amazing coincidence if not.
UPDATE: In the comments, Matthew Trask writes that the lakes were actually named after his grandfather, Frank Trask. The Trask family seems to have roots in the area going back to the 19th century. I wonder if there’s any connection to Alanson Trask? It looks like the family came from England in the 16th century and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where they remained for several generations. At some point, a branch of the family headed West—as far as Wisconsin and Iowa and later out to Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. It seems likely that the Deer Lodge Trasks are one branch of the same family and perhaps it was a this connection that brought Alanson Trask through the area to begin with (maybe even establishing enough of a connection to inspire his philanthropy). Whatever the case, Alanson also visited Yellowstone National Park during his stay in the region and an obituary in the New York Times notes that he was a “great traveler.” The moral of the story: I really wish the federal government had easily accessible records noting the origins of place names!
When I made it back to Deer Lodge, I searched in in vain for a decent place to eat. Most of the restaurants were closed or shuttered. Someone pointed me to the Broken Arrow Steak House and Casino, a dingy, dark, and depressing dive with a handful of slot machines and a dining room like something from a 1980’s B-western. Several emaciated octogeniarians ordered up a round of Sex-on-the-Beaches and broke change, they announced, to continue on their “lucky streak.” Several cheered as one man counted his winnings and had them faithfully dispensed by the young woman at the bar—$1,400 in fifties. Meanwhile, I sat contently with a burger of adequate quality and a local IPA, while the spokesmen for the hunters on a television reality show silently explained the secrets of their sanguinary art.
0.0 miles: The parking lot at the trailhead is quite small. From there proceed along a jeep track for half a mile.
0.5 miles: Rock Creek Trail 8053 begins at the boundary of the Forest Service’s land. A sign indicates mileage to the Trask Lakes as well as Thompson Lake.
2.3 miles: Turn left at the junction with Trask Lakes Trail 8063, unless you plan to visit Thompson Lake.
6.3 miles: Arrive at Lower Trask Lake. From here, you can explore the other Trask Lakes as well as nearby Elbow Lake or retrace your steps back to the trailhead.
12.6: Return to the trailhead.
Trailhead GPS: 46°24’58.5″N 112°57’30.4″W
Elevation gain: ~1,750 feet
Distance: 12.6 mile out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Rock Creek Lake, Pike’s Peak, and Pozega Lakes; Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest Map (North)
Ⓐ Hiked by the author, August 26, 2016