One of the best hikes you can take in Glacier National Park to immerse yourself in the wilderness of Montana is the Avalanche Lake Trail. With its bubbling streams, forests teeming with wildlife, and sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, this is an adventure you won’t want to miss.
Although not the most strenuous trail in Glacier National Park, you’ll probably want to do some research before you start exploring Avalanche Lake. But where can you find out if this hike is right for you and how to prepare for your trip down the Avalanche Lake Trail?
We will answer all your questions in this one-stop guide! Taking you step by step, you’ll know each bend of the trail and how to prepare for your adventure.
So pack your bags and lace up your boots; your journey to Montana starts here!
Don’t leave home without your own: Lonely Planet USA’s National Parks (Travel Guide)
Avalanche Lake Trail Planning Guide
Know Before You Go
The hike to Avalanche Lake is one of the most popular trails in Glacier National Park, and for a good reason. Highlighting much of the beauty of the park, you’ll be exploring the Trail of Cedars, Avalanche Creek, and finally, be treated to stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
Although this trail is considered moderate, it’s still important to know that the hike will take about half the day to complete.
The Avalanche Lake Trail is an out and back trail that stretches a total of 4.5 miles. Even though you can complete the hike in just a few hours, you’ll still want to stop for a picnic and pictures by the lake.
If you’re short on time or think you won’t be able to complete the full hike, the Trail of Cedars is a great way to get out of the car and enjoy the great outdoors without an all-day commitment. This boardwalk takes you through the woods and is only 1 mile long round trip.
Who Should Hike the Avalanche Lake Trail?
There are many hikes in Glacier National Park, such as the Highline Trail, which is far out of the experience level of your average traveler. Lucky for you, the Avalanche Lake Trail is easily accessible by all visitors, no matter how old (or young) you may be.
Along the Avalanche Lake Trail, there’s only an elevation gain of about 600 feet. While the 4.5 miles may be too much for elderly hikers, most people will be able to trudge their way along the path and enjoy all the beauty the trail has to offer.
One thing that may give more independent hikers second thoughts about hiking the Avalanche Lake Trail is that it can get quite crowded during peak months.
If you’re still wanting to see the breathtaking views without so many other tourists, be sure to set off early or travel to Glacier National Park outside of summer.
Where is the Avalanche Lake Trail Located?
Located on the western side of Glacier National Park, the trailhead to Avalanche Lake is easily accessible while driving on the Going to the Sun Road. The start of the trail is also located about five miles from the McDonald Lodge if you’re coming from the east.
At the Trail of Cedars/ Avalanche Creek Trailhead, you’ll find a large parking lot, perfect for pulling over and exploring the trail before you head back out onto the scenic drive. There’s also a picnic area where you can relax before heading out on your hike.
During the peak summer season, you may find it difficult to find a place to park. An alternative option is taking the shuttle to Avalanche Creek.
There are two shuttles in Glacier National Park, one starting from St. Mary Visitor Center and the other from Apgar Visitor Center. To get to the trailhead, take the shuttle from Apgar. The shuttles start running at 7:00 am, and the last shuttle leaves at Avalanche Creek at 4:09 pm.
Best Time To Go
Glacier National Park is a place where travelers can explore snow-capped mountains and alpine meadows. With ice and snow crowning the top of mountain peaks year-round, the winter months can be quite brutal.
Despite the snowstorms, sections of the Going to the Sun Road may still be open, but there’s no guarantee.
The most popular time of year to visit the park and hike to Avalanche Lake is from June to September. With the ice and slush gone, you can explore the park without having to worry about the weather. The only drawback will be the massive crowds.
The best time to hike the Avalanche Trail is in the Fall. With smaller crowds and cooler weather, you’ll be able to have some personal time with Mother Nature without having to worry about the tour groups.
The park shuttle service runs from July 1st to Labor Day.
Want to know about visiting Glacier National Park during a certain time of the year? No worries, we have put together a guide highlighting the Best Time to Visit Glacier National Park
What To Bring on Your Hike
Being of relatively low elevation compared to some of the other hikes throughout Glacier National Park, there isn’t a whole lot you need to prepare for your hike to Avalanche Lake. At the very least, be sure to have at least 2 liters of water per person and a few snacks.
One of the only concerns travelers have when hiking the Avalanche Lake Trail is bears. It’s not unheard of to have these beasts of the wild wander up curiously to hikers, especially if visitors have food in their packs. This is one reason why bringing bear spray is essential.
If you find yourself visiting Avalanche Lake during any time other than summer, you may want to bundle up. Montana is known for being cold, so make sure you’re wearing long sleeves and a jacket just in case it starts getting chilly.
Due to the high elevation, you’ll probably also need to bring sun protection. Hats and sunscreen are both essential to avoid getting sunburnt.
Do you have the right hiking gear? Check out 40 Hiking Essentials That Anyone Visiting Glacier National Park Should Carry
Step by Step Guide to Hiking Avalanche Lake Trail
Start at the Avalanche Creek Picnic Grounds
Your adventure to Avalanche Lake starts in the humble parking lot to the Trail of Cedars. Located along the Going to the Sun Road, this is a popular stop for tourists traveling along the scenic drive to take in all the sights of Glacier National Park.
Right next to the parking lot, you’ll also find the Avalanche Creek Picnic and Campgrounds. Here, travelers can either pitch their tent or park their RV to truly immerse themselves in the beauty of the park overnight.
This is also where you’ll find the shuttle that drops passengers off from Apgar Visitor Center. No matter how you get here, this is the start for the Avalanche Lake Trail.
Amble along the Trail of Cedars
The first steps of your journey towards Avalanche Lake will take you through a different trail entirely. The Trail of Cedars is a boardwalk loop that takes visitors through 100ft tall trees with a history stretching back nearly 500 years.
Unlike the Avalanche Trail, the Trail of Cedars is wheelchair accessible and is an alternative for hikers unable to continue to the lake. The trail is only one mile long and takes under 30 minutes to complete.
No matter what trail you are taking on in Glacier National Park you should have a good pair of hiking poles. Check out: Best Hiking Poles: Top 5 + How to Choose the Right Ones.
Enjoy the Avalanche Creek
As you hike along the boardwalk of the Trail of Cedars, you’ll eventually come across a bridge built over a bubbling creek; this is the trailhead to Avalanche Lake.
It’s also the best place to enjoy the creek before you enter the gorge and begin heading up to the lake through the cedar forest.
Stop to Admire the Avalanche Creek Gorge
After crossing the bridge and heading into the forest, a lot of people just put their heads down and completely miss this stunning gorge! I can’t tell you how many comments on Instagram I’ve seen from people that see a photo like ours above and admit they missed it.
If you look to the left after you cross the bridge and begin climbing, you’ll see where the gorge starts to form and how it develops from there.
Take your time to peek over the ledge and admire the colors of moss, trees and glacial water that squeezes between the rocks. If you’ve ever been to Banff National Park in Canada, this gorge looks just like a mini Johnstone Canyon!
The gorge actually runs for quite a ways before peeling off into the thick woods. Don’t worry though, this glacier stream roars through the forest leading to the banks of the lake where you’ll see it again.
Follow the Well Beaten Trail
After leaving the gorge, the trail is fairly straight forward. You simply follow the well beaten trail that weaves through the forest before it eventually leads you to the shores of the lake.
The breathtaking centuries-old trees don’t stop at the Trail of Cedars. Your entire hike taking you to Avalanche Lake will continue to showcase all the beauty of the woods. Be sure to keep your eyes open; you’ll find all kinds of birds, deer, and sometimes bears on the trail to the lake.
This trail will have plenty of exposed roots and rocks along it, so be sure to watch for that. It’s not a smooth trail and it does have a slow grade. You’ll feel some burn but overall it’s an easy trail.
When walking through areas where the brush is thick near the trail, be sure to talk with your friends or make noise so that any animals, namely bears, that may be near the trail will not be startled by your presence and can move away before you reach them.
Reaching Avalanche Lake
After about an hour of exploring the forest and playing along the banks of the creek, you’ll be blown away as the woods give way to reveal the jaw-dropping views of Avalanche Lake and the mountains standing proudly at its borders.
Dazzling hikers with its view of Bearhat Mountain, this is the spot where you’ll want to be sure to have your cameras ready. With a quiet beach, tranquil waters, and sweeping views of the mountain, picnicking along the banks of Avalanche Lake is a must to truly appreciate the scenery.
If you look carefully, you can even see the waterfalls trickling down from the mountainside feeding into the lake. During the summer months, expect some crowds on the beach, and tourists wandering along the edge of the water.
But even in the peak season, the lake is large enough to avoid people. After you eat all your snacks and take plenty of selfies, all that’s left is to start the trek back to the parking lot.
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