It was just a little bit past 8 o’clock in the morning, but all parking spaces were occupies. We drove around a few times to no avail. It looked like our hike to Avalanche Lake could not happen after all.
Avalanche Lake Hike in Glacier National Park
Nestled good 2 miles off the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road in West Glacier, Avalanche Lake has gained fame as a stunning natural wonder at the end of not so intriguing hike. To be fair, though, the path to Avalanche Lake has its own beauty.
The trail runs along a section of raised boardwalk, entertaining its guests with remarkable views of Avalanche Gorge and Avalanche Creek along the way. The culmination of the a-few-hour walk through the forest, however, it Avalanche Lake itself, a place of exceptional beauty and magnificence.
History: Avalanche Lake received its name in 1895. During that time, expedition with Dr. Lyman Sperry explored the wilderness that is known as Glacier National Park today. Bewildered by frequent avalanches sliding from the snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake, the discoverers couldn’t think of a better name. So they baptized the place as Avalanche Lake. Years later, the area became a popular hiking destination that hardly any visitors of West Glacier could skip.
Avalanche Lake Hike Stats
- Distance: 2 miles from the junction at the Trail of the Cedars
- Elevation Gain: 730 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
- Time: 2 – 3 hours
- Location: The Going-to-the-Sun Road in West Glacier
Avalanche Lake: Trailhead and Beginning of the Hike
Hiking to Avalanche Lake is intriguing to say the least. The epitome of natural beauty would be the right phrase to describe the final destination along the Avalanche Lake Trail. Surrounded by the snow-capped peaks with a series of Sperry-Glacier-fed waterfalls twinkling down the mountainside until they disperse into the lake, the area displays the irresistible charm Glacier National Park is known for.
Yet unlike many other places in the Going-to-the-Sun Road area, Avalanche Lake puts on a show only for those who hike all the way here. Sharing the trailhead with several other Glacier’s landmarks, the Avalanche Lake Trail starts directly across the road from the Avalanche Campground. It follows the Trail of the Cedars for approximately 0.4 miles until forking to the left into the realm of the old-growth forest.
With that said, the Trail of the Cedars is well marked. You can easily reach it when driving from both the West Glacier and St. Mary/East Glacier entrances.
The Trail of The Cedars/Avalanche Lake from West Glacier
A sign indicating direction of the Avalanche Lake Trail sits 16.8 miles (35 minutes) from the West Glacier entrance. Simply follow the Going-to-the-Sun Road until you reach your destination.
The Trail of Cedars/Avalanche Lake from St. Mary Entrance
If you enter the park at the St. Mary entrance, continue driving along the Going-to-the-Sun Road for 35 miles until your see the sign. Your hiking adventure to Avalanche Lake starts approximately 1 hour 10 minutes after accessing the eastern side of Glacier National Park.
The Trail of the Cedars/Avalanche Lake area boasts its own parking lot, which size is quite decent compared to other stops in West Glacier. Nevertheless, even this designated area along with a number of overflow lots across the road can hardly accommodate all Avalanche Lake hike enthusiasts.
TIP: The parking lot gets busy fast. During our hike to Avalanche Lake on a Monday morning, it got fully packed before 9:00 a.m. The parking spaces open up periodically, though. Thus, if you plan to hike to Avalanche Lake in the morning, arrive before 8:00 a.m.
Otherwise, stick around, waiting for your turn to claim that coveted parking spot and start your hiking adventure. Alternatively, you can come back later after visiting other worth-seeing places along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The parking situation indeed looked somewhat promising a few hours later, after we finished our Avalanche Lake hike.
The Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Gorge Hike
The Trail of the Cedars is a 0.7-mile loop path through the Glacier’s forest consisting of western hemlocks, cottonwoods, and western yews. The trailhead sits across from the Avalanche Campground. Accessibly by wheelchairs and strollers, the path runs along the raised boardwalk until it reaches Avalanche Gorge.
Note: Although more convenient, the eastern side of the Trail of the Cedars is longer, but more appealing to the eye.
At the end of this segment of the trail, you find a footbridge across Avalanche Creek. Linger here for a few minutes and enjoy the views to your right that instantly remind of terrain typical for Mount Rainier National Park. Here, streaming downhill, the creek displays its winding side, tamed by its own banks with the tall trees, some of which are hundreds years old.
The views to the left, however, always steal the show, offering incredible vistas of lower Avalanche Gorge. Moss-covered rocks align both sides of the small ravine, creating surreal environment, perfect for hiking or simply taking it all in.
The resemblance to the Pacific Northwest doesn’t escape this section of Avalanche Creek either. If you’ve ever been to the Portland area, you can’t help but feel now a longing desire to resume your hiking excursions and explore more of Oregon’s natural wonders.
Once the nostalgic feeling subsides or you’ve had enough of Avalanche Gorge, walk across the footbridge and follow the Trail of the Cedars until you reach the Avalanche Lake Trail junction. The Trail of the Cedars swirls to the right from here. The left fork takes you all the way to the astonishing Avalanche Lake area.
Hike from Avalanche Gorge to Avalanche Lake
The hike from the junction near Avalanche Gorge to Avalanche Lake is 2 miles, one way. The journey seems long, but easy. On the other hand, the Avalanche Lake trail is less spectacular than you might expect. It certainly comes as a surprise to every hiker who, heading out to one of the most alluring areas in Glacier, pictures lush greenery and plenty of photo opportunities along the way. Truth be told, the Avalanche Lake hike looks rather plain.
One of the most picturesque places, after Avalanche Gorge, comes into view shortly after you hike to the left at the junction. Yet to see it, you need to climb over tiny canyon carved by Avalanche Creek. The Avalanche Lake hike become a sheer delight both visually and physically right after this point.
For about a mile, the trail runs along the Avalanche Creek’s bank, invigorating your senses and discovery spirit. This splendidness, however, doesn’t last long. The visual idyll comes to an abrupt end when the trail sprints to the right and dives deeper into the woods.
The rather unpretentious forest with occasional rocks and large tree roots barricading the trail makes up the rest of the Avalanche Lake hike. As the path winds deeper into the woods, the alluring sound of the rushing downhill water is the only reminder of nearby Avalanche Creek.
Hang in there, picturing stunning Avalanche Lake at the end of your hike. As you get closer to the coveted area, lush vegetation (if you hike to Avalanche Lake in spring or summer) picks up, making even the old-growth forest look festive.
Note: Pit toilet is available along the last stretch of the trail. From here, Avalanche Lake is a stone’s throw away.
Avalanche Lake Hike: Final Destination
Before you know, a short, well-marked path diverges from the official trail and takes you directly to the lake’s shore. The first stop of your Avalanche Lake hike looks rough, though. The ares is filled with fallen tree trunks. These, however, don’t spoil neither the view nor your first impression of Avalanche Lake. On the contrary, they add a raw, pristine vibe to your hiking destination.
Although impossible to not noticed, the tree trunks are secondary to the picture that opens up in front of you. Bearhat Mountain with Sperry Glacier on top comes down the southwestern corner of Avalanche Lake, creating a magnificent “wall”. Several waterfalls find this idyllic location irresistible, cascading down the mountainside until they disperse into the lake.
Things to Do at Avalanche Lake
The majority of the Glacier’s visitors usually spend several minutes at the first stop in the Avalanche Lake area. A “cleaner” beach just a few feet away allures the hikers more, offering the undisturbed vistas and an opportunity to dip feet in the water.
Swimming in Avalanche Lake after the long, 2-mile hike through the woods is although appealing, has its own challenges. Due to its alpine nature, the water is freezing cold. Yet unlike other alpine lakes of similar size, Avalanche Lake provides sustainable environment for fish. With that said, fishing might be a better activity to do when you complete half of your Avalanche Lake hike.
Depending on your interests, you can spend as much time as you need at this popular “beach” or walk around. A plethora of secluded spots dot Avalanche Lake. If it’s something that arouses your curiosity, find one of these hidden coves, walk down to the water, and take in the beauty of the lake, undisturbed by the other visitors.
For all photographers out there, slightly prolonging your Avalanche Lake hike rewards you with the most pristine vantage points where it feels like you have the entire area all to yourself.
Furthermore, you can have a picnic by the lake (be sure to take out all the trash, though) while peering at the surrounding mountains. The luckiest visitors may even spot mountain goats, grazing on the mountainside.
READ MORE: 5 Best Places to See and Photograph Wildlife in Glacier National Park
Avalanche Lake: End of the Hike
To get back to the trailhead, hike from Avalanche Lake to the Avalanche Lake Trail junction, taking the same route. Once you reach the Trail of the Cedars, continue on along its western segment. This part of the loop is shorter and has a restroom.
It takes just a few minutes to finish the Avalanche Lake hike from here. Once back at the parking lot area, linger a little bit longer at the trailhead to take pictures at a hollow tree.
When to Hike to Avalanche Lake
The avalanches prevail in this part of Glacier National Park during the colder months. The name of the lake certainly attests to it, making it less attractive for the heat-loving visitors. Yet if the rapid flows of snow entice you more than anything else, then plan to hike to Avalanche Lake in late spring or early summer. The typical for this time massive snow packs sliding down the mountainside are a sight to behold.
The summer season, mid-June through September, though, is the favorite time to hike to Avalanche Lake. Dry and free from any snow, the trail is easy to traverse. Furthermore, the warm weather contributes to a pleasant hike and the clear views of Avalanche Lake.
What to Pack for Avalanche Lake Hike
- Water. Although the Avalanche Lake hike has the advantage of plenty of shade, formed by the tall trees, you can never go wrong with an extra bottle of water to keep yourself hydrated.
- Snack. Replenish your energy halfway through the hike while admiring the views at the shore of Avalanche Lake.
- Sunscreen. Again, your chances of sunburns are minimal due to the forested nature of the Avalanche Lake hike. Yet better be protected than sorry and slather that sunscreen on the exposed areas of your body.
- Hiking staffs. Bring them along for additional support to climb up several hills along the Avalanche Lake Trail.
- Bear Spray. Bears roam freely in the forested areas of Glacier National Park. We didn’t encounter any large animals while hiking to Avalanche Lake. Yet they are not rare here. So be sure to have the bear spray and use it only when the animal tries to attack you.
- Camera. Bring your camera or smart phone to capture some special moments and sites while doing the Avalanche Lake hike. Mental images have a tendency to wear out after a while. Hardcopy captures or digital shots will remind your of the Avalanche Lake hike for years to come. If you’re interested in other photogenic destinations, check out our guide to the iconic photo spots in Glacier National Park.
Tips for Doing the Avalanche Lake Hike
Leave no Trace
Don’t feed animals and don’t forget to pack out all the trash after having the picnic at the Trail of the Cedars/Avalanche Lake picnic area.
The rocks and moss near Avalanche Creek and Avalanche Lake can be slippery. Walk carefully and watch your steps to avoid any accidental slips into the water.
Beware of Bears
Hiking alone is discouraged in Glacier National Park due to a high probability of encountering wildlife, including the bears. The Avalanche Lake hike is not an exceptions. So be vigilant, make noice, and try to find a hiking buddy before venturing into the woods.
READ MORE: How to Protect Yourself from Bears in the Wild: Tips and Myths
Finding a parking space at the Trail of the Cedars/Avalanche Creek area is not a joke. If you plan to walk to either one of these destinations or hike all the way to Avalanche Lake, arrive early to claim one of those parking spots.
Alternately, you can park at Logan Pass and take a shuttle to the Trail of the Cedars trailhead. This way you can kill two birds with one stone and eliminate any parking issues at both of these popular locations.
Note: Finding an open spot at Logan Pass doesn’t get any easier. By noon, the parking lot is normally full, and the visitors trying to get to the area are turned away.
Don’t Bring Pets on the Avalanche Lake Hike
Sadly, you can’t hike to Avalanche Lake with your pet. The majority of other hiking trails in Glacier National Park also comply with the same rule.
Places to Hike to near Avalanche Lake
1. Avalanche Campground. The campsites are located across the road from the Trail of the Cedars.
2. Lake McDonald Lodge. The Lake McDonald Lodge nestles 5.5 miles west of the Trail of the Cedars/Avalanche Lake Trail.
3. Logan Pass. The highest point along the Going-to-the-Sun Road sits 15.9 miles (36-minute drive) from the Trail of the Cedars/Avalanche Lake hike.
4. McDonald Falls. McDonald Falls is a 4.1-mile hike or 9-minute drive from the Trail of the Cedars/Avalanche Lake Trail.
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