Are you looking for a moderately easy Glacier National Park hike? Not all boomer travelers are ready for a vigorous backcountry experience in the Montana wilderness. If moderately easy is more your style, a hike on Avalanche Lake Trail is for you.
This popular Glacier National Park trail is especially good for boomer travelers (and others) who need to acclimate themselves to Glacier’s altitude and environment. Also, there are no steep drop-off sections to worry those who have a fear of heights (that would be me).
How do I get to Avalanche Lake Trail?
Avalanche Lake Trail is located on the West side of the park. The trailhead is easy to reach—just a short drive on Going-to-the-Sun Road, which makes the trail convenient, but also busy. Starting in 2021, you’ll need an entry ticket to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road.
As soon as your vehicle passes through the west entrance of Glacier National Park, head straight for the parking lot at Trail of the Cedars Loop Trail, about 5.5 miles east of Lake McDonald Lodge. About halfway along the wheelchair accessible path, you’ll arrive at the trailhead for Avalanche Lake Trail.
Alan and I hiked here on a nippy September morning when we participated in a Glacier National Park hiking program with Road Scholar. But this trail is easy to do on your own.
Our Avalanche Lake Trail hiking experience
Although the trail begins with a short but steep uphill climb, the approximately 4-mile-round-trip-trail only gains 500 ft. over moderately rolling terrain. The journey takes hikers through an old growth cedar and hemlock forest to the glacier-fed Avalanche Lake.
It’s tempting to spend way too much time photographing Avalanche Creek as the trail skirts Avalanche Gorge towards the beginning of the trail. After all, who can resist capturing the scene of rushing water colored by glacial silt as it twists and turns around boulders on a path through the narrow channel?
Continuing on, the trail leaves the creek bank behind to travel through a dense forest of old growth cedar trees and hemlocks. Although the creek isn’t in view, the sound of gurgling water rushing through the creek is loud enough to be heard most of the way to Avalanche Lake.
Hiking through a temperate rainforest in Glacier National Park
“You’re standing on the eastern edge of the Pacific Northwest’s temperate rainforest,” Road Scholar guide, Stephanie Paidus, told us as we stopped for one of her frequent lectures on the flora and fauna in Glacier National Park. Learning about what we were hiking through was one of the benefits of traveling on a group hiking program.
As the hikers became spaced out, the forest grew quiet except for the twitter of birds and the rushing of the creek. Sunlight filtered through the thick branches of the cedar grove casting dapples of brightness on the moss-covered ground that looked like a bolt of plush, green velvet cloth had been spread out underneath the trees.
Growing up to 100 feet tall, some of the cedar trees in this grove are over 500 years old. If you’re willing to stop your progress toward Avalanche Lake for just a bit, you’ll watch chipmunks scampering in and out of downed limbs while birds sing as they flit about from branch to branch.
Close your eyes, take in a deep breath and just be in the cool peaceful forest. You’ll be happy for the moments you stopped in this curve of the trail on one of the most popular hikes in Glacier National Park.
Avalanche debris displays nature’s power
About 1.6 miles into the hike, we discovered another example of nature’s power. Downed trees littered the ground from an avalanche that thundered down Mt. Cannon in 2010. A micro burst in 2011 contributed more downed trees. While it’s distressing to see so many fallen trees, it did open up a mountain view of Logan Pass that wasn’t previously visible.
Stop for lunch at Avalanche Lake
Reaching Avalanche Lake, Alan and I chose a seat on one of the large logs that were scattered on the beach. We pulled sack lunches (provided by Road Scholar) out of our backpacks as a gusty wind pushed clouds across the sky. Munching on sandwiches while watching thin ribbons of waterfalls stream down rocky mountainsides was a scenic way to enjoy a picnic.
On the return trip, our group of hikers progressed each at his or her own pace, meaning that Alan and I stepped it up a bit to stretch our legs on this well-traveled trail. The forest was just as beautiful on the way back and it gave us extra time to photograph Avalanche Creek.
Questions about hiking to Avalanche Lake
This is a very popular Glacier National Park hiking trail, so you won’t be hiking alone. To avoid the crowds and be assured of a parking space, hike early or late in the day, especially during the summer.
Bear Spray! Seriously, this is grizzly (and black bear) country so you’ll want to bring bear spray and know how to use it. Bug repellant is another good idea, especially in the summer.
Pack a snack or lunch to enjoy as you sit on a log by the lake. And, by all means, bring your camera.
Will you need hiking poles? Not really. I always bring them but the trail is level enough that you really don’t need them.
Wearing layers is always a smart choice when hiking in Glacier National Park. The weather is changeable, so it’s smart to be prepared. It can snow even in July and August, although rain is more likely. And much depends on the time of day that you’re setting out. Even in warmer weather, quick-drying hiking pants and long sleeve shirts are a good protection against sun and insects.
One of the biggest challenges to hiking Avalanche Lake trail is finding a parking space. The earlier you arrive, especially during the crowded summer season, the better your chances of finding a space. Another option is to wait late into the afternoon. You’ll have plenty of time to complete your hike before the sun sets (around 10 p.m. in the summer).
Fall is my favorite time to hike to Avalanche Lake.
This trail is perfectly doable on your own. If you’re unfamiliar with the region, or uncomfortable hiking in bear territory, rangers lead daily hikes in the summer. It’s a great way to learn about plants and wildlife along the trail. Check the official park website for times and details.
Standing on the shore of Avalanche Lake as you watch waterfalls stream down the mountainsides means you’ve reached the pinnacle of this hike. Many of the waterfalls originate from Sperry Glacier. Unfortunately a view of the glacier is blocked by Little Matterhorn (7,886 ft.) mountain.
Of course watching water colored by glacial silt rush through the rocks of Avalanche Creek Gorge, at the beginning of the trail, is worth admiring and photographing. But the peaceful cedar forest calls to me. Sitting on the mossy ground, as dappled sunlight filters through the trees is a magical experience.
Besides chipmunks and birds, we didn’t see any wildlife during our hike. However it’s possible to see bears, both black and grizzly. If bear activity is too close to the trail, rangers will close it. I recommend checking the Glacier National Park trail status reports page when planning your day.
Stay on the west side of Glacier National Park, for convenient access to Avalanche Lake trail. There are many places to stay in West Glacier, mostly outside of the park, although there are some vacation rentals and lodging at Apgar (an inholding that’s inside the park but not official national park lodging).
Lake McDonald Lodge offers historic national park accommodations in a lakeside setting inside Glacier National Park. It’s the closest lodging to the trailhead plus a convenient location for exploring more of the west side. Make your plans early as Lake McDonald Lodge books up a year in advance. But it never hurts to check for cancellations.
Belton Chalet, near the West entrance, is another historic choice. And we enjoyed a stay at Silverwolf Log Chalets on a beautiful fall road trip to Glacier. But there are many other nearby choices in West Glacier. Fair warning: all accommodations book up early.
From horseback riding to white water rafting, there’s plenty to do on the West side of Glacier National Park, both inside and outside the park. Check out this selection of activities that also offer free cancellation.
Driving to Polebridge is one of our favorite day trips. And, of course, you’ll want to book a red jammer bus tour to explore Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Or drive it yourself, but save plenty of time for the Hidden Lake Ovelook hike at Logan Pass or to explore a portion of the Highline Trail.