Glacier National Park is world renowned for its glacier carved mountains. Visitors can drive the famous Going to the Sun Road to see firsthand the alpine splendor of its majestic peaks, valleys, and lakes—and maybe see a few mountain goats and bighorn sheep as well.
But the best way to experience Glacier is to hike one of its many trails to a waterfall or alpine lake. One of my favorites is the Avalanche Lake trail found on the Going to the Sun Road just beyond Lake McDonald and before you climb up the road to Logan Pass, near the Avalanche Campground and the Trail of Cedars. It is a great half-day hike, around 4.5 miles round trip with a moderate climb through tall cedars and follows the cascading waters of Avalanche Creek.
It is a very popular but well maintained trail, and it is often difficult to find a parking spot at the trailhead. When I went, I found a campsite early in the morning at Avalanche Campground and I walked to the trailhead. If you are at another campground, you can also take the shuttle bus to the trailhead.
Let's take a look at what the trail has to offer!
The Trail of Cedars
The Avalanche Lake trail begins along the Trail of Cedars, a short loop along a boardwalk trail through ancient hemlock and cedar trees, some of which are over 500 years old. When you walk this trail, you feel like you are in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, this microclimate is considered the farthest eastern terminus for these types of trees, with the humidity high enough to make them tower over you like gentle giants. You will see many ferns and emerald green moss covering rocks and logs, which feels very much like you are in an enchanted rainforest.
The eastern side of the loop is the most scenic and dramatic, while the western side takes you directly to the junction with Avalanche Lake trail. Before you go up the trail at the junction, take a look from the bridge where the turquoise creek plunges into a multicolored gorge. It is breathtakingly beautiful!
Avalanche Creek Gorge
After you climb the first hill at the junction, you will get a great view above the gorge. Feel the power of the water sculpting the limestone and rocky cliffs beneath you and the forest canopy. It's an impressive welcome to the trail that you will soon follow to the lake.
As you begin hiking the Avalanche Lake trail, you will immerse yourself in the cedar and hemlock forest. I went in the morning, when the light dappled the ground and the air was cool. It was such a pleasant hike because the forest keeps the bright, hot sun away and provides continuous shade all the way to the lake.
I find old growth forests like this one to be some of the most magical places to hike, almost as if you are in a fairytale. I've been to the rainforests of Western Washington, to Olympic National Park and the Hoh Rain Forest, and this little area in Glacier reminds me of it all. Who would have thought these trees would reside here in Glacier? It's an amazing testimony to the persistence of Nature to find its way.
You will notice a place on the trail where the trees are sparse with many of them being uprooted and lying on the forest floor, almost as if some force knocked them down. Actually, the force of snow plowed over these trees at this point, thus giving it the name of Avalanche Creek.
When you finally get to the lake, you will not be disappointed. You will find yourself on a wide beach (probably with many other people), gazing at the emerald green lake. The peaks surrounding the lake are Bearhat Mountain and the Little Matterhorn, and you will see three wispy waterfalls plunging down from the heights. It almost seems like you are in Switzerland!
What I thought was interesting about the lake was how the deep sections were dark green and the outer shallow regions were a pinkish tan color. It was like a gem, sparkling in the sun, and was very awe-inspiring. They have some nice benches you can sit on and eat a lunch and otherwise soak in the scenery before you head back down the trail.
The trail continues around the lake to the far edge until it dead-ends at a creek you will have to wade if you want to get to the far shoreline. Fewer people will be there, and there are also some other mini-beaches along the lakeshore if the big one is too full of people.
Overall, I think Avalanche Lake trail is a perfect trail to do in Glacier if you have a half-day or so available. It is moderate in difficulty, and most people can take it at a leisurely pace that suits them. There are plenty of sights to see, from the Trail of Cedars to the gorge, from the cedar forest to Avalanche Lake, and you will take a lot of photographs so be sure to bring your camera. The only thing you will deal with are the amounts of people also enjoying the trail, due to its popularity and easy accessibility.
But keep in mind... being around a lot of people will keep the bears away!
For more information on Avalanche Lake trail, I have included a link with more details on the hike. Thanks for reading, and happy hiking!