Avalanche Lake via Trail of the Cedars in Glacier National Park
Take in stunning waterfall views on this moderate Crown of the Continent Hike.
Waterfalls cascade down the distant mountainsides, clear blue waters sparkle at your feet and a few puffy clouds dot an otherwise bluebird sky. While it might sound like heaven, we’re actually talking about Avalanche Lake, one of Glacier National Park’s most popular hikes. The moderate trail winds through a cedar forest filled with ferns before following Avalanche Creek to a picturesque basin with the surrounding peaks reflected in the gorgeous Avalanche Lake. Wildlife is often spotted in this area including grizzly bears.
If you’re looking for a day hike that packs in tons of scenery without being too strenuous, this hike is the perfect choice.
The trailhead for Avalanche Lake is located on the park’s west side along Going-to-the-Sun Road. In 2023, Glacier National Park is requiring a vehicle reservation for cars driving this road May 26 – Sept. 10. Be sure to make your reservation in advance or enter the east end before 6 a.m. so you don’t miss out on this hike.
Is the Avalanche Lake Hike Hard?
The hike to Avalanche Peak is fairly moderate. The trail is 4.6 miles roundtrip, and you’ll gain a little more than 700 feet in elevation. This trail is one of the more popular in the park because most hikers can accomplish it in a couple hours, and you’ll encounter tons of incredible scenery. Avalanche Lake sits at 4,000 feet above sea level so it’s a good acclimatization hike to do before heading to higher elevations like Logan Pass.
While this trail might be too hard for small children without the help of a backpack, or people with mobility issues, it’s a great family hike if you budget enough time and take it slowly.
Be sure to get an early start as afternoon thunderstorms are common in the summer months. It’s dangerous to be out on the trails when there’s lightning in the area so it’s best practice to be back to the trailhead by early afternoon. Be sure to check with a ranger on trail conditions before starting out in early and late season as there may still be snow on sections of the trail.
How Do You Get to Avalanche Lake?
The hike to Avalanche Lake starts at the Trail of the Cedars Trailhead. Drive 5.5 miles east from Lake McDonald Lodge on Going-to-the-Sun Road and park at the Avalanche Picnic Area. This hike is very popular, so it’s best to get there early to ensure you get a parking spot.
Going-to-the-Sun Road closes each winter due to snowy conditions. The road opens in sections each summer and is totally dependent on weather. Be sure to check the road status before setting off to make sure you can access the trailhead at www.nps.gov/applications/glac/roadstatus/roadstatus.cfm. The entire road is usually open from early July to mid-October.
Start on the Trail of the Cedars, a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk loop that winds through a Western hemlock and red cedar forest with trees older than 500 years. You can access the Avalanche Lake Trail from either direction, but head left from the parking lot for the best views. Don’t miss snapping some photos at the bridge spanning Avalanche Creek at the half-mile mark. The views are spectacular.
Just past the bridge, you’ll hit the junction with the Avalanche Lake Trail. Turn left to follow it. From here, the trail is no longer wheelchair accessible. The trail immediately starts to gain elevation as you head up a steep, but short climb. You’ll quickly come upon Avalanche Creek and follow it as it makes its way through a picturesque gorge. Just before you reach the lake, a short spur trail leads to a privy.
At 2.3 miles the trail hits Avalanche Lake. Head to the nearby beach to soak in the commanding views of Bearhat Mountain and Little Matterhorn. In the distance, waterfalls tumble down the mountain faces as they head for the lake. Keep an eye out for grizzly bears in this area.
From the beach you can either continue another 0.7 miles to explore the rest of the lake or turn back. Continuing around the lake adds 1.4 miles to your total distance.
Can You Swim in Avalanche Lake?
While swimming is allowed in Glacier National Park, the freezing cold waters of Avalanche Lake aren’t very conducive to enjoying a summer dip. Because most of the lakes in the park are fed by glaciers and snowmelt, water temperatures rarely exceed 50 degrees F.
Make sure to bring water shoes or sturdy sandals with a good tread to help you navigate the uneven lake bottom. Wading in the brisk waters will cool you down instantly on a hot day. We’d suggest stopping there. Not only is swimming in these temperatures unpleasant, but it can also be dangerous. If you’re set on getting in, be sure to bring a towel and dry clothes so you can warm back up when you get out of the water.
What Should I Pack for the Hike to Avalanche Lake?
The most important thing to bring when hiking to Avalanche Lake is bear spray. This area of the park sees lots of grizzly bear activity and rangers even shut the area down at times because of it. Carry bear spray somewhere on your body where it’s always accessible and be sure you know how to use it. It’s also important to always hike with others and be sure to make noise when coming around blind corners so any bears in the area aren’t startled by your presence.
Bring plenty of water for everyone in your group. This means at least two liters of water per person for this hike. Dehydration can make the symptoms of altitude sickness worse so be sure to stay hydrated. Pack snacks or a picnic lunch as well because you’re going to want to spend some time at the lake enjoying the views.
Weather in the Rocky Mountains is often unpredictable. It’s a good idea to pack an extra layer in case it gets cold or windy and bring sun protection like sunscreen, a sun hat and sunglasses.