This hike is one the most popular in Glacier National Park. It includes old growth forest, spectacular waterfalls, a beautiful mountain lake filled with turquoise water, nestled in a picturesque glacial cirque. It is unique.
The maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest has its easternmost influence here. Moisture from the Pacific coast rises and condenses as it meets the Continental Divide. Consequently, large quantities of moisture are dropped and that supports the western red cedar – western hemlock forest habitat, which is also at the far east of its range.
These two species of trees have been growing in the area for hundreds of years. Some of the cedars around lower Avalanche Creek are over 500 years old.1 You will also find other plants that are adapted to this microclimate. These include trillium (also known as birth root and wake-robin), bead lily, devil’s club, club moss, and various ferns.
Sally Thompson, in her book People Before the Park, indicates that generations of Kootenai Indians were probably visiting the area to harvest bark from old cedar trees to make baskets and other necessities. They also valued the cedar wood for building the frames of their canoes and making bowls.3
Charles Howe, the first homesteader at the foot of Lake McDonald in 1892, is reported to be the first non-Indian to see Avalanche Lake. He did so from the top of Mount Brown. Howe told Dr. Lyman B. Sperry about the lake which he then visited in 1895. Sperry is also given credit for the name of the lake.2
Their exploration of this part of Glacier is pretty amazing given that there were no roads and the forest was referred to as “thick and tangled”. In fact, this is about the time that George Snyder was building accommodations for tourists on the site of the current Lake McDonald Lodge. Due to the lack of roads, he bought a steamboat to haul his guests from Apgar to his accommodations.2
There are a couple of ways to get to the trailhead. I would suggest walking the Trail of the Cedars to obtain the Avalanche trail. The Trail of the Cedars starts on the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road bridge over Avalanche Creek. There is a boardwalk which will carry you to the bridge over Avalanche Creek where it leaves the gorge. This is an excellent place to take a few photographs.
Proceed just a little further, and you will see a rail fence. The fence was placed there to protect the hillside. At one time, there was little undergrowth due to a large number of social trails.
My students and I collected seed from species that the park service personnel wanted to use to repair the area. We planted the seed in our high school greenhouse and then planted the seedlings in the spring. We did this for about 10 years. There were a lot of kids, now adults, that are pretty proud of that.
You will find the path to Avalanche Lake at the end of the fence. There is a ‘T’ in the route shortly after starting. Turn left. It is 2.3 miles to the foot of the lake with 500 feet of elevation gain. If you wish to explore the head of the lake, it will be an additional 0.8 miles.
After a short climb, there will be opportunities to look down into the Avalanche Gorge. This can be dangerous, especially if kids are involved. Be cautious.
The trail visits Avalanche Creek and then departs as it makes its way up to the lake. The low light cedar-hemlock forest with its lush green moss, lichens, and ferns is magical. When our kids were young, we would make up stories about elves, and fairies that lived in this enchanted forest.
When you come to a short side trail to the outdoor privy and see spiny-stemmed devil’s club along the path, know that you are close to the lake. From this point to the head of Avalanche Lake, I seem always to find the beautiful white, 3-petaled trillium when the first ground is exposed as the snow melts.
Not to be outdone, the round-leaved yellow violet competes for your attention in the same places where the trillium grows.
The waterfalls at the back of the cirque are stunning especially early in the season when you can hear them crashing down the cliffs even before you see them.
I found it interesting to read the research of the World Waterfall Database. They argue that the large spectacular waterfalls have never been officially named and have erroneously been referred to as Monument Falls.
Their research leads them to claim that Monument Falls refers to a 170-foot drop along a lower cliff band that is actually hard to see from the trail. The argument goes on to say that when Sperry Glacier was more massive, the water the glacier supplied to this stream made it stand out as the main inflow to Avalanche Lake.4 I’m curious if Dr. Sperry named the falls and why the designation of Monument Falls.
The head of the lake is a worthwhile extension to this hike. You will find a gravel beach that soaks up the warmth of the sun. On colder days, that makes it easy to linger a little longer.
Eventually, the time comes for the return trip. When you reach the beginning of the trail at the rail fence, you have the option of turning left which will lead you by the Avalanche Campground and to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The exit will be near where you entered the Trail of the Cedars.
- National Park Service. “Trees and Shrubs.” Accessed October 4, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/treesandshrubs.htm.
- Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
- Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.
- World Waterfall Database. “Monument Falls, Montana, United States.” https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Monument-Falls-478.