Hiking with a Local: Glacier National Park’s Avalanche Lake Trail

Posted by
Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan
October 02, 2023
Updated November 02, 2023

A free forest with mountains in the background at Avalanche Lake
Photo: Emily Pennington

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The Avalanche Lake Trail in Glacier National Park is a special, gorgeous, and absolute must-see for anyone visiting the park.

I knew we were in for something special as soon as we hit the parking area. We found a spot, for one thing—in fact, we had our pick of the lot. “This never happens,” I told my brother, John, as we loaded up our daypacks. He’d recently joined me in Montana for a short-term physical therapy job, so I drove him up to Glacier National Park the first chance we got. 

I knew just where to go for our first trip: the Avalanche Lake trail, a stunning alpine lake cradled by waterfall-laced cliffs and unquestionably one of the best hiking trails in Glacier National Park. Not only is the payoff superlative, but the hike is also fairly short and flat. No wonder it draws hikers like bears to a huckleberry patch. 

Not today. Every other time I’d visited this trail, competing for a parking spot and dodging crowds were par for the course. It was hard to frame a lakeside selfie without catching other hikers doing the same thing in the background. But in early December, the place was totally deserted. With only a dusting of snow on the ground, we’d hit the sweet spot between summer chaos and deep winter.

The Avalanche Lake Trail winds its way through mountains and fallen trees
In the summer, the hiking trail is verdant and lush. Photo: Emily Pennington

We set out under a canopy of enormous red cedars and hemlocks. Avalanche Lake sits right on the transition zone between the giant trees of the Pacific Northwest and the drier forests of the Rocky Mountains. And it looks the part. A short, wheelchair-accessible loop called Trail of the Cedars branches off from the main path near the start, but we continued southeast on the main path. Soon the trail climbed alongside a polished gorge where Avalanche Creek wormed deep into the surrounding rock. I hesitated at the top, the bright-blue water beckoning me closer, but the slippery-looking stones lining the gorge made my stomach flip.

After that, the trail shied away from the water’s edge but we still followed Avalanche Creek through the lush conifer forest, hopping around the occasional boulder and watching our steps as the snow piled a bit deeper. I’d never heard this trail so quiet or seen the woods so pretty, all the trees frosted with a Christmas-y layer of white.

The writer stands next to a snowman in the winter
Elisabeth explores the trail in winter, which offers some very different views. Photo: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

Suddenly, we popped out into the amphitheater framing Avalanche Lake. Turns out, we weren’t the only visitors today. A snowman waited on the rocky beach, complete with outstretched twig arms and a scooped-out smile. We posed for pictures with it, the cliffs behind us smeared with snowdrifts instead of summer’s cascades. I’d seen mountain goats making their way across the rocks above the lake before. But today, I couldn’t pick them out against the snow. 

I’ve been to Avalanche Lake a few times since then, always in the warmer season, always with plenty of company. There’s never a bad time to hike there, and I don’t mind sharing the trail. But that misty, silent trip when we were the only humans in what felt like a hundred miles is the one I remember. 


How to Hike the Avalanche Lake Trail

Here’s everything you need to know to check this iconic hike off your life list.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Distance: 4.6 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 500 feet
  • Trailhead: Avalanche Picnic Area

Entry logistics: Admission to Glacier National Park is $35 per vehicle. If you’re visiting in the high season (late May to mid-September), you’ll also need a $2 entry reservation, available at starting four months in advance. If you don’t manage to snag one (they go fast), you can still enter the park before 6 a.m. or after 3 p.m.

Standing on the shores of Avalance Lake looking out
Photo: Emily Pennington

Take the Shuttle

Take the park’s free shuttle to the trailhead when it’s running (typically July 1 into mid-September). It alleviates congestion, eliminates parking hassles, and is the only way to guarantee you’ll be hiking instead of circling the lot. Park at Apgar Visitor Center and catch the shuttle there; you can also hop on at Sprague Creek Campground or Lake McDonald Lodge.

Visit During Spring, the Trail’s Best Season

Visit in the spring and fall to beat the crowds, or summer for a reliably dry trail. If you can visit before Going-to-the-Sun Road closes at Lake McDonald Lodge for the season, early winter can be ideal. After the road closes, the trip to Avalanche Lake becomes a challenging 16.2-mile round trip on skis or snowshoes. 

Bear Spray is a Must When Hiking in Glacier

Don’t forget to bring some bear spray. Glacier National Park is one of the few places left in the Lower 48 that still has a population of grizzle bears. When traveling through bear country, it’s always helpful to have a can on you just in case. 

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