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Commemorating 60th Anniversary of Hebgen Lake Earthquake

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The Earthquake Lake Visitor Center offers exhibits and displays that illustrate what happened 60 years ago when the Hebgen Lake Earthquake tragically took 28 lives. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CUSTER GALLATIN NATIONAL FOREST

By Christine Gianas Weinheimer EBS CONTRIBUTOR

This month marks the 60-year anniversary of the most famous earthquake in the Greater Yellowstone area. It was the strongest ever recorded in the Rocky Mountains and tragically took 28 lives.

On Aug. 17, 1959, the Hebgen Lake Earthquake, measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale, triggered a massive landslide that moved at 100 miles per hour. In less than 1 minute, more than 80 million tons of rock crashed into a narrow canyon, blocking the Madison River and forming Earthquake Lake.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, located 59 miles southwest of Big Sky on Highway 287, tells the story of that infamous event. It not only features excellent exhibits, but visitors can also easily see the effects of the earthquake surrounding them: The visitor center itself sits atop the landslide debris and overlooks the lake formed by the quake.

The visitor center’s exhibits illustrate the magnitude of an earthquake’s power and the devastation it leaves behind. They include displays on earthquake science and a kid-friendly, interactive 3-D model of the Earthquake Lake area.

When visiting, be sure to check out the working seismograph that monitors earthquakes worldwide. If you’re lucky, you’ll even experience how an earthquake registers on the Richter scale, in real time, whether it is close by or far away. Greater Yellowstone is one of the most seismically-active areas in the United States, with a combination of tectonic and volcanic activity resulting in 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes each year. Most of these quakes are too small to be felt.

Also within the visitor center, a Yellowstone Forever Park Store, operated in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, offers a variety of educational items. Outside, a walking path leads to the Memorial Boulder that honors the 28 victims of the quake.

When you arrive, pick up a “Visitor Guide to the Earthquake Lake Geologic Area” and check the upcoming times for scheduled movies and talks.

The Earthquake Lake Visitor Center is open daily from late May through mid-September, and admission is free. Check the Custer Gallatin National Forest website at for exact dates and hours of operation and directions.

The Custer Gallatin National Forest is hosting a series of events at the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center through August 18 to remember the earthquake of 1959 and its victims. For more information on 60th anniversary events, call the center at (406) 682-7620.

Christine Gianas Weinheimer lives in Bozeman and has been writing about Yellowstone for 17 years.

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