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On the Trail: Lava Lake

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By Ciara Wolfe BSCO Executive Director

Scattered throughout Gallatin Canyon, there are several U.S. Forest Service trails of varying difficulty and length leading into the Spanish Peaks and other surrounding mountains. Lava Lake Trail is one of the most popular.

This 6-mile out-and-back hike is known for its steep ascent and rewarding destination: Lava Lake, a beautiful alpine lake in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The elevation gain is significant, but with a steady and gradual climb to the lake, this trail has earned a difficultly rating of moderate.

This well-traveled trail provides ample parking at the easily recognizable Lava Lake Trailhead along Highway 191 in Gallatin Canyon with a well-marked and obvious route to the lake. The trail is dirt, but is interspersed with large rocks that help the trail dry-out faster in the spring, and provide many “steps” throughout the hike.

At the beginning of the trail, you will pass some summer residences before entering the dense lodgepole pine forest of Cascade Canyon. Approximately 1.5 miles into the hike the forest begins to open up, affording beautiful meadow views. There is also the potential for animal sightings depending on the time of day and season.

The trail runs beside Cascade Creek with one major creek crossing across a log bridge with views of a couple of small waterfalls. The final climb of the hike ascends switchbacks up the hillside, which acts as the lake’s natural dam. At the top, you reach Lava Lake, a crystal-clear mountain lake surrounded by mountain views, and with plenty of recreational options.

Lava Lake is a popular swimming hole in the hot summer months, and also provides great opportunities for fishing. For those who wish to make this hike an overnight excursion, there are a couple of established campsites around the lake, accessible by a trail that leads to the far end of the lake.

Lava Lake is an excellent out-and-back hike to get a true mountain lake experience that can be enjoyed by all ages and abilities. Make sure to leave ample time for the hike with plenty of additional leisure time to enjoy the lake itself.

For more information about Big Sky’s parks, trails and recreation programs, visit The Big Sky Community Organization is a local nonprofit that connects people to recreational opportunities by acquiring, promoting and preserving sustainable places and programs for all.

A version of this article was first published in the Aug. 4, 2017, edition of EBS.

Trail Stats

Distance: 6 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: intermediate
Elevation: 5,525 feet to 7,115 feet
Elevation gain: 1,643 feet
Surface: dirt and rocks
Uses: hikers and horses
Directions: Drive north from Big Sky on Highway 191. The trailhead is located approximately 15 miles north of Big Sky. It’s well marked, has a large parking area and is frequently used as a boat pull-out for rafters.

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