Camping, Hiking and Traveling in Montana

  MontanaHikes.com
Hike Index
H=Hike   C=Camp   V=Visit     S=Ski

Livingston Area
  Elephanthead Mtn. H
 Paradise Valley
  S. Fk. Deep Creek H
  Pine Creek H,C
  George Lake H
  Passage Creek Falls H
  Crow Mountain H

Big Timber Area
  Boulder River H,C,V
  Natural Bridge Falls H,C,V
  Big Timber Creek Falls  H,C,V
  West Boulder Meadows H,C
  Twin Lakes  H,C

Bozeman Area
  Chestnut Mountain H
  Goose Creek H,S
  Mystic Lake H
  Lava Lake H

Central Montana
  Little Belt Mountains H,C,V,S
  Castle Mountains H,C
  Central MT Railroading V
  Cooney Reservoir C,V
  Crystal Lake H,C,V
  Judith Mountains V
  Judith Gap Wind Farm V
  Moccasin Mountains V

Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness
  Anvil Lake H,C

Western Montana
  Painted Rocks Rec Area V,C
  Salmon Lake State Park V,C
  Warm Spring Ponds  V


Lava Lake in the Gallatin Canyon


                Lava Lake is a great hike that climbs to a beautiful mountain lake in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The trail is located in the Gallatin Canyon between Bozeman and Big Sky and is one of the most popular trails in the area. The lake is almost exactly 3 miles from the trailhead but you have to gain 1,600 feet elevation in those three miles, making it a tough hike for those who are unprepared.

     The Lava Lake trail head is very easy to find but it can be difficult to access. The trailhead is located on a very short access road just off US 191 about 20 miles south of Gallatin Gateway and 15 miles north of Big Sky. The access road to the trailhead turns off US 191 right at the Cascade Creek bridge. The bridge is right where the highway takes a nearly 90 degree turn and crosses the Gallatin River.
Lava Lake Trailhead
     The Lava Lake trail begins right from the parking lot which is alongside the access road on the banks of the Gallatin River. The trail begins with a climb and climbs all the way to the lake.

     If you approach from the north, the access road is well signed and you should have no problems making the right hand turn. Be alert, the road heads off right at the bridge - if you find yourself crossing the bridge you have gone too far and will have to head back to try again. Since the access road is right at the edge of a bridge where traffic has to slow dramatically, you can only make a right hand turn to get on the road. This means that if you are approaching from the south you have to drive past the access road to the signed "Lava Lake Turn Around" and head back to approach from the north.

     Once you are on the access road getting to the trailhead is simple, just continue on for a couple of hundred yards until you reach the parking area which is right along the road. The parking area is split up into several different areas and it is common to find a number of vehicles at the site. There is no water at the trailhead but there is a pit toilet (outhouse).
Lava Lake Trailhead
     At the two mile mark you cross Cascade Creek on a sturdy bridge. From here it is one mile and 600 feet of elevation until you reach the lake.

      The trail leaves right from the parking area and you immediately get an idea of the trail conditions you will find along the entire hike - a steep rocky trail. In fact, the trail climbs steadily and consistently for almost the entire distance. Although it is rarely steep, it is unrelenting. You will climb about 500 feet in each of the first 2 miles and 600 feet in the last mile.This is a consistently rough trail with lots of rocks and roots. Rarely will you find a flat trail surface so you have to pay attention to where you are putting your feet.

      At almost exactly 2 miles you will find a sturdy bridge crossing the creek you have been following as you have climbed to here. This is Cascade Creek and with the constant drop in elevation it is easy to see where the creek gets its name. After crossing Cascade Creek on the bridge the trail steepens and climbs through a series of switchbacks - the last steep climb. In about 3/4 of a mile the trail begins to flatten and even drops down a little. This is the last stretch is an easy hike to get to the lake. Lava Lake is nestled among the high mountain peaks that surround it and its a great place to spend some time enjoying nature.

Lava Lake in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Gallatin National Forest
   There is a section of private land that is totally surrounded by National Forest right near Passage Creek Falls. When you reach this meadow the trail keeps you out of the private lands..
     For anglers, the 47 acre Lava Lake provides active fishing for foot-long wild rainbow trout and it is common to find one or more anglers enjoying the lake. There are a number of places to easily access the lake shore and it is possible to walk the shore all the way around the lake. Fishing Lava Lake is typical for Montana's mountain lakes. the fish are often aggressive feeders, especially early in the season. You can find out specific information about the fishing conditions at area fishing stores.

     Backpackers and overnight campers will find a number of suitable sites but be aware that there are special fire restrictions and you cannot build a campfire if you camp near the lake. The lake sits at 7,193 ft and even in the summer the nights can be cold.

     Lava Lake is known for its population of both chipmunks and rock pikas. Both of these small creatures abound in the rocky areas around the lake and will often boldly visit you to see if you have any food to offer them. Although these creatures may seem docile and friendly remember they are wild animals and will bite if they feel threatened.
Lava Lake Trail
   The Lava Lake Trail is often very rocky and can be hard to walk. Be sure to pay attention to where you place your feet as you hike.

     Lava Lake is typically the final destination for most hikers but some will continue on or make the lake a base camp for several days of exploring the mountains.  There are other trails in the area that are accessed from a branch of the trail that splits off just before the trail reaches the lake This trail heads to the south, away from the lake and toward the surrounding mountains. This is a good hiking trail but it is very steep and climbs nearly 2,000 feet in the next mile or so. Fortunately, after that climb the trail reaches the high country and hiking becomes easier. This is high altitude terrain is typically the realm of the backpacker and not usually visited by day hikers. In fact, I recommend that only expert hikers attempt the trails above Lava Lake.

A lone angler fishes on Lava LakeA lone angler tries his luck while fly fishing at Lava Lake
     Lava Lake is a very popular hike. The easy access and relatively short distance attract lots of hikers. Many hikers are from the Bozeman area but there are also lots of tourists who are directed to the trail. On a nice summer weekend day you may encounter as many as 20 parties on the trail or at the Lake. However, the trail tends to separate people and you are usually alone on the trail. Don't be surprised to find hikers sitting along side the trail waiting for their party to make it to the lake and pick them up on the way down. Although it is only a 3 mile hike, the unrelenting climb is too much for some hikers.

   The Lava Lake hike is really a great Montana hiking experience. Lava Lake is a beautiful mountain lake that showcases what the mountain high country is like. The trail is easy to find and easy to follow. Although it climbs steadily for its entire length, the trail is manageable for most hikers. If you are in the Bozeman/Big Sky area take the opportunity to try this hike and see for yourself why it is a favorite for many hikers.
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