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 the trail gains 1,600 feet elevation in those three miles. This climb can make it a tough hike for those who are unprepared.
|Nearest City||Big Sky – 15 miles|
|Season||Open All Year|
|Attractions||Hiking, Backpacking, Fishing|
|Management||Custer Gallatin National Forest|
The Lava Lake trailhead is easy to find but it can be difficult to access. The trailhead is located 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 at the Cascade Creek bridge. The bridge is where the highway makes a nearly 90-degree turn and crosses the Gallatin River.
When approached from the north the access road is well signed and is a right-hand turn off US 191. Be alert, the road heads off right at the bridge. If you find yourself crossing the bridge you will have to head back to try again.
Left turns are not allowed from US 191 onto the access road. If you are approaching from the south you must drive past the access road to the signed “Lava Lake Turn Around” on US 191 and head back to approach from the north.
The Lava Lake Trail
Once you are on the access road getting to the trailhead is simple. In a couple of hundred yards, you reach the parking area on the side of the road. The parking area is divided into several sections and it’s common to find a number of vehicles at the site. There is no water at the trailhead but there is a pit toilet (outhouse).
The trail leaves from the parking area and you immediately get an idea of the trail conditions you’ll 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. The trail climbs about 500 feet in each of the first 2 miles and 600 feet in the last mile making it 1,600 ft total. 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 step.
At almost exactly 2 miles there is a sturdy bridge crossing the creek the trail has been following. This is Cascade Creek and the constant drop in elevation makes it easy to see where the creek gets its name. After crossing Cascade Creek the trail steepens and climbs through a series of switchbacks. This is the last steep climb. In about 3/4 of a mile, the trail begins to flatten and even drops down a little. This last stretch is an easy hike to the lake which is nestled in the high mountains.
Fishing Lava Lake
For anglers, the 47 acre Lava Lake provides active fishing for foot-long wild rainbow trout. The lake can be popular and it’s common to find one or more anglers fishing. There are places to easily access the lakeshore and it’s 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.
Lava Lake has large populations of chipmunks and rock pikas. Both of these small creatures abound in the rocky areas around the lake. The chipmunks 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.
Camping at Lava Lake
Backpackers and overnight campers will find a number of suitable campsites 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 7,130 ft and even in the summer, the nights can be cold. Bring plenty of warm clothes because you can’t use a fire to warm up.
Lava Lake is the final destination for some hikers while others will continue on. The lake sees a mix of day hikers, backpackers staying at the lake, and backpackers passing through on a longer hike.
Forest trial 445, the Table Rock Trail, splits off just before the lake. This trail heads south, climbing above 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 Hike to Be Enjoyed
Lava Lake is a very popular hike. Its easy access and relatively short length attract lots of hikers. Many come 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 people sitting beside the trail who’ve abandoned the climb. People commonly stop and wait for their party to pick them up on the way back down. Although it is only a 3-mile hike, the unrelenting climb is too much for some unprepared hikers.
The Lava Lake hike is a great Montana hiking experience. It’s a beautiful mountain lake that showcases the high country. 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
It’s about a three-mile hike that gains over 500 ft a mile. Hikers should plan on an hour and a half to two hours or longer to reach the lake. Although the return trip is downhill it’s usually not much faster.
The trailhead is about 15 miles north of Big Sky on US 191.
Lava Lake sits at 7,130 ft and the trailhead is at 5,535 ft
Lava Lake and most of the trail are in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness area. Created in 1983, the wilderness covers more than 254,000 acres