The Lake They Call Avalanche

Glacier National Park is a gorgeous and amazing testament to the glaciers that covered the area for thousands of years with ice up to a mile deep. All that moving, melting, and re-melting ice formed this northern section of the Rocky Mountains. A carved masterpiece of U-shaped valleys, hanging valleys, cirques and tarns, paternoster lakes, and moraines. So let’s walk a little over two miles to see a glacier-formed valley which is the home of Avalanche Lake. I know it is uphill all the way, but we just have to go. Come on!

This time of year, mid June, is spring in the park. Avalanche Campground, on the western side of Going-to-the-Sun Road, is not yet open for camping, but is used for parking and easy access to many nearby trailheads.

As we walk to Avalanche Lake trailhead, we are surrounded by the western red cedars and hemlocks that we will walk through most of the hike. These trees create such a vast canopy that this is one of the most heavily shaded understories in the park. It also creates an environment where ferns, mushrooms, lichen, mosses and other plants needing little sunlight can thrive. In some places it almost feels like a rain forest. Because the cedars and hemlocks so completely shade the area, only their own kind can reproduce, making them a “climax” species. The biggest trees here date back to the early 1500’s and are nearly 500 years old.

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The trail can be tricky, so watch your step!


As the trail levels out 600 feet above where we started, we can see bright sunshine ahead, meaning we are almost to the lake. This takes my breath away–and a beach to sit on too.

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We are in a cirque–an amphitheater carved by glaciers with a tarn, or lake, filled with the cold water from melting snow and glacial ice on the mountains. Sitting here on a tree stump at an elevation of 3,905 feet, we marvel at the view of the surrounding mountains which rise 4,000 to almost 6,000 feet higher than us.

We count eleven mountainside waterfalls, but I’m sure there are more in the nooks and crannies of the mountains. The only waterfall with a name is the one in the middle of the picture; Monument Falls. Taking a wider view, we see 7886-foot Little Matterhorn, called a craggy horn type of mountain, to our right.

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Sperry Glacier is also to the right, but it cannot be seen from here. It is in a shallow cirque on the northeast slope of Gunsight Mountain (9,259 feet) and is a very challenging hike for the best hikers. If we started from the trailhead near McDonald Lodge, where we ate breakfast this morning, it would be a 24 mile hike with a 6,105 elevation gain. Other approaches are no less challenging. I think we’ll just take their word for it being to our right. Besides, on a sunny day with such a gorgeous view, it’s time for lunch!

Bearhat Mountain (8,694 feet) is to our immediate left. Look–the white dot making its way down the cliffs.

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A Mountain Goat maneuvering down the rocky hillside. He never got that close, but I carried my big lens to the lake and it got me closer to him. He is still working on losing his winter coat but enjoying a sunny day just like us.


Since I have the big lens, let’s look a little closer at the largest waterfalls. First Monument Falls, then the one to the left and the one to the right. See the smaller falls in the dark crevice?

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Well, it is time to head back. As we walk down the trail, let’s turn around for just one more look. What a masterpiece from the work of glaciers!

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Back into the woods we go. It always surprises me hiking in the West with vistas, views, and so many small features that just amaze, that when you walk one direction to your destination, it all looks totally different when you turn around and walk the other way. So let’s see what we missed the first time through.

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Our trail takes us along Bearhat Mountain. We’ve been told to look for grizzlies in this area, but we didn’t see any today. Nevertheless, we have our bear spray handy.

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Avalanche Creek is below us in the valley. We won’t see it much for a while, but we can hear the water tumbling down the mountain during our entire walk. Nope, no grizzlies down there either.

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How did we miss this amazing plant? Called a cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis crispa), this one was about 12 inches across and like nothing I’ve ever seen. Apparently it is quite delectable to mushroom lovers.

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The amazing greens of the forest floor. We have the yellow-green cushion moss covering the rock, different kinds of ferns growing everywhere, other mosses of so many shades, and Devil’s Club.

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Devil’s Club is actually a shrub that grows from 3-7 feet tall, but be careful, they have densely spiny stems. Although their leaves remind us of maples, those leaves can be more than a foot across and there are spikes everywhere!

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We find Red-belted Brackets on downed, rotting trees . . .

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. . . and Puffballs clustered among moss along the trail.

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As the sound of running water gets louder, we see Hidden Creek joining Avalanche Creek to continue the journey down the mountain. The creek just got much bigger as a result.

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What a surprise. These elusive birds are not a common sight. My pictures are not very good as he skittered here and there finally snatching a late lunch–spider in the raw. The Varied Thrush loves these moist, dense forests.  We are much more likely to hear their call echoing through the forest than see them, so this is quite a treat.

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The water in the creeks, streams, and lakes in Glacier is such an amazing color you feel sure someone went around with dye. I bet you wondered if I manipulated the pictures to make the water look gorgeous.

These vivid turquoise blues and greens are the result of water melt from the glaciers carrying glacial silt, also called rock flour, down the mountains into the many lakes. This rock flour is very fine and light and can stay suspended in water for months. Sunlight reflecting off the silt gives the gorgeous turquoise blue or green color. The color of the water can even change hour to hour as the light conditions and angle of the sun changes. With the coming of autumn, the flow of melt water begins to slow down, the rock flour begins to settle, and the color intensity of the water begins to fade. But it is spring in the mountains and let’s revel in the beauty of the colors!

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Now here is a sight I’ve rarely see, an amazingly big moth.This is a male Polyphemus Moth with a wing span of almost six inches. His hairy body looks more like a tarantula than a moth. Those feathery, comb-like antennae allow him to detect the female’s pheromones. That area that looks like a hole in his wing is actually an “eye”, and when his wings are open there is a large eyespot on each hind wing that really does look like a human eye. Those eye spots are responsible for its name–from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus.

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Standing on the bridge looking up Avalanche Creek Gorge we see the gorgeous color of the water racing down the gorge.

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As an example of how the water color changes, about 7am I took the picture below of McDonald Creek as we headed for our trailhead. This is not too far from where Avalanche Creek ends as it flows into McDonald Creek heading to Lake McDonald. Hardly seems real, but so gorgeous.

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Well, it is time to head to the car through Trail of the Cedars. We’ve walked about 4-1/2 miles today, but the beauty of what we’ve seen over this relatively short distance will be something not only to remember but to visit again. So until next time . . .

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. . . be surprised by the beauty you find along trails near where you live!

9 thoughts on “The Lake They Call Avalanche


    Been catching up on your Wilderness Walks and enjoying them immensely. This one, however, brought back memories of the time I taught a class on historic road restoration for an NPS course being held in Glacier. Right after I taught my section, I got to play hooky and snuck out to steal peeks at what you are enjoying at a more leisurely pace. Well done! Looking forward to more.

    • Joy says:

      Thanks! I’m hoping to get back to Glacier the end of September so we will see. Trying to figure out how to spend more time in that very amazing place!

  2. RShepherd says:

    That moth is quite the specimen. Felt like I was right there with you! Thanks for sharing across the miles.

    • Joy says:

      It was absolutely beautiful up there. That moth was really amazing, and on that log right along the trail. That doesn’t happen often. Thanks Patty.

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