By Aaron Theisen
Backcountry alpine lakes are the scenic equivalent of huckleberries: highly coveted, accessible for only a short part of the year and even more rewarding for the human-powered effort required to find them. And western Montana’s Glacier Country has a bushelful of lakes from which to take your pick, from granite infinity-pool tarns to bear grass-ringed basins and trout-packed high-mountain shores.
Read on for five of the best hike-in lakes in and around Glacier National Park. Whether you just take in the view or take the plunge, the rewards are sweet.
Short Day Hike
Glacier Lake, Mission Mountains Wilderness, Flathead National Forest
The Glacier Creek portal epitomizes the appeal of hiking in the Mission Mountains Wilderness between Missoula and Kalispell: pleasant old-growth forest, well-maintained and never-too-steep trails and spectacular shoreline destinations that belie their ease of access. Simply put, few regions of the Northwest offer so many options for rewarding done-in-a-day outings. And few Missions hikes get as many done-in-a-day visitors as Glacier Lake. Maintaining a shallow streamside grade its entire length, the 1.6-mile trail to Glacier ambles through open old-growth Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir forest, the airy canopy allowing plenty of fruit-sweetening light to reach the huckleberry shrubs below. Glacier Lake occupies a vast cirque, the smooth granite shelves at the far end sheltering a handful of high tarns; a trail that splits off from Glacier Lake’s approach goes to Turquoise, the largest of the pools. Owing to a history of heavy use, the Forest Service prohibits camping within a quarter mile of the shore. No matter. With its short length, the hike to Glacier Lake is better suited to a day of picnicking than a backpacking trip.
Moderate Day Hike
Birch Lake, Jewel Basin Hiking Area, Flathead National Forest
The Jewel Basin Hiking Area, in the Swan Range southeast of Kalispell, has a lake for every preference. Enjoy lounging on the grassy lawn of a shallow tarn? Pick Picnic Lakes. How about plunging into a deep, granite-set pool? Choose Crater Lake. But for an easy introduction to the calling cards of the Jewel Basin—quiet pools and copious flowers—look no further than the six-mile round-trip trek to Birch Lake.
Aside from a brief ascent out of the trailhead, most of the three-mile hike to Birch Lake follows a nearly level course as it traverses steep slopes awash in color—purple penstemon, lupine, aster and more—flowers fed by the copious snowfall of the Swans, the long north-south bulwark against the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Nearly nonstop views showcase the expansive Flathead Valley below. Birch Lake occupies a broad, flat bench on the Swan Crest, its numerous spits and inlets sheltering semi-private swimming and tenting spots.
Ambitious hikers can continue another three miles—with blooms and berries as added motivation—to the granite tub of Crater Lake. Rock outcroppings plunge immediately into the cold, chest-deep water below; you’d be hard-pressed to find a better shore from which to cannonball.
Moderate Day Hike
Iceberg Lake, Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park derives its name not for any extant glaciers within its boundaries but for the ice age glaciers that carved the park’s many cirques and peaks. Iceberg Lake is one of the most striking locations in which to see the elemental power of ice and water still in action. Most summers, free-floating chunks of ice bob and weave in the wind-driven waters until early August, the occasional crack of a calving iceberg echoing across the high, nearly vertical walls of the cirque in which the lake sits.
In addition to the icebergs, the nearly ten-mile round-trip trek to Iceberg Lake offers non-stop scenic rewards typical of the Many Glacier area of the park: Low, flowering shrubs and big bright blooms of many hues frame views of the Swiftcurrent Valley.
The distance is little deterrent to crowds, especially because Glacier National Park’s shallow, stock-grade climbs and soft, smooth tread enable higher-mile hikes than many tourists are used to. Besides, the stunning destination—and an amphitheater of an ice bath in which to soak sore legs— will spur hikers onward. Care to take a midsummer polar bear plunge?
Long Day Hike
Cracker Lake, Glacier National Park
No, it’s not Photoshop trickery: Cracker Lake’s technicolor cerulean hue is unique even among Glacier National Park’s pantheon of lakes.
The wide, hoof-hammered trail to Cracker Lake—one of a limited number of trails on which the park’s equestrian concessionaire operates—stays in thick timber for most of its 6-mile approach to the lake; it’s one of the few hikes in the Many Glacier portion of the park with limited scenic attractions along its length. But the rewards once the trail reaches the Cracker Lake basin more than make up for the preceding miles. Mount Siyeh’s sheer summit block—nearly four thousand feet of vertical relief—crowns Cracker Lake, its steep shoulders a reliable spot to watch for grizzlies and mountain goats. A series of high rock benches at the lake’s outlet allow an aerial view of the lake, its Mediterranean blue the result of glacial flour and mine runoff. Before the damming of Lake Sherburne submerged it, the mining town of Altyn sat where Cracker Flats, near the start of the trail, is today; mining at the head of Cracker Lake operated for many years after.
Direct sunlight highlights the tropical color of the lake, its depths unseen. For a lakeside view, continue past the established backcountry sites to the head of the lake, where low willow surrounds derelict mining equipment. As iridescent as the lake looks from above, its eerily impenetrable opacity really comes into focus at shore level. Save the swim for a different destination.
Bonus: Finish up your hike with the equally pleasing hue of the huckleberry smash cocktail at the historic Many Glacier Hotel.
Upper Holland Lake Loop, Swan Mountains, Flathead National Forest
The larch-fronted shore of popular Holland Lake in the Seeley-Swan Valley north of Missoula is the departure point for a classic, 13-mile backpacking loop high into the Swan Crest. The six-mile hike to Upper Holland Lake parallels the crooks and cascades of Holland Creek; backward glances reveal Holland Lake below and the snow-clad panorama of the Mission Mountains to the west.
Upper Holland Lake is a miniature version of its low-elevation kin, a wooded pool with a moose-friendly marsh at the inlet. But the star is Sapphire Lake, actually a pair of pretty infinity-pool tarns perched on stacked bedrock benches only a mile or so of climbing beyond Upper Holland Lake.
The lakes mirror the layer-cake pyramid of Little Carmine Peak directly across the Holland Creek drainage and, to the east, the endless bastions of the Bob Marshall Wilderness unfurl. A popular horse-packing portal into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Upper Holland Lake Loop can get crowded on summer weekends. Plan on departing the trailhead early to ensure a desirable tent spot. Finish up your trip with a meal at the log-cabin grandeur of Holland Lake Lodge.
When you go
- Glacier National Park: nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/hikingthetrails.htm
- Flathead National Forest: fs.usda.gov/flathead
- Many Glacier Hotel: glaciernationalparklodges.com/lodging/many-glacier-hotel
- Holland Lake Lodge: hollandlakelodge.com