Hiking The Lava Lake Trail in the Madison Range of Montana
Location: Lava Lake Trail aka Cascade Creek Trail
Trailhead: Lava Lake Trailhead in Gallatin Canyon
Type: Out and Back
Distance: 6 miles round trip
Time: 3 hours (2 hours up, 1 hour down)
Lava Lake Trailhead: 5525 ft
Lava Lake Elevation: 7115 ft
Vertical Gain: 1600 ft
USGS Maps: Garnet Mountain and Hidden Lakes
Lava Lake Trail is an out and back hike located in the Gallatin Canyon of SW Montana. The Lava Lake Trail, also known as Cascade Creek Trail, leads to Lava Lake – a beautiful mountain lake deep in the Spanish Peaks of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area.
Lava Lake a 47 acre lake that is nestled in the Cascade Creek valley. It is the only lake in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness that was not glacially carved. Instead it was formed by a landslide. Views of Jumbo Mountain at 10412′ and other 10000′ + unnamed peaks are plentiful.
Hiking the Lava Lake Trail is an excellent, family-friendly day hike from roughly May to October. Round trip, the hike covers just over six miles and 1600 vertical feet. It’s a moderate hike that consistently travels uphill on an easy to follow trail that sees steady traffic. It is possible to see large animals, so be bear aware and watch out for moose too.
The Lava Lake Trailhead is on the west side of the Gallatin River near the 35 MPH Bridge on 191. All access to the turnoff must approach from the north. When traveling from Bozeman, the turnoff is well marked. When heading north from Big Sky, it’s hard to access. The turnoff is immediately north of the 35 MPH bridge, but left turns are not allowed. Instead, the Lava Lake turnaround is about 1/2 north of the turnoff. It’s a similar program at the end of a hike – no right turns to head south are allowed and the Lava lake Turn Around must be used again. It’s kind of annoying, but safety first.
Once you make the Lava Lake turn off, there is limited parking near the trailhead – especially during rafting season. This can be an issue because Lava Lake is one of the most popular hikes in Gallatin Canyon. It is possible to park in the popular climbing parking lot of the Gallatin Riverside Trailhead on the east side of the river, but I wouldn’t cross the 35 MPH bridge on foot because it’s too dangerous.
After you park, feel free to use the USFS supplied toilets before you start hiking. The Lava Lake trail starts from the parking lot. It immediately begins to head uphill. You will quickly pass some USFS summer cabins and within 0.4 miles you’ll enter the Spanish Peaks of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. Only horses and hikers (and dogs) are allowed past the wilderness boundary.
From this point, the well traveled trail roughly parallels Cascade Creek. It consistently meanders uphill through towering lodgepole forests. The trees are nicely spaced. When combined with the peaceful rumbling of Cascade Creek, the forest walking is incredibly enjoyable.
There are a few seasonal stream crossings that require rock hopping to cross, but they are far from dangerous. Eventually the hike enters a marshy meadow, where moose are often spotted.
Shortly after the meadows a sturdy log bridge crosses Cascade Creek. The trail begins to switchback uphill in the final approach to the lake. Before you know it, you’ll see the turn off for Table Mountain. Pass a pile of rocks and there sits Lava Lake.
The rock strewn shore is a great place to grab a seat, go for a swim, or grab a bite to eat. There is also camping available at the lake, but campfires are forbidden. The crystal clear waters of Lava Lake are home to wild rainbow trout so be sure to bring your fishing pole if you have a MT fishing license.
For the adventurous folk, it’s easy to hike around the lake. It may require scrambling across some boulder fields, but the views from the south are outstanding. Plus, it’s nice to escape the crowds on a busy day.
Hang out at the lake for an hour, a day, or even a night. Follow the same trail back when you’re ready to head home. It’s all downhill from the Lava Lake to the trailhead.
Once you hike to Lava Lake, you can easily see why this hike is one of the most popular hikes in the Gallatin Canyon. It’s easy access, dog friendly, and the final destination is an absolutely stunning forest-lined lake. This is definitely a hike to do multiple times.
Here are some more photos from the Lava Lake Trail in Gallatin Canyon:
This trip report is from a hike on October 4, 2014.