Glacier National Park is home to some of the best hiking in the United States. The hike out to Avalanche Lake is considered one of the best in the park.
Not only is this one of the best hikes in the park, but it is also one of the most accessible.
The trail out is well covered, relatively flat and not too lengthy. This makes it a perfect hike even for those that aren't in peak physical form or families traveling with small children.
After completing my second trip out to Glacier National Park I've personally covered well over 60 miles (80 km) of hiking trails throughout the park and I'm happy to share what I've learned during those experiences.
In this guide we'll cover everything you should know before hiking out to Avalanche Lake during your visit to Glacier National Park!
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Where is Avalanche Lake located?
Glacier National Park is located in northern Montana, near the border with Canada. Avalanche Lake can be accessed via the West Glacier Entrance. The West Glacier entrance drops you off near Apgar Village and Lake McDonald.
If you aren't camping or staying at one of the lodging options located inside the park I'd recommend staying in the nearby town of Whitefish. In Whitefish you can enjoy many city amenities such as bars, restaurants and shopping.
The drive from Whitefish to the West Glacier entrance takes approximately 30 minutes. Once inside the park the drive to the Avalanche Lake trailhead will add another 30 or so minutes.
Be mindful that it can take over 90 minutes to drive one way across Going to the Sun Road. Plan your days carefully!
The Avalanche Lake trailhead is situated near the Lake McDonald Lodge. If you can secure lodging here it can make hiking in this area much easier.
However, most of the lodging inside the park will book up a full year in advance and is generally on the expensive side.
What to expect when hiking to Avalanche Lake?
After entering Glacier National Park via the West Glacier entrance you'll have a scenic 30 minute drive out to the trailhead.
Don't forget you'll need a Going to the Sun Road reservation to enter the park during peak season, which I'll discuss later in this post.
Much of the road hugs Lake McDonald which makes for a scenic and enjoyable ride out to the trailhead. There are a number of pull offs along the way so budget some extra time for taking in views of the massive lake.
Be mindful that cellular service inside the park is limited so be sure to download maps or anything else you'll need beforehand. Even GPS can be spotty at times.
The parking area for Avalanche Lake overlaps with Trail of the Cedars and you'll see signage posted for both once you've made it to the right place. The trailhead starting point is located alongside the main road so it's hard to miss.
The Avalanche Lake trailhead actually spurs off from Trail of the Cedars, which means you can knock out both of these popular hikes in one fell swoop!
The hike out to Avalanche Lake is relatively easy since the trail is mostly flat, wide, well maintained and shaded. The full length of this hike is about 6.0 miles (9.6 km) but you can shave a mile (1.6 km) off by not hiking out to the far end of the lake.
The best views of Avalanche Lake are at the near end so don't feel obligated to hike all the way out to the far end.
The mountain snow melt in this area feeds a large stream that hugs part of the path. You'll have opportunities to walk down to the stream which I highly recommend.
A splash from the icy cold stream is a great way to cool off on hot summer afternoons and the rocks near the water make for the perfect photo op!
While Avalanche Lake is slightly less remote than other trails in the park, it can still be a great place to run into wildlife.
Wildlife encounters can be the highlight of a visit to Glacier National Park, just be sure to keep your distance and to hike with bear spray.
If you're flying in from out of town you can typically rent bear spray at the Glacier International Airport near the baggage claim.
Sometimes trails in Glacier National Park can be closed due to bear activity. Be sure to check current trail conditions before heading out for the trailhead.
I'd recommend packing a lunch (snacks or beer also work) with you to enjoy once you reach Avalanche Lake itself.
The rocky beach is relatively spacious and offers out of this world views of the surrounding mountains. Bearhat Mountain sits to the east while Little Matterhorn resides to the south.
Don't forget to kick off your hiking boots, roll up your pant legs and wade out into the icy cold waters of Avalanche Lake.
It will be one of the most memorable activities you do during your visit!
What is the best time of year to hike Avalanche Lake?
The best time to visit Avalanche Lake is during the summer.
Avalanche Lake is situated at a lower elevation within the park so it's more accessible during the Spring and Autumn than some higher elevation areas of the park.
The shoulder season can be a nice time to visit this area of Glacier National Park when the crowds are less of an issue.
If you're traveling from further away you'll want to visit Glacier National Park during the summer when Going to the Sun Road is open and the higher elevation trails are clear of snow.
Going to the Sun Road is usually only open between mid July and late September. This means the summer season in Glacier National Park is extremely short.
To minimize the risk of road closure or icy trails I'd recommend visiting during early August.
August is usually when the higher elevations of Glacier National Park experience Spring, after the snow has finally melted away.
Can you swim in Avalanche Lake?
You can absolutely swim in Avalanche Lake! And you definitely should, since it's one of the most accessible alpine lakes in the park.
Once the trailhead reaches Avalanche Lake keep going past the first spur down to the water.
The view here is decent but if you keep going a few minutes further the trail will open up to a large rocky beach with plenty of room to spread out.
During our visit we rolled our pant legs, kicked off our boots and waded out into the water. This is a great way to refresh your feet after the hike out to the lake!
How long is the Avalanche Lake hike?
The out and back hike to Avalanche Lake spurs off from The Trail of the Cedars. The distance to the far end of the Lake from the trailhead is just under 6.0 miles (9.6 km).
If you're tighter on time or looking to save your legs, you can shave a mile off by only hiking to the near end of the lake.
Many consider the views here better so there isn't much value in hiking all the way out.
I would budget about two hours for actual hiking time to complete this hike. The trail is relatively flat so you can make a quicker pace if that's your preference.
Don't forget to budget plenty of additional time for enjoying the beach and water when you make it out to Avalanche Lake itself!
Are there bears around Avalanche Lake?
While Avalanche Lake doesn't have the highest concentration of bear activity in the park, you could certainly encounter one during your hike. For this reason it's always recommended that you carry bear spray with you when hiking in Glacier National Park.
It can be scary to encounter a bear in the wilderness (we had three separate bear encounters during our five night stay) but be mindful that bears are usually uninterested in humans.
If you're properly prepared you shouldn't have any issues either.
The National Park Service has a guide on bear safety which I would recommend reading before venturing out into Glacier National Park's vast wilderness.
Avalanche Lake is a great place to see wildlife
Glacier National Park is synonymous with wildlife encounters and the trek out to Avalanche Lake is no exception.
We encountered deer, marmots and rabbits during our hike out to the lake.
While Avalanche Lake isn't the most remote hike in the park its still possible to encounter bears and other large wildlife in this area.
Will I have cell phone service at Avalanche Lake?
Cellular service throughout Glacier National Park is difficult to come by. It's unlikely you'll have cellular service during your trek out to Avalanche Lake.
If you're an avid hiker I'd recommend purchasing AllTrails Pro which allows you to download offline maps. This is something I always utilize on longer hikes or when I know I won't have cellular service.
Not only does it ensure you stay on the right trail, but it's a great way to keep a history of your hiking activity!
Do I need a reservation for Avalanche Lake?
While you don't need a reservation for the trail itself, you'll need a reservation to access Going to the Sun Road during peak season.
The entry reservation system works a little bit different for each National Park. You'll want to check directly with the National Park Service to ensure your reservation aligns with their current procedures.
If you haven't used this feature before I'd recommend reading my guide on the time entry reservation system beforehand.
While you don't need a reservation to hike the trail, the campgrounds in this area require a permit and advanced registration.
Parking here can be a bit of a challenge so either arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to increase your odds of snagging a spot.
After all, this is one of the most popular trails in Glacier National Park!
Pets aren’t allowed at Avalanche Lake
While pets are permitted inside Glacier National Park, they're not allowed on any of the trails or backcountry. This means pets aren't welcome along the Avalanche Lake trail.
Your furry friend will mostly be confined to your vehicle, parking lots or other developed areas of the park.
Are there bathrooms at Avalanche Lake?
There are two opportunities to use a proper bathroom during your hike out to Avalanche Lake.
The best opportunity is at the restrooms located near the road and parking lots where the trailhead originates.
Your second opportunity will be at a pit toilet near Avalanche Lake itself. A pit toilet is a fancy word for an outdoor porta potty.
As a pro tip - if the pit toilet is locked from the outside it means there's no one inside. Be sure to lock up after you've used one of these facilities to ensure animals stay out!
What should I pack for Avalanche Lake?
Whenever you're hiking in Glacier National Park it's recommended that you have bear spray readily accessible. During my most recent visit we encountered two grizzly bears near hiking paths and a black bear near Many Glacier Hotel.
While sunscreen is always recommended, most of this trail enjoys ample tree cover so you won't be too exposed during your trek.
Per usual, be sure to pack plenty of water and salty snacks to keep your energy levels up.
We didn't have any issues with bugs when exploring this trail during late July but it's probably better to pack it and not need it!
If you're a novice hiker and looking to attempt some of Glacier's longer trails I'd recommend reading my post on day hike essentials. It's a comprehensive packing list that should cover everything you'd need for those hikes and more.
When is the best time of day to hike Avalanche Lake?
Like many other popular hikes in Glacier National Park I'd recommend arriving first thing in the morning to reduce parking headaches.
With that said, this trail has a moderate amount of parking available. And since Avalanche Lake and Trail of the Cedars are on the shorter side, this means the parked vehicles will cycle through at a reasonable rate.
Alternatively I would recommend arriving in the late afternoon when the park is slower to increase your chances of securing a spot without having to wait.
If you do arrive later in the afternoon be sure to leave yourself enough day light for the hike back to your vehicle. It might be smart to pack a flash light just in case!
Is the hike to Avalanche Lake dangerous?
The hike to Avalanche Lake is perfectly safe and suitable for small children. Just ensure they can handle the 5-6 miles (8-9.6 km) of hiking.
There are no technical portions, steep drops or anything of that nature to be concerned about.
Be mindful that some trails in Glacier National Park are less suitable for children who are inexperienced with heights.
Since the trail is well covered, sun exposure is less of a concern here than in other areas of the park.
As previously mentioned in this post, be sure to have bear spray with you when hiking in the wilderness at all times!
Looking for suggestions on what to pack for hiking?
Chances are if you're visiting Glacier National Park you'll be doing some hiking. If you're doing some hiking you'll want to have the right gear handy in order to have the best experience possible.
For your convenience I've put together an extremely thorough hiking checklist to make sure you don't overlook anything.
That guide is geared towards longer day hikes, so if you're doing something more casual you probably won't need everything on that list. But rest assured you won't overlook a thing!
Check Out Our Timed Entry Reservation Guide
There's one mistake you cannot afford to make when visiting US National Parks. Showing up without a timed entry reservation is a surefire way to blow up what should be an otherwise stress free day exploring some of Americas most beautiful destinations.
If the park you're visiting requires timed entry be sure to check out this guide.
Fortunately - we have put together a guide walking you through that process. We also provide useful tips on how to get the best time slots and what to do if you find yourself without a reservation.