Lava Lake, Gallatin Range, Montana
Lava Lake is a fantastic day hike climbing to a beautiful alpine lake in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness just outside of Big Sky, Montana. The trail is located in the Gallatin Canyon between Bozeman and Big Sky and is one of the most popular trails in the area as it's relatively easy to access pristine alpine terrain. The lake is almost exactly 3 miles from the trailhead but you have to gain 1,600 feet elevation in those three miles, making it a tough hike for those who are unprepared. It is mostly tree lined so snow packs will remain with ice on the switchback weeks into warm spring months. The Lava Lake trail head is very easy to find but it can be difficult to access. The trailhead is located on a very short access road 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 right at the Cascade Creek bridge. The bridge is right where the highway takes a nearly 90 degree turn and crosses the Gallatin River. During the winter months it's better to park your vehicle along the 191 and walk the distance to the trailhead due to potential ice and snow on the narrow access to the back parking next to the trailhead. Smaller cars can get stuck or slide into the river. So be smart. Pictured below are from two of my three hikes up to the lake. Six years ago I was able to run the six mile round trip in less than an hour. Today, I walk it and still can do it in under two hours. The switchbacks are long and can grind you but it's relatively short from the base of the switchbacks to the lake. It is a gradual uphill climb to that point. During snow melt you will need poles and at least waterproof boots with spikes. The switchbacks are like ice sheets and this time of year you may want to leave the kids behind. During the summer months I recommend taking a Monday or Tuesday off from work and doing it then. Less people but just enough to feel safe. This is serious black bear and grizzly territory so early and late season definitely go in groups and have deterrent.