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Exploring Lake McDonald Valley

Sunset on Lake McDonald.
Sunset on Lake McDonald. Photo © Glacier National Park Service, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The forests surrounding Lake McDonald are Glacier National Park at its most Pacific. Western red cedar and western hemlock form the climax forest; Douglas fir, larch, pine, and spruce add diversity.

The oldest rocks on the west side of the park are around the head of Lake McDonald. These slatelike rocks were laid down under seawater. Up the Going-to-the-Sun Road, greenish mudstone of the Appekunny Formation developed in shallower water. Farther east and higher on the slopes, the rocks of the Grinnell Formation were originally mudflats. They turned red when exposure to the air oxidized their ferrous minerals.

Once the road begins climbing, it moves into the Empire Formation, grayish-green rocks deposited underwater, and then to the Helena (Siyeh) limestone, which comes into view near the Loop. The Helena Formation is dotted with stromatolites, cabbage-like fossil traces of blue-green algae.

Lake McDonald Valley has all the earmarks of glacial action; it’s long, straight, and U-shaped. The lake is 10 miles long, a mile wide, and more than 400 feet deep. Dozens of hiking trails take in everything from damp old-growth forests to alpine meadows.

Map of Going-to-the-Sun Road
Going-to-the-Sun Road


The Apgar Visitor Center (406/888-7800) has park rangers on duty 8 a.m.–7 p.m. (shorter hours during the spring and fall, weekends during the winter) to answer questions and suggest hikes; pick up backcountry permits at the nearby permit office (406/888-5819).

Sights in Lake McDonald Valley


Just inside the park entrance at West Glacier, Apgar Village greets visitors with an information center, gift shop, motels, a campground, cafés, and lovely Lake McDonald. The National Park Service purchased much of the town in 1930, but part of it is still privately owned.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

It took practically 20 years to build this road; when it opened for travel in 1933, it was an instant hit. The road, which starts its 52-mile run over the spine of the Rockies at Apgar, is a spectacular drive, even when clogged with traffic. Glacier may be a hiker’s park at heart, but for those without the capacity or the time for trail walking, the Going-to-the-Sun Road provides a good view of the park’s muscles and bones. The free park shuttle allows motorists to actually enjoy the views rather than concentrating on the road.

From Lake McDonald the road follows McDonald Creek to the east and slightly uphill. The grade increases after Logan Creek, and it becomes genuinely steep as it approaches the Loop, a big switchback that brings the road under the Garden Wall, which it follows to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. Approaching the pass from the west, it’s easy to follow the changes in vegetation and geology: The lush coniferous forests near Lake McDonald give way to shrubs and scattered pines, and distinctive green and red mudstone and buff-colored limestone replace the dark shalelike rocks near the lake.

Lake McDonald

In 1895 an early homesteader, George Snyder, built a small hotel by Lake McDonald, 15 years before the area became a national park. John Lewis, a Columbia Falls furrier, took over Snyder’s hotel, built the present lodge in 1914, and decorated it with hunting trophies (most of which still stare down from timbered beams and balconies). The artist Charlie Russell had a cabin nearby, and it has long been rumored that the pictographs around the lodge’s fireplace are his work.

One needn’t be a hotel guest to lounge in the Lake McDonald Lodge lobby or in the chairs overlooking the lake, and it’s a comfortable stop after a day of hiking.

Lake McDonald has long been the territory of tourist cruise boats (406/257-2426, 11 a.m., 1:30, 3:30, 5:30, and 7 p.m. daily mid-June–mid-Sept., $16 adults, $8 children). Tours are an hour long; the evening tour is especially popular, and sunsets can be phenomenal.

Evening programs by park naturalists are scheduled nightly at Lake McDonald Lodge, Apgar Campground, and Fish Creek Campground. These are usually quite interesting, and they’re free.

Recreation in Lake McDonald Valley


A forested trail starts at Fish Creek Campground and follows a ridge along the west bank of Lake McDonald, eventually looping around the muddy head of the lake and ending up at the lodge. It’s 6.7 miles from the campground to the lodge; a mile-long walk from the campground goes to Rocky Point, yielding good views of the lake and the mountains.

Hike from the Lake McDonald Lodge up to Sperry Chalet (6.2 miles one-way) or three steep miles farther to Lake Ellen Wilson or, on another spur, to Sperry Glacier. The trail continues on another 10 miles from Lake Ellen Wilson (which has a backcountry campground) over Gunsight Pass and returns to Going-to-the-Sun Road at the Jackson Glacier viewpoint, five miles east of Logan Pass. From this point, it’s another long day’s hike over Piegan Pass and down the other side of the Continental Divide to the Many Glacier Hotel.

From the same trailhead near the lodge, paths branch off to shallow Fish Lake (6 miles round-trip), the Mt. Brown Lookout (a steep, arduous 10-mile round-trip), and Snyder Lake (4.5 miles in to a campground beside an emerald lake nestled in the mountains).

One of the park’s easiest and most popular hikes takes in the western red cedar and hemlock forest near Avalanche Campground. The 0.7-mile-long, wheelchair-accessible Trail of the Cedars follows a boardwalk over the floor of the old-growth forest, past Avalanche Gorge, and returns via the campground. It’s a splendid trail, even with crowds; solitude seekers will like it even better in the winter, when cross-country skiers may share the trail with moose.

The trail to Avalanche Lake starts near Avalanche Campground and the Trail of the Cedars and follows Avalanche Creek two miles through forest to the lake. Waterfalls draining Sperry Glacier tumble over the 1,500-foot wall, which encloses a cirque, and pour the glacial water into Avalanche Lake.


Because of heavy traffic and slim shoulders, bicycle travel along Going-to-the-Sun Road is restricted during the busy summer months. From June 15 to Labor Day, bikes are prohibited on the road between Apgar and Sprague Creek Campground, and between Logan Creek and Logan Pass, 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Logan Creek, at the base of the Loop, is about 10 miles from Sprague Creek Campground and about 6 miles from Avalanche Campground. Between Apgar and Logan Creek the road stays in the McDonald Creek Valley, climbing some but not dramatically. Shortly after it crosses Logan Creek, the road really takes off uphill. Expect the ride between Logan Creek and Logan Pass to take three hours, and expect to feel more exhilarated than exhausted upon reaching the summit.

Cyclists who’d rather not dodge the cars on Going-to-the-Sun Road can bike the paved trail between Apgar and the park entrance. Also starting in Apgar, Camas Creek Road heads up toward the North Fork area, and it is paved for the first 12 miles.

Boating and Fishing

Rent boats at the Apgar dock. Canoes and rowboats are $15 per hour, motorboats are $25. There’s fishing tackle for rent at the boat dock, but the savvy angler won’t bother with the few planted cutthroat or the lake trout that migrated over to Lake McDonald from Flathead Lake.

Horseback Riding

Swan Mountain Outfitters (406/886-3900 or 877/888-5557) runs horseback rides in the park. Day rides leave from corrals at Apgar (406/888-5010) and Lake McDonald (across the road from the lodge, 406/888-5121), and range from a $60 two-hour amble to a $225 daylong ride to Sperry Chalet. Multiday pack trips are also available. Call for specific destinations and departure times.

Cross-Country Skiing

In the winter, Going-to-the-Sun Road is plowed to the head of Lake McDonald. From the parking area there, it’s possible to ski as far up the road as stamina permits. The skiing is technically easy, and there’s usually some wildlife around. Pull off the main drag and follow the Sacred Dancing Cascade hiking trail or ski up to the Trail of the Cedars.

For a longer trip (about 12 miles), ski up Camas Creek Road, take a right at McGee Meadow, and return on the Inside North Fork Road. A final detour through the Fish Creek Campground to Rocky Point adds a couple of miles and a good view of Lake McDonald.

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