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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715


Cowboy Heaven
Sweetgrass Hills
Lubec Ridge
Many Glacier
Gallatin Crest
Lava Lake
Beartrap Canyon
Emerald & Heather Lakes

Lava Lake

Easy day hike, or the start of an expedition

T.gif (911 bytes)he Spanish Peaks area south of Bozeman offers some tremendous hiking and backpacking opportunities, with rugged alpine scenery matching that of Glacier Park. Comprising the northern end of the spectacular Madison Range, the Spanish Peaks lie north of the Big Sky resort, and are part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, which means the trails are restricted to foot or horse use only so you won’t be sharing the trailBoundarySign.jpg (19009 bytes) with off-road vehicle users. With a host of lakes tucked into cirques below 10,000’ peaks, and an extensive network of trails, you could easily spent a month or two exploring. Unfortunately, I realize you probably don’t have that kind of time available, but luckily the Spanish Peaks also have trails very well suited to day hikes. By far the two most popular trailheads are the Spanish Creek trailhead on the north end of the Peaks and the Lava Lake (Cascade Creek) trailhead along the east side. These two trailheads are utilized by around seventy percent of the visitors to the area, so I wouldn’t count on solitude on summer weekends, but it’s certainly not like you’re going to have to take a number and wait your turn to hike, either. We’ll return to Spanish Creek another day, but first let’s take a hike up to Lava Lake, arguably the most popular day-hiking destination in the entire area.

The trail to Lava Lake follows a very obvious route without any potentially confusing intersections, so unlike the vast majority of other hikes detailed in this website, it is not absolutely essential to have a map. Having one adds to the enjoyment, though, and if nothing else is vastly entertaining to study at home or in camp. Perhaps the most useful map for the Spanish Peaks, amazingly enough, is the Spanish Peaks Wilderness map, available from the USFS Bozeman Ranger District office at 406-587-6920. If you wish to have more detailed maps, the standard for backcountry aficionados are the USGS 1:24000 topographical maps, available from http://mapping.usgs.gov/mac/findmaps.html. For the trail to Lava Lake you need the Hidden Lake quadrangle map, and if you wish to venture beyond the lake on the routes described subsequently, you will need the Garnet Mountain and Gallatin Peak maps.

To reach the trailhead, follow US 191 west and south out of Bozeman past Gallatin Gateway. Just over nine miles after the highway crosses the Gallatin River at the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon, it again crosses the river at an abrupt ninety-degree corner. A narrow gravel road departs the highway immediately before this bridge, and reaches a well-developed trailhead within a few hundred yards. After skirting above some summer cabins for the first third of a mile, the trail enters the Cascade CreekFootbridge.jpg (28868 bytes) canyon, which it follows to Lava Lake. Total distance to the lake is just less than three miles, with an elevation gain of 1600’. While not a stroll along the beach, this hike is very do-able for anyone in reasonable shape. The elevation is gained steadily and gradually, and a log bridge facilitates the only creek crossing of any consequence.

Views are somewhat limited for about the first half of the trip as the trail passes through a dense lodgepole forest, but open up as you get higher up into Cascade Creek. One other thing that could be viewed as good or bad, depending on your point of view, is that the trail is quite rocky. This is mostly a disadvantage for horse users, and the upside is that you won’t encounter the mud bogs common to some other area trails with softer footing. Also, since the trail is not especially popular with horseback riders, hikers won’t often have to step around horse droppings (road apples). As you start getting closer to the lake, the canyon bottom opens up with some meadows, a likely area to spot a moose. A little further and the trail switchbacks up the natural dam that backs up the lake, and you’re there!

The views improve dramatically at the lake, with 10,412’ Jumbo Mountain and several other un-named 10,000+’ peaks surrounding the upperLavaLake.jpg (19621 bytes) Cascade Creek valley. Should you wish to make your trip an overnighter there’s several good camping sites near the foot of the lake, and even day-hikers will want to spend some time savoring the rewards of their exertion. If you’re interested in fishing, it’s worth wetting a line in pursuit of the resident trout, which are mostly in about the 10" range. Some of the lakes in the Spanish Peaks are noted for bigger (sometimes much bigger!) fish, but they tend to be considerably harder to reach than Lava Lake.

Although the official Cascade Creek trail ends at the foot of the lake, a well-trodden path extends to its upper end. Beyond that, you’re on your own, though. It’s not too hard to bushwhack about a half mile beyond the lake, but after that the valley becomes much steeper and choked with deadfall, making hiking beyond the lake a dubiously worthwhile venture. Seldom-visited Jumbo Lake and Cascade Lakes lie near the head of the valley, though, and I guarantee adventurous hikers will leave any crowds behind once they venture much beyond Lava Lake. Clearly, reaching these far off-trail gems will require or at least beg for an overnight trip.

For those wishing a longer trip, just before Lava Lake a trail branches off and heads up the ridge to the east, gaining a grueling 2000’ vertical feet, mostly in the first mile, on its way to a high (9000+’) ridge. Once this ridge is attained, though, the going gets easier, and the views are tremendous. It eventually crosses Table Mountain and descends to Deer and Moon lakes after about eight miles. Then you can descend Deer Creek back down to the Gallatin River, from whence you will have to hitchhike back to your vehicle unless you’ve arranged a shuttle beforehand. In my experience, exhausted looking people carrying backpacks generally have very little trouble getting a ride in this recreation-oriented area, and so getting back to your vehicle shouldn’t present a big problem. Total distance between trailheads on the route described is about sixteen miles. Obviously, only fit and experienced backpackers should undertake these sort of trips.

Getting back on topic, though, nearly anyone can enjoy a day hike to Lava Lake. It is by far the most easily accessible lake in the Spanish Peaks, lying nearly 2000’ vertical feet lower than most of the others, and experienced or otherwise, I’m certain you’ll enjoy it.

See you on the trail….


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