The lake sits at an elevation of 5,700 feet, and with its amazing natural scenery and recreation opportunities, this is an ideal getaway in Montana.
The lake and its surrounding mountains form part of the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest, and the mountains are one of the ‘island’ types of stand-alone ranges found in Montana, with peaks reaching as high as 8,600 feet.
The mountains are identifiable from their long and high ridges which offer vistas of the prairies.
The lake itself is a natural feature that is quite shallow at about 15 feet. The only feed into the body of water is the natural snowmelt from the surrounding mountains.
Also, the bottom of the lake is porous limestone which means water is lost through there as well which keeps the water levels low. By the time fall comes around the lake’s level is so low that the main body of water is far away from the shoreline.
Crystal Lake is an attraction point for camping, hiking, and fishing in and around an island of mountains surrounded by Montana prairie land.
The single designated campground is situated right along the lake and usually fills up with locals on weekends and holidays. If you turn up on weekdays you shouldn’t have any problem finding a nice camping spot though.
It’s not too difficult to get to Crystal Lake if you are coming from the direction of Lewistown along HWY 87.
- When you see the Forest Access sign for Crystal Lake Road you take a left onto the graveled road for about 5 miles until the Y intersection.
- Here you bear left and continue for less than 5 miles in the direction of the recreation area sign, at which you take another left.
- From here you have just less than 13 miles to get to the campground, staying on the same road which is paved on the last 5 miles or so as it leads into the campground.
- From a southern direction, you should follow the signs from HWY 191 heading east.
Crystal Lake Stats
- 46-acre lake
- 28-site campground (June-Sep)
- Open year-round
Main Attractions at Crystal Lake
The attractions here are recreational and focus on camping and the network of surrounding trails. The variety of trails all leads to attractions such as Grandview Point, the Ice Caves, Crystal Cascades, or a nice easy loop around the lake.
There are fishing streams and the lake offers trout fishing opportunities. You can spend your time seeking out birds, looking at wildflowers, or out on a trail in this area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest which provides many chances for natural exploration.
Things to do at Crystal Lake
Although the lake can be shallow at various times throughout the year there are plenty of opportunities for swimming, fishing, canoeing, and kayaking.
The various trails surrounding the lake are used for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, not to mention photo opportunities. The trails are also popular for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.
The Ice Caves Trail and the Crystal Cascades Trail take you to an ice cave and a scenic waterfall. The Crystal Lake Campground is open for individual and group camping, and this area is also where you’ll find a boat launch and the Grandview Day Use Area.
A boat launch is available for all non-motorized boats–Crystal Lake is closed to gas-powered motors—so you can expect plenty of tubes, rafts, canoes, or kayaks.
The lake is stocked annually by the FWP during the summer months with trout, which is just as well as many fish die in the winter when the shallows of the lake freeze over. The stocked fish are usually more than 10 inches in length and thrive in the fertile lake during the warmer months.
The lake can be fished with a current Montana State fishing license, and the fishing can be pretty fruitful.
Crystal Lake Campground is located along the shores of the lake. The 5,000-feet-plus Mount Harlow overshadows most of the 28 campsites, which are large and widely spaced.
The campground is very attractive due to the spacing and various hiking trails leading out from the area. Because of this and also because of the proximity of the lake this really is a great family campground.
A nightly fee of $10.00 is charged per site, and there is a limit of 10 people per site, with maximum stays capped at 16 days. It is worth noting that bears may frequent the area, so some precautions will be necessary.
The picturesque campground is operated by the Forest Service and all sites contain picnic tables and fire pits, as well as toilets and potable water.
Crystal Lake Cabin is another option if you don’t fancy camping. Up to 4 people can stay in this single-room cabin at a cost of around $60.00 per night.
Hiking Trails at Crystal Lake
Most of the hiking trails close to the vicinity are decent day hikes, and the good news is they are not open to motorized vehicles.
This is the trail leading up to the ridge at the top of the Big Snowy Mountains, and it also connects to the Crystal Cascades Trail Bypass. The Ice Caves Trail is slightly less than 5 miles long and climbs up to the permanent ice caves on the Snowy Crest.
This moderately difficult hike has some steep areas like the first 3-mile stretch which gains 2,200 feet in elevation until you intersect with Trail #490. Trail #490 is the route that follows a line of cairns and leads to the Ice Caves after a couple of miles.
Some hikers will continue on Trail #403 instead of coming back along #490, and they both end up at the lake.
This is an easy to moderate 3.5-mile trail that follows the drainage from the Crystal Cascades Trailhead and picks up 1,000 feet in elevation. Crystal Cascades is a highly scenic waterfall that flows out of a cave and cascades 100 feet down to the trail below
This route is found right at the northern end of the Crystal Lake Campground. The trail is less than 2 miles and starts out pretty much anywhere you like along the shore of the lake.
This trail is for hikers only and is an interpretive trail that virtually anyone can complete with ease. The route follows the shoreline of Crystal Lake and obviously provides access to opportunities for swimming, fishing, picnicking, and whatever else you fancy. Interpretive brochures are available from the campground host.
This 3.5-mile trail heads up from Crystal Lake to Grandview Point, with elevation gains of 1,000 feet. The route follows the ridge for another mile or so to West Peak on the Snowy Crest.
The trail has a steady climb with a mild grade, and there are a few switchbacks to take the heat off slightly.
About halfway to Grandview, a short trail leads off VJ Spring in an eastern direction, and there is also a spur trail leading up to the actual viewpoint at Grandview Point.
There are a couple of dead-end trails off Grand View that are quite short and may be of some interest. You can expect to find snow along the Ice Caves Trail and Grand View as late as the first part of July, depending on the severity of the winter.
This is a 1.25 trail that climbs just 400 feet from Crystal Lake up to the top of Promontory Peak. It is a short and relatively easy hike, with just a couple of fairly steep and narrow switchbacks near the top.
You’ll see evidence of a few wildfires that have occurred in the area in the past, and you’ll get some decent views from here of both the lake and the Snowy Crest.
The trail heading to the Big Snowy Mountains Crest via Crystal Lake is a difficult, out-and-back trail with moderate levels of traffic. The close to 20-mile route has 5,000-feet elevation gains and features a cave along the way.
It is really only suitable for experienced hikers and adventurers and is best used from June until September. You can also bring your dogs along this trail.