Tucked into the west side of Glacier National Park you will find a mystical, and dare I say, a magical place that is a direct result of glacial carving and offers rainbow-colored rocks hidden beneath the glassy water, breathtaking views, and on the right night, a view of the northern lights.
To push this fairytale setting over the edge, you can even stay in a magnificent Swiss-style lodge during your visit to complete your storybook trip.
Lake McDonald, Montana is an 11-mile lake, shaped almost like a hot dog, and is often the centerpiece for people visiting Glacier National Park.
Before today’s striking 50-mile paved drivable path through the park, there was a bit of hardship to get to Lake McDonald, but people found it so beautiful, they didn’t let the inconveniences of navigating to the lake get in their way.
After the popularity was proven undeniable, congress stepped in and granted the park construction funding to erect the Transmountain Highway. The road took 12 years for engineers and construction workers to complete and was ultimately named, what we know today as Going-to-the-Sun Road. Even though it opened to the public in 1933, it wasn’t paved until 1952.
Well before the paved road, Lake McDonald was attracting fishermen from all areas to come to catch Bull trout, Mountain whitefish, Lake trout, Rainbow trout, and Sockeye salmon.
But, what does the lake have to offer beyond fishing? Let’s explore Lake McDonald in More Depth.
A Guide to Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park
Lake McDonald is a stunning lake located within Glacier National Park and is the largest lake in the Park. It is in Flathead county at 48°35′N 113°55′W.
How To Get To Lake McDonald?
Lake McDonald is one of the stops along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and following the road is the easiest way to get there. The lake is located around 15 minutes from West Glacier.
Additionally, you can catch a shuttle to Lake McDonald from any of the other stops along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, including Apgar Village, The Loop, Avalanche Creek, and the Logan Pass Visitor Center. Shuttles run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If you will be driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road yourself, keep in mind that a vehicle reservation of $2 is required to access the road between May and September, along with an entrance ticket to the park.
How Deep is Lake McDonald?
Lake McDonald is 472 feet (141.4 meters) deep, making it the deepest lake in the park. Anyone can swim in the lake but the water is exceptionally cold for much of the year.
How Big is Lake McDonald?
At 10 miles (16 km) long, Lake McDonald is the largest lake in Glacier National Park and covers a surface area of 6,823 acres with its elongated shape.
When is Lake McDonald Open?
Each year the opening of the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road changes based on the previous year and its snowfall.
You can examine past opening dates here, but can also make a safe guess that the park will open sometime between mid and late June and remains open until around sometime in September. To keep up with the current conditions, you can check the National Park Road Status page.
Additionally, Google maps clearly states on the map (actually on the road itself) that Go-to-the-Sun Road is “closed winters” in the direct vicinity of Lake McDonald.
Why Are The Rocks Rainbow-Colored in Lake McDonald?
Lake McDonald is the largest of over 700 lakes in the park, and perhaps the most colorful. Though many of the lakes boast a variety of colors, for a variety of reasons, Lake McDonald excels at offering a variety of colors in one lake, giving it an extra special perk of seemingly peering into a rainbow underwater.
According to author Vicky Spring, in her book Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park
“The color of the rocks is determined by the presence or absence of iron. The bright red rocks found along the Grinnel Glacier trail were deposited in a shallow ocean environment where the iron was oxidized by the tidal exposure to the air. Rocks with this coloration often have old ripple marks or ancient mud crack lines.
The rich green-colored rocks were formed in deeper water than the red rocks. Although these rocks contain the same quantities of iron-bearing minerals, they did not have the same exposure to oxygen and the amount of oxidization was limited.”
Can You See The Northern Lights On Lake McDonald?
If you are lucky, you can catch aurora borealis on just the right night on Lake McDonald. In the spring, at the foot of the lake, near Apgar, you will find people from far and wide gathered to experience this natural wonder.
Apgar Village Lodge & Cabins offers a great view, but you will have to book in advance to guarantee accommodations.
You will also find people gathered about an hour away at Northern Lights Saloon and Cafe because of their spectacular view and entertainment when the northern lights visit.
What Kind of Lodging is Available Near Lake McDonald?
There is a wide variety of lodging near Lake McDonald, but we’ve narrowed it down to four options: cabins, hotels, RV spots, and camping sites.
The most iconic, stand-out accommodation is the Lake McDonald Lodge. Built between 1913-1914 with Swiss-influenced architecture, this lodge is one of the larger, full-service places to relax on the lake.
Lake Mcdonald Lodge offers a wide range of accommodations including cottages, cabins, and newer suites with modern amenities like fireplaces for chilly evenings in front of the TV.
The other main accommodation options in the park include Apgar Village Lodge and Motel Lake McDonald. The village of Apgar attracts visitors for various reasons, especially the boat ramp at the head of the lake which is actually quite rare to find in Glacier National Park.
At least four decent campgrounds are located in the vicinity of Lake McDonald. The camping in the park is usually limited to the summer season for many visitors—but not all—and some sites are literally 20 paces from the shoreline of the lake on some of these sites.
Reservations for some of these backcountry campsites can be made in Apgar Village or online. This is an ideal spot to sleep out under the stars in the warmer months, and you’ll find a fire ring, tent sites, toilets, and various other amenities.
Apgar is the largest campground in the national park with 194 sites located near Apgar Village and accessible year-round.
The campground itself can be found amidst trees which give it an air of privacy, not to mention some shade if needed. Amenities include potable water, restroom facilities, flush toilets, sinks with running water, and showers can be found in Loop A.
Avalanche Lake is a first-come, first-served, 87-site campground suitable for both tents and RVs, although there is a restriction over 26 feet on more than half of them.
This campground is 15 miles from the park’s entrance on the western side and can be easily accessed from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Running water is available for all overnight campers.
This campground is even closer to the west entrance than Avalanche, and again can be easily accessed from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Sprague Creek is a popular, 25-site campground in a great spot with top views of the lake and running water, with shade.
The campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis, and no towed vehicles are allowed. Some sites at Sprague Creek have great views of Lake McDonald, and this location provides easy access to hiking trails.
Fish Creek Campground is less than four miles from the western entrance of the national park on Camas Road, and this is the second largest with 178 campsites. There is some access to running water, and this is a campground with reservations for standard sites. Campers can also access the showers in Loop A from here.
Evening ranger programs occur throughout the peak season at the Fish Creek Amphitheater, and this is another campground located in close proximity to an abundance of hiking trails, not to mention wildlife. Fish Creek does have a shorter operating season than other campgrounds, meaning no availability between the start of September and the end of May.
Things to do at Lake McDonald
It might be surprising to some to hear that Lake McDonald is not generally regarded as that great a fishing destination. It is possible to fish though, and there are still plenty ready to try their luck. But this is Montana, and locals who know the fishing here are unlikely to point you in the direction of this lake if you are looking for recommendations.
Certainly, the picturesque surroundings will make any fishing trip here that much better, but as it is the lake lacks sufficient nutrients to sustain anything close to a decent fish population. Some anglers fish from the shore with hook and line, and you’ll need a permit if you want to take a boat out. A few years back Lake McDonald was a prime place for catching huge bull trout.
But then lake trout and other non-native species were introduced into the lake which somehow managed to send the fishery into disarray. Certainly, some west slope cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, bull trout, and lake trout within the lake, and some of these can get quite large—but not enough to improve the reputation of the lake for serious anglers. So if you do come here–with reasonable expectations–at least you will find some space for some decent casting as well.
Hiking Trails at Lake McDonald
Lake McDonald Valley is one of the most popular hiking destinations of Glacier National Park, especially in the summer. Glacier Park’s hiking season generally runs from late May or early June to mid-September or October.
The Trail of the Cedars is among the most accessible in Glacier National Park. A one-mile loop trail starts and ends on the Going-To-The-Sun Road. One of the easiest day-hikes is also the 2-mile Avalanche Lake Trail, which features both the lake and a waterfall, and starts out at the Avalanche Picnic Area.
There are also a fair few bike trails around and about this territory, namely the 1.5-mile Apgar Bike Path, and the Fish Creek Bike Path, which sets off from nearby the Lower McDonald Creek Bridge on the Camas Road.
Lake McDonald Trail is a 15-mile out and back trail with moderate traffic. The trail features a river and is accessible by all skill levels. Despite its name, reports indicate that many hikers find this a somewhat boring trail that isn’t that much used these days, especially since there were fires in some regions.
So you won’t find this trail too busy if you are seeking some quiet between the months of April and October, but it’s not the most scenic or challenging of lake trails in the park either.
McDonald Creek Trail is a 5.5-mile and back trail located near Lake McDonald. It is an easy to moderate trail that would suit all skill levels and is best used from April until October. The trail has various opportunities for a number of other activity options and horses are also able to use this trail.
Trail of the Cedars is a short loop hike of less than a mile. It starts and finishes on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which means hiking in whichever direction you please. The trail features a raised boardwalk and it runs through an old-growth red cedar forest.
At the midway point, you’ll come to a footbridge over Avalanche Creek. There are some amazing views of the gorge and a waterfall from here and the route is easy and easily accessible, making it a popular choice for light walkers and everyday visitors to the park. The trail starts out about 5 miles to the northeast of Lake McDonald Lodge.
This just less than six-mile out and back trail near the lake is a typical moderately challenging route. You’ll probably need a good three hours or so to get around it completely. This is a popular hiking area so expect to encounter other people year-round, although the best times to visit are June through October. Note that no dogs are allowed on this trail though.
If you are looking for something a bit more on the challenging side then try the difficult-rated Granite Park Trail. This is an 8-mile out and back trail close to Lake McDonald, with moderate traffic.
The trail features some impressive-looking wildflowers and provides a gateway to various other activity options—if you have the energy. This trail is best approached from March until October and is a beautiful hike with a tough incline all the way up, which is definitely a challenge for most people.