Quake Lake is located in Southwest Montana, about 30 miles northwest of West Yellowstone. It is mostly within the Gallatin National Forest on US Highway 287, which follows the lake.
You will be able to see some of the remaining effects of the massive earthquake and landslide that hit the area and caused the formation of the lake as you drive towards it along this road.
The 1959 quake at Hebgen Lake, on the Madison River near Ennis, turned out to be Montana’s largest ever recorded earthquake, and it was devastating enough to cause more than 28 deaths.
Quake Lake is just 24 miles from the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, and many find it an ideal spot for some relaxation under the firs and aspens out-of-reach of the Yellowstone National Park crowds.
As you drive from Ennis to West Yellowstone, the after-effects of the quake are most obvious.
The earthquake that formed the lake measured 7.3 on the Richter scale and created something like an 80-million ton landslide that would have traveled down the side of the mountain at speeds not much less than 100 miles per hour.
If you are interested in finding out more details about the events of the past earthquake and the seismic activity of the region, drop by the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center. The facility was constructed in 1967 and is operated by the National Forest Service.
After the earthquake and with most of the newly-formed lake lying within the Gallatin National Forest, almost 40,000 acres were designated by the US Forest Service as the Madison River Canyon Earthquake Area Reserve.
Along with the Visitors’ Center, interpretives were installed to explain what had occurred and the natural forces behind it.
Highway 287 was rebuilt above the high water line, and a boat ramp was created where the old pavement ran down to the water. New camping areas were developed along the northern shoreline, along with a network of trails through the area leading to other activities or points of interest.
Quake Lake itself is only five miles long and one-third of a mile wide.
Depth-wise the lake is somewhere between 120 and 190 feet, and the dead, bleached trees which were at one point growing from the mountainside still protrude from the surface of the lake.
Nevertheless, it is a popular spot for a family vacation, with canoeing, hiking, biking, and horseback riding nearby.
It is also a popular place for anglers to target the healthy populations of trout, with many of them casting to cruising trout among the skeletons of fir and pine trees above the submerged highway bed.
Quake Lake Stats
- 38,000-acre lake
- 2 campgrounds ( 79 sites in total)
- Open year-round
Main Attractions at Quake Lake
Quake Lake mainly attracts visitors for the challenging yet decent rainbow and brown trout fishing, a spot of boating and canoeing, maybe some water and jet skiing, wakeboarding, and the Quake Lake Visitors Center.
As with most places in this part of the state of Montana, you also get plenty of natural, scenic, and calm beauty.
Earthquake Lake Visitor Center
In 1967, the Forest Service’s Earthquake Lake Visitor Center opened its doors for the first season of operation. These days the center currently provides interpretive services for more than 50,000 visitors every year.
Aside from the natural attractions, the easily-seen effects of the strongest earthquake in the Rocky Mountains have helped to make this area an outstanding scenic and geological study area in the western region.
You can find the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center 27 miles northwest of West Yellowstone along Highway 287, and you’ll notice immediately how the facility provides panoramic views of the terrain across which a mountain fell and a lake was formed.
You can check out interpretive displays on earthquakes, plate tectonics, and a working seismograph, and in the center’s observatory, scheduled movies and talks explain more angles on the story of the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake.
The center also contains a bookstore and restrooms, and outside you’ll find more interpretive signs along with a walking path leading to the Memorial Boulder. T
he Earthquake Lake Visitor Center is open daily from June through mid-September, with normal hours of operation between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Things to do at Quake Lake
This is not the best boating lake in the world in terms of there being lots of hidden obstructions. In fact, Quake Lake poses some serious challenges for boaters.
Winds can occasionally be problematic and combined with a current some boaters need to pay attention.
Boaters will find three marinas, and rentals are available at some locations, as are guided tours. For motorboats, one issue to be on the lookout for is the abundance of submerged, standing timber that can be the end of a propeller.
Inflatable boats that are easy to paddle like inflatable flatwater kayaks and pontoon boats are decent enough provided the winds aren’t too strong, and there is something about paddling through the somewhat unique cemetery of trees in the lake’s waters.
There is a boat ramp about halfway down the lake from the highway from which to launch either a motorboat or a canoe. Kayaks are reasonably popular on Quake Lake, usually in the mornings before the wind has any chance of picking up.
Quake Lake, although it is often overlooked, can be an excellent fishery consistent with Hebgen Lake.
The lake is highly weather-dependent, but the best time to fish this lake is from late spring to early summer, although later in the summer and into the fall can also bring some great fishing.
It can be an ideal getaway for anglers seeking a little solitude as it is hardly ever likely to be crowded. The fish can easily find cover due to the huge numbers of submerged trees, thus the lake offers more than a few decent fly-fishing opportunities.
The lake is annually stocked which makes it even easier to catch brown trout, and there are some good-sized rainbow trout averaging between 17-19 inches.
Many fish from boats while others find spots along the shores of the lake. The shoreline is accessible from Highway 287 as is the boat ramp, but note that HWY 287 is busy during the summer so you can expect a fair amount of road noise if you are in that area.
Shore fishing is accessible virtually anywhere along HWY 287, and you’ll find there are numerous access points and pull-offs along the road.
Float tube fishing is not recommended due to the many timbers just below the surface and on top of that the occasional high winds.
That said, those timbers do tend to create places for the fish to populate, which is when dry fly fishing is called for, even though considered challenging if not frustrating by some fishermen.
The lake is a picturesque setting ideal for pitching a tent for a few days. And as luck would have it there are two decent camping areas located at Quake Lake by way of the Beaver Lake and Cabin Creek campgrounds.
Beaver Creek Campground contains 64 campsites on three loops, and individual campsites have fire grates and picnic tables. Amenities include toilets, drinking water, RV dump, trash collection, and shore fishing is permitted from the bank.
Upstream is the Cabin Creek Campground with 15 campsites, with its access to numerous trails. This area is rife with wildlife, and one of the trails–Cabin Creek Trail–starts from here and is popular with both hikers and anyone horseback riding.
The area is home to such wildlife species as birds like eagles and osprey, as well as moose, deer, beaver, and mountain goats, to name just a small selection.
This is also bear country, so precautions are recommended.
Hiking Trails at Quake Lake
There are numerous excellent trails within the vicinity of Quake Lake depending on distance, the level of challenge you are used to, and the exact location. Here are a few examples of some of the trails you are likely to find in the vicinity of the lake.
Refuge Point Loop Trail
This 2.5-mile hike has views from above the upper point of Earthquake Lake and a few from a wildlife viewing spot across Beaver Creek.
This is a moderate hike within the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, which always promises a scenic trail, complete with abundant wildflowers in spring and summer, and roamed by wildlife like bighorn sheep, antelope, bison, and moose.
Coffin Lakes Trail
If you are looking for something more on the longer hike side then you might consider the 11.3-mile Coffin Lakes Trail, which is again in Custer-Gallatin National Forest.
This is a moderate, out-and-back trail and features creeks, waterfalls, and a lake. This is also typical of the kind of hike you might find around Yellowstone where it’s important to be on the lookout for any potential encounters with free-roaming wildlife.
The hike again features views from above the upper point of Earthquake Lake, where people took refuge from rising water caused by a massive rockslide that dammed the river. And you can bet you’ll get some agreeable views across Beaver Creek.
Beaver Creek Trailhead
The Beaver Creek Trailhead out of the campground with the same name serves as a jumping-off point for a few backcountry trail options.
Including the West Fork of Beaver Creek (Trail #222), which takes you up Avalanche Lake about a half-mile from the end of the road. There are three additional trails including Sentinel Creek (Trail #202), Beaver Creek Trail connecting to Lightning Creek (Trail #200), and the Red Cub Trail (#205) which is actually a Motorcycle Trail.