Montana’s Saint Mary Lake is in Glacier National Park, over on the eastern side, and it is the second-largest body of water in the national park.
The 10-mile-long lake is visually stunning, surrounded by huge, steeply rising mountains on three of its sides, and rolling prairie and forested hillsides along its eastern shoreline.
The eastern side of the national park is much windier and colder than the western, and this is apparent at the lake which has strong winds on it for much of the time throughout the year, not to mention cold water.
In winter the lake freezes completely and serves as an attraction point for different activities.
Close to the east entrance of Glacier National Park and the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Saint Mary serves as one of the main bases from which to explore this side of the park as well as the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which is approximately 1.5 million acres in size and is home to about 8,000 Blackfeet.
Saint Mary Lake is one of the most popular in the park and has a variety of accommodation options including a campground along with various amenities like a grocery store, a gas station, and restaurants.
In winter visitors can access the Going-to-the-Sun Road for cross-country skiing from the St. Mary entrance.
Access is easy to Saint Mary Lake as well due to the fact that Going-to-the-Sun road stretches along its northern side, allowing good road access.
A number of hiking trails roughly follow the shoreline of the entire lake, and there are numerous other trails within the vicinity.
The lake is well-known for boating and water-skiing, not to mention fishing, and the surrounding mountain peaks contain cascading waterfalls along numerous hiking trails.
Getting to Saint Mary Lake by car basically means heading to the eastern entrance of Glacier National Park. One way to do this is to take either I-15 or HWY 89 (or HWY 2) to arrive from the south, then Highway 89 to Saint Mary from the east or west.
If you are heading in from the south from east or west on HWY 2, you can take HWY 464 north out of Browning, and turning south when this road intersects with HWY 89, you continue for 7 miles or so to Saint Mary.
Saint Mary Lake Stats
- Approximately 3,900-acres
- 2 campgrounds
- Open year-round
Things to do at Saint Mary Lake
Despite the fact that it is so cold around the region of the lake with its high elevation, the area is still home to much wildlife like mule deer, grizzly bears, black bears, and elk.
In the summer, the landscape is picturesquely-decorated with lupine and other wildflowers. Fishing on the lake requires a special permit.
There is a wide variety of fish in Saint Mary Lake including lake trout, rainbow trout, whitefish, cutthroat trout, and even a few bull trout, and there is no real fishing pressure here except for at the lake’s outlet right next to the campground.
That said, the lake is only open for mackinaw (lake trout) fishing, and as it lies entirely within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation a special use permit is necessary.
The outflow is like a stream or even a river in some parts, passing under the road and flowing past the campground before emptying into Lower Saint Mary Lake.
The cold water in the outflow is crystal clear and holds a decent number of fish, including plenty of lake trout.
The remoteness of the area, the near-constant winds, and the scarcity of boat launches are all factors that add to the fact that there is actually not that much use of boats at Saint Mary Lake–especially for fishing.
Thankfully shore fishing is possible due to the lake’s easy access, although some anglers more familiar with the area will tell you the best fishing will be found well away from shore!
If you decide on going the boat route it should be one with a strong motor in order to compete with the winds and waves on the lake. Whitecaps are common here so expect your boat to be able to handle waves 2 or 3 feet tall.
It’s probably best to forget about float tubes and such like at this lake.
Even most of the recreational boating on Saint Mary Lake is very light due again to the lake’s remoteness, high winds, and lack of decent spots from which to even launch a boat.
In fact, most of the recreational boat use on St. Mary Lake comes by way of the boat tours that run across the lake a couple of times a day during the summer months.
So if you plan on taking in the vast surface of the lake by boat it should likely be by motorboat, or aboard a guided cruise. The 1.5-hour Saint Mary Boat Tour departs from the Rising Sun Boat Dock, which is 6 miles from the national park’s east entrance on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The tour features scenery with waterfalls, rugged peaks, and various glaciers, not to mention the vast surface of the lake and its surroundings. Some departures also include guided hikes.
Two campgrounds are located on Saint Mary Lake. St. Mary Campground is located near the lake’s outlet, and Rising Sun Campground is located halfway along the lake on the Going to the Sun Road.
A boat ramp is located near the 84-site Rising Sun Campground, which has Red Eagle Mountain as a backdrop. Toilets, showers, and a waste disposal station are available here, although no reservations are taken.
For anyone looking to hike, the Otokomi Lake Trailhead is right next to the lake.
The Saint Mary Campground is located near the north shore and is the largest campground on the east side of the national park. It is a half-mile to the west of the St. Mary entrance and can be accessed from HWY 89 about 30 miles northwest of Browning.
The sites are also just a half-mile from the Saint Mary Visitor Center.
The St. Mary Campground is reservation-only during the peak season, and amenities include toilets, showers, and potable water.
A couple of miles down the road outside the park visitors can find a few other amenities and home comforts by way of the various restaurants, as well as camping and grocery supplies.
Shade is a bit on the sparse side at this campground, but the scenery comprising East Flattop and Red Eagle Mountains is impressive.
Hiking Trails at Saint Mary Lake
With several trails in the vicinity, including ones with backcountry access, you can access different types of challenges and terrain from 3-day long hikes to short yet rewarding ones.
The whole of the Saint Mary Lake area provides some of the best hiking to be found anywhere in Glacier National Park. There are short trails close to the edge of the lake leading to both Saint Mary Falls and Virginia Falls.
There are other trails leading along the western edges of the lake’s perimeter. Some of these trails can be on the steep side due to the lake’s 4,000-feet-plus elevation, which can be challenging.
Saint Mary Lake South Shore Trail
This route starts out from the Saint Mary Falls Trailhead and covers 7.2 miles. The trail features views of both the lake, and the falls and leads up to the overlook point on the lake’s south shore.
As the trail starts out from the parking area it descends into a former fire area with signs of the burning still in evidence.
Hikers on this trail need to take a right upon coming to a junction for the Piegan Pass Trail, and after around a mile or so the sounds of the water start to become apparent.
The falls itself have 3 separate tiers over more than 30 feet, and after them, the route descends down Virginia Creek towards Virginia Falls. The route passes a few unnamed falls as well along with various footbridges and thick layers of brush.
The trail comes to an end when it reaches the outcropped rock overlooking the lake at 3.6 miles, then it’s time to turn around and make your way back the way you came.
Saint Mary Lake Trail
This is a long-haul, 24-mile out-and-back trail rated as moderate. The trail is primarily used for hiking and backpacking and starts out at St Mary’s Lake Visitor Center.
Parking at the trailhead can be limited, so it’s a good idea to park at the St. Mary Visitor Center and take the shuttle to the trailhead.
The trail is mostly even terrain and sets off from an area with evidence of a fairly recent burn from the Reynolds Fire. After this initial scenario what is to come along the trail can be positively breath-taking scenery-wise.
The trail opens out and then drops to intersect the Piegan Pass Trail and continues in the direction of the St. Mary River.
You’ll see some great views of Virginia Falls as you follow the river to the bridge that goes over it. As you cross the river you find yourself right in front of the waterfall.
The trail meets Virginia Creek and leads by the Virginia Falls Viewpoint Trail before winding along the base of the mountains, following the northeast flank of Red Eagle Mountain and eventually connecting to the Red Eagle Trail.
Otokomi Lake Trail
Otokomi Lake is a 10-mile, out-and-back trail rated as difficult. The route features a waterfall and is rated as difficult. The trail is primarily used for hiking and backpacking, it is not super-heavy in traffic.
The elevation gains gradually with just a couple of steep but short sections and there are even waterfalls on the way up. The trail doesn’t necessarily have the most dramatic views, but it does have variety.
If you do this in winter brace yourself for the cold that hits you on the last stretch up to the lake.