Ice caves are a unique feature in Montana. There are interesting ice caves in numerous mountain ranges in Montana. The Big Snowy Mountains Wilderness area is home to the only trail that allows you to explore one of the largest ice caves in the United States.
Along the Ice Cave Loop Trail, you’ll enjoy experiencing Big Ice Cave, the Devil’s Chute, and Grandview Point. These spots in the Big Snowy Mountains are some of the most interesting and scenic in the state.
Where is the Ice Cave Loop?
The Ice Cave Loop is a loop trail that is near Lewistown Montana. The trail is a 12-mile loop that travels through portions of the Big Snowy Mountains in the central part of Montana.
The Ice Cave loop is located in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. The trailhead is located near Crystal Lake. The loop climbs to the summit of the Big Snow Mountains and then returns back to Crystal Lake.
Many people enjoy the loop trail because it provides a constantly changing scenery. However, for a shorter hike, the Ice Cave loop can be done as an out and back from Crystal Lake to the Ice Cave.
How Do You Get to the Ice Cave Loop Trailhead?
The Ice Cave loop starts near Crystal Lake. This small lake is located south of Lewiston, MT. The road to Crystal Lake is a fairly nice Forest Service road. The road is well maintained, and you do not need high clearance or 4WD to access Crystal Lake or the trailhead to the Ice Cave Loop.
Crystal Lake is approximately 50 minutes south of Lewiston. From Lewiston, you’ll travel west on Highway 87 to Crystal Lake Road. From this junction, you’ll travel approximately 24 miles on Crystal Lake Road.
Crystal Lake Road ends at Crystal Lake. Here you’ll find a campground and picnic area, as well as a decent amount of parking. The trailhead for the Ice Cave Loop is located near the campground.
The Ice Cave Loop Trail Route
The trail route for the Ice Cave Loop is fairly straightforward. The trailhead is located near the campground at Crystal Lake. There is plenty of parking in this area, but it is a busy trail, so it is recommended that you start early in the day if you want to avoid crowds and easy parking.
Many hikers in the area recommend that the Ice Cave Loop be traveled clockwise. The western half of the loop travels along some slippery, loose shale. It is easier to manage this loose footing when going uphill, than when you are trying to head downhill.
Traveling on the clockwise route, the trail travels up from the campground fairly steeply. There are minimal switchbacks along the trail which makes climbing to the top of this route challenging.
The Ice Cave is located about halfway around the loop. You’ll come to a small turn-off trail that will take you to the ice cave. When you are done exploring, you’ll travel the remainder of the loop downhill, returning to the Crystal Lake Campground.
The loop is a total of 12 miles in length and has 2.752 feet of elevation gain.
How Difficult Is the Ice Cave Loop Trail?
The Ice Cave Loop is a moderately difficult to difficult hike. Experienced hikers will find the steep uphill climbs with minimal switchbacks fun and challenging. However, less experienced hikers will find the hard uphill climbing to be a bit daunting.
Many hikers recommend that the loop be traveled clockwise from the campground. This is the steeper part of the trail and there are a lot of loose shales. This loose shale makes footing difficult and the trail more challenging, especially when traveling downhill.
Besides the steep climbs, this trail is very well maintained and easy to follow. It is likely that the difficulty rating of this trail is due to the loose shale in parts of the trail and the steep uphill climbs.
Is It Safe to Go in The Ice Cave?
As with many other ice caves in Montana, exploring the Ice Cave on the Ice Cave Loop is done at your own risk. In general, the Ice Cave is fairly safe. The structure of the cave is known to be quite stable, so you don’t have to worry about falling rocks or collapsing.
The real risk in exploring the Ice Cave is the ice. To access parts of the cave you’ll need to walk across sheets of ice. Even though the cave works well as a sort of freezer, the ice is still slippery.
There is a significant risk of slipping and falling when walking across the ice. Many visitors to the Ice Cave bring removable traction devices for their hiking shoes, for added stability on the ice.
If you are wanting to explore the Ice Cave, you’ll also want to bring a good flashlight or headlamp. The parts of the cave near the entrance are well lit, but the further into the cave you get the darker it becomes.
A flashlight or headlamp will keep you from becoming disoriented.
Final Thoughts on The Ice Cave Loop, Montana
The Ice Cave Loop is one of the most interesting hikes in the Big Snowy Mountains. This great, 12-mile loop takes you from a beautiful lake to the top of the Big Snowies.
The reward for traveling this steep uphill hike is the amazing Ice Cave. This cool spot is filled with ice year-round and is a great place to explore, especially during the summer heat.