Walking in a winter wonderland – Lava Lake, Montana

In early 2020 – before the pandemic bulldozed everyone’s travel plans – my mom went on a group hike to Lava Lake in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest. It’s a hike both of us had done before, but never in the winter. The moment I saw her photos of this snow-covered wonderland, I knew I had to see it for myself. It took a couple years to get around to it, but we finally managed to squeeze it in a few days after Christmas 2022.

Pat, my mom, and I arrived at the trailhead around 10:00am on a Friday to find an icy road to the parking area and zero cars. We slowly inched our way onto the road and quickly decided we didn’t want to risk it in our little sedan. I was pretty sure we’d make it down the hill but I wasn’t convinced we’d make it back up afterwards. Fortunately, there’s a larger parking area just across the river that was much less icy. The downside to this parking area is that the only way to get to the trailhead from here requires walking alongside the highway, wedged between a short cement barrier and the guardrail. They seriously need to build a bridge or a walking path or something here; this trail is super popular in the summer and having so many people walking along a narrow road right as it goes around a fairly sharp curve is really dangerous.

Making our way back to the car, wedged between the guard rail and the edge of the bridge
Gallatin River

But we made it and set off up the trail, which was fairly well packed down. It was snowing lightly and I felt a little like I was walking inside a beautiful forested snow globe.

We didn’t see any wildlife (except for a couple squirrels which, let’s be real, doesn’t count), but the freshly fallen snow was a canvas for hundreds of sets of animal tracks. There were many snowshoe hare footprints and tracks from other small animals as well, including the one below that we think is from a weasel or ermine. (Please also enjoy the photo of me stepping off the trail to take a picture of said tracks and immediately sinking in up to my hips. Thankfully, no one thought to snap a photo of me gracelessly clawing my way out of this position.)

It had been fifteen years since I last hiked this trail, and I’d forgotten just how much up there is. It’s pretty consistently uphill from the very beginning, though there are a couple parts that are steeper than the rest. One of the steepest parts is the final climb up the headwall. From here, it’s just a short and mostly flat walk back to the lake.

Going into this hike, I was hoping the clouds would lift enough to have a view of the mountains that frame the lake, but it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. It was still snowing – albeit lightly – and when we reached the lake it was as though we’d stepped into a wind tunnel. The snow was moving horizontally and the wind was frigid! Needless to say, we did not see the mountaintops and we did not spend much time at the lake. So that was kind of a bummer, but I guess it’s what you have to expect on winter hikes in the mountains.

First glimpse
Lava Lake
It was… a little chilly!

Annoyingly, within 30 mins of departing the lake, the snow stopped falling and the sky began to clear. By the time we were back to the car, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Clearly we should have started our hike about half an hour later. So that was frustrating.

But it was still a good hike and the snow-covered forest was lovely, and I’m glad I finally made it to Lava Lake in the winter!

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: Lava Lake Trailhead is located just off Highway 191 in Gallatin Canyon, 15.5 miles (25 km) south of Gallatin Gateway, MT. Signage is pretty good. There is limited parking at the trailhead; for additional parking, continue across the bridge (if traveling south) to the large lot on the right
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: round trip distance is about 6 miles (9.6 km) with 1600 feet (490 m) of elevation gain; moderate to strenuous, depending on your level of acclimation to elevation
  • Where to stay: there are various campgrounds and other lodging options in and around Bozeman, Big Sky, and throughout Gallatin Canyon, or you can backpack in and spend the night at Lava Lake (please obey posted signage about where to camp and the prohibition on campfires, and adhere to all Leave No Trace principles)
  • Other: this is an extremely popular hike in the summer, and lightly-traveled in the winter (we didn’t see too many people, but the trail was firmly packed down), so you likely won’t be alone on the trail. Nonetheless, this is bear country so appropriate precautions should be taken. I personally wouldn’t do this hike in the winter without good route-finding skills; in a couple places there were multiple sets of footprints that required us to figure out which way was correct

32 thoughts on “Walking in a winter wonderland – Lava Lake, Montana”

  1. This seems like quite a hike and adventure. Your landscape photos are beautiful with the snowy backdrop. Thank you for providing important travel information if someone wants to check out this area in the winter too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Once again your adventurous spirits shines through. A challenging hike but oh so rewarding. I’m impressed that you could identity a weasel track, but disappointed that nobody documented your attempts to remove yourself from the snow hole 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’d seen a weasel track previously and talked to a park ranger about it, so that’s the only reason we recognized it. I’m not very good at identifying animal tracks in general. I’m trying to get better, though.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I don’t know if I’d say best haha! Montana is beautiful year round but winters can be brutal. We were lucky to get a day with good enough weather to hike. If you’ve never been and want to visit, though, I’d recommend going in the summer.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A winter wonderland, indeed! I’m all for a nice hike, although one in the snow would be a challenge…it looked like a really cold hike for the three of you! Despite the low visibility (i.e. unable to see the mountains clearly), it was still a scenic hike with lots of dreamy white all over!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Possibly, although the starting elevation plus elevation gain might be a little too much. There is another hike close by that is less steep and honestly maybe even prettier that might be a better choice. I know my mom already has it on her list for you guys!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That access path from the parking lot is pretty sketchy alright. Looks like some deep snow and chilly temps. The wildlife likely stayed snug in their beds Diana. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  5. With a name like Lava Lake, I was not expecting to see so much snow! It’s crazy how deep the snow is off the path. That does seem a bit silly to have an overflow parking area without a proper path to the trailhead. It’s too bad about the timing of the weather, but it still looks like a beautiful spot to hike in the winter.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love these beautiful winter photos, Diana! Cold-weather hiking might seem like something only a crazy person would do – but with preparation, it’s actually so much fun. Hiking on winter trails can be magical. It’s quiet and serene, you can see for miles on a good day, and it’s a great exercise during the cold months. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree Aiva! The first few times we went we didn’t have the right gear and didn’t like it much, but now that we have warm and wind proof layers it’s really not so bad. And the lack of crowds is always worth it!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow, it seems beautiful! Too bad the weather was not on your side! It’s really frustrating when it starts getting sunny right when you go back in the car ahah! I can understand why you wanted to hike that path though, and I can’t imagine how beautiful it must be with clear skies and views of the mountain tops!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Stunning photos and a winter wonderland indeed! Looking at the conditions, I’m not surprised there were not many hikers out there – you guys are tough 😉! So, here’s my question: If you say this is bear country and “appropriate precautions should be taken” … what does that mean you should do?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well in the winter bears hibernate so nothing needs to be done. In the summer, the best advice is to hike in groups and make noise. If bears hear you coming they will usually get well out of the way. I also personally carry bear spray in case of a scary encounter, but I’ve thankfully never had to use it.

      Liked by 1 person

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