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Avalanche Lake Hike on New Year’s Day 2024
With a low snowpack to the start of our winter, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hike up to Avalanche Lake on the first day of 2024. We ended up with the gorgeous lake all to ourselves. With nobody else around, most all of the animals not making a peep, and snow to absorb any other stray sounds, it felt like we’d entered into an enormous, stunning room.
The plan was a little loose as we took off from our house. We knew we wanted to get out of the inversion layer of fog that frequently settles into the Flathead Valley and connected drainages. We were hoping for some blue sky, but we’d settle for fresh air and a long day of moving our bodies.
We packed our snow boots for walking and our cross-country skis just in case there was enough snow on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. After we pulled up, we (regrettably) decided to walk the road instead of ski which would have significantly reduced the time and effort for the day.
The air was hovering around freezing as we went through the gate blocking passage for vehicles. A couple of inches of snow lay on the trees and the road as we shuffled along. A Pileated Woodpecker called out, landed on a tree, moved to another tree, then another, and disappeared into the dark canopy. A herd of mostly male Whitetail Deer grazed just off the road. One was missing an antler and probably had a story to tell if we had time.
There were three sets of boot prints and a ski track in the fresh snow, so we knew that we wouldn’t be dealing with any winter “crowds”. It didn’t take long to get past the head of the lake and come alongside McDonald Creek chattering below. The powerful McDonald Falls came into view running much bigger than we expected with an entrancing icy blue hue below the white waves crashing over the rocks.
Beyond that, Sacred Dancing Cascade was our next detour as we went down to the footbridge, flushing an American Dipper along the way. After a brief moment with the water, we went back up the road and continued along. More sections of open views of McDonald Creek, then halls of trees, and wonderful looks into the cathedral cedar and hemlock forest with straight trees and tall canopies.
After a long-ish six miles, we arrived at Avalanche Creek. Along the way, we passed the three hikers and one skier, so we knew that we had the place to ourselves. We figured that Avalanche Gorge would be a good spot for lunch, so we walked the Trail of the Cedars to where Avalanche Creek pops out of the rocks to a deep, green pool. It’s always a delight to come to the same place at different times of the year to see the different personalities of a familiar landscape.
We opened up our thermoses and ate our warm-ish soup and debated on continuing. It had taken us 2 1/2 hours and we figured about two hours to go up to Avalanche Lake with the snow and taking photos. That, plus 2 1/2 hours back and we’d be arriving at about 5:30pm which is getting dark. Pulled by adventure and the sun starting to peek out, however, we worked our way up towards the lake.
The snow depth increased a little as we got further up in the mountains, chasing Avalanche Creek to the lake. When Mt. Cannon then Bearhat Mountain came into view, they dazzled with the sun glimmering off the snowy slopes. We surmised that it must have not been very windy yet as most of the trees and shrubs still had their snow clinging to them, although the warming temperatures were beginning to melt the snow which occasionally found our heads and shoulders as it dropped to the forest floor.
The trail leveled out and the snow was at least 6 inches as we approached the lake. 45 minutes after we left the gorge, we arrived at the classic view of the amphitheater that is Avalanche Lake, only covered in snow and the waterfalls all turned to blue ice. The sun tried to blast through clouds clinging to Little Matterhorn creating a majestic glow around the pyramid-shaped peak. When coming up to Avalanche Lake in the summer, the waterfalls are echoing all around, birds are singing, and people are talking. In winter, the water has stopped, the animals in the afternoon have stopped making noise, the snow absorbs sound like a recording studio, and it was just us. What a delightful experience.
Our time was short, however, as the sun has a job to do and it wasn’t going to wait for us. We took it all in one last time and headed back down the trail. As we passed the gorge, another couple was just arriving. We left the place to them and started the 6 mile slog back to our car… wishing we had skis.