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If you’re visiting Yellowstone National Park, there’s a special little side trip you can – and should – make. Go and see Quake Lake.
Only half an hour’s drive from the town of West Yellowstone, this place is both beautiful and awesome, in the most literal sense of the word. It will fill your heart with awe, as you witness first-hand the sheer scale of the geological forces that shape the face of our planet.
Why should you visit Quake Lake?
There are two excellent reasons to visit this small lake in Montana.
First, it’s beautiful. The scenery is stunning. This is wild Montana at its best: Forests, mountains, lakes and wildlife. Throw in some good sunny weather – not hard to do during July or August – and you have the perfect setting for a day out in beautiful Montana.
But this place offers much more than just a pretty view. At Quake Lake, you can literally see the how earthquakes – one of the most dramatic geological phenomena – change our world. The sheer magnitude of this force of nature is clearly visible here, where an earthquake literally moved a mountain and created a new lake only a few decades ago.
Visitors to Yellowstone get a glimpse into just how thin the crust of the earth is. The surface of the geothermal basins in the park huffs, puffs and bubbles away because of the heat of the magma so close under the soil. It makes you realize how insignificant human civilization is in comparison to the real forces of nature. Quake lake offers a similarly humbling experience, showing you just how devastating earthquakes can be.
So, what’s the story of Quake Lake?
Quake Lake – also known as Earthquake Lake – is fairly large. It’s hard to believe but this 6 miles long and 190 feet deep lake wasn’t here before August 1959. Up until then, this was just a peaceful valley, serene and calm, with the Madison river idly flowing through it.
On the night of August 17th, 1959, a major earthquake – measuring 7.5 in the richter scale – hit the area. The earthquake caused a massive landslide in the nearby mountains. An estimated 80 tons of earth covered the river and blocked its flow. The debris destroyed everything in its path and created a huge natural dam. Within a month, a new lake was formed. The earthquake moved the soil in astonishing speeds of more than 100 MpH (160 KpH) and buried underneath it 28 people who were camping by the river. The landslide was so sudden and violent that it generated winds strong enough to toss cars around!
What can you do and see while visiting Quake Lake?
Today, you can visit the area and see what the earthquake left behind. There’s quite a lot to take in.
The Visitors Center has several displays about tectonic plates and earthquakes, as well as the specific earthquake that created Quake Lake. They also have a seismograph where you can see for the movements of the earth as they’re being recorded. If you’re looking to really learn about the events of that night, this is the place for you. You can get an in-depth review of it all watching the movies and joining the guided-walks.
Outside, you can drive along Quake Lake and take in the views. We were really impressed with the area of the landslide itself. It’s amazing to see that more than 70 years later, the trees are still taking their time to cover that side of the mountain. They are getting there though. You can see how in some spots, they manage to take root in the exposed soil.
Our favorite part of the visit was hiking along the lake, on what used to be part of Route 287. On the night of the earthquake, three sections of the road literally dropped into the valley and became covered with the newly-formed lake. Parts of these sections are still clearly visible and we hiked one of them.
It was fascinating to watch nature take over the old patches of asphalt. You know how you sometimes wonder what would happen if humankind were to just disappear off the face of the earth? How long would it take nature to erase the signs of our civilization? Well, hiking that piece of road, we got a glimpse of what things would look circa 70 AH (After Humans!)
The road brought us closer to the lake, where it disappeared into the water.
We also loved seeing some local wildlife. Like this cormorant, perched on one of Quake Lake’s underwater trees. These trees are visible all along the lake, where so many of them were submerged on the night of the earthquake and the following weeks.
Or this bighorn sheep who seemed surprised to see us pull over into “his” spot by the road. We honestly hadn’t even noticed this guy until we were parked and one of the kids said it was really nice of us to stop so they could see the bighorn sheep.
Is Quake Lake a good place to visit with kids?
Our kids loved Quake Lake! Just like the adults, they enjoyed the combination of beautiful scenery combined with the drama of the story. They were 9 and 11 at the time of our visit and obviously, we didn’t stress the scary and tragic elements. Fortunately, the signs along the lake weren’t too morbid and emphasized interesting rescue stories.
So, no trauma registered with our boys, but parents, use your own judgement and expose your kids to what you think they can safely take in. If you happen to travel with older kids, they are very likely to think this place is just really cool. (It is!)
How to get to Quake Lake?
Quake Lake is in Montana, east of Yellowstone National Park. If you’re staying in West Yellowstone, then this is a short(ish) drive from town. Just head north out of town on US-191 and turn left approximately 8 miles later into US-287. This is the road that takes you along Hebgen Lake to Quake Lake. The Visitors Center is located on the eastern side of the lake, where the landslide took place.
So, how can you incorporate this unique place into your Yellowstone National Park itinerary? First, as much as we enjoyed our visit to Quake Lake, if you’re short on time, give it a miss. It’s interesting and beautiful, for sure, but pretty much anywhere loses out when competing against Yellowstone. However, if you have a week or so to spend in Yellowstone and you’re looking to spend a few hours away from the crowds, Quake Lake is a perfect choice.