youve been reading our hiking articles, you may have noticed a recurrent theme; a
lot of them feature places where you can drive to relatively high elevation, and start
hiking from there. If you live at sea level, all of Montana might seem noticeably high, so
perhaps a few definitions are in order as to just what elevations were talking
about. None of Montanas mountains can be considered particularly high elevation;
Granite Peak at a little over 12,700 is the states high point. Generally,
though, if youre up around 10,000 there wont be much around thats
higher than you. If you can drive to six or seven thousand feet, consider yourself lucky,
although some roads will get you to eight thousand or so, and the Beartooth Highway goes
clear to ten thousand. If you start hiking at four or five thousand feet elevation, and
getting up amongst the peaks is your goal, youre in for some pretty serious
exertion. I do a lot of hiking, and find that three thousand vertical feet is about as
much as I care to do in a day. Although I have climbed considerably more than that in a
single outing, three thousand vertical feet is further than it might sound and will
provide enough exercise to tire out the vast bulk of folks.
So, heres another one
of those delightful hikes that take you to a couple of lakes nestled high in an alpine
basin, and only require about two thousand feet of elevation gain.
Emerald and Heather Lakes lie at the head of the East Fork Hyalite
drainage, in the Gallatin Range south of Bozeman. The Hyalite area is a tremendously
popular recreational destination, a favorite amongst campers, boaters, fishermen,
climbers, and hikers. Its relatively close to Bozeman, and most of the road into it
is paved, no small consideration if like me youve abused your vehicles on untold
thousands of miles of molar-rattling washboard gravel. With such a collection of
recreational amenities within easy access of a university town, youre not going to
find a lot of solitude, at least in proximity to the trailheads. But, the upside of that
is that youll likely see a lot of interesting people along the trail. I dont
usually view hiking as a particularly social activity, although in this case it certainly
To reach the Hyalite area, go south out of Bozeman on South 19th Avenue.
After reaching the foothills of the Gallatin Range it makes a sweeping turn toward the
west, and about a half mile past that corner youll see the signs for the Hyalite
Road. Turn south and proceed up Hyalite Canyon; the drive is an
enjoyable thing in itself. Continue past Langohr Campground, and in another few miles
youll reach the dam that backs up Hyalite Reservoir. Cross the dam and turn onto the
gravel road that leads along the east side of the Reservoir. A short way past the head of
the lake the road crosses the East Fork of Hyalite Creek, and immediately thereafter the
road forks. Take the left fork, and youve got about two increasingly rough miles to
go to reach the trailhead to Emerald and Heather Lakes. Halfway to the trailhead
youll pass the parking area for Palisade Falls, which is also worth taking the time
to check out. A paved, handicapped-accessible trail switchbacks a short way to the base of
beautiful Palisade Falls.
To digress slightly, the Hyalite area abounds in waterfalls, although most of them
require a greater hike to reach than does Palisade. These waterfalls make the Hyalite area
a popular destination for ice climbing in the later winter months. For what its
worth, many of the modern techniques of ice climbing were developed in this area by a
group of exceptionally hard-core Montana climbers during the seventies and eighties. Some
of this group later went on to fame, most notably Alex Lowe, who tragically perished in a
Himalayan avalanche during the winter of 2000. Regardless of whether climbing dubiously
solid frozen waterfalls is something that holds attraction for you, I recommend the book
"Big Sky Ice", by Ron Brunckhorst. Besides detailing the bulk of the ice
climbing possibilities in Montana, the book is very entertaining to read as it relates
many of the exploits and antics of this pioneering group of climbers. They were/are about
as wild of a bunch as youd be likely to encounter anywhere, and if you think
youve undertaken some hard-core ventures, theyre likely to pale in comparison.
Getting back to warmer and less dangerous pursuits, though, a few dozen bumps and
potholes past the Palisade Falls turnout youll reach the end of the road. Just
before the end of the road, youll notice a creek coming in from the south, draining
a high basin above nestled under the towering cliffs of The Mummy, 9563, and
Flanders Mountain, 9961. Perhaps you may wish to file that basin away for later
off-trail exploration, as I have. If nothing else, look up there and envision skiing and
climbing your way into that basin and then climbing a frozen waterfall tenuously attached
to those cliffs. And thats after youve skied in from some point where deep
snow blocks the road, well back down the canyon below the Reservoir. Now, hiking up to
Emerald and Heather Lakes will seem like a veritable stroll in the park.
The trailhead lies at 7120. Emerald Lake is just under five miles away, at
9000, and Heather Lake about a half mile further at 9200; both cradled in a gorgeous
alpine basin between Mount Chisholm and Overlook Mountain. The trail up the East Fork
Hyalite drainage climbs gently and steadily, and Id say this hike is suitable for
anyone in reasonable physical condition. Its also popular with mountain bikers,
something you may want to consider if thats your thing.
The trail ascends through the timber until you start to enter the cirque at the head of
the valley, at about the 8400 level, at which point the views open up. If its
a hot day, youll be glad for the shade. Speaking of heat, a couple of times we have
gone up to Emerald and Heather Lakes on days when it was sweltering hot down in the
Gallatin Valley, and up at the lakes it was refreshingly cool, probably twenty degrees
cooler than in the lowlands. If thats not enough to cool you off, a dip in the lake
certainly will, and is guaranteed to be of short duration.
If you wish to make the trip an overnighter, there are plenty of good campsites surrounding both lakes. You
may want to bring a fishing rod. Both lakes contain trout, and Heather also has grayling.
Like most alpine lakes, the fishing tends to be hot or cold, more likely to be hot in
early morning or late evening. In our experience, an ultralight spinning outfit with small
Panther Martin or similar lure produces the best results.
Speaking of fishing, though, rumors of big fish have figured prominently in my
explorations in the area, although not in Emerald or Heather Lakes. My neighbor tells
stories of crossing the divide above the lakes and fishing Fridley Lakes on the
Yellowstone side during the early sixties and catching a few really big fish, up to seven
and a half pounds. During the summer of 2000, it was a goal of mine to get up to that
divide, and see what was involved with crossing over to Fridley Lakes, as there is no
public access from the Yellowstone side. On the topo map, the 1:24000 Fridley Peak
Quadrangle, which you will probably want to get a copy of, the headwall above Heather Lake
doesnt look too bad, but maps often dont show everything, and in person
its a near-vertical
headwall. If you plan on getting over it youd better have ropes, protection, and
technical rock climbing experience. It is possible to scramble up through the cliffs just
to the west of the summit of 10,265 Overlook Mountain, though, which will reward you with
tremendous views of the northern Gallatin Range. Fridley Lakes lie about 800 vertical feet
below. I still havent fished them, our trips to Emerald and Heather Lakes have been
day trips, but I imagine an overnighter to Fridley Lakes is in order. The descent to them
doesnt look bad at all; the only tricky part is getting through the cliffs on the
Heather Lake side of Overlook Mountain. As mentioned, look for the breaks in the cliffs
just to the west of the summit and you will only need to use your hands in a few spots.
Id call it Class IV climbing. A fall near the top would be distinctly unhealthy, but
if you choose your foot and handholds carefully it isnt hard to overcome. Regardless
of whether you continue down to Fridley Lakes, climbing Overlook Mountain is a most
worthwhile addition to a hike to Emerald and Heather Lakes.
So, there, you have it; a pair of beautiful alpine lakes, reachable by anyone in
reasonable condition. Doing it as a day hike will provide a good workout, although
certainly not excessive. You have the option to extend the trip as much as you desire.
Make it an overnighter, do some fishing and/or climb Overlook Mountain, and continue to
Fridley Lakes. Another very interesting possibility would be to continue south along the
ridge from the summit of Overlook Mountain, past two more 10,000+ summits, and then
descending into the cirque containing Hyalite Lake in the main Hyalite Creek drainage. Be
aware this would require some route-finding ability in getting down off the ridge into the
Hyalite Lake cirque. You will want to either descent somewhere directly east of Hyalite
Lake, or else stay on the ridgetop clear around the south end of the cirque, until you
reach Hyalite Peak and the Gallatin Crest trail. From there you can follow the trail back
down Hyalite Creek. This trip would necessitate arranging a vehicle shuttle to the Hyalite
Creek trailhead, although particularly on a weekend you shouldnt have trouble
hitchhiking back to the East Fork Hyalite trailhead. Whatever degree of expedition you
choose to make a trip to Emerald and Heather Lakes, youll be surrounded by
beautiful, wild country, and what more can you ask?
See you along the trail.