Montana, Day 3: Lava Lake

Distance: 5.7 Miles
Elevation Gained: 1,600′
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Time: 3:05
Critters: One brown bear

– Lava Lake is stunning
– The trail follows a busy creek the entire way

– Bear gave us the heebies


Lava Lake was high on my to-do list for hiking in Montana. The lake itself closely resembles the classic glacier lake; it sits in a long, u-shaped glacier valley at a relatively high altitude, and it is surrounded by lofty peaks and sub-alpine forest. However, Lava Lake is not a glacial lake. The lake was created by a landslide that dammed Cascade Creek, causing the valley to fill up. Whatever the cause of the lake, however, it remains stunningly beautiful.

Kelly and I got to the trail fairly early in the morning. We don’t hike much before 8 am in Montana, as opposed to my customary desire to get on the trail by 6 am. There are too many dangerous animals (moose, grizzlies, black bears) wandering about, and it’s better to let them have the mornings to stuff their bellies. Despite such precaution, we pulled up to the trail head only to see a group of three anxiously packing their gear back into their car. Apparently, there was a bear about a quarter mile up the trail.

This was not music to Kelly’s ears. The specter of bear looms large in the minds of many hikers. There are too many stories floating around about a hiker coming upon a mama grizzly and her cubs and then subsequently suffering a horrifying death. For many people who do not hike often, the wilderness is full of bears, mountain lions, and other dangerous animals that will jump out of the shadows and eat more than just that PB sandwich you brought.

I understand this fear, even though I don’t share. I’ve seen a lot of bears on the trail, and the only thing they ever seem interested in is sifting through the ground litter for bugs. That isn’t to say that I don’t recognize how dangerous these creatures can be. I give them the respect they are due and keep a very healthy distance. In Montana, I even carried bear spray and a bear bell, in spite of the enormous racket they create.

And well one should, since there is no sense taking chances. In that spirit, I offered Kelly the opportunity to go somewhere else. To her great credit, she saw the reason that, yes, bears are everywhere, and it’s better to walk into a place when you know where the bear is and can thus prepare for him. To her even greater credit, she set aside the fear of bear, and we set off up the trail.

Sure enough, the bear was loitering in the bushes about 50 yards off the trail. Not that I got a good look at it, because as soon as he heard our bell coming around the corner, he took off running up the hill. We kept hooting and calling out after him, and before long, he had disappeared up the hill, waiting for the noisy, terrifying humans to leave. Sadly, we were too busy making noise and hooting at the bear that we didn’t get any pictures.

The truth about bears is that they want nothing to do with us. Given the choice, they will run away, or, in the more developed, populated areas like the Sierras, ignore us entirely. Bears attack when provoked or frightened, which means give them respect and warnings, and you’ll probably get hit by lightning while battling flying sharks on the back of a dinosaur before you have a dangerous encounter with a bear.

Anyhow, there was still a hike to take, and after putting some distance between us and Charlie Bear, we settled in to enjoy the densely forested trail that would soon lead us to the lake. The trail itself passes through thick forests of lodgepole pine. This is the same species that contorts at high elevations in the Sierras and Transverse Ranges in Los Angeles, and yet it seems to be a very different tree here. In Montana, Lodgepole grows straight and not particularly tall, making it perfectly suited for the construction of lodges and cabins, hence the name.

The trail climbs continously, sometimes switch-backing through the forest, and other times climbing through lush patches of flowering bushes. Finally, after what seemed like much more than 2.75 miles, we came around a bend and saw the lake looming before us. The gentle, U-shaped slope reflected perfectly off of the smooth surface of the water. Aspen leaves trembled at the slightest breeze. Fir trees stood like rockets preparing to blast off along the lake shore.

We explored the lake for about a half hour before it was time to go back. On the way, we heard rumor about the return of the bear, but the only animals we saw were some very alert dogs. We finished up the hike, telling all the people we passed that there wasn’t anything to fear from the bear. Just make a lot of noise and keep your distance, and you won’t have a problem. That’s a good rule for bears. If you make noise and keep your distance, you can enjoy the encounter with only a mild to moderate amount of anxiety. The main reason that bears attack is when they are frightened and feel the need to defend themselves. Keep back, and they remain relatively harmless clowns.

July: 14.1 Miles
Year-to-Date: 765.8 Miles

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