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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715


Cowboy Heaven
Sweetgrass Hills
Lubec Ridge
Many Glacier
Gallatin Crest
Lava Lake
Beartrap Canyon
Emerald & Heather Lakes

Emerald & Heather Lakes

Alpine Beauties

I.gif (879 bytes)f you’ve 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 we’re talking about. None of Montana’s mountains can be considered particularly high elevation; Granite Peak at a little over 12,700’ is the state’s high point. Generally, though, if you’re up around 10,000’ there won’t be much around that’s 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, you’re 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, here’s 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 HyaliteLooking down the E. Fork Hyalite drainage from Overlook Mountain 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. It’s relatively close to Bozeman, and most of the road into it is paved, no small consideration if like me you’ve 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, you’re not going to find a lot of solitude, at least in proximity to the trailheads. But, the upside of that is that you’ll likely see a lot of interesting people along the trail. I don’t usually view hiking as a particularly social activity, although in this case it certainly could be.

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 you’ll see the signs for the Hyalite Road. Turn south and proceed upHeather Lake and Mount Chisholm Hyalite Canyon; the drive is an enjoyable thing in itself. Continue past Langohr Campground, and in another few miles you’ll 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 you’ve got about two increasingly rough miles to go to reach the trailhead to Emerald and Heather Lakes. Halfway to the trailhead you’ll 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 it’s 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 you’d be likely to encounter anywhere, and if you think you’ve undertaken some hard-core ventures, they’re 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 you’ll reach the end of the road. Just before the end of the road, you’ll 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 that’s after you’ve 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 cradledWaterfall in East Fork Hyalite Creek in a gorgeous alpine basin between Mount Chisholm and Overlook Mountain. The trail up the East Fork Hyalite drainage climbs gently and steadily, and I’d say this hike is suitable for anyone in reasonable physical condition. It’s also popular with mountain bikers, something you may want to consider if that’s 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 it’s a hot day, you’ll 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 that’s 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 goodEmerald Lake 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 doesn’t look too bad, but maps often don’t show everything, and in person it’s a near-verticalFridley Lakes headwall. If you plan on getting over it you’d 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 haven’t 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 doesn’t 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. I’d call it Class IV climbing. A fall near the top would be distinctly unhealthy, but if you choose your foot and handholds carefully it isn’t 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 shouldn’t 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, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful, wild country, and what more can you ask?

See you along the trail.


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