Many of Glacier National Park’s wonders require you to burn some shoe leather to see but Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake Trail are accessible to anyone and show so much of what makes Glacier special in a single hike.
The Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake Trail features beautiful, forested ecosystems, vibrant, glacial streams, and, cascading waterfalls just half a mile from the parking lot.
Both the Avalanche Lake Trail and Trail of the Cedars are accessed from the Trail of Cedars Parking area. Trail of the Cedars is the beginning portion of the Avalanche Lake Trail.
The parking area for these trails is located along Going-to-the-Sun Road adjacent to the Avalanche Campground. Trail of the Cedars Parking area is one of the larger parking areas in Glacier National Park. However, it is a popular destination so you’ll have the best luck finding a parking space early in the morning or later in the afternoon or evening.
Why this is the Best Hike for Everyone
There are many reasons I think Trail of the Cedars and the Avalanche Lake trail is the best hike in Glacier National Park.
First, it’s accessible to practically anyone. Trail of the Cedars is a well-maintained boardwalk, asphalt, or gravel trail for its entirety. It is wheelchair accessible and it is only a mile long (round trip). These features mean that almost anyone that can make it to the park can experience this hike.
Second, it’s flat-out beautiful. No two ways about it. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for big trees and water so you’ll have to trust my completely biased opinion. Avalanche Creek is gorgeous, even by Glacier National Park’s standards (now that’s saying something). The scenery does not disappoint. More on that coming up.
Third, it offers something for everyone. Anyone can walk the boardwalk trail and see Avalanche Creek. The more adventurous can hike the extra 1.5 miles for more great views at Avalanche Lake.
The one downside to this hike is that when you combine breathtaking scenery with accessibility you get crowds. There are a lot of good reasons this is one of the most popular hikes in the park. I very much dislike crowds and I’m still recommending this hike, so that should give you an idea of how spectacular it is.
Trail of the Cedars
Trail of the Cedars is a one-mile boardwalk and asphalt loop. The entire trail is wheelchair accessible. It is located on the relatively flat alluvial fan created as Avalanche Creek has deposited its sediment load over hundreds of years. This is one of the few large, flat areas where large cedar trees grow along Avalanche Creek. The cedar overstory and moisture from the creek create an environment for luscious undergrowth, which provides habitat for many other species. Trail of the Cedars winds through this spectacular grove, which is frequented by many bird species.
Halfway along the Trail of the Cedars is where Avalanche Creek spills out of its narrow chute and onto the alluvial fan in a series of spectacular cascades and deep, mineral blue runs. This is one of the most picturesque and photographed locations in Glacier National Park and is definitely worth the crowds that gather there.
This is where the Avalanche Lake trail breaks off and continues from Trail of the Cedars.
Avalanche Lake Trail
After parting from Trail of the Cedars, the Avalanche Lake Trail continues for another 1.5 miles (total of approximately 2.0 miles one-way, 4.0 miles round-trip) until it reaches Avalanche Lake.
The trail maintains close proximity to Avalanche Creek for much of its distance. Along much of this stretch Avalanche Creek is as exquisite as it is at the junction with Trail of the Cedars. The glacial blue water flows through a narrow chasm and over and around polished rock formations.
Upon splitting from Trail of the Cedars the slope of Avalanche Lake Trail increases. I would rate the trail’s difficulty as moderate. It’s not too difficult but does require some effort. At this point the canyon walls also narrow and steepen, the large, mature cedars are replaced by smaller, younger conifers, and the luscious undergrowth gives way to traditional mountain brush communities. The scenery continues like this until you arrive at Avalanche Lake.
At Avalanche Lake the canyon opens into a large cirque, capped by tall peaks. Waterfalls and streams cascade down the steep slopes that direct all the water into the clear, reflective, blue-green of Avalanche Lake.
When we arrived at Avalanche Lake the lighting was spectacular as the sun was just peeking over the top of the cirque. The lake was still glass smooth in the shadow of peaks while it reflected the cascading slopes that were illuminated by the rising sun. The photo at the beginning of the article feebly tries to show the grandeur of the view we experienced that morning.
Don’t be deterred by the crowds. The sights along the Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake trail are worth seeing. The water is pure. The trees are tall. The sights and features along this hike are precisely what define the grandeur of Glacier National Park. Whether you are staying in the park for several days, or just passing through, make sure you stop and pay tribute to Avalanche Creek.