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Avalanche Gorge

The constricted waters of Avalanche Creek have cut a narrow gorge through Glacier National Park's sedimentary rock formations. The gorge highlights the first segment of Glacier's popular Avalanche Lake trail. 

The irony of popularity is how much we overlook the features that make something an A-list destination.

Take the Avalanche Lake trail in Glacier National Park. One of the few short/easy/dramatic trails on the park’s west side, it gets mobbed by tourists from the day road crews plow their way to the trailhead. Its front-country campground typically fills up before most visitors have finished their morning coffee, and its opening boardwalk Trail of the Cedars can look like an outdoor mall hallway. Glacier spokeswoman Lauren Alley says it gets the most traffic of any trail in the park, with 1,482 people a day during peak season. It’s not a place to seek solitude, unless you come on snowshoes.

The following 1.5 mile dirt trail to Avalanche Lake delivers hikers to a scenic lake staged below a cirque basin ribboned with waterfalls. A few determined anglers will tease the lake’s cutthroat trout. Most everyone else will take a family portrait on the shore, gobble their trail mix and turn back for the parking lot.

What they may not realize is that Glacier’s largest remaining glacier, Sperry, is grinding away just over the lip of that cirque wall, and its meltwater feeds those waterfalls. Over the right side of the basin is Sperry Chalet. Over the left is Hidden Lake, the destination of every Going-to-the-Sun Road motorist who reached the parking lot at Logan Pass. Salish and Kootenai Indians occasionally used the basin as a route over the Continental Divide to the buffalo hunting grounds of the Great Plains — one much shorter than Logan Pass.

Even the forest that many tourists gripe about blocking the view of mountains is worth a deeper look. The Avalanche Basin marks the farthest eastern extent of the great Pacific Northwest Rainforest. Most of the other Montana remnants of that ecotype either got logged or burned in the early 20th century. When the 2017 Sprague fire burned through the area, firefighters realized they were dealing with piles of forest debris that had accumulated for perhaps a thousand years.

So enjoy Avalanche Lake for its convenience, but appreciate it for its remarkable compilation of features that make Glacier National Park the world heritage site it is.

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