Heather Lake and Emerald Lake: Gallatin Range
Heather Lake and Emerald Lake are two beautiful subalpine lakes that lie between Mount Chisolm and Overlook Mountain. These lakes are popular attractions in Hyalite Canyon, making the trail busy most of the year. Mountain bikers, hikers, horseback riders, and even dirt bike riders enjoy the East Fork Hyalite Creek Trail during its peak season (July 15th-September 4th). The crowd on the trail shouldn’t distract you too much along this scenic trail, the waterfalls and towering geological wonders will pull your attention to the trail and force you to take a break. Starting at the trailhead, you are soon rewarded by one of these marvels.
The trail immediately runs parallel along the East Fork Hyalite Creek. Although the trail stays above the creek most of the time, you will occasionally pass by a feeder creek or you will have an opportunity to slide down to the main creek to refill your water bottle. After approximately one mile, a curious outcropping appears. Millions of years ago, this breccia was formed from a basalt flow or eruption in the area. Similar to nearby Palisade Falls, basalt has played a large part in shaping Hyalite Canyon. As you hike the East Fork Hyalite Creek Trail don’t forget to look down, and see the remnants of basalt– the few remains of the violent history that the canyon has experienced. Moving uphill, many other geological attractions are just beside the trail.
Several waterfalls are within view while you hike along the trail. One of the unique properties of Hyalite Canyon is that its violent geological past has created a mixture of sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks. Since these rocks erode at different rates, the East Fork Hyalite Creek pushes the softer rocks downstream while leaving the denser and harder rocks where they lay. Over eons, this creates many of the waterfalls that you will see along this trail. Moving further up the trail, the grade increases.
The gradual uphill climb of the East Fork Hyalite Creek Trail now starts to change to switchbacks. You can look over your shoulder and see the canyon beneath you, and appreciate how high you’ve hiked. Dense forests give way to open meadows, and the tall walls of Mount Chisholm come into view. You can’t help but feel excited with the knowledge that you have almost reached your destination– Heather Lake is just a little over a mile away.
The trail leads to a creek crossing before Emerald Lake, giving you the option of using a sturdy one-man bridge, or to cross the shallow creek on foot. The trail then runs nearly flat until Emerald Lake is within view. This shallow lake supports grayling, a worthy distraction from your final destination. Pushing forward along the trail, you are presented with a couple of short hills. Finally, after 5 ½ miles from the trailhead (arguably, more like 6), Heather Lake comes into view.
Hiking down to the moist trail that surrounds Heather Lake, you have a few options. If you plan on fishing for the cutthroat trout that reside in Heather Lake, you might be better off following the trail counter-clockwise (west). Otherwise, the best campsites are located on the eastern side of the lake. Although there are a couple of campsites on the west end of the lake, there is far more firewood on the eastern shore, and the terrain is flatter. The mosquitoes aren’t as bad on the eastern shore either, but hopefully you’ll still bring plenty of bug spray for the ever-present mosquitos and biting flies.
When you’re ready to leave Heather Lake, head back down the trail towards the trailhead. Hike down the first few steepest miles, being careful not to lose your footing. The East Fork Hyalite Trail also has numerous shortcuts that other hikers have made, please avoid these at all costs. Hiking down these shortcuts not only harms the plants growing beside the trail, but it also interferes with the trail’s drainage. Your cooperation with this rule is appreciated by everyone, especially the forest service. Keeping this trail clean and maintained is a tough job, let’s make their job easier so that more hikers can enjoy Emerald Lake and Heather Lake.
Directions to the Trailhead
From Bozeman, drive on S 19th Ave for approximately 6.5 miles. Turn left onto Hyalite Canyon Road, and then bear left at the Y at the end of the road. From there, follow the road to the East Fork Hyalite Trailhead.