If you have never heard of Lake McDonald, hopefully you have heard of Glacier National Park. Known for its glaciers, snow capped mountains, hiking trails, wildlife, cascading waterfalls, rivers, scenic valleys and vistas, and alpine lakes, Glacier National Park is a well known destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Its scenery is unmatched and has everything mother nature has to offer. For the SUP enthusiast, the lakes in Glacier National Park are a must-see destination and should be put on your bucket list.
Sunset paddle on the Lake. | Photo via: Veronica Wold
Visitor access to the various parts of the park depends on conditions. During the winter months, roads are closed seasonally due to heavy snow and even access to lakes are closed. Spring time weather is not much different as the snow melt has not occurred yet. But driving around the park and accessing trails and views of the lakes and mountains make the drive worth it. During the summer months of July and August is the busiest season from Memorial Day to Labor Day. All roads and concessions are open. You can still see snow on the peaks and drive the scenic Going to the Sun road from Lake McDonald at West Glacier to St Mary Lake at East Glacier. Don't be fooled by the summer weather. Temperatures still range from the low 40s to 70s and the water is still cold in the 50s.
Lake McDonald is the largest lake in Glacier National Park. It is 10 miles long and almost a mile wide. It is surrounded by forest trees and mountains, including the Continental Divide that is 14 miles away. Along with the big Montana sky, the mountain peaks provide an amazing backdrop and reflection on Lake McDonald.
The topography of the lake is a direct result of glacial carving and its basin is almost 500 feet deep. The deep blue water, though clear and pristine, is dangerously cold. Any SUP paddler would risk immediate hypothermia if they didn’t dress for submersion. The smooth, glassy water and the surrounding beauty deceives its inherent dangers. With proper gear selection and adherence to safety guidelines, paddlers can enjoy their time on the lake.
Visitors to the park and those that enjoy the lake often overlook or are even unaware of the beauty and uniqueness of Lake McDonald below their feet. The colorful rocks visible at the shoreline add another aspect to the lake’s beauty. During the right time of day, with direct sunlight overhead, the colorful rocks become so vibrant in the clear waters making the lake an even more spectacular site. Experiencing this on a paddleboard along the shoreline and at the mouth of the creek that feeds the lake at the northern end is mind boggling. The rocks get their various colors from the amount of iron deposited in them. The mountains also provide some protection from the winds making the glassy lake a beautiful mirror to sunrise and sunset colors and while on a paddleboard seems ethereal.
The colorful rock shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park looking at the mountains. | Photo: Shutterstock
There are various lake access points along the shoreline. You can drive along the road to the historic Lake McDonald Lodge and enjoy numerous turnouts. Some of the turnouts have stairs to small beaches and others you have to carry your board down embankments to the rocky water’s edge. At the lodge there is adequate parking and a small marina from which to launch from. It is also the best place to capture the various mountain reflections on the lake with the colorful rocks. There is also Apgar Campground closest to the entrance of the West Glacier side of the park with a day use area and ramp with easy access to the lake. Every point along the lake’s shoreline provides its own unique scenery and perspective and should be explored. Take your time, explore, and enjoy the solitude!
Mountains and McDonald lake in Glacier National Park, Montana in summer. | Photo: Shutterstock
At the East Glacier side of the park is another alpine lake accessible by road called St Mary Lake. It has all the accolades of Lake McDonald including mountainous peaks and surrounding forests. There are two scenic drives to get there. During the late spring the seasonal road called Going to the Sun road is the most direct route. Check the Glacier National Park website for current closures.
During the summer, along with a 7 day entrance pass to the park, tickets are required to be purchased to have access to the road and various parts of the park. In an effort to limit traffic and congestion and preserve the wilderness during the busy summer months, the online ticket reservation system is a must. Another way to visit St Mary Lake is to take the circuitous route and drive around to the East Glacier entrance. It is a half a day’s drive, but the scenic roads of Montana make it well worth it. But if you take the most direct route on the Going to the Sun road, you will summit at Logan’s Pass and with good weather will view glaciers. Keep your eyes peeled for some random cascading waterfalls along this route. The bigger waterfalls will have adequate turnout parking.
Exterior view of the Lake Mcdonald Lodge. | Photo: Shutterstock
You can stay inside the National Park at the historic Lake McDonald Lodge or the various campgrounds near the lake with access to the Apgar Village with markets for sundries, a gift shop, and small concessions to eat. Just outside the park are small towns strewn along highway 2 with gas stations and restaurants. You’ll also enjoy hearing the ramblings of the Middle Fork Flathead River flowing alongside highway 2 for most of the drive from West Glacier to East Glacier. There are various whitewater river outfitters that offer tours going down rapids. The biggest town outside of the park is Khalispall, which is a 1 hour drive south of West Glacier. As you drive north towards Khalispall you can't help but miss the big Flathead Lake. You can drive on the west or east side of this big lake as you head up towards Khaispall with plenty of places to launch from. The surrounding community is very paddler friendly and you can spot a lot of kayakers and canoes on the lake.
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