Western Adventures: ‘EarthQuake’ Canyon

Quake Lake

June 8th, 2022: After loading my car and checking out of the Whitewater Inn, I grabbed a cup of coffee for the road and headed south on Highway 191-for another dose of the Gallatin Canyon.

God blessed me with another glorious day of sunshine and with scattered clouds – perfect for taking in every bend and break in the Gallatin Canyon’s majesty.

As I exited the canyon, just north of West Yellowstone, I turned right onto Highway 287 towards Hebgen Lake and The Madison Canyon.

They don’t call it God’s country for nothing – every piece of highway in Yellowstone country and southwestern Montana is so impressive that it feels like heaven on earth.

It’s at this junction The Gallatin fades into the forest and The Madison River emerges, glistening like jewels in the sunlight.

The Madison River is considered to be the foremost river for trout anglers.

The Madison River is one of the three rivers that converge (at Three Forks Montana) to form the mightly Missouri River. Rivers have such a mystery and resilience about them. Since the dawn of time they have fed creation and empowered people to travel, to farm and to find sustenance.

The fact the Madison (along with the Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers) rises from the meandering waters of Yellowstone to form one of the world’s mighty rivers is pretty extraordinary.

If you have a few extra days in the West Yellowstone area and are looking for a fun and beautiful adventure I definitely recommend the roughly 90 minute trek from West Yellowstone to the historic ghost towns of Virginia City and Nevada City.

This route boasts some of America’s best views and is steeped in history.

As I turned on Highway 287, the peaceful blue waters of Hebgen Lake emerged. Cradled by the mountains, this man-made lake is a part of the Madison River. It stretches 15 miles and is a popular recreation spot for boating and swimming. You will often see moose and bears lakeside.

As you enter the Madison Canyon, an earth shattering history reveals itself. This is an ‘earthquake road’, where on August 17th, 1959 a 7.5 earthquake shook the ground and changed the landscape forever. The Madison-Hebgen earthquake is one of the largest earthquakes in US history and resulted in a landslide that killed twenty-nine people (campers in the area) and moved countless houses miles away as the landslide caused rushing waters and damming in areas.

The earthquake also effected Old Faithul – slightly altering it’s faith timing and many other park features in Yellowstone. It is thought that aftershocks still occur in the area today.

The damming from the Madison following the quake led to the formation of Quake Lake. You can stop roadside to witness the peaceful eerieness of the lake – where the mountain’s landslide scar is visible and dead trees stand as ghosts remembering the dead.

I definitely recommend stopped at the Madison Canyon Earthquake Area and Visitor’s Center – it is an amazing museum to learn about the history of the earthquake and the people affected.

And while earthquakes are still a potential threat – luckily I enjoyed the perfect peace of calm waters and a crisp Montana breeze.

This area has several campgrounds and lodging gearing for anglers.

I was fortunate to enjoy a fly-fishing trip on The Madison when I worked at Yellowstone in college. My guide helped me catch (and release) my first rainbow trout. We were also treated to a golden eagle sighting and a mountain goat on the rocky canyon cliffs surrounding us.

For more information:

Madison Earthquake Lake Visitors Center

Hebgen Lake

As I exited the shadows and light of Madison Canyon, the wide open spaces of the Madison Valley emerged – with towering mountains, expansive plains and amber clad hills carved by The Madison River.

Just outside of the canyon is a hidden gem I just discovered, Cliff Lake. One of the bluest lakes in Montana – this clear water oasis is a great off the beaten path stop.

Unfortunately my camera battery died as I made my way through the rugged dirt road towards Cliff Lake, but you can get a glimpse of the beautiful water here.

Road to Cliff/Wade Lakes

Next entry we’ll drive one of my favorite scenic highways through the Madison Valley to historic Virginia City and Nevada City…

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