Montanans know Cracker Lake in Glacier National Park in Montana as a turquoise gem. Glacier National Park comprises 150 named Rocky Mountain peaks and is full of lakes lying in deeply carved mountain valleys. This park is known for its 700-plus-miles of hiking trails and over 700 lakes. Cracker Lake is one of the smaller lakes in Glacier National Park and one of the most hiked lakes in the park.
US 2 borders the southwestern border of Glacier National Park and US 89 roughly follows its eastern border. It lies in the northwestern corner of Montana. Cracker Lake is located about 18 miles south of the Canadian border as the crow flies. Gently to steep rising hills backed by towering mountain cliffs encompass Cracker Lake. To get to Cracker Lake, hikers and equestrians climb through dusty rutted or muddy trails, depending on the weather, through forests and mountains with awe-inspiring scenery.
How Long Does it Take to Hike Cracker Lake?
You cannot drive to Cracker Lake; it is hike or ride in on horseback only. These trails interconnect with other trails to other Glacier National Park lakes. It is a full-day in the saddle to Cracker Lake on a National Park Service (NPS) designated equestrian trail. Hikers and equestrians share parts of the equestrian trails.
The Cracker Lake Trail takes a skilled hiker an average of five-hours, 27 minutes to complete. Hikers can explore this 12.8-mile out-and-back trail near Siyeh Bend, Montana. The hike to Cracker Lake in Glacier National Park begins from the Piegan Pass/Cracker Lake Trailhead at the south end of the parking lot above the Many Glacier Hotel—No dogs allowed.
The Many Glacier hotel is located on Swiftcurrent Lake in Browning, Montana. The Cracker Lake Trail is rated as strenuous and gains an elevation of 1,400 feet. This trail’s highest elevation is 6,035 feet above sea level. Traffic is heaviest from June through October. This hike’s first few miles traverse a thick forest. Shortly after the trailhead, this trail comes to a fork. Hikers need to take the left fork and equestrians should take the right one.
Cracker Lake Trail Info
The first 3.25-miles of Cracker Lake Trail offers views of the Cracker Flats area, the upper reaches of Sheburne Lake, Cracker Flats Horse Loop, some switchbacks, Allan and Canyon Creeks flowing down valleys, and a waterfall partially concealed by trees. Hikers leave the forest at this point and look back onto the views of the canyon they just hiked through.
At 5.8-miles into the trail, hikers find their first views of the north end of Cracker Lake and become awestruck at its deep turquoise colored waters. As hikers progress, the views of Cracker Lake become more stunning as they follow the trail to the red rock outcropping ahead. At the outcropping, hikers are only one-mile away from the lake.
The outcropping reveals the 9,376-foot Allen Mountain across the Cracker Lake basin. The 10,014-foot Mt. Siyeh towers above the southern end of Cracker Lake. The mountain cliffs surrounding Cracker Lake dominate with colored layers of sedimentary rock. If hikers want to explore more, they can follow the trail from Cracker Lake leading to the old Cracker Lake Mine site and onto other trails.
History of Cracker Lake
Mining engineers found copper on Cracker Lake’s southern shores and established the old Cracker Lake Mine in 1897. Park officials restrict entrance to the mine today. Miners dug a 1,300 foot tunnel, built a sawmill, and erected a 16,000-pound steam driven concentrator to process copper ore. Cracker Lake and Cracker Lake Mine inherited their names from some miners following a copper ore lead.
Legend has it that prospectors L.S. Emmons and Hank Norris followed a mineral lead near the head of Canyon Creek. They stopped for lunch on the shores of Blue Lake and left their crackers and cheese where they stopped to eat and then referred to the copper vein they were exploring as, “the lead where we left our crackers”. Prior to this, people called today’s Cracker Lake, “Blue Lake”.
The trail to the mine ends up at the shoreline at the far end of the lake. There are several connecting trails around the area, and just past the red rock outcropping, a trail leads to the Cracker Lake Campground. The campground offers three backcountry campsites with views.
Cracker Lake Entrance Fee
There is an entrance fee to Glacier National Park. Hikers need permits to the Cracker Lake area and wilderness permits to backpack and backcountry camping. Visitors need a reservation to travel to Going-to-the-Sun Road or the North Fork area. They can get a wilderness permit online or in person on a first-come, first-serve basis. Other campgrounds in Glacier National Park require reservations.
A word of caution needs to be expressed about bears in the Glacier National Park. The Cracker Lake Trail winds through prime grizzly bear habitats and has a reputation for bear sightings. Bears love berries and parts of the trail are surrounded by berry patches and tall vegetation. Hikers are advised to equip themselves with bear spray, research what to do in case of a grizzly bear encounter, and hike in groups of three.
Another word of caution is that drowning in rivers is the number one cause of death in Glacier National Park. May and June produce heavy rainstorms in the park, and the rivers swell with swift currents in the region. NPS officials will close parts of the park due to fires, but this is not common. Smoke from fires in other parts of Montana and Canada will enter the park in thick smoke clouds and sometimes hide its amazing views.
Hikers need to prepare differently for each season at Cracker Lake and equip themselves with weather-appropriate supplies and gear. The seasons in Montana drastically change in terms of weather, air temperatures and trail conditions. Except in the warmest months, nights at Cracker Lake produce a winter like cool temperature.
Can You Swim in Cracker Lake Montana?
The name Glacier National Park certainly suggests that its lakes would include ice-cold water bodies. It can prove blazingly hot to hike Cracker Lake Trail in warmer months because some sections of the trail provide no sources of shade, and the thought of plunging into the lake is inviting. Summer highs in the park can reach into the humid 90s and winter lows end up below O°.
Yes, you can swim in Cracker Lake, but be prepared for this glacially carved lake to take your breath away. Hikers love to cool off after trekking the trail in warmer months, but typically, they do not stay in the water for long periods. In other words, Cracker Lake is full of freezing cold water.
Why Is Cracker Lake so Blue?
“Glacial flour” is the name for glacier sediment that is much finer than sand and retains a flour-like composition. Glaciers carved out the canyons, lakes, and valleys of Glacier National Park approximately 20,000 years ago. Glacial flour blankets the cliffs and mountains encompassing Cracker Lake and consists of tiny clay particles formed when rocks stuck to the bottom and sides of a glacier ground against the bedrock.
The sediment called glacial flour is microscopically fine, easily transported by and suspended in water. Glacial lakes have a wide range of beautiful colors that appear as sunlight bounces off the water when it hits sediment particles in the water. The glacial flour suspended in Cracker Lake gives it its bright turquoise color.