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Hebgen and Quake Lakes

Private Paradise, Historical Drama

Gail Newbold | Photos by Kevin Kiernan Jul 9, 2018

For decades, the mostly Utah residents who own second homes on the shores of beautiful Hebgen Lake have claimed it as their own private paradise and playground. The lake goes unnoticed by the majority of visitors heading to Yellowstone National Park just a half hour east, which suits Hebgen Lake lovers just fine.

“I think it’s one of the most beautiful lakes ever,” says Maria Covey Cole, whose family has owned cabins there since the 1940s. “The entire area is beloved to us because of its natural beauty and what it represents — our family heritage; an intergenerational legacy of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and first, second and third cousins.”

An osprey perches in a tree
An osprey perches above Hebgen Lake.
boats lined up in a small marina
Kirkwood Marina
Aerial view of trees in a lake
An aerial view of Quake Lake shows the silver-gray ghost trees rising from the water.

Place of Peace

Trevor Schulz, whose family managed the Kirkwood Marina when we visited, says, “I love this place because wherever you are, it feels like no one’s ever been there before — when I go on hikes especially. It’s interesting what 30 minutes will do.”

He’s referring to the idyllic 30-minute drive on U.S. Highways 191 and 287 from West Yellowstone to the marina past meadows, pine-covered ridges and Hebgen Lake. All told, it’s about a five-hour drive from Salt Lake City.

Schulz used to work at Utah’s Jordanelle Reservoir marina where there were sometimes 30 boats waiting to launch. “People come here and say, ‘Where is everyone?’” he says. “Even on the Fourth of July it doesn’t seem crowded.”

In fact, during a recent visit, our only company for an evening pontoon ride around Hebgen Lake was an elegant white pelican floating atop the water before taking off.

Hebgen is considered a premier still water fishing lake populated mostly with rainbow and brown trout, and mountain white fish. It’s about 15 miles long, four miles wide and was formed by a dam built in 1914.

Visitors can rent ski boats, pontoons, kayaks, paddleboards and fishing boats at the marina (kirkwoodmarina.com). Be aware, the inventory can book out weeks in advance, according to Pam Sveinson, owner of the marina for the past 18 years. Rentals are available for fishing from mid-May through September and for water recreation during the middle of the summer. The lake ices over completely in the winter and offers great ice and ice-out fishing. 

a small white boat tied to a dock
Kirkwood Marina
trees in the middle of a lake
Quake Lake
Ruins of a cabin in a field
The remains of a cabin that was buried in the slide following the earthquake are visible.

Quake Lake — Night of Terror

On a beautiful moonlit night in August 1959, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in the Rocky Mountains struck the Madison River Canyon, triggering a massive landslide. Eighty million tons of rock crashed down the canyon, damming the river and forming what’s now called Quake Lake — connected to Hebgen Lake by the Madison River.

The story of this night of terror and the 28 lives lost is documented with signage and points of interest along Highway 287, culminating at the modern Earthquake Lake Visitor Center.

If you do nothing else in the Hebgen Lake area, do not miss the fascinating displays, videos, eyewitness accounts and viewpoints at the visitors center. Observe the landslide and gaze at the lake with its eerily beautiful silver-gray ghost trees rising from the water — a haunting reminder of the tragic event.

If time permits, stop at the various points of interest along Montana Highway 287 heading north from the marina. See dramatic evidence of how a fault scarp split a campsite at Cabin Creek, leaving a picnic table several feet higher than the fire ring. And while you’re there, follow the beautiful Cabin Creek Trail at least to the picturesque creek.

To see the remains of cabins that floated among the trees when the water rose and then later emerged as water levels dropped, follow the Ghost Village Trail. Get there by turning off Highway 287 when you see a brown Forest Service sign to the Campfire Lodge and Ghost Village Road. The unmaintained dirt road is located to the right of the lodge and ends at an unmarked parking area. The trail from the parking area leads to one of the cabins. The others can be seen across the Madison River. This section of the river is especially beautiful with fly fishermen dotting the landscape.

The ghost cabins can also be viewed from the Drifting Cabins Overlook, accessed by a trail at Refuge Point on Highway 287.

Deer standing among trees above a lake
Hebgen Lake
Meadow and wildflowers next to a river
Madison River

Food

Even if you don’t like your food at the popular Campfire Lodge Café, which is highly unlikely, you’ll love the view of the Madison River just outside the window. The café is routinely mobbed for breakfast where portions are ridiculously huge and pancakes cover dinner-size plates.

For great views of the lake, catch a meal at the Happy Hour Bar and Restaurant offering steak, shrimp and chicken dishes on the shore of Hebgen Lake (happyhourbar.com).

Lodging

Strategically located almost across the highway from the Kirkwood Marina is the Kirkwood Resort (kirkwoodresort.com), soon to be renamed Terra Nova Cabins. It offers family friendly cabins, gas pumps and a surprisingly eclectic and gourmet convenience store at check-in. Instead of the requisite Cheetos and Monster energy drinks, owner and manager SuAn Chow sells caramelized pecans from Spain, fig and citron vinegars from France, Montana local microbrews and wines, Creminelli wild boar salami, Huckleberry Lemonade, Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade with ginger, Korean ramen, and much more.

“I thought it would be nice to offer things other stores around here don’t,” Chow says. “And many people come here and stay awhile, so I offer things that are simple to make, but delicious — pastas, salad dressings, marinades.”

The cabin we stayed in had high ceilings, views of Hebgen Lake, and a picnic table, grill and bench just outside the door — the latter perfect for sipping a mug of hot chocolate on a crisp morning.

Other popular places to stay on the commercial side are the Madison Arm Resort next to the Madison River (madisonarmresort.com), Lake View Suites across from Happy Hour Bar (no website), Yellowstone Holiday, Campfire Lodge Resort (campfirelodgewestyellowstone.com) and Galloup’s Slide Inn (slideinn.com). There are several National Forest Service campgrounds, or you could vacation like the old timers by renting a cabin on the private side of the lake.

Schulz’s Favorite Hikes

A variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult are located around Hebgen Lake. The two Schulz most likes to recommend are Whits Lake Trail (drive 8 miles north of West Yellowstone on Highway 191 then left on 287 for 2 miles before turning right on Whits Lake Road for about 2.5 miles to the trailhead) and the Ghost Village Trail (mentioned above).

For maps of the trails and earthquake sites, visit the West Yellowstone Chamber at 30 Yellowstone Ave. (destinationyellowstone.com).

Group of birds in flight over a lake
Cormorants fly over Hebgen Lake.

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