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Backpacking to Emerald and Heather Lake in the Backcountry of Montana

A weekend spent exploring the mountainous backcountry in Montana. Nothing but good memories and world class views.

By: Tucker Gill + Save to a List

Montana is filled with untamed wilderness, and diverse landscapes. In June of this past summer, my best friend and I decided to take full advantage of Montana's backcountry. We did a three day backpacking trip to Emerald and Heather Lakes, located deep within Hyalite Canyon, just south of Bozeman, MT. These two pure alpine lakes surrounded by jagged mountainside, offered some of the best views, fishing, and memories that I've ever experienced. The trailhead for this hike is located within Hyalite Canyon, it has many signs and an excellent parking lot. The hike to Emerald Lake is 10.9 Miles round trip, with approximately 2000 feet of elevation gain. Heather Lake is located another mile up the trail, and is nearly 200 feet above Emerald. The hike is considered moderate, and can be done by most able bodied people. Adding a heavy backpack obviously adds to its difficulty. Camping can be done at either lake, and both lakes are equally beautiful. Don't forget to pack a fly rod for this adventure. Emerald Lake is filled to the brim with Grayling, and Heather Lake has a very healthy amount of mountain Cutthroat Trout. You won't find any five star restaurants near by, so I highly recommend bringing some non perishables, or easy to make meals along with you for overnight stays. We feasted on hotdogs and cheap whiskey for the majority of the trip. This hike can be done as long as the road up the canyon is open. It is closed annually from about April 1 to May 15, due to spring runoff. I would personally recommend going up sometime in the summer months. I went in June, and it was stunning. The earlier you go in the summer, the warmer clothes you will need to take. Because it is so high in elevation, the snow doesn't completely melt on the mountainsides till mid to late June. If you go on warm weather days, it will likely be warm enough in the sun to wear short sleeves. But as soon as the sun goes down, it gets quite chilly. So a good tent, and sleeping bag is recommended. Aside from the large amounts of time we spent fishing, we also did a lot of exploring around the area. There are certain trails that can take you above both lakes, and give you quite a spectacular view of the valley. You can spend days wondering around that area, and not get bored. The area is dog friendly, so you can bring your adventure pup along with you. Most of the "campsites" along Emerald Lake have makeshift fire pits, and  places to sit around said pits (Stumps, logs, and rocks). There are no official campsites in this area, but there are lots of places that are perfect to set up camp along the lakes. If you're looking to get away, and experience a real outdoor adventure, this is the trip for you. You'll be completely disconnected from the outside world, as there's no phone service anywhere along the hike. Adventure awaits.

10 things not to leave at home for an overnight stay:

  • Bear Spray (yes you're in Montana... it's bear country)
  • Hatchet or small axe, and a good sturdy knife
  • Fire starter
  • Extra socks, and warm layers
  • Fishing equipment
  • Trash bags
  • Waterproof hiking shoes, and rain gear
  • The camera (trust me)
  • Lots of water, or water filter
  • Some cheap Whiskey (optional)

Directions: Once in Bozeman, Take 19th Ave. south to Hyalite Canyon Rd. Turn left and continue past Hyalite Reservoir; when the road splits, take the left fork toward Palisade Falls. Continue past Palisade Falls to the end of the road.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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