Quake Lake, Montana, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - West - Montana - Gold West Country - Yellowstone Country -

Also known as:  Earthquake Lake

In a natural phenomenon seldom seen in today’s world, a massive earthquake and landslide created Montana’s Quake Lake in 1959. In pre-recorded history, a young, restless earth formed many lakes when existing watercourses were blocked. Earthquake Lake, more commonly shortened to Quake Lake, is one of the few lakes to have been created this way in recent times. Located on the border between Montana’s Gold West Country and Yellowstone Country, Quake Lake came into existence on August 17, 1959. A massive earthquake, measured at 7.5 on the Richter scale, shook loose a huge landslide that tore down the mountainside at over 100 miles per hour, destroying everything in its path. And, in that path was a National Forest campground along the Madison River.

In a few horrible moments shortly after midnight, the earthquake and landslide killed 28 people and destroyed the resorts, cabins and homes along nearby Hebgen Lake. The quake was centered upstream near Hebgen Lake, a popular spot for camping, private cabins, resorts and summer water sports. The south shore of the lake subsided by 19 feet. Highway 287, running alongside the Madison River, was cracked, twisted and broken, with parts of it falling into the river. Water sloshed over the Hebgen Dam, cracking it in three places and sending a wall of water down on the buried campground below. The flooding carried away resorts, cabins and buildings, depositing them in a heap of wreckage halfway up the nearby slope. Geysers at nearby Yellowstone National Park spewed muddy water, an effect of the massive quake. Rescue teams from all over the west rushed to help free the people who were trapped; 300 people were evacuated, including those stranded in their cars while driving along Highway 287. When the rescue efforts were complete, authorities were amazed that the death toll hadn’t been higher. The Madison River Canyon had been changed forever; dammed by the slide, the river was beginning to fill the canyon behind it.

The US Army Corps of Engineers took on one of the largest mobilizations it had ever attempted in an effort to stabilize the Hebgen Dam. Luckily, the cracks were repairable, and the dam held. But as the water below the dam continued to rise in the canyon, a second challenge became apparent: how to create an outlet for the large amount of water trapped there. If not addressed immediately, the water could wash away the natural barrier and create another flooding situation. Mustering the Corps’ engineering expertise, they created a spillway to limit the amount of water in the new lake and allow the excess to continue on down the Madison River’s course. The new lake, naturally named Earthquake Lake, was almost six miles long, a third of a mile wide and up to 190 feet deep.

The memory of that fateful day still lingers at Quake Lake. With most of the lake lying within the Gallatin National Forest, the US Forest Service designated 38,000 acres as the Madison River Canyon Earthquake Area Reserve. A Visitors’ Center was opened to commemorate those lost to the catastrophe; interpretive signage was installed to explain what had happened and the natural forces that caused it. Highway 287 was rebuilt above the high water line, and a boat ramp was created where the old pavement ran down to the water. New camping areas were developed along the north shoreline, and a series of trails through the area now lead to points of interest. Once again, the Madison River area is a popular spot for a family vacation, with fishing, canoeing, hiking, biking and horseback riding nearby. Located only 20 miles west of the town of West Yellowstone, Quake Lake is a convenient spot to relax under the firs and aspens away from the crowds at Yellowstone National Park.

Two camping areas are located at Quake Lake. Beaver Creek Campground offers 64 campsites on three loops. Each campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. Shore fishing is permitted from the bank. The campground offers toilets, RV dump site, drinking water and trash pick-up. Another 15 camp sites are located upstream at the Cabin Creek Campground. The six-mile Cabin Creek Trail starts here and is accessible to hiking and horseback riding. The area holds plentiful wildlife, with many birds, eagles, osprey, cormorants, moose, deer, beaver, mountain goats and small mammals. This is bear country, so precautions are recommended. One trail leads to the site of the landslide’s path, now nearly unrecognizable due to re-growth of native vegetation. Another leads to the ‘Ghost Village’, the site of the wreckage washed here by the flooding.

Montana Fish and Wildlife has stocked Quake Lake with brown trout and rainbow trout. Mountain whitefish, Utah chub and white suckers are also available to catch. The lake is full of fallen and standing dead timber, creating excellent spawning habitat. Canoes, kayaks and small boats are great for scouting for wildlife along the shore. Anglers are advised that the many dead branches below the surface make float tube fishing less than attractive. A Montana fishing license is required, and boating and fishing regulations must be observed. A few local outfitters offer fishing trips on Quake Lake and know where the best action is likely to be found. Whitewater rafting is available on the Madison River between Quake Lake and Hebgen Lake.

Located only a few miles from Yellowstone National Park, Quake Lake is supplied with a variety of lodging choices. In addition to the National Forest campsites, several private campgrounds and a few resorts are located on Hebgen Lake. The Town of West Yellowstone holds a wide selection of choices such as guest ranches, bed & breakfasts, motels, hotels and small resorts and guest cabins. A couple of marinas are located on Hebgen Lake, making it attractive for boating-based vacationing. Many of the lodgings are open year-round for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and national forest winter tours. Private rentals are often available, although not on Quake Lake. And with the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park located just outside of West Yellowstone, every possible form of outdoor adventure and sightseeing tour is close at hand. So, don’t miss a stop at Quake Lake when visiting the Yellowstone area. You won’t see another new lake quite like this one.

Things to do at Quake Lake

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Whitewater Rafting
  • Tubing
  • Camping
  • Campground
  • Picnicking
  • Cabin Rentals
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Cross-Country Skiing
  • Horseback Riding
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • National Park
  • National Forest

Fish species found at Quake Lake

  • Brown Trout
  • Carp
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Sucker
  • Trout
  • Whitefish

Quake Lake Photo Gallery

Quake Lake Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Dammed

Surface Area: 582 acres

Shoreline Length: 13 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 6,468 feet

Maximum Depth: 190 feet

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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