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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.
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