Crystal Lake Rd, Lewistown, MT
This hike gives you a great feel for the expanse of the Snowies and views – on a clear day – from near Wyoming to the Sweetgrass Hills on the Canadian border.
The trail climbs nearly 5 miles to the permanent ice caves on the Snowy Crest. The first part of this trail climbs 3 miles to the top of the Snowy Crest and gains 2,000 feet in elevation. This portion of the hike is moderately difficult. Drinking water should be carried as none is available along the way.
The next 2 miles the trail follows the flat open top of the Snowy Crest along Trail 490. This part of the trail is on the open ridge and is marked by cairns or small piles of rock. The Ice Cave is a limestone rock formation that remains cold enough to contain ice all year long. Water seeping into one 100-foot-wide cave freezes in columns or spreads across the floor to make the surface slick as an ice rink.
The view from the Snowy Crest is spectacular with the Absarokee Range (about 100 miles) to the south, on a clear day, it is even possible to glimpse the Grand Teton Range (about 220 miles) south, the Little Belts and the Crazy Mountains (about 60 miles) west, the Highwoods (about 70 miles) northwest, the Moccasins and Judith Mountains (about 40 miles) northeast and beyond these mountains are the Canadian Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Following story & photo provided by Lewistown News Argus
Distance and difficulty:
According to trail signs, the trail is approximately 5 miles one way; depending on which return trail is chosen, roundtrip is 10 or 11 miles. The trail gains over 2,000 feet in elevation from the trailhead to the crest, and there is additional climbing required to get back to the Crest trail from the Ice Cave.
This trail is rated intermediate to advanced. The packed earth and/or gravel trail is easy to follow along most of its length. There are sections of rocky talus slope, and many rocks or roots across the trail. The hike is steeply uphill the entire way to the Crest, and hikers must navigate from rock cairn to rock cairn for a couple of miles across the top.
From Lewistown, take Highway 87 toward Great Falls. Look for the sign for Crystal Lake Road approximately 8.7 miles from town; turn left on Crystal Lake Road, which is unpaved. Stay on Crystal Lake Road to the Lewis and Clark National Forest boundary, where the road becomes paved. Follow the paved road and signs to Crystal Lake.
Park at the far end of the lake, past the turnoff to the campground. There is a paved parking area with space for about 8 vehicles, a vault toilet and potable water at the trailhead. There is no drinking water along this trail, so fill up at the trailhead.
Access the Ice Cave Trail from the trailhead parking lot.
Hikers will find the trail begins climbing immediately. The footing is relatively stable, but there are many tree roots and rocks, so watch your step. About a mile into the hike, the trail splits; there a log across one branch of the trail. There is no sign here; take the left hand trail and continue uphill.
The trail continues climbing for about 3 miles. There are a few good viewpoints through the trees, looking down on Crystal Lake. Much of this section of the trail is in full sun. There are rocky sections, although the footing is fairly good, and hikers will enjoy the spruce/fir forest with its alpine wildflowers and songbirds. After non-stop climbing, hikers reach the Crest and leave the forest behind. The top of the Snowies is wide open, and the views are unbelieveable. Every local mountain range – the Judiths, Moccasins and Belts – is clearly visible, and on very clear days it is possible to see ranges that are hundreds of miles away.
Footing along the crest is rocky and trees are small and stunted. The trail vanishes into the rock, but rock cairns, some of them quite elaborate, are clearly visible and mark the route. Rocks are the main feature, some covered with bright-colored lichens, but wildlife, including chipmonks, ground squirrels and spruce grouse may be seen. The trail leads hikers to Devil’s Chute, a limestone cave on the right hand side of the trail. Even in mid-summer there may still be snow and ice inside this cave, and ghostly wisps of mist float from the depths out of the cave mouth. The cave consists of two large rooms with a connecting tunnel. The entrance to the main room is steeply sloped but can be negotiated with care.
The trail to the Ice Cave is about a quarter mile past Devil’s Chute, on the left. It is a down-and-back half mile trip. The trail is well marked, but steep and rocky in places. The Ice Cave is easily accessed after a short scrable up the entrance bank. Inside is a large room, perhaps 100 feet or more across. The floor is an ice rink, surrounded by ice stalagtites and ice sheets sweep down from a tunnel in the back of the room. The temperature inside the cave is chilly, so be prepared.
After hiking steeply back up to the main trail, hikers can return to the trailhead the way they came or turn left and follow the Grandview Trail. While Grandview also makes a steep descent, the steepest part is not quite as lengthy as is the Ice Cave Trail, and Grandview is mostly in the shade, a welcome relief on a hot day.
Please note: that while every effort has been made to guarantee accuracy in trail descriptions, errors in recording mileage and trail conditions can occur. Also changes occur on the land; some descriptions that were accurate when written may be inaccurate later. One storm, for example can block a road or trail. The responsibility for safety while hiking is that of the user.
Ratings: Hikes are rated as beginning, intermediate and advanced. Beginning hikes are those which are mostly flat or with only short stretches of steep grades, and with well-marked, easy to follow trails. Intermediate hikes are those with very steep or long grades, or with trail surfaces which are somewhat unstable. Advanced trails are those with steep, or very unstable trails, those that require some climbing or those which are not well-marked or which contain stretches of off-trail hiking. None of these hikes requires technical climbing. Hikers should adjust these ratings for their own fitness and experience levels.