A trip to earthquake lake will teach about one of the most impressive geographic phenomenons of the west. Rivers are known for carving valleys and canyons, not for their relationships with earthquakes. However, when the two natural forces (flowing water and plate tectonics) blend, the result can be astounding. An example of that natural phenomenon lies only 25 miles from West Yellowstone at the Madison River Canyon Earthquake Area.
An area 38,000 acres, the reserve is testimony to one of the most violent earthquakes that shook the west on Aug. 17 1959 at 11:37 p.m. At that time, the Red Canyon fault and the Hebgen fault, both in the Madison River area, moved simultaneously and triggered an earthquake that measured 7.5 on the Richter scale. That earthquake forced a massive landslide that screamed down mountains and hills at about 100 miles per hour. Tons of rocks and earth crashed into Madison Canyon. The results were catastrophic. The force of the slide caused a flood and high winds swept a giant wave downstream. Five people died in the flood alone. The landslide killed another 28 people. It also dropped the north shore of Hebgen Lake 19 feet. Cabins on the shore washed into the water as huge waves crested over Hebgen Dam. Three sections of Highway 287 fell into the lake, the dam cracked in at least four places and hundreds of campers were trapped. The landslide eventually stopped, essentially damming the Madison River and creating Earthquake, or “Quake Lake,” a 190-foot deep, six mile long lake stocked with German and Brown Trout.
Today, small boats and canoes now bob on the lake and visitors enjoy the water from the shoreline. The present day visitors center overlooks the slide area and lake. Educational exhibits with information about wildlife, earthquakes and other geographic phenomenon line the walls. Highlights include a working seismograph, authentic photographs of damage taken in the days shortly following the quake, and recollections from the survivors.
An observation room, informational videos and outdoor boardwalk share the story of the slide. Perhaps most impressive are the massive dolomite boulders carried across the canyon by the slide. One of these boulders has a plaque containing the names of the 28 people who died. Rangers in the area also recommend taking the auto tour along highway 287, which takes visitors by refugee point, ghost village, building destruction, Duck Creek and the epicenter of the earthquake.
The visitors center is open 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week from Memorial Day through mid-September. Fees are $3 per car, $15 per tour bus, $1 for hikers/bikers. Golden Eagle, Golden Age, and Golden Access passes are honored.