4 - 5
FATMAP difficulty grade
Emerald Lake is often heralded as one of the most beautiful lakes tucked in the Gallatin Mountains above Bozeman.
This route is a simple out-and-back to Emerald Lake with zero possibility of getting lost along the way.
However, you can opt to continue past Emerald Lake to reach Heather Lake just another mile up the trail (which is highly recommended). This popular trail is open to hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, and even motorcycles on certain days.
Due to its incredible popularity, a "shared use" schedule has been implemented, which bans bikes from the trail on Sundays and Mondays between July 16 and September 5.
For a bike-free hiking experience, opt for a Sunday or Monday. The hike begins by slowly meandering its way up along a rushing creek on easy singletrack.
The undulating singletrack eventually steepens, with switchbacks offering upward passage on the steepening mountainside.
Despite gaining a couple thousand vert to reach the lakes, this trail is still eminently hikeable thanks to the well-built switchbacks.
As the trail nears Emerald Lake, you'll break out of the trees into breathtaking alpine meadows with jagged, rocky mountain ridges soaring high above you.
You'll see that you're hiking into a bowl at the very end of a valley, and then you'll quickly encounter Emerald Lake. The green water makes it immediately clear how this lake got its name.
Take a break on the shore, but be sure to keep heading up to Heather Lake if you have the stamina.
While Emerald Lake is close to the bowl at the end of the valley, Heather Lake is actually cupped in the final bowl, with steep-sided mountain ridges rising dramatically from its shores.
It is undoubtedly even more scenic than Emerald Lake! While it's only another mile up to Heather Lake, the singletrack gets a bit tighter and narrower due to the diminished traffic up to that point. After enjoying the views at Heather Lake, head back to the car the same way you came. **Note:** The Big Sky area is renowned as prime grizzly bear country.
Signs at every trailhead warn that bears are highly active in the area.
To mitigate the risk of bear encounters, make plenty of noise while hiking, try to hike with a group of people, and consider attaching a bear bell to your backpack.
Also, make certain that you carry bear spray with you every time you hike, in case you do get into an encounter with a grizzly.