Just before midnight, on an evening of August 17, 1959, crickets softly sang their evening songs as the Madison River tumbled over rocks and plunged into pools on its journey to meet with the Jefferson River and the Gallatin River. The U. S. Forest Service Rock Creek public campground spread over a small area at the bottom of the Madison River Canyon. Two miles downstream the river spilled out to the open area of the Missouri Flats; an expansive valley located between the Gravelly Range on the west side and the Madison Range on the east side.
Within a few seconds the still evening was shattered along with the lives of 28 campers at the campground. They were crushed by the weight of millions of tons of rocks. The cause of the landslide was an earthquake, which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale making it Montana's largest recorded earthquake since 1869. The main tremor began at 11:39 p.m. and in Helena lasted 35 to 40 seconds. A second tremor came at 11:46 p.m. and continued for four or five seconds. The north shore of Hebgen Lake, which lay just upstream, dropped an amazing 19 feet, cracking Hebgen Dam in four places and creating gigantic waves on the lake that spilled over the dam and raced downstream in a mighty flood. The landslide also caused tornado force winds that fanned out in front of the landslide and flood, destroying almost everything in its path. Three different sections of Highway 287 slid into the newly formed lake and numerous cabins along the former Madison River were either damaged or completely destroyed.
A trip to Quake 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 amazing. An example of that natural phenomenon lies only 25 miles from West Yellowstone at the Madison River Canyon Earthquake Area.
Following all this Quake Lake was formed. Quake Lake measures six miles long and upto a third of a mile wide, and is more than 180 feet deep. Quake Lake offers good fly-fishing for brown trout and rainbow trout and is stocked annually.
It is a peculiar feeling to be casting to cruising trout among the skeletons of fir and pine trees above the submerged highway bed. Quake Lake is sometimes forgotten, but it can be an excellent fishery. The fishing is consistent with Hebgen Lake and it can be a great getaway because it is almost never crowded.
The best fishing on Quake Lake occurs in late spring and early summer, and again later in the summer and fall. During the height of runoff, the lake can turn cloudy, severely limiting fly fishing opportunities. As Quake Lake flooded much of the former Madison River canyon, thousands of dead trees poke up through the lake. These trees, combined with the countless trees that are completely submerged, provide excellent cover and habitat for trout, although it can complicate the fishing. Fly-fishing can be excellent using dry flies around all the dead standing timber
The Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, located on Highway 287 approximately twenty-seven miles northwest of West Yellowstone, Montana, is open 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. seven days a week from mid-May through mid-September. The admission charge is three dollars per car and one dollar per bicycle or hiker. Other sights the Red Canyon, and Canyon Creek scarps, Hebgen Dam, submerged cabins and highway, and the Memorial Boulder-are accessible all year. These locations are marked along Highway 287 between its junction with Highway 191 and the Madison Slide area. Call the Hebgen Lake Ranger District at (406) 823-6961 for more information.