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Quake Lake

1959 Earthquake forms Quake Lake West of Yellowstone

On Aug. 17, 1959 the earth around Yellowstone shook. At 11:37 p.m. a 7.3 magnitude earthquake devastated Hebgen Lake, Montana, located in Yellowstone’s northwestern region.

August 17th marks the 60th anniversary of the formation of Earthquake Lake. in Montana. An earthquake had disrupted the full-moon night of Aug. 17, 1959, turning it chaotic and terrifying. The quake had a magnitude of 7.3, and it remains the largest to hit the region. The landslide also stopped the river. The water backed up and spread out, turning a swath of canyon into an ominous lake. (Rachel Leathe/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP)

On August 17, 1959, near midnight, an earthquake near the Madison River triggered a massive landslide.  The slide moved at 100 mph and in less than 1 minute, over 80 million tons of rock crashed into the narrow canyon, blocking the Madison River and forming Earthquake Lake.  This earth-changing event, known as the Hebgen Lake Earthquake, measured 7.5 on the Richter scale.

At the time it was the second largest earthquake to occur in the lower 48 states in the 20th century. Twenty-eight people lost their lives in the event.

In 1967, the Forest Service’s Earthquake Lake Visitor Center opened its doors for the first season of operation.  Today, the center provides interpretive services for more than 50,000 visitors annually.  The natural attractions and the easily-seen effects of the strongest earthquake in the Rocky mountains has made this area one of the outstanding scenic and geological study areas in the west.


The Earthquake Lake Visitor Center is located 27 miles northwest of West Yellowstone, Montana on US Highway 287.  It is 44 miles south of Ennis, MT and 99 miles southwest of Bozeman, MT.

A visitor center overlooking a body of water.


The center provides a panoramic view of the mountain that fell and the lake that was formed.  This facility hosts interpretive displays on earthquakes, plate tectonics, and a working seismograph.  In the observatory, scheduled movies and talks, explain the story of the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake.  Visit our bookstore which is operated in partnership with the Yellowstone Forever.  There are restrooms, outside interpretive signs and a walking path to the Memorial Boulder.  Pick up a Visitor Guide to the Earthquake Lake Geologic Area and explore other points of interest and evidence of the large quake.

Season of Operation

The Earthquake Lake Visitor Center is open daily from Memorial Day in May through September 15th. Hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission.

Call ahead if traveling around Memorial Day or in September.

  • Seasonally at Earthquake Lake Visitor Center 406 682-7620 or
  • Hebgen Lake Ranger District (off-season/winter) 406-823-6961

Snowshoe hikes along the Refuge Point Trail

Explore Refuge Point Trail while learning about the historic 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake. Meet at the Hebgen Lake Ranger District (330 Gallatin Road in West Yellowstone) at 1:00 pm before caravanning to the trailhead. The 1.5-mile trek is kid friendly and geared for beginners. Allow 3 hours. Snowshoes are not provided. For questions, please contact the Hebgen Lake Ranger District at 1-406-823-6961.


Reference: Forest Service Website