Did you know that one of the strongest recorded earthquakes in North America occurred just a few miles north of West Yellowstone? On your next scenic drive around West Yellowstone, stop in at the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center to find out more about the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake and the “night of terror” that ensued. Visitors to the center can learn about the area’s rich geologic activity while taking in striking views of the mountain that fell and the lake it created.
The Hebgen Lake Earthquake
The Hebgen Lake Earthquake occurred in the dead of night on August 17, 1959. The earthquake measured 7.5 (later adjusted to 7.3) on the Richter scale and triggered a landslide that brought 80 million tons of rock hurdling down into the Madison River canyon at 100 miles per hour, killing 28 people who were camping nearby. The geologic event blocked the Madison River in less than a minute and formed what is now known as Earthquake (Quake) Lake.
The Visitor Center
The Earthquake Lake Visitor Center opened for its first season in May 1967. Renovations to the building began in 2012 and the facility was updated and expanded from 1,500 to 2,400 square feet. Since reopening to the public in 2014, the center has hosted more than 50,000 visitors from around the world each season.
The visitor center is perched atop the 80 million tons of rock that broke away from Sheep Mountain on the night of the earthquake. A short walking path leads to a nearby boulder that echoes the magnitude of the event and serves as a memorial to the 28 victims. Additional short paths lead to overlook points with unparalleled views of Quake Lake, dotted with skeletal trees reaching up from the depths, and the massive scarp from the landslide that ripped away the side of the mountain. Several interpretive signs outside of the visitor center provide background information about the 1959 earthquake and the area’s geologic activity.
Inside, curious visitors can check out a working seismograph and peruse interpretive displays on earthquakes, plate tectonics, and geologic activity. The building offers panoramic views of the mountain that fell and Quake Lake below. A movie detailing the events of the “night of terror” and the formation of Quake Lake is shown in the building’s observatory. Visitors can also purchase a souvenir at the bookstore, operated through a partnership with the nonprofit organization Yellowstone Forever.
But the adventure isn’t over yet! Grab an area guide on your way out and explore the landscape for yourself. Drive to the various points of interest marked on the map and pause to view the series of interpretive signs that tell the story of that fateful night. Some points of interest take you on short walks, including trails to the Refuge Point overlook and the old Hilgard Lodge. Visitors can even drive along part of a road that was destroyed by a landslide.
Where is it located?
The visitor center is located approximately 25 miles northwest of West Yellowstone and is an easily accessible stop on a scenic drive through the area. The drive to the visitor center features breathtaking views of Hebgen Lake, the Madison River, and the Madison Range. From West Yellowstone, head north on Highway 191 for 8 miles. Turn left onto Highway 287 at the junction. Continue on Highway 287 for 17 miles until you reach the visitor center on your right. As you approach the visitor center, keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep that frequent the area!
When can I visit?
The visitor center’s 2019 season runs from May 25th through September 15th according to the following schedule
- May 24th-September 3th, 10am-6pm
- September 3th-September 15th, 10am-5pm
For questions, contact the visitor center from May through September at (406) 682-7620. During the off season, contact the U.S. Forest Service—Hebgen Lake District Office at (406)-823-6961.