lake mcdonald

Lake McDonald: The Rainbow Lake of Glacier National Park

Discovering The Beauty of Lake McDonald


What made you want to check Glacier National Park off your bucket list? Some answers differ, but about every list includes seeing the beautiful, world-renowned colorful rocks on the shores of Lake McDonald, also commonly called the rainbow lake. Not only are the views breathtaking of the mountains surrounding the lake but the rocks are so mesmerizing to see also. Stopping in Apgar village or anywhere along Lake McDonald should be on the Glacier to-do list when you come to visit.

Why are the rainbow rocks in Lake McDonald colorful? 

These rocks weren’t purchased online and hauled in to create this amazing shoreline, 2-day prime shipping isn’t an option. These colorful gems were all created over different eras and took years and years to form with the help of Glaciers coming through and breaking down bigger rocks into smaller rocks. You will see different colors of rocks all around Glacier National Park, but Lake McDonald is the best place to marvel at its glory. 

How do they have such different colors? These colored rocks are determined by the amount of iron. The red and maroon rocks have more iron in them while the blue and green rocks have less iron in them as they were formed in deeper waters. Iron is a reactive metal, so like metal on an old car, it will oxidize, or rust and turn reddish/orange when exposed to oxygen. 

Waterton-Glacier is where you will find some of the best and oldest preserved sedimentary rock found anywhere in North America. All this beauty wasn’t created over a short span of time. It has taken approximately 1.6 billion years to create along with numerous geologic processes involved including erosion, sediment deposition, uplift and thrust faulting, and glaciation. Learn more about Waterton Lakes National park and its relation to Glacier. 

rainbow rocks - glacier national park

Which lakes in Glacier National Park have colorful rocks? 

Did you know there are an estimated 700 lakes within Glacier? Of those 700 only 131 of them have names. Lake McDonald is the largest lake in Glacier but also one of the most popular lakes as well. Take a dip if you like but our water stays fairly chilly year-round. It makes a great reward at the end of your hike or to beat some of that summer heat. Our lakes are all glacier-fed and rarely reach temperatures over 50° Fahrenheit. This benefits us in more ways than just cooling us off, it’s also the main reason we have such clear waters. The year-round colder temperatures we experience it prohibits the growth of plankton so we can enjoy those crystal clear waters. 

There is no shortage of waters to see and explore while you are visiting. From lakes and streams to waterfalls, some of our favorites are Avalanche Lake (which also gives you Avalanche Gorge along the way as a bonus),  Bowman Lake, Kintla, St. Mary Lake, St. Mary Falls, Two Medicine Lake, Many Glacier. Those are just a few among many more. Along the route of Going-To-The-Sun Road you will also see Bird Woman Falls and if you plan it right  you can even enjoy the weeping wall at its peak for the season. 

Want to really experience the full beauty of a few of Glacier’s lakes? Take a boat tour along Lake McDonald, St. Mary, Many Glacier or Two Medicine Lake with our friends at Glacier Park Boat Company

Are you allowed to take rocks from Lake McDonald?

Glacier is breathtaking and beautiful but the best way to take a piece of it home to remember for years to come is from the lens of your camera. Capture some incredible shots or take a stroll through one of the many gift shops here in the area. We wouldn’t have rocks among other things in Glacier if everyone decided to take a little piece with them. The rocks aren’t on a no-go list for TSA but it is illegal to remove anything from a national park, not just Glacier National Park. 

Although taking a small rock or part of Glacier with you seems little and harmless, it has a bigger impact than you think. Taking something could alter and displace water flow or a species. So something little could be way bigger than we think. If you think you discovered something, take a picture and show a park ranger. A good rule of thumb to have while visiting Glacier and any of the other beautiful national park is the “leave no trace” policy or guidelines.

We are here to admire the park but not alter it. This means respecting all trails and not going off-trail or exploring where we aren’t supposed to. Respecting wildlife is also a HUGE thing to be mindful of. Give them the distance they need, remember we are in their backyard. Always remember “pack it in, pack it out” as well. Do not leave a trace of where you were or what you had for lunch during your hike. These are not a black-and-white list of rules or regulations but rather a way of thinking, an attitude and an ethic. Abiding by these will help reduce our impact on these places we love and teach all generations to love and respect nature’s beauty and keep it beautiful for years to come for all other generations to come and admire. 

Adventure Pass - Glacier Highline

Enjoy All The Sights Of West Glacier

Lake McDonald isn’t the only sight to see in West Glacier. West Glacier is HOPPIN’ during the summer months with mini golf, raft trips, ice cream from the Tower Grill or snag some souvenirs from the West Glacier gift shop to take home. Whitefish is also a fun downtown area to explore as well. Take a scenic chair lift up the mountain to see some wildlife or hike up and enjoy the views on the way down the mountain as well from above. Our valley has farmer’s markets on Tuesdays in Whitefish, Thursday in Columbia Falls or Saturday mornings in Kalispell. Support local artists, farmers and enjoy some local music while you peruse the stands. 

Even though Glacier may be the headlining act of why you came to the Flathead Valley, there is so much to do outside the gates of Glacier. This valley BOOMS in the Summer with activities from sunrise to sunset….and beyond! Don’t forget Glacier Highline’s aerial adventure park is a fun, family-friendly activity for you and your crew during your time in the valley. Stretch your muscles after those long hikes or Red Bus Tour on our obstacles then really relax pondside with a frozen huckleberry lemonade from our West Glacier restaurant, the Tower Grill. We are open for family fun Monday- Saturday from 9am-6pm so don’t forget to harness up and have some memorable fun at Glacier Highline!

Glacier Highline is your premier Glacier National Park family vacation destination. As an aerial adventure park, we offer ziplining, rock wall climbing, adventures on our ground inflatable obstacle course and giant inflatable water slide. Stay and play in our of our lodging near West Glacier options–most are located only 7 mi from the West Glacier Entrance.