Some of Glacier National Park's Best Sites Are Underwater

By: Stephanie Vermillion  | 

glacier national park scuba
Remains of hand tools and shovels stuck in the mud are at the bottom of Lake McDonald, a popular spot for scuba divers to explore. National Park Service

Glacier National Park is known for many things: towering mountains, the dazzling Going-to-the-Sun Road drive and turquoise lakes galore. These experiences and vistas are captivating and adrenaline-pumping, but there's one oft-overlooked adventure that also can't be missed: scuba diving.

Yes, you read that right: You can scuba dive in Glacier National Park, as long as you're trained and have access to your own gear. From a shipwreck at the Gertrude steam paddle wheeler dive site in Upper Waterton Lake to Apgar Village, where artifacts from the park's early days artistically line the bottom, scuba unveils a new, rarely seen side of this popular U.S. National Park in Montana.

"Glacier Park [has] high-altitude natural lakes, and some of the best visibility in the state," Carolyn Bakker, general manager and travel specialist for Dive Montana, says in an email. "Glacier is an amazing park. By diving it, you get to see a view of it that others never see."

Advertisement

Where to Dive in Glacier National Park

Bakker's top Glacier National Park diving spot is Apgar Village on Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park. The 472-feet-deep (143.8-meter) lake covers a basin carved by ice age glaciers, making it the perfect setting for clear and scenic scuba adventures. According to the National Park Service, Lake McDonald's Apgar Village is one of the most easily accessible dive spots; it's located right off the Apgar Visitor Center, where conveniences like parking and concessions are available. Apgar is also where Bakker's favorite glacier-dive phenomenon awaits.

"Out in front of Apgar Village is an area we call the Shovel Fork Forest," she says. "Divers discovered a debris field that had a lot of pitch forks, shovels, axes and other items. The divers pushed the handles into the lake bottom so the shovels were upright — hence, a 'forest.'"

Lake McDonald's points of interest don't stop there. "The second area that I like is called the 'underwater forest,'" Bakker says. "This area has trees that have fallen over and make an interesting dive. Since this is a natural lake, there is a bit of mystery as to why they're there."

According to the BBC, a landslide in the early 1900s brought these full-grown trees into Lake McDonald. The heavy tree roots sank to the bottom while the tops of the trees floated upright, creating a true underwater forest that looks astonishingly extraterrestrial.

Other Glacier National Park dive sites include Upper Waterton Lake on the Canadian side of the park. From this dive spot, visitors can see the remains of the massive Gertrude, a 100-foot-long (30-meter) steam paddle-wheeler, circa 1907. The NPS says this spot is easy to find and dive; it's located just off the picnic area from the Waterton Park Townsite. At Fish Creek, located on the southern end of Lake McDonald, divers can also visit the Fish Creek Bay Wreck, although this excursion requires boat access. But it lies in just 10 feet (3 meters) of water at its deepest point so it may be worth the trip.

Lake McDonald
Lake McDonald in Montana's Glacier National Park one of the most popular lakes for scuba divers to explore.
Jeff R Clow/Getty Images

Advertisement

When to Dive in Glacier National Park

With an array of underwater attractions, it's hard to believe Glacier National Park scuba diving hasn't topped most divers' bucket lists. Bakker says that may be due to the complexity involved with diving there.

glacier national park scuba
Divers can also explore this wooden structure from the Fish Creek Bay Wreck site, though it takes a boat to access the site.
National Park Service

"I get inquiries about diving there, but unless you have your own equipment, it's a bit challenging for divers from out of state," she says. "Since it's a national park, the local dive shops don't conduct tours there. [Dive shops] would have to have a concession permit, and they are quite expensive."

But divers don't need a tour guide. With adequate gear, visitors can dive on their own, and the national park doesn't require divers to have permits, even during COVID. The only requirement is diver-down flags must be displayed when divers are in the water. While the park is open year-round, the best months for diving are April to November. Midsummer water temperatures are around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Celsius) at the surface, and reach roughly 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) at 100 feet (30 meters).

Bakker recommends diving with caution — and only after undergoing proper training. "Divers would need to be trained in high-altitude diving," she says. (Lake McDonald sits at 3,153 feet [961 meters] above sea level.) At higher altitudes like these, the pressure change is more intense, particularly during the first 30 feet (9 meters), according to ScubaDiving.com. "The water is also cold, so a dry suit would be the recommended exposure suit," Bakker says.

And wannabe divers shouldn't take her advice lightly. Sadly, in November 2020, an 18-year-old woman died while diving near the dock of the Lake McDonald Lodge. She was with a group of six divers. Another in her group, a 22-year-old male diver, also needed rescue for shortness of breath. He was eventually flown to Seattle for hyperbaric oxygen treatment (a treatment used for decompression sickness, a risk associated with scuba diving, according to the Mayo Clinic).

Advertisement