Plain of 6 Glaciers, Banff National Park
Text and photography by Mike Potter
The Plain of the 6 Glaciers is a great hike that offers some fantastic views of Banff National Park and Lake Louise. Whether you are on the lookout for wildlife or just a well deserved cup of tea at the teahouse at the end, this is a good option.
The first 2.5 km of this hike serve as a good warm-up for the outing: this stretch is essentially flat. After tracing the north shore of Lake Louise you pass beneath the quartzite cliffs of the “Back of the Lake,” with a variety of challenging rockclimbing routes (for roped technical climbers only).
The trail then runs along the delta formed at the west end of Lake Louise, where particles of silt carried in the rushing glacial meltwater streams settle out when they reach still water. A sign marked “End of Nordic Ski Trail” suggests the origin of the open swaths soon encountered when the route starts to climb: they are avalanche chutes. These slide paths are especially dangerous for cross-country skiers in winter, but still constitute a hazard for people on foot early in the hiking season.
Hoary marmots, large members of the squirrel family with reddish tails as adults, are often found in the slide-created meadows. Marmots are also known as “whistlers” because of their high-pitched, far-carrying alarm calls.
The trail gives views of the terminal moraine left by the most recent advance of the Lower Victoria Glacier during the Little Ice Age, which peaked circa 1850. The present outlet stream flows through the steep, narrow gorge it has breached in the material deposited at the toe of the receding glacier.
The third in a series of four short switchbacks just 300 metres before the teahouse grants an excellent perspective over the glacial cave at the present toe of the Lower Victoria Glacier, and across to the peak named The Mitre (shaped like a bishop’s cap) between mts. Aberdeen and Lefroy.
Arrival at the teahouse reveals the complement of six glaciers that gave rise to the name: hanging glaciers on mts. Aberdeen, Lefroy, and Victoria; the Lefroy and Lower Victoria valley glaciers; and finally the bulge of a hanging glacier on Popes Peak to the north.
You reach the zone of the subalpine larch at the teahouse. Larches are unique in that although they are conifers, they shed all their needles in the autumn. The needles turn a brilliant golden hue before dropping off. Each year’s soft-textured foliage grows anew starting in the spring.
At the Plain of Six Glaciers teahouse you are also near the high cliff haunts of mountain goats, with their white coats and thin black horns. These sturdy, stocky climbers, who rely on seemingly insurmountable walls as escape terrain, can often be observed on the slopes due north of the teahouse.
For those who want full information about the hike, here is some in depth details to help you out.
Distance: 5.5 km (3.4 mi) – Lake Louise to Plain of Six Glaciers teahouse.
Day Hike: 1.5 – 2 hr one way
Elevation Gain: 370 m (1215 ft)
Maximum Elevation: 2100 m (6890 ft)
Trailhead: The northeast corner of Lake Louise; pass in front of the Chateau Lake Louise after crossing from the large public parking areas using either of two footbridges over Louise Creek.
0.0 – Sign at junction (elevation 1730 m). Stay on left along the north shore of Lake Louise, as for the Lake Louise Lakeshore trail.
2.1 – End of the Lake Louise Lakeshore trail at a rest bench (1740 m) above the west end of Lake Louise. Descend a short distance to travel beside the braided channels of Louise Creek.
2.5 – Begin gradual climb at two rest benches where Louise Creek is a single stream funneled through rocky banks.
3.4 – Junction (1800 m) with bottom of Shortcut Switchbacks to Plain of Six Glaciers trail from the Highline trail. Keep straight.
4.1 – Junction with the Highline trail for Lake Agnes. Keep left. The trail stays fairly level for some distance and passes along a narrow ledge (there is an alternative route along the base of the cliff). Then begin a steady climb in the trough behind the north lateral moraine of the Lower Victoria Glacier.
5.2 – Series of four short switchbacks.
5.5 – Plain of Six Glaciers teahouse (2100 m).
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