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Canadian Rockies – Insider’s guide to hiking Banff National Park

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Not sure where to hike in Banff National Park? Look no further.

by Paul Peters

Banff National Park covers a 6,641 square km (2,564 square mi.) area of unparalleled mountain scenery in the heart of the magnificent Canadian Rockies.
Besides glaciers, icefields, some of the tallest peaks and most beautiful lakes in the Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park has a trail system that covers 1,600 km (1,000 mi.).

Lake Louise, popular with hikers for a good reason.

Lake Louise, popular with hikers for a good reason.

To get some ideas of how a hiker might tackle these trails, we spoke to two local experts, Gordon Stermann, a 30-year resident of Banff and owner of White Mountain Adventures, and Bud Ettinger, owner of Back of Beyond Adventure Company since 1993.

Taking it easy

Stermann had a couple hikes he recommended that are both easy and rewarding.
“If you were to ask anybody in the Banff area about Sunshine Meadows, they’d say you had to go,” he says.
From Sunshine Meadows, you’ll get views of Mount Assiniboine, the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies, you’ll cross the continental divide, see three different mountain lakes and “wild flowers like crazy,” according to Stermann.
Stermann notes that the trail is easy and accessible to any level of hiker, and that his company operates a shuttle that will cut off a significant portion of the hike, allowing you to spend more time at the top.
For first timers, Stermann also suggests hitting the Lake Louise area, just 4 km out of the town of Lake Louise, which, he notes, is a busy place “for a very, very good reason.”
One hike to check out there is the Lake Louise Lakeshore trail, which starts in front of Chateau Lake Louise, and is just 4 km total with little to no elevation gain, which makes for a quick 1-hour round trip. The trail is easy to walk for just about anyone, yet offers amazing views of the lake and surrounding peaks, and access to several longer trails.

Get gruesome

For people willing and able to do a more difficult trip, Ettinger strongly recommended hiking Cory Pass, noting, “It’s a fairly gruesome hike.”
According to Parks Canada, in fact, this is “One of the most difficult hikes in Banff National Park,” and is recommended “for strong hikers with good route finding skills.”
Cory pass is a 13 km loop, with an elevation gain of 915 m, and takes about 6 hours round trip.
It’s all worth it, according to Ettinger, “You go through a very high pass, where you can see the whole basin back behind you.”
“When you drop back down the other side, it’s true wilderness,” he says. “You’ll see sheep for sure, and it’s great bear country.”

There is no shortage of breath taking beauty in Banff National Park.

There is no shortage of breath taking beauty in Banff National Park.

The hike starts from Fireside Picnic Area at the eastern end of the Bow Valley Parkway. From there you follow a 1 km access road from the parkway to the picnic area.
You return from Cory Pass by making a loop around Mount Edith and descending the Edith Pass trail. Check a trail guide for detailed directions.

Make like Santa Claus

For experienced hikers, Stermann recommends hiking Mount Yamnuska, a mountain just east of Canmore, which is technically outside of the park, but hey, it’s a great hike, so we’ve included it.
“It’s a very steep face, but it’s relatively easy if you go around back,” he says.
The hike involves scaling a small chimney (which is a cut in the rock that is a narrow chute, like a small chimney with one wall missing).
From there you hike to a wire that you hold as you walk past a steep ledge, you scramble up to the peak, which affords some of the most amazing views of the valley, then back down along a trail below a 1,000 ft. cliff, to a scree field that you can slide down. The whole trip takes about four to six hours, Stermann says.
Because this hike is difficult and involves some climbing/scrambling, we recommend getting a guide or talking to Parks Canada before attempting it.
We hope these suggestions help you find what you’re looking for in Banff. Stay tuned for updates on more Banff hikes.

Scenic drives in the Canadian Rockies: from Lake Louise to Jasper

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From Lake Louise to Jasper

by Paul Peters Editor

Start your scenic drive at the amazing Lake Louise and you won't be disappointed.

Start your scenic drive at the amazing Lake Louise and you won't be disappointed.

A scenic drive in the Canadian Rockies from Lake Louise to Jasper will never leave you wondering “Are we there yet?”
You’re there. You can’t help but be.
The glacier-carved valleys and peaks between Lake Louise and Jasper offer gorgeous lakes, majestic peaks, glaciers, and one of the world’s largest icefields.
No matter where you are on this drive, there’s something to see.
“On a clear day, it is truly one of the most beautiful drives in the world,” says Nadine Fletcher.
Fletcher, an Interpretive Guides Association accredited master interpreter, recommends getting up early-the closer to sunrise the better-in order to get the most out of the drive. You’ll beat the crowds, see more wildlife, and have more time appreciate the views, short hikes and tours available.
You’ll start your excursion from the town of Lake Louise, where you can stock up, and rest up, before your scenic drive.

Day one: Lake Louise and Moraine Lake

Moraine Lake sports one of the most well known views in the Canadian Rockies.

Moraine Lake sports one of the most well known views in the Canadian Rockies.

On day one, you’ll travel only 4 km (2.5 mi) before reaching Lake Louise, the town’s namesake lake.
One of the first things you’ll notice about this lake is its emerald color. Don’t worry, it’s as natural as it is beautiful, the result of light bouncing off minerals released into the lake by ancient glaciers.
You’ll also see the amazing Chateau Lake Louise, a hotel built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the early 20th century that, sitting at the foot of the lake and surrounding by the amazing Canadian Rockies, looks like it dropped out of a fairy tale.
From Lake Louise, you may want to go the short distance to Moraine Lake.
From Moraine Lake, it’s possible to continue on toward Jasper, although you may want to return to Lake Louise your first night. If you spot a grizzly with her cubs, or find the perfect place to stop and enjoy the scenery, you won’t want to be in hurry.

Day two: Icefields, glaciers and Jasper

From the Lake Louise area, you’ll start the 237 km (148 mi) trip to Jasper National Park on Icefields Parkway. This scenic drive is lined with one beautiful mountain lake after another, with more than 100 glaciers providing a dramatic backdrop.

Peyto lake is not to be missed on your Lake Louise to Jasper scenic drive.

Peyto lake is not to be missed on your Lake Louise to Jasper scenic drive.

One of the first must-see stops along the parkway is Hector Lake, the largest lake in Banff National Park, with views of Mt. Balfour and Crowfoot Mountain.
From there, I’d recommend stopping at Bow Summit, which, at 2,068 m (6,785 ft) above sea level, is the highest point on the drive. Bow Summit is best viewed from the Peyto Lake viewpoint, where you can see the lake far below, and get great, sweeping photos of the valley.
From Peyto, you’ll cross over the Saskatchewan River (an excellent place to spot wild life) and head on toward the Weeping Wall.
Here, water from snow melting high on Cirrus Mountain seeps through cracks in the sheer cliff face and plunges down as a series wispy, yes weeping, waterfalls.
Next on the agenda is perhaps the highlight of the journey, the Columbia Icefield.

Your vacation, on ice

A field of ice might sound boring if you’ve never seen one, but there’s a reason they named this scenic roadway after the icefield. Enormity is part of what makes the Columbia Icefield amazing – it’s 100 to 365 m (328 to 1,197 ft) thick, and covers an area of  3 2 5   square km (202 square mi). Columbia icefield gives you a sense of the powerful forces that sculpted the Canadian Rockies, and are still at work here today.
“It’s the most ice you can see in any one place, short of going to Alaska,” Nadine says. “It’s not to be missed; it’s an experience you can’t have anywhere else.”
Fletcher recommends starting at the new Columbia Icefield Centre.
“The exhibits are well done and explain the icefield well,” she says.

View along Icefields Parkway.

View along Icefields Parkway.

From there, you’ll hit the icefield itself. Depending what stage of retreat the icefield is in, it may be possible to walk right up and touch the ice. There are also tours available that allow you to trek or even ride on the ice in an all-terrain bus You can obtain information on the tours from the Welcome Centre.
A short drive from the icefields you’ll find picturesque Athabasca Glacier and Mt. Athabasca. Tours are also available of this easily accessible glacier.
A bit further down the road is the Athabasca River, which carries more water than any river in the Rocky Mountains. You’ll know this instinctively when you watch it plunge over the Athabasca falls and thunder into the gorge below.
From the falls, it’s a short distance to the end of your journey in Jasper, a mountain retreat with all the comforts of home, but still surrounded by breathtaking scenery and an abundance of wildlife.

Hiking the Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park, Skoki Valley

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Skoki Valley, Banff National Park

Text and Photography by Mike Potter

A study of Zigadenus Lake (one of Skoki Lakes)

A study of Zigadenus Lake (one of Skoki Lakes).

Skoki Valley is a great backcountry trip, providing some truly unique views of Banff National Park, (just look at the photo to the right) and is a good place to get off the beaten path in the Canadian Rockies and see some wildlife.

This trail from Boulder Pass along the north shore of Ptarmigan Lake and over Deception Pass is the usual approach to Skoki Valley. (The trip from the Fish Creek parking area to Deception Pass and return can be made in a long day.)

Gordon Stermann, a long time Banff resident, and owner of local guide company White Mountain Adventures, is a big fan of this hike.

“I love going in to Skoki in both summer and winter,” he says. “The route in has a tremendous variety of scenery, relatively few hikers, and is for the most part, at or above treeline. I can’t think of anything it lacks.”

Furthermore, he adds, “The Skoki Valley itself is a great base for other day hikes in summer or ski tours in winter”

A total of 16 km of travel from the parking area brings you to the backcountry campground at Merlin Meadows (1.2 km past Skoki Lodge), which serves as an excellent base for exploring the vicinity. A highlight of the campground is observing the daily routine of mountain goats on the avalanche slopes and cliffs to the north from the picnic table at your site.

Skoki Valley was named from a native word meaning “swamp” or “marsh,” which also applied to the hometown in Skokie, Illinois, of one of the leaders of the first party of mountaineers to venture into the valley in 1911.

See Fish Creek parking lot to Boulder Pass

Distance: 7.2 km (4.5 mi) – Boulder Pass to Merlin Meadows backcountry campground
Extension to day hike or backpack: 1 hour one way to Deception Pass; 2.5 – 3 hour one way to Merlin Meadows backcountry campground
Elevation Gain: 145 m (475 ft) – Boulder Pass to Deception Pass
Elevation Loss: 385 m (1260 ft) – Deception Pass to Merlin Meadows campground
Maximum Elevation: 2485 m (8150 ft)
Trailhead: Boulder Pass.

0.0 – Wooden sign at east end of Boulder Pass (elevation 2340 m). Keep left for Deception Pass and Skoki Valley (Redoubt Lake and Heather Ridge to right).
0.5 – Junction with off-trail scrambling route to Packer’s Pass from Ptarmigan Lake climbing to left; keep right along lakeshore for Deception Pass
1.9 – Sign at junction (2365 m). Turn left and begin steep climb (Baker Lake trail goes straight).
2.5 – Deception Pass (2485 m). Descend north side on steady grade toward Skoki Valley.
4.9 – Junction with well-travelled horse trail veering off to left after a creek crossing. Keep straight to avoid mud and a narrow canyon.
5.5 – Junction. Keep left for Skoki Valley (Red Deer Lakes trail to right).
6.0 – Skoki Lodge. Trail continues to rear of main building.
7.2 – Merlin Meadows backcountry campground (2100 m).

Text includes contributions by Editor Paul Peters.

Hiking Lake Louise | Recreation | Banff National Park | Rocky Mountain Destinations

Hiking the Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park, Boulder Pass

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Boulder Pass, Banff National Park

Redoubt Lake, looking north to Fossil Mountain

Redoubt Lake, looking North to Fossil Mountain.

Text and Photography by Mike Potter

The Boulder Pass hike provides unique views of Banff National Park‘s peaks, including an alternate view of the Ten Peaks above Moraine Lake, with a moderate level hike.

This hike is a great access point for longer backpacking trips, including Skoki Valley and Hidden Lake.

The first 3.9 km up the Temple fire road at the start of this outing are not overly inspiring; however, once you get on the trail proper you are on your way to a classic subalpine valley.

After traveling two kilometers or so through coniferous trees (including subalpine larches), you reach open meadows. Here, amid rugged peaks, you are rewarded with a feeling of spaciousness. The Halfway Hut day-use shelter, spruced up with a new roof and new floor in October, 1989, can provide welcome respite in stormy weather.

If backpacking, you can use the nearby backcountry campground as a base for further day hikes–such as to Hidden Lake. To reach Boulder Pass, keep right at the km 7.4 junction and climb steadily past the large boulders that give the pass its name.

Boulder Pass overlooks Ptarmigan Lake, with views of the front ranges to the east and, to the west, Mt. Victoria, Mt. Temple, and several of the Ten Peaks above Moraine Lake.

Pikas may often be seen in the vicinity of Boulder Pass, scurrying about feeding and issuing their high-pitched calls. The abundant wildflowers growing in the surroundings meadows provide ample food for these industrious small mammals.

Distance: 8.8 km (5.5 mi) – Fish Creek parking area to Boulder Pass
Day Hike or Backpack: 2.5 – 3 hours one way
Elevation Gain: 650 m (2130 ft)
Maximum Elevation: 2340 m (7675 ft)
Trailhead: The Fish Creek parking area, reached by travelling 2.0 km up the Lake Louise Ski Area access road (passing by the Bow Valley Parkway turnoff on the right), turning right onto a gravel road, and continuing 1.1 km to the parking area on the right. Signs indicate no public access beyond this point.

0.0 – Fish Creek parking area (elevation 1690 m). Head up the Temple fire road, which rises on a steady grade. Keep straight at the two junctions encountered..
3.9 – End of the fire road (and limit of permitted access by mountain bike). Turn right up short steep incline, then proceed north, climbing gradually..
6.8 – Reach open meadows and cross Corral Creek to west side.
7.3 – Cross stream from Hidden Lake and keep left. (Halfway Hut day-use shelter to right.)
7.4 – Junction (2195 m). Backcountry campground and Hidden Lake trail to left. Keep right for Boulder Pass, and soon begin steady ascent.
8.8 – Boulder Pass (2340 m).

Text includes contributions by Editor Paul Peters

Hiking Lake Louise | Recreation | Banff National Park | Rocky Mountain Destinations

Hiking the Canadian Rockies — Banff National Park, Larch Valley


Hiking the Larch Valley from Moraine Lake in Banff National Park

Looking south towrads Mt. Fay

Looking south from the Larch Valley toward Mt. Fay.

Text and Photography by Mike Potter

The hike to Larch Valley ranks as one of the more popular outings in Banff National Park and the Canadian Rockies, especially in autumn when the sub-alpine larches display a radiant golden glow.

Gordon Stermann, owner of White Mountain Adventures and a long time resident of Banff calls this one of the park’s best hikes.

“I would rate this as one of the top 5 hikes in the Canadian Rockies,” he says. “It is spectacular, has lots of elevation gain and lots of variety.”

Stermann also adds this tip, “By having a vehicle at both ends it is one continuous walk without retracing your steps.”

This trail can be crowded in the fall, particularly on weekends–other good areas for the colour of the larches turning are the meadows above Taylor Lake and the slopes around Boulder Pass.

Arrival at Larch Valley is a reward well-earned, since you climb 550 meters in just 4.2 km. After the series of steady switchbacks up from Moraine Lake, you might enjoy a pause on the rest bench at the junction with the Eiffel Lake trail.

Keeping right for Larch Valley, the first stands of larch soon appear, then you come to a fair-sized meadow. Mt. Temple rises loftily to the north, while ahead stand Pinnacle Mt. and Eiffel Peak–named for a rock tower on its north side (not visible from this trail) that resembles the famous landmark in Paris.

After a level section through the meadow, the path leads up steadily–although more gently than the trail up from Moraine Lake–to pass the last trees at approximately km 3.7. Five hundred meters further, you reach the shore of the largest of the Minnestimma Lakes nestled in the bowl between Mt. Temple and Pinnacle Mtn. The name of these small tarns has the evocative meaning “sleeping water.” Early explorer/mountaineer Samuel Allen, bestowed the name with the assistance of Stoney Indian William Twin in choosing the many names from their language that he conferred on features.

Of Allen’s original Stoney-numeral names for the summits on the south south of the Valley of the Ten Peaks, only those for Neptuak (nine) and Wenkchemna (ten) survive. The others have been renamed for non-Natives; one of them, Peak Six, honors Allen himself.

Distance: 4.2 km (2.6 mi) – Moraine Lake to Larch Valley
Day Hike: 1.5 – 2 hours one way
Elevation Gain: 550 m (1800 ft)
Maximum Elevation: 2435 m (7990 ft)
Trailhead: South end of Moraine Lake parking lot.

0.0 – South end of Moraine Lake parking area (elevation 1885 m). Continue straight on service road, passing in front of Moraine Lake Lodge.
0.2 – Junction with Moraine Lake Lakeshore trail. Keep right and climb steadily on a series of switchbacks.
2.6 – Junction (2260 m) with Eiffel Lake trail. Turn right; climb less steeply. Pass through an open meadow flanked by larches.
3.7 – Treeline (2385 m)
4.2 – Largest of the Minnestimma Lakes (2435 m)

Text includes contributions by Editor Paul Peters

Yamnuska Mountain Adventures

For further information on guided tours in the Canadian Rockies, fill out the blue form on the right side of this page.

Hiking Lake Louise | Recreation | Banff National Park | Rocky Mountain Destinations

Hiking the Canadian Rockies — Bourgeau Lake, Banff National Park

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Bourgeau Lake, Banff National Park

text and photographs by Mike Potter


Bourgeau Lake in Banff National Park is a nice, moderate hike.

Bourgeau Lake is the perfect medium range/moderate difficulty hike in Banff National Park, and a great way to get out and see some wild life, a beautiful Canadian Rockies lake, and still get back to town in time or a great dinner.

Hiking up south of the gorge of Wolverine Creek, you pass through a zone of Douglas-firs before crossing a slide path that gives views east to Banff National Park’s Sawback Range (named by James Hector in 1858). To the northwest is an unnamed outlier of Mt. Brett, on whose slanting ledges you may observe mountain goats and bighorn sheep.

The big boulders at the northeast end of the lake are often frequented by golden-mantled ground squirrels and at least a few chipmunks. The profuse flora that can be seen in the area includes western anemone, mountain sorrel, and glacier lily.

Although you may be tempted by the proximity of this trail to the townsite when you’re wanting to get up high early in the season, you should keep in mind that its elevation and sheltered situation result in deep snow until well into summer.

The names of the lake and the adjacent mountain honour Eugene Bourgeau, the popular French-born botanist of the 1857-1859 Palliser Expedition to western Canada.

Distance: 7.5 km (4.5 mi) – Trans-Canada Highway to Bourgeau Lake
Day Hike: 2.5 – 3 hr one way
Elevation Gain: 710 m (2330 ft)
Maximum Elevation: 2155 m (7070 ft)
Trailhead: Parking area on west side of Trans-Canada Highway, 2.8 km (1.7 mi) north of Sunshine interchange and 0.5 km (0.3 mi) south of bridge over Wolverine Creek.

0.0 – Sign (elevation 1445 m). Proceed into forest and begin steady climb.
2.5 – Cross avalanche chute.
3.7 – Cross tributary of Wolverine Creek flowing from south.
5.5 – Cross Wolverine Creek below waterfall on rock steps. Begin steep switchbacks.
6.8 – Trail levels out in meadows of lake basin.
7.5 – Northeast end of Bourgeau Lake (2155 m).

Backcountry Banff | Recreation | Banff National Park | Rocky Mountain Destinations

Hiking the Canadian Rockies — Banff National Park, Johnson Lake

Johnson Lake, Banff National Park

Text and photography by Mike Potter

Looking for a leisurely hike in the Banff National Park area of the Canadian Rockies? Look no further. The Johnson Lake circuit provides an excellent chance for viewing the flora and fauna of Banff National Park, without requiring a multi-day outing, or an enormous pack. This hike is also a perfect family hike in the Canadian Rockies.

Gordon Stermann, of Banff’s White Mountain Adventures, says, “We lead lots of tour groups on easy walks around the lake.”

And, he notes, that although the terrain is generally easy, “The view of Mt. Rundle behind the lake is very impressive and for first time visitors to Banff who aren’t able to get into more adventurous hikes. It’s a great introduction to the nature of the Rockies.”

And, Stermann adds, “The hidden hermit’s cabin is a really cool surprise!”

A network of trails in the vicinity of Johnson Lake provides ample scope for leisurely walks. Many of the paths are primarily intended for cross-country skiing Banff in the winter but are still great for hiking.

The most well-known outing is the circuit of the lake itself, from the parking area at the end of the road. The open sunny slopes on the north side of Johnson Lake are especially good for wildflowers, including the exquisite prairie crocus in early spring.

A highlight of this area is the presence of numerous Douglas-fir trees, one of which–at almost 700 years–is the oldest known example of the species in the province of Alberta.

After an excursion in the Johnson Lake area you might feel like relaxing at the picnic tables at its west end; if it is a warm summer day you could even go for a swim.

Distance: 2.4 km (1.5 mi) – Circuit of Johnson Lake
Day Hike: 30 – 45 minute loop
Elevation Gain / Loss: 10 m (33 ft)
Maximum Elevation: 1420 m (4660 ft)
Topo Map: Canmore 82-0/3

Trailhead: West end of Johnson Lake, reached by turning right at intersection 1.5 km north of Minnewanka interchange on Trans-Canada Highway, right again after a further 3.5 km, and proceeding 2 km to parking area at end of road.

0.0 – Picnic area at northwest corner of Johnson Lake (elevation 1410 m). Follow the north shore, along paved path at first, then make a sharp left turn after 100 m to go around a cove on a dirt path that continues along open, south-facing slopes.
1.2 – Dam at east end of lake. Turn right at south end.
1.9 – High point (1420 m).
2.3 – Turn right to bridge over outlet at west end of lake.
2.4 – Return to picnic area (1410 m).

Backcountry Banff | Recreation | Banff National Park | Rocky Mountain Destinations