1) Lake Louise:
“Lake Louise” is a name that refers to a beautiful glacial lake, a village, and a ski destination. All of these places are in close proximity but I’ll always be using the term to describe the lake itself. I’ve been to Lake Louise several dozen times and don’t think I”ll ever tire of visiting.
Lake Louise is named in honor of Princess Louise Alberta, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters. Except for the Banff town-site, this is the most visited destination in Banff National Park and it is one of the most photographed lakes in the world, with good reason. Situated only a few miles off the Trans-Canada Highway, with a steep short drive to reach it, Lake Louise is one of the world’s most scenic destinations. If not the most beautiful lake in the world it certainly has its place on the Mt Rushmore of the world’s greatest lakes. The thousands of tourists who arrive by bus and car every day during the peak summer season would almost uniformly agree with this. The lake itself has the classic milky turquoise color so characteristic of glacial runoff which adds character to its setting amidst steep rugged mountains and glaciers.
Situated on the eastern shore of the lake, near the point where you access the shoreline, is the Chateau Lake Louise, one of the grand Canadian Pacific railroad hotels now owned by the Fairmont chain; it’s a great (and expensive) place to stay. The east shore of the lake will be very crowded in the summer, especially in the afternoon, but few people do more than wander about for a few hundred feet, take a few photos and perhaps rent a canoe to paddle the cold waters of the Lake before returning to their cars and continuing on their journey.
Those with a greater sense of adventure should wander to some of the more distant places of the valley. Two classic hikes in the Lake Louise area, the Plain of Six Glaciers and Lake Agnes trails both end at teahouses where you can buy freshly baked pastries, soups, sandwiches and, of course, tea or coffee. But on busy days the lines at the teahouses are long and it might not be worth your time waiting. Also, the season for hiking and visiting the teahouses is only a few months, starting around June 1 and ending around Labor Day, owing to the high altitude of the lake and it’s limited sun exposure. Even well into July you’re likely to encounter snow and ice on some of the trails so be prepared for this (gaiters and trekking poles are good ideas). Lake Louise is situated almost a mile above sea level (1540 meters or 5052 ft altitude). It has a subarctic climate but is lovely in the summer. The water is extremely cold and the lake rocky and not conducive to swimming.
2) Plain of the Six Glaciers:
This is one of the best hikes in Banff National Park and one of the greatest trails I’ve ever had the pleasure of walking! Almost every step of the way you’ll be rewarded with wonderful views of snow-capped, glacier-draped mountains, a turquoise lake, glacial moraines and rapidly flowing creeks. There’s enough trees to add character and there are few other trails I know of that offer the constant dramatic views with so (relatively) little work.
The day we hiked this trail (I was with colleagues Leland and Ethan) the weather was near perfect and despite an early start, there were already lots of people about. As someone who likes to “get away from people and things” when in the wilderness, I was surprised at how little this bothered me because almost immediately the landscape captivates your full attention and you forget about the crowd. The trail begins at the eastern shore of Lake Louise (by the Chateau) and for 2.5 km is flat as it winds along the north shore, offering impressive views of the valley ahead. As you reach the end of the lake, there are quartzite cliffs, popular with rock-climbers.
At the end of the lake the trail continues along Louise Creek. From here you begin to gradually climb and this is where the crowd starts thinning out. You’ll pass the terminal moraine left by the last advance of the Victoria Glacier during the Little Ice Age (mid 1800s) and be rewarded with ever changing views of several steep, jagged peaks and their glaciers (Mts. Aberdeen, LeFroy, Victoria, the Mitre). Popes Peak can be seen to the north but is hard to appreciate until you get to the teahouse.
A great end destination to this hike is the quaint Six Glaciers teahouse, another remnant of the CP Rail travel days, about 5.5 km from the trailhead with an elevation gain of 370 m (1215 ft). Even if you don’t want to patronize the teahouse, this is a great place to stop and rest as there are many comfortable benches open to all, each offering among the most terrific views in the Rockies. Take your time to enjoy the scenery and keep your eyes out for avalanches rumbling off the glaciers (at this time of year these provide entertainment, without much danger), as well as for mountain goats. From the Six Glaciers Teahouse you have the option of continuing just over a kilometer further to a viewpoint, or going off trail to approach the Victoria Glacier (which I’d consider risky). We chose instead to head to Lake Agnes and its teahouse.
3) Lake Agnes:
Another beautiful hike takes you to a rustic teahouse that overlooks Lake Agnes, a small but pleasing glacial lake with an elevation gain of over 400 meters. There are several approaches, though most people come directly from the Chateau. The walk to Lake Agnes from the Chateau Lake Louise is mostly on a densely forested trail with few scenic viewpoints, and for this reason I’m less fond of it that of the Plain of the Six Glaciers trail (but it does offer a nice loop if you’ve already visited the Plain of Six Glaciers and approach the teahouse from the west). As you near Lake Agnes you pass picturesque Mirror Lake, behind which cascades the creek draining Lake Agnes. Mirror Lake is overshadowed by a massive rock formation known as the “Beehive” (because of it’s shape and layering). You can relax at the teahouse, hike along the shore of the lake or use it to gain access to the Beehives (there are 2) or to the Six Glaciers teahouse.
Any hiker, no matter how experienced, will enjoy exploring the Lake Louise area. I give it my highest possible recommendation, but always be prepared for the extremes of a mountainous climate.
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