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Banff National Park: “Lake of the Spirits” (Lake Minnewanka)


Lake Minnewanka is a great destination for a day’s visit (or longer if you’re so inclined) while in the Banff Rockies.  The lake’s name derives from the Stoney Indian language and means “lake of the spirits”.  Indian people lived around Lake Minnewanka for 100 centuries before it was “discovered “ by Europeans in the 19th century.   Lake Minnewanka is located just a few kilometers east of Banff with easy access from the Trans-Canada Highway.  The approach to the lake, as you drive past Mt. Rundle and Cascade Mountain, is inspiring!   There’s a large bachelor herd of bighorn sheep that frequent the roads in the area and if you want a chance to see some of these beautiful creatures up close, this is a good place to try.  A wolf pack lives in this wilderness but these shy animals are best spotted in the winter (the area has great cross-country skiing opportunities).   Bald eagles and osprey are often sighted, as are grizzly bears (more on this later).

A few facts:  1) Lake Minnewanka is the longest lake in the Banff Rockies being 28 km (17 miles) in length and up to 142 m (466 ft) deep.   2) It is a natural lake but currently is larger than it’s natural size because a dam built in 1941 elevated the lake by 30 m.   As you might expect, the building of the dam (to provide electricity for Banff) was very controversial, but it’s there now and the lake still is beautiful and to be enjoyed by all.  3) The lake is fed by the Cascade River and a number of smaller mountain streams.

There are many outdoor activities in which you can partake when visiting Lake Minnewanka.  These including boating (motorized boats are allowed, the only lake in Banff National Park where this is so; canoes aren’t recommended because strong winds can kick up quickly); boat tours are available during the summer near the parking lot and are the easiest way to see the great scenery of the Lake Minnewanka valley and its surrounding peaks.  Fishing is also popular in the summer as there are trophy sized lake trout in these waters.  There is a sandy beach adjoining the picnic area that’s popular with families (although to me the water is too cold for swimming).

Bighorn sheep ram, near Lake Minnewanka

Lake Minnewanka is popular destination for hiking and backpacking because the trail along the lake is relatively flat and the scenery wonderful!   The trail is also very popular with mountain bikes who zip through at surprising speeds (especially given the steep slope of the hill beside the trail).  The hiking and biking season is limited because of grizzly bear activity in the area during the summer (mother grizzlies and their cubs feast on the rich berry crop growing on the mountain slopes and only tight groups of 4 or more are allowed to enter during the summer as bears leave groups of this size alone).   The hike takes you over Stewart Canyon where you can watch the turquoise colored glacial melt of the Cascade River rush to the lake (an optional hike allows you to parallel the canyon for a few kilometers if you’re interested).  You can hike along the lake all day if you want as the trail goes to the lake’s end.  Access to Mount Aylmer is from the lakeside trail (at 3162m, 10,374 ft., Mt. Aylmer is the tallest mountain in Banff National Park).  I’ve visited the lake  a number of times but during this visit my brother and I were lucky enough to be there on a beautiful fall day when the golden fall colors were vivid and the weather pleasant.

Lake Minnewanka is also popular with inland divers.  Its waters are cold but clear and there are interesting ruins of the buildings (the village of Minnewanka Landing) submerged when the last dam was built.   The area is provides quality groomed cross-country ski trails in the winter.

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