The crisp pine-scented air. The crunch of rocky scree under your boots. The way the sunlight glints off a river in the valley far below you.
Yes, Banff and Lake Louise are paradise for hiking enthusiasts. Avid hikers from all over the world come to traipse up and down the slopes here and they are rewarded with views of wildflower meadows, chalky-blue lakes and jagged mountain ranges.
Also, while walking through the wilderness, there is a very good chance of encountering one of Banff’s animal residents: this might include a herd of bighorn sheep perched on an escarpment or a mother elk and her calf resting in a clearing.
If you are planning a hiking getaway in Banff and Lake Louise, here are five fantastic hikes that will show you the best of the national park’s beauty.
1. Plain of Six Glaciers, Lake Louise
Distance: 15.1 km
Difficulty Level: Moderate to Difficult – You can accomplish it if you are of average fitness
Type of Terrain: Flat shoreline, then climbing through a narrow rocky valley
Time: Approximately 5 hours, which will give you time to relax at the Teahouse
Getting There: Starts from the Lake Louise shoreline. Parking at Lake Louise is extremely limited, particularly in summer. Unless you are driving in very early it’s recommended to get a bus from Banff, a shuttle from the Lake Louise Park and Ride, or join a guided hiking tour from Banff.
Glaciers are incredible. These enormous sheets of ice have been sliding slowly across the mountains over millions of years, carving out a path behind them. The trail up to the Plain of Six Glaciers will take you close to the heart of Mount Lefroy, the Victoria Glacier and Mount Victoria. To get a close-up look at this rugged terrain is a truly humbling experience and hence, one of the Signature Hikes offered by Discover Banff Tours.
This hike offers breathtaking views and plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities. Keep your eyes open for chipmunks, pika, squirrels, grizzly bears and mountain goats. The final ascent of the trail can get quite steep, so take your time and stop for a rest if you need to. When you arrive at the top, you can stop at the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse and wrap your hands around a warm mug of tea or coffee. Just make sure to bring cash, this historic teahouse doesn’t have card payment facilities.
2. Sunshine Meadows, Sunshine Village Ski Resort
Distance: 11.9 km
Difficulty Level: Moderate
Type of Terrain: A steep dirt road which levels out into alpine meadows
Time: 3.5 hours
The Sunshine Meadows trail will take you to a gorgeous meadow in the mountains filled with colourful wildflowers. These alpine areas are carpeted with glacier lilies and fireweed. Plus, with the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies as a backdrop, you will feel like you are living in a postcard. Ride the gondola and then the Standish Chairlift to over 2,400m (8,000 ft) — the highest lift-accessed sightseeing elevation in the Banff and Lake Louise area! It’s also the only chairlift with sightseeing access to 3 pristine alpine lakes. Please note that you’ll require a ticket for the gondola and chairlift.
The best time of year to see the wildflowers in full bloom is in mid-June through August. In September the larches will turn yellow and red, giving another spectacular burst of colour. This fragile alpine meadow is covered in snow from October through to mid-June. Lonely Planet even rated this trail the number one hike in Canada.
3. Cascade Amphitheatre, Mt Norquay Ski Resort
Distance: 15.4 km return
Difficulty Level: Moderate – Difficult (steep uphill)
Type of Terrain: Dense forest, then an amphitheatre enclosed by limestone cliffs
Time: 4-6 hours
Getting There: The trailhead begins at Mount Norquay Ski Resort, a short ten minute drive from downtown Banff or take the free shuttle from select Banff hotels.
This exciting journey will take you on a bridge over Forty Mile Creek then through some thick pine forest to the incredible Cascade Amphitheatre – a natural sub-alpine meadow carved out by glaciers and surrounded by limestone cliffs on either side. You’ll see several striking peaks, including Mount Edith, Louis and Fifi.
The ascent is quite aggressive: you’ll be steadily climbing on root-woven trails through the heavy forest. However, the challenge is absolutely worth it. If you are lucky, you may see mountain goat perched on the slopes of the Cascade or bighorn sheep along the Mount Norquay Road.
Reward yourself at the end of the day with beer and nibbles and the best restaurant view in Banff at the Cliffhouse Bistro at Mt Norquay accessible by the Banff Sightseeing Chairlift (admission fee applies).
4. Cory Pass, Banff
Distance: 13 km return
Difficulty Level: Difficult – the terrain is rugged and the trail is steep
Type of Terrain: Climbing through scree fields and avalanche paths above the treeline
Time: 5-6 Hours
Getting There: The trail begins at the Fireside Picnic Area located off the Bow Valley Parkway approximately a 10 minute drive from Banff.
If you are a relatively fit hiker and are looking for a challenge, Cory Pass is a difficult trail between Mts. Cory and Edith that is totally worth the effort. You’ll climb a strenuous 915 m until you are above the treeline, scrambling along on rocky scree and sometimes finding yourself wandering through pristine alpine meadows. Stop for a moment and take in the view of Mt. Louis, an enormous monolith of limestone towering above the forest below.
If you want to extend the adventure, you have the option of descending into the Gargoyle Valley before you return to your vehicle. Bring ample water with you. To turn the experience into a full day trip, bring a picnic to enjoy at the top while you soak in the view.
5. Consolation Lakes, Moraine Lake
Distance: 11.4 km
Difficulty Level: Easy – Moderate
Time: 3-4 hours
Type of Terrain: Gentle creekside trails and forest paths
Getting There: Starts from Moraine Lake. Parking at Moraine Lake is extremely limited. Unless you are driving in at around 5am, it’s recommended to get the shuttle from the Lake Louise shoreline or Lake Louise Park and Ride or join a guided hiking tour from Banff.
Consolation Lakes Trail is a relatively popular loop that is suitable for all skill levels and is accessible from March to September. There are few trails in Banff that will reward you with so many gorgeous views for such little physical effort. Consolation Lake is stunning and tranquil, surrounded by large boulders and marsh and reflecting the views of the glaciers and rocky peaks in its clean blue water.
The view of Moraine Lake is also one of the most famous ones in the Rockies – it used to be featured on the $20 bill. If you visit in late June you can listen to the snow and ice crumbling off the hanging glaciers that surround the area.
Go Solo or Join a Guided Hike?
There are many great reasons to join a small guided hike of Banff and Lake Louise, rather than going solo. Some trails mandate that you travel in groups, due to high grizzly populations in the area and parking at trailheads is being increasingly challenging. For those that decide to head out on their own, please make sure you check current trail conditions and are sufficiently prepared.
Guides provide interesting stories about the original mountaineers who steps you are following, tell you the name of that wildflower and make geology fun! You might even make some new friends, meeting people who have also come to enjoy the mountains.
Find out which are Discover Banff Tours’ guides’ favourite Signature Hikes for Banff and Lake Louise.