If there is one place tourists are likely to stop in Banff National Park, it is Lake Louise. I had to keep reminding myself that even though I was 30 minutes’ drive away from Banff town, I was still in the Banff National Park. I based myself out of Lake Louise for several days, because there is just so much to see and do in the area, and it’s just easier to cut down on driving. It also allows me to get ahead of the hordes of tourists. And it’s funny that I say hordes of tourists, because yes there were so many tourists when I visited in mid September, but I also know there are so many MORE in the summer time, which is one of the reasons I would never want to visit Banff in the heights of summer.
The traffic is managed fairly well (though for some odd reason, they don’t have a light at a couple main intersections, and instead have actual people conducting traffic during daylight hours), and there are signs when you enter the area informing you of the parking situation (i.e. if the parking lots at the lake are full and you need to park and take the shuttle up there). The parking situation isn’t quite as dire as Lake Moraine, because the parking lot at Lake Louise is huge. But it is so popular, that while you might not need to be up at the lake by 0630 to get a good parking spot, you should be there by 0800, or it is liable to be full. There are plenty of paths that go from Lake Louise toward the village, so some people choose to park and walk, and you see groups of people walking back to their cars in the afternoon.
When I was putting my itinerary together for the Lake Louise area, I originally had two different days scheduled for two different popular hikes in the area. But the weather was iffy for one of the days, and I again had to rethink my fitness level, since both hikes would involve over 1000 feet of elevation over a few miles. And both of them have similar, though not identical views. Then I thought maybe I could combine both hikes, since there is a connecting trail, and decided I’d play it by ear and see how my body felt during the hike.
So having to choose which hike to start with (and thus being the only hike completed if my body rebelled), I decided to start with the Plain of the Six Glaciers Hike. The hike on its own is a little bit longer than the other one, with a bit less elevation gain. But if I had to choose just one hike, this one sounded like it was the one for me, because it starts by skirting Lake Louise and then climbing through the valley toward the glacier ice field, stopping at a tea house among gorgeous larch trees. I figured this hike would give me the most bang for my buck view wise.
As always, I started relatively early, though there were plenty of people ahead of me that morning. The morning was clear and bright and the reflections of the mountains on the lake were just awe inspiring, since the lack of wind meant the lake surface looked like glass. The first couple miles of the hike are flat and easy, because it is along the lake shore.
Once you get to the end of the lake, the real hiking begins as the path ascends fairly steeply, so you gain a lot of elevation pretty quickly. Every so often, I’d stop, take a breath (or many breaths), have some water, and just take in the countryside around me. The valley narrows with mountains surrounding it, and the lake view got farther and farther away as I hiked up and away.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel it, and even needed to break out my walking sticks, because the path was a bit rocky at times and could be steep. I kept a decent pace for me, though I was often passed by fitter and faster hiking groups. But since I had blocked the entire day for this, and wasn’t on anyone’s timetable, I didn’t mind taking my time.
There was a point in the hike when the path just kept climbing up and up and every switchback would lead to another switchback, that I was starting to wonder just when this hike was going to end. I passed a descending hiker who said the tea house (the typical end point for this hike) was just a few minutes away, but I always hear that when hiking, so I didn’t know if that was actually true. But lo and behold, it really was only a couple minutes later when I emerged into the tree field and realized I had reached the tea house and could really relax.
The view of the surrounding countryside was marvelous. The glacier that I could see at the start of the hike was so much closer. The larch trees surrounded me in all their golden gloriousness. The day was absolutely gorgeous with a clear, blue sky (somewhat rare for this vacation), and it all felt good and peaceful. I made decent time for me, and then I could make a decision about what to do next.
I knew that even though the hike officially ends at the tea house, I could hike even closer to the glacier along a narrow path, and even ascend a slippery, rocky moraine to enter a small cave up on a cliff. I figured that I had come this far, why not hike a bit farther to see what the views offered?
There is a sign that the official trail has ended and what lies beyond is not maintained. That means that the path narrows and there are some washouts and large rocks in places, but I kept going. I made it all the way to the rocky outcropping that gave me a commanding view of the valley and a more intimate view of the main glacier. I saw a steady line of people walking past it and along a narrow ridge line to the moraine, but I decided against it. My body was pretty tired by that point, and I just didn’t have the energy to climb up a shifting moraine of rocks, and figured the views I captured were good enough. So after getting my fill of the valley views, I made my way back to the tea house (the return hike felt so much shorter, like what always happens on hikes).
Once I was descending I decided not to take the connecting trail to the other hike and Lake Agnes destination. I knew the lake and tea house were supposed to be beautiful, but I also knew the connecting trail meant some serious steep uphill, and I was just tapped out. I was good and had my daily fill of larch trees, glaciers, and sunny lake views.
Going on a multi-day hiking vacation (not like one multi-day hike, but many days of day hikes) definitely taxed my physical fitness. I knew I was in decent (though not great) shape, and the hiking would help me. But it definitely tired me as well, and I had to make some adjustments to do shorter hikes, rather than the long slogs.
If you have time and energy, I would probably recommend doing both hikes, even if they are on different days. But if you only can do one, you could do worse than the Plain of Six Glaciers. This hike will afford more Lake Louise shoreline, more glaciers, and some fabulous larch trees (a bright golden yellow in the fall). I definitely felt like I earned my dinner that night, and a very long sleep as well.