If you visit the Lake Louise area, I highly recommend basing out of Lake Louise, and not doing it as a day trip from Banff. Sure, the drive is only about 30 minutes along good highway from Banff town proper, but that is extra driving you don’t really NEED to do. Plus, due to the popularity of some sights and the limited parking, you are going to have to get up even earlier if you want to get a parking spot and not have to use the shuttle.
Lake Moraine is one such tourist spot. Lake Moraine is another beautiful mountain lake set in the Lake Louise area, though at a higher elevation and in a much more remote area than Lake Louise. It’s so remote, that the road is closed from the end of October to March due to snow. It’s also an area that is popular with bears during bear season, which could affect your hiking plans if you go during that time (basically the summer time to early September). And yes, Lake Moraine has very limited parking considering its popularity. The basic guidance given in my research is to be there by 0630 if you hope to get a parking space at all. Because unlike other areas, they don’t let you park alongside the road, and the road is blocked for ingress at the Lake Moraine turnoff from the main road once the parking lot is full (and yes, there are signs and people out there guarding that road and letting you know if you can go). As it is, I got there a little after 0630, and there were only a few spots left open for normal cars (there were still some spots for RVs and tour buses). It’s one of those things you just have to laugh at and take in stride. I normally hate getting up early in the morning, but I will get up before sunrise (because at that time of year, the sun didn’t rise until after 0730) just so I could get a parking spot and have the freedom of maneuver a car brings.
So after arriving, I could sit back, relax and take a breath, and enjoy a breakfast in peace while waiting for the sun to rise. The morning I was there, the weather wasn’t that great, and there were a lot of clouds early on. Some cloud cover adds to the mysterious and remote beauty of the lake, sort of giving it a Gothic romanticism to the vista. But too much cloud cover just blocks the steep mountains that surround the lake.
Since I planned to spend most of the day at Lake Moraine, I wasn’t in any hurry. I started my day by walking along the Lake Moraine shoreline, which goes down the lake a couple kilometers before ending at a boardwalk viewpoint in front of the rushing creek that feeds into the lake. It was still somewhat grey and the clouds were lurking overhead, though the wind was quick enough that the clouds never lingered for too long.
Even though it was cloudy, it was still bright enough to see the gorgeous blue water, which is formed by light reflecting off the glacial rock powder that sits at the bottom of the lake. It’s the astounding lake color, along with the surrounding mountains that makes Lake Moraine such as must do in the Lake Louise area.
After walking back, the clouds were lifting a bit, even if the sun hadn’t emerged from the clouds. Right next to the lake shore is a steep pile of rocks that you can walk up to and give you the iconic views over the lake that you have likely seen in professional photographs. The walk isn’t long, though it is on the steep side. But said steepness is still fairly short, and the view is absolutely worth it. By this point in the morning, the tour buses were disgorging hordes of tourists armed with cameras and jockeying for a good camera spot. You kind of just have to ignore them and do your own thing. And remind yourself that they will move along shortly (they are probably on a timetable if they are on a tour bus), and you will be able to take your pictures and enjoy your view.
After that, I debated whether or not to go on a hike as I intended. There are two popular hikes that originate from Lake Moraine- Larch Valley and Consolation Lakes hikes. Larch Valley is considered more moderate (which again, depending on your fitness level, could easily veer more towards the strenuous). It’s much longer, and steeper, and ends higher in the mountains among the gorgeous, golden yellow larch trees that are so prevalent this time of year in the higher mountain elevations. You can see fields and fields of these trees from good vantage points, but seeing them up close and personal requires much more hiking, since they only exist at higher elevations.
Having taken a pretty good measure of my physical fitness by this point, I decided Larch Valley was just a bit out of my fitness range, so I decided to do the Consolation Lakes hike. It is considered an easier hike, much more level, with much less elevation gain, and plenty of gorgeous views.
One of the interesting things about Lake Moraine like I mentioned earlier, is that it is popular with bears during bear feeding season when they are fattening themselves up for the winter’s hibernation. During high bear season, people MUST hike in close groups of four or more in certain areas, the Lake Moraine hikes (away from the lake shore) included. This is one of those things that is emphasized over and over again in guide books. Trails are monitored during that time of year for compliance, and hefty fines can happen for those who don’t comply. This of course can be a challenge when you are a solo hiker like myself and don’t fancy hiking in groups (who probably all hike faster than me) or just cozying up to strangers to tag along (again, people who likely walk much faster than me, since most hikers do). Thankfully, high bear season was over with by the time I got there (something I had taken into consideration when planning this vacation), and it was only recommended you hike in groups, and not mandated.
The start to the Consolation Lakes hike is a relatively narrow, very rocky path along the backside of the rock pile. It doesn’t look an obvious start to a popular hike, and if there wasn’t a sign clearly marking it, I would have assumed it was some goat trail. I personally hate very rocky paths, because I spend so much time looking at my feet, and I seem to still trip a fair amount. But the rocky path doesn’t last too long, and soon I was in the forest, where now I had roots and some mud to contend with and not just rocks.
The path is fairly level, though there are some uphills in places. The path is pretty wide and wends its way through the forest and then starts paralleling a babbling creek named Babel Creek (you hear the rushing water minutes before you can see it through the trees), that offers a few side paths to go down to the water. I kept climbing gently through the forest and left the sound of the water behind me.
I knew I was pretty much done when I entered a wide valley, surrounded on three sides by mountains that are filled with trees (including wide swaths of bright yellow larch trees up on the mountainside). The path sort of just…ends after nearly 2 miles of hiking. I mean the ostensible goal of this hike is the lakes at the end of it, but the path ends once I hit the large field of large rocks. From there, I could choose to navigate my way carefully down closer to the water’s edge, or just relax on a rock and take in the view. If I was sure footed and agile, I probably would have chosen to hop from rock to rock and get closer to the lake’s edge, like some other fleet footed hikers. But I am not, and a field of rocks with no clear walking path is basically just asking for me to fall or sprain my ankles. Besides, the view I had by the river was pretty enough, even if it wasn’t at the actual edge of the lake.
After enjoying the view for a while, it was an easy walk back to the trail head. All those uphills that caused me to huff and puff a bit (certainly more than I would like) were just easy downhills. Even the rocky path that started (and now ended) my hike wasn’t as annoying, because the view was really pretty on the return hike, and I knew it was almost over.
Since the sun had come out at this point, I decided to hike back up the short, steep path overlooking the lake again, and I did not regret it. Even in cloudy weather, the lake is a beautiful blue. But in sunlight, the blue just glistens and sparkles, and adds some real magic to the gorgeous vista. It really did look like so many of the photographs that beckon you to come and visit Lake Moraine.
If you do want to visit Lake Moraine, you could drive up yourself or take the shuttle buses that run until late afternoon. If you want to sleep in, and don’t want to get out of bed when it is still dark out, a shuttle is pretty much your only option. Unless you are willing to wait until very late afternoon/early evening when the parking lot clears enough for the road to be reopened. Just know that the sun will likely set earlier later in the season, and you don’t leave a lot of time for viewing, photographing, and hiking. Or you could do like I did, and get up super early and then congratulate yourself on getting a parking space that gives you the freedom to do what you want, when you want. Just know that you will not be doing it alone, since this is a VERY popular stop in the Lake Louise area.