Summit-potential hikes in Banff and Lake Louise

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Summit-potential hikes in Banff and Lake Louise
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Summit-potential hikes in Banff and Lake Louise
Question: What are some of the best, challenging, summit-potential hikes in Lake Louise and Banff?

Charlotte Macchia
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Adventure Adviser: Besides grizzlies, caribou and elk, Banff National Park-Canada's first- is home to over 1,000 miles of hikeable trails. The park encompasses the towns of Banff and, just a tad to the west, tiny Lake Louise. For planning purposes, I'd pick up a couple of books, such as Graeme Pole's Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies and Backcountry Banff by Mike Potter. Also, if summiting is your primary goal, then purchase a comprehensive topo map of the area at park headquarters.

According to one Banff ranger, many of the hikes in this stellar area lead you to high viewpoints or mountain lakes, but not necessarily actual peak summits. Don't let this dissuade you; with turquoise lakes, craggy spires and fields of wildflowers, Banff and Lake Louise are stunningly beautiful regardless of how many peaks you summit.

That said, there certainly are several mountain passes you can climb up and over, particularly if you're willing to hoof it backcountry. You can go on a couple of warm-up hikes right from Banff, such as the Sulphur Mountain Trail (about 8 miles round-trip) or the 3-mile hike to the summit of Tunnel Mountain, a 2,000' climb up to sweeping vistas of the surrounding area.

But I'd move on quickly to Lake Louise, one of the most popular hiking centers around and for good reason: in no time at all, you can be smack in the midst of the wilderness, not another human around. For starters, stretch your legs on the popular 4-mile Bow River Loop, which follows the banks of the river, or hike up to Lake Agnes, hidden behind knobby Beehive. Some of the most challenging day hikes from Lake Louise lead south to Paradise Valley, Moraine Lake and the Valley of Ten Peaks. For instance, from Moraine Lake you can climb 4 miles along the Larch Valley Trail to Sentinel Pass, one of the highest around. Or, beginning at the Lake Louise ski area, follow the 5.4-mile Boulder Pass Trail to an open alpine pass with magnificent views.

Strong hikers and backpackers will be happiest in two regions: along the Icefields Parkway (especially the high country of the Slate Range, Skoki Valley and Ptarmigan Valley), and on the trails toward Assiniboine and the Spray River. From the Icefields Parkway, try the excellent Cirque Lake and Sunset Lookout trails, both roughly 12 miles round-trip and do-able in a day. Other backpacking recommendations include the 23-mile trek from Mount Norquay to Johnston's Canyon (via Mystic Pass), the 16-mile trail continuing on to Pulsatilla Pass via Luellen Lake, and the 13-mile Palliswer Pass route. There are also several scenic trail networks in the Egypts Lake, Skoki Valley and Boulder Pass areas. Eiffel Lake (and Wenkchemna Pass) is one of the most stunning hikes in the area, as is the hike over Healy Pass to Egypt Lakes. For more information, contact park headquarters at 403-762-1550 ([email protected]).

Wherever you choose to hike, go into this vast wilderness prepared. Brief yourself on what to do should you encounter a bear, and don't forget sturdy hiking boots and reliable stormgear to safeguard against the volatile weather. And finally, for backcountry hiking or camping, you'll need to purchase a wilderness pass at any of the park's visitor centers.

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