Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a young naive traveller who thought she could see everything she wanted to see from the side of a road. If the walk from a car park to a viewpoint involved anything more than 100ft of walking, it probably wasn’t worth seeing anyway (cos surely Mother Nature would have put it closer to the road…duh!). But somehow, somewhere along the way, something changed. Eight years ago, in Yosemite, we did our first “hike” and we thought we were Bear Grylls. Ok, it was less than a 3km round trip but there was definitely an elevation change of a mighty 400ft.
Canada was the first trip that we went on with the express plan of getting out there and doing some hiking. We didn’t want to lug rucksacks and heavy boots across the Atlantic with us, so we packed mini versions like this one and planned easy to moderate day hikes. After three days of city sight-seeing in Vancouver and an 18-hour train trip it was time to pull on those hiking boots and explore the National Parks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
50 kilometres east of Jasper National Park, Maligne Lake is probably best known for it’s boat tours to the highly instagrammable Spirit Island, but we decided to leave our money in our pockets and initially walk the easy 3.2km Mary Schaffer Loop. It’s a well-maintained trail winding it’s from the lakeshore through the wilderness before emerging back to the lake. Along the way there are interpretative panels which explain a little more about Mary Schaffer – a writer, photographer and artist, and the first non-native woman to travel through much of Jasper and Banff National Parks. It took us about an hour to complete the trail, and we barely crossed paths with anyone else once we left the lakeside. They must all have been on those boats to Spirit Island…
After a picnic lunch, we tackle the second easy hike of the day at Maligne Lake – see how we’re easing ourselves into things? The 2.7km Moose Lake loop begins at the Bald Hills Trailhead but is well signposted, taking you through the forest before arriving at this amazingly peaceful lake. We disappointingly don’t see a moose (or do I?) but judging by the number of wildlife photographers around it’s not unlikely that you’ll see a local resident or two of the moose or even bear variety. The trail then descends back towards the shores of Maligne Lake and the parking lot.
Other hikes available in this area include the 5.2km climb to the Bald Hills (one-way) and the 8.2km Opal Hills loop.
To find out more about our Maligne Lake hike, click here!
Valley of Five Lakes
These stunning lakes are a must-see in Jasper National Park; a series of – yes – five lakes of varying shades of blue and green surrounded by forest and snow-capped mountains. There’s a loop trail (notice a pattern here? I love a loop!) from the end of the trailhead; we chose to hike anti-clockwise which led us to Fifth Lake first.
There are small elevation gains and declines but nothing that would leave you too out of breath; the paths are a little uneven so sturdy but light walking shoes are a good idea. The hike itself starts with a wide 1km path from the parking area, through forest before crossing Wabasso Creek and then reaching the junction where Valley Loop begins – as well as clockwise or anti-clockwise you can also choose the shorter 4.5km or longer loops. We chose the shorter loop. mainly because we had a long day of travelling ahead of us.
Each of the lakes has a different “personality” – Fifth Lake has a little jetty made for trailing your toes in the glacial waters, and Third Lake has a lovely little rocky beach area which would be perfect for a picnic!
The Valley of Five Lakes is just 11km south of Jasper along the Icefields Parkway.
Bow Summit – Peyto Lake
The short hike to Bow Summit from the parking lot was memorable for a number of reasons. Not least because I spent a significant portion of the ascent on my thankfully well padded ass.
The trail to Bow Summit is located off the Icefield Parkway (AB-93) 100km north of Banff. From the car park there is a paved asphalt trail leading up to the Bow Summit lookout platform. And what exactly are you looking out over? This:
Cradle Mountain and Mount Patterson provide a spectacular backdrop to the bright turquoise-blue Peyto Lake. This amazing colour is caused by rock flour – suspended rock particles in the water flowing into the lake from the glacier during the summer months. Bow Summit is the highest point on the Icefield Parkway at 6969ft.
Snow covers the ground surrounding this trail for around 9 months of the year so make sure you dress accordingly – even if it seems warm in the parking lot! It’s only around a 10-15 minute hike with a few mild inclines – but be prepared for it to take a little longer in the ice and snow! It’s a hugely popular spot so be prepared for crowds.
The Sundance Canyon hike starts at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, just outside of the town of Banff. You meander alongside the Bow River, with the Sawback Range and Mount Edith looming down on you before reaching the base of the canyon. It’s a moderately steep but short trail through the water-filled canyon with beautiful waterfalls, clambering over some rocks before the forest opens up to a spectacular vista with great views of the mountain peaks in the distance.
It’s about 4.5km to the canyon, but it’s only really a loop once you get to the canyon so you do tread a lot of the same ground both ways. It’s also a popular horse riding and biking trail.
Lake Louise is one of those iconic sights that is a must-see when you’re visiting Banff National Park. As you will find out when you do battle with the tour groups spewing out of their buses to get that perfect Instagram shot in front of the lake and mountains. Like this one…
But if you have the time to spare then it is really worth looking beyond Lake Louise and taking the relatively easy 4km hike to Lake Agnes. You ascend through forest, with the turquoise-blue waters of Lake Louise glinting below, before emerging at Lake Agnes and its historic teahouse. And if that’s not enough of a challenge, you can continue another 1.6km to the top of Big Beehive. We were content with a much appreciated hot chocolate at the teahouse.
It’s not a difficult hike but it is a constant moderate incline which can take your breath away in one or two places. Once above the treeline we found it was very snowy and slippery, but with the correct footwear you should be fine. The teahouse is only open from June until Canada Thanksgiving weekend in October (we actually hiked up on Thanksgiving), and be aware that it will close early if the weather is too bad.
You can find out more about our Lake Agnes hike here
Emerald Lake – Yoho
This hike sneaks in, even though it’s not technically in Banff or Jasper National Parks but in Yoho, 94km north-west of Banff. It’s a pretty underrated trail, with most people visiting the nearby Lakes Louise and Moraine, which means that it’s much less crowded.
The 5.6km trail encircles the vibrant green-coloured glacial lake, and it is an easy, flat walk with stunning mountain views which will take about an hour to complete. You can add on the Emerald Basin trail if you fancy something a little more challenging
We visited Emerald Lake on our drive from Banff to Revelstoke, and you can read more about this journey here.
There really is a hike to suit everyone in Jasper and Banff National Parks! Whether you like lakes, mountains or forests, the Canadian Rockies offer it all. Of course, there are far more strenuous and challenging hikes available, but sometimes you just want to experience the natural beauty without putting in too much effort…
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