For the fourth day of my trip through the Canadian Rockies, I would be exploring the natural scenery in Lake Louise and the surrounding area. Lake Louise is known for its picturesque location nestled in between towering mountain peaks, with a brilliant emerald color due to the sentiment produced by glacier runoff. It's often featured in postcards or stock photos when someone wants to depict the perfect ideal of an alpine lake. In addition to the famous Lake Louise, this region also had a series of other beautiful bodies of water in the form of Lake Moraine and Lake Agnes. Lots of lakes in this area. This was also a perfect region to do some more hiking, with the chance to visit another glacier and several historic tea houses situated far up on the trails. After finishing up in the Lake Louise region, I planned afterwards to drive down to the town of Banff where I would be staying for the evening. It was going to be another busy day of sightseeing.
As usual, I was up early in the hopes of getting a start on the day's activities. The lake itself is located outside the town of Lake Louise, which sits about a mile away along the Icefields Parkway. There's no development allowed along the shores of Lake Louise, with one glaring exception: a huge hotel known as the Fairmount Chateau Lake Louise. This luxury resort was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway company in the early 20th century and therefore predates the laws that prohibit commercial development along the lakeside. I would have a chance to explore the fancy hotel a bit later in the day. For the moment, I was more interested in the lake itself.
My first impression of Lake Louise was the color: it was green! Not just green-tinted like a lot of the mountain lakes that I had seen, but a deep turquoise color that looked closer to the surrounding evergreen trees than to a true sky blue. This helped make the lake immediately stand out in my mind. Then there were the mountains, which sloped down towards the surface of the lake on the left and the right and gave Lake Louise its distinctive long and narrow shape. Directly off in the distance at the other end of the lake was a field of snow and ice, the spot where the glacier that fed Lake Louise was situated. Off to the left was a wooden boathouse where visitors could rent canoes and paddleboats to venture out onto the surface of the lake. The ground was still wet from the previous day's rain, and the area was just beginning to fill up with the day's tourists. It was a wonderful morning to be out exploring, and I was charged with the excitement of wandering through a new place of great natural beauty.
The plan was to hike along the Lakeshore Trail and Plain of Six Glaciers Trail until reaching the end of the path up near the glacier. I've inclued a picture of the trail map for the curious, with the hiking trail running along the northern side of Lake Louise for 6.8 kilometers (4.2 miles) until hitting a dead end. I would then have to walk back again, but fortunately I could take an alternate route along the Highline Trail and stop to see Lake Agnes on the return hike. As for the trail itself, the initial portion that ran along the lake shore was an easy hike, nice and flat with great views of Lake Louise. The presence of the chateau was a useful indicator of the distance traveled along the trail, with its bulk dwindling smaller and smaller into the background as I progressed. These pictures from the edge of the lake are some of my favorites from this whole trip.
Eventually the trail reached the origin of the lake where it was formed out of a running river. It was a bit unclear where the river ended and the lake began, with the transition taking place via a series of mud flats that were nowhere near as scenic as the rest of Lake Louise. This was where the sediment carried into the lake by glacier runoff was particularly apparent. Known as "rock flour", these tiny bits of stone gave the water a milky cast to it, looking almost white in color at times as the water bubbled over the rocks in its eternal downhill path. The trail soon left the river behind and began to head uphill, changing from the earlier leisurely stroll into a more demanding hike. I don't have as many pictures from this section of the trail since it was tough going and I was concentrating on the hike. This had become the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail now, and it needed to gain about 1000 feet of vertical elevation over the course of the next two miles. I found myself getting a good workout.
In time the trail rose above the tree line and I emerged from the forest into open spaces once more. The views from up here were spectacular, as I was able to see the tiny figure of the chateau far back in the distance off to one direction and the icy vista of the glaciers in the other direction. It was a perfectly clear day and I had a sharp contrast between the blue of the sky, the green of the hardy plants, the gray of the mountain rocks, and the white of the packed snow. There was also a man-made structure up here to visit in the form of the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. Built in 1926 by a group of Swiss guides, the tea house still has no electricity and all of the food preparation is done using propane stoves. I included a picture of their menu for anyone curious about what they were serving at the time of my visit. This was a perfect place to stop and rest for a few minutes; the tea house even had an adorable dog snoozing in the shade next to the tables. It was well worth the long hike up to the tea house to see this place.
The official Six Glaciers Trail came to an end shortly past the tea house, but I was able to continue onwards a bit further to a viewing area overlooking Victoria Glacier. This was a rough area to traverse, little more than a flat section of gravel in the midst of rock piles. I don't think it was the safest place either since a slip could send someone tumbling off to the side. The fall wouldn't be life-threatening but it wouldn't be pleasant either. I had gone far enough that I could barely see Lake Louise at all now, and the chateau at the foot of the lake was just a speck in the distance. Up ahead was the Victoria Glacier, which was also looking to be in pretty sad shape. It was obvious that the valley off to my left had formerly held a much larger glacier, and the current mass of packed snow had retreated back to the shadowed upper edge of the depression. By the way, glaciers make noise as the ice shifts about and sections melt during the summer heat. I would periodically hear loud cracking sounds as an unusually large piece of the glacier broke off and fell; I tried to capture this on video but failed because the falling snow doesn't follow any regular pattern. Also, was that a little hut up there on top of the glacier?! It turned out that it was; the structure was the Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin and I found a bunch of pictures online of serious hikers who have stayed inside the small building. It wasn't even clear to me how someone would get up there. That was one location that I wouldn't be visiting on this trip.
I turned back from the end of the path and began my return trip, this time using the Highline Trail instead of following the shore of the lake. This was a more densely forested path than the one I had taken heading out, and it also stayed at a higher elevation. When I was able to look through the maze of foliage, I found that Lake Louise was a long way down below this hiking path. The lake's surface had the tiny dots of boats out on it now, and this higher vantage point made it easier to see the oval shape of the lake. This was another pleasant hike although I did find myself starting to get pretty tired by this point.
Eventually the path sloped more steeply uphill again before reaching Lake Agnes. There was another tea house here, and since it was so much more accessible to visitors than the one at the end of the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail, it was much more crowded. This tea house doesn't have the same claim to historic authenticity, however, as it was only constructed in 1981 in clear imitation of the original tea house. As for Lake Agnes, it was a much smaller body of water than Lake Louise, roughly 1000 feet long by 150 feet wide. The water had the same greenish cast to it due to being fed by the same mountain streams full of glacier runoff. Lake Agnes drained into a small river that plunged down a series of rocks in a decent-sized waterfall, and the tea house was situated to provide views of the falling water nearby.
There was still yet another mountain lake in this same area though, the even smaller spot known as Mirror Lake. This was in truth more of a pond than a lake proper, small enough that a person would have a good chance of being able to throw a rock across to the other side without splashing into the lake. I have no idea how this place ended up with the name Mirror Lake as it certainly wasn't very reflective on this day. The lake was situated in the shadow of the rock formation known as the Beehives, with a Big Beehive and a Little Beehive nearby. There was a trail that ran up to the top of that rock pillar, and I suspect that the views were spectacular from up there. As much as I wanted to hike to the top, I felt too exhausted to make the trip. I was closing in on 16 kilometers / 10 miles of hiking already this day, hiking that went up and down some serious elevation changes, and I still had a lot of other places to see before the end of the day. The Beehives were an attraction that I'd have to pass on.
From Mirror Lake, it was a relatively short walk back along the Lake Agnes Trail to the entrance area of Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau. The oldest extant part of this hotel dates back to 1913, and there was an even older wooden section that was regretably destroyed by fire. The Fairmont Chateau is by far the largest place to stay in the Lake Louise area with 550 rooms in total. There are also six different restaurants on the premises and all of the other resort amenities that would be expected from a luxury property like this one. In the winter, the whole place is converted over into a ski lodge to accomodate visitors who come to Lake Louise for some of the excellent skiing and snowboarding in the area. I was able to walk around in the hotel lobby and see some of the lavish furnishings on the interior. There was a wedding taking place with the happy couple pulled by a horse-drawn carriage, and a harp player inside wearing full period costume, because of course a place like this would have a harpist in a Victorian era ball gown. It must be nice to be rich.
One last picture of Lake Louise before I departed to see other attractions. It's a beautiful place to visit, especially on a day with nice weather like I had here.
There's another famous mountain lake located a few miles away from Lake Louise. This natural attraction is known as Moraine Lake, with the word "moraine" referring to an accumulation of glacial debris. Moraine Lake is another one of the most photographed locations in Canada, and I was immediately struck by its brilliant blue color. While Lake Louise had a green tint to its waters, Moraine Lake looked more like an azure sky blue. It was early afternoon by this point and the shores of the lake were bustling with visitors, many of them out on the water in canoes. I even saw a couple of people swimming in the lake which looked a little bit on the cold side. There's a whole collection of trails that depart from the parking lot entrance to Lake Moraine, and I very much wanted to do some more hiking to go see the nearby Consolation Lakes. However, this was where the toll of previous traveling caught up with me. I had spent a day doing solo driving for 11 hours, then hiked 22 miles up and down mountains, then spent another full day driving and sightseeing, only to be followed by 10 more miles of hiking up steep elevation changes in the morning of this particular day. All of this hiking had been done at over a mile's worth of vertical elevation too. I was simply too exhausted to do another mountainous hike at Moraine Lake. I'd have to be content with visiting the lakeshore and walking around the immediate visitor area, not heading off into the wilderness again.
I left Moraine Lake after this brief visit and drove south to the town of Banff. It's located relatively close as the crow flies, but took almost two hours to make the drive due to the slow passage through the mountains in the area. Banff is a resort town and is one of Canada's most popular tourist destinations, attracting far more attention than Jasper or Lake Louise. The layout of the town is highly unique, as it wraps around a huge rock formation known as Tunnel Mountain in a banana-like shape. Banff was originally settled due to the presence of hot springs discovered in the area, which caused the railroad company to build several luxurious hotels and advertise Banff as a resort destination. Some of those hotels are still around today, most notably another Fairmont property that looks like a medieval castle. In the summer, visitors come to Banff for hiking and touring through the surrounding Banff National Park; in the winter, visitors come to enjoy the skiing and snowboarding on the nearby mountains. This is a chic town in the mold of Aspen, Colorado or Chamonix, France. Lots of expensive places to stay, trendy places to eat food, and high-end amenities to purchase. I spent some time walking around the town, and Banff was notably more upscale than Jasper or Lake Louise.
The most prominent building in Banff is almost certainly the Fairmont Banff Springs, another member of the same chain of swanky hotels that I had also encountered in Victoria, Quebec City, and earlier this same day at Lake Louise. Like the other hotels in this group, the Fairmont Banff Springs was originally built by the Canadian Pacific Railway company to house tourists who had come to Banff for the hot springs (which are within walking distance of the hotel). The original structure was completed in 1888, although the current building is a more modern replacement that dates from 1911. The Fairmont Banff Springs was built in a Scottish Baronial style that draws on medieval castles for inspiration with lots of stonework and unnecessary towers. The setting for the building was just stunning, nestled in between two different mountain ridges on the outskirts of the town of Banff. If you were wealthy and had money to burn, there would be worse ways to spend it than staying here.
Like most other fancy hotels, the Fairmont Banff Springs allowed non-staying guests to walk around the lobby, if not the rest of the building. The castle theme was continued on the interior, with more stonework on the walls and medieval-looking chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The Scottish influence could be seen in the form of the rearing lion woven into the fabric of the carpets. When I checked in 2018 to see what the going rate was for a room here, the Fairmont Banff Springs was booking for just under $400 per night. For the cheap rooms, with the more luxurious suites significantly higher than that. Needless to say, this was not where I was staying for the night in Banff.
Since I was in the area, I also stopped by the hot springs to check them out. This location is officially known as the Banff Upper Hot Springs and the facilities have been entertaining visitors since the 1880s. The stone changing house outside the hot springs looked like a building that had been around for well over a century, and the pool below was fed by water that came directly out of the ground. There was a sign stating that the pool temperature was a blistering 39 degrees Celsius, or 102 degrees Fahrenheit for my fellow Americans. It looked like a wonderful way to unwind after a long day of hiking and sightseeing, and I only held off on swimming due to the lack of any kind of preparations ahead of time. I hadn't thought to bring a bathing suit or a towel or anything. Near the entrance to the pool area, there was a jet of water coming out of the side of the hill that presumably held the raw hot springs water before it was processed for bathing. I could be pretty sure of this because that water had a powerful foul odor, the same sulphuric stench that always accompanies water coming out of the ground at hot springs. The hot springs facilities made sure to tone that down before the water reached the swiming area.
The day wrapped up at my lodging for the night in the "Banff Alpine Center", which was in truth the local hostel operated by Hosteling International. It was by far the cheapest place to stay, and a surprisingly comfy spot designed to look a bit like a Swiss lodge. In truth, every hostel where I had stayed on this trip had been well above the average for hostels, all of them clean and homey places to stop for the night. I had dinner here and did my best to rest after another very long and busy day of sightseeing. Next up, I would be exploring a bit more of Banff National Park and then heading on to Yoho and Glacier National Parks for more of the natural beauty in the area. These would be the last stops as my trip through the Canadian Rockies began to draw to a close.