Banff National Park’s other main centre, LAKE LOUISE, is very different from Banff – less a town than two distinct artificial resorts. The first is a small mall of shops and hotels just off the Trans-Canada known as Lake Louise Village. The second is the lake itself, 4.5km from the village (and 200m higher) on the winding Lake Louise Drive, the self-proclaimed “gem of the Rockies” and – despite its crowds and monster hotel – a sight you must see. A third area, Moraine Lake, 13km south of the village, has almost equally staggering scenery and almost unparalleled hiking country. All three areas are packed in summer; in winter, things slow down considerably, though plenty still turn up for some of Canada’s best skiing at the nearby resort (see Winter sports in the Rockies) as well as the hundreds of kilometres of cross-country skiing trails and numerous other winter activities.
The Lake Louise Ski Area has some of the most heavily used trails on the continent, trodden by fifty thousand-plus people in summer. All the trails are well worn and well marked, and don’t require you to be a seasoned hiker or skilled map-reader. A couple even pass teahouses – mountain chalets selling welcome, if pricey, snacks. Before hiking, check with the visitor centre in Lake Louise on the latest restrictions imposed by bear activity. Sometimes you need to walk in groups of at least four, but with people often waiting to join a group at trailheads, making up the numbers shouldn’t be a problem.
Shorter strolls alongside Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are doable by all. If you’re after a more strenuous, but relatively short, day-hike the top choices are the Lake Agnes–Plain of the Six Glaciers loop from Lake Louise and the Larch Valley–Sentinel Pass hike from Moraine Lake.
The signed Lake Agnes Trail (3.4km), said to be the most-walked path in the Rockies (but don’t let that put you off), strikes off from the right (north) shore of the lake immediately past the hotel. It’s a gradual 400m climb, relieved by ever more magnificent views and a teahouse beautifully situated beside mountain-cradled Lake Agnes (2135m); allow one to two hours. If you want more of a walk, things quieten down considerably beyond the teahouse. You can continue on the right side of the lake and curve left around its head to climb to an easily reached pass. Here a 200m stroll to the left brings you to Big Beehive (2255m), an incredible eyrie, 1km from the teahouse. Almost as rewarding is the trail, also 1km from the teahouse, to Little Beehive, a mite lower, but still privy to full-blown panoramas over the broad sweep of the Bow Valley.
Keener walkers can return to the pass from Big Beehive and turn left to follow the steep trail down to intersect another trail; turning right leads west through rugged and increasingly barren scenery to the second teahouse at the Plain of the Six Glaciers (2100m). Alternatively, the more monotonous Six Glaciers Trail (leaving out the whole Lake Agnes–Big Beehive section) leads from the hotel along the lakeshore to the same point (5.3km to the teahouse; 365m ascent). However, a better option is to follow the Lake Agnes and Big Beehive route to the Plain, then use the Six Glaciers Trail for the return to Château Lake Louise, which neatly ends the day’s loop with a downhill stroll and an easy but glorious finale along the shore of Lake Louise.
The main appeal of the less-used Saddleback Trail (3.7km one way) is that it provides access to the superb viewpoint of Fairview Mountain. Allow one to two hours to Saddleback itself (2330m; 595m ascent); the trail to the summit of Fairview (2744m) strikes off right from here. Even if you don’t make the last push, the Saddleback views – across to the 1200m wall of Mount Temple (3544m) – are staggering.
In 1894, the mountaineer Walter Wilcox deemed Paradise Valley an appropriate name for “a valley of surpassing beauty, wide and beautiful, with alternating open meadows and rich forests”. North of Moraine Lake, it’s accessed via Moraine Lake Road, about 3km from its junction with Lake Louise Drive. The walk is a fairly straightforward hike up one side of the valley and down the other, a loop of 18km (7–8hr) with 385m of vertical gain. Along the way Lake Annette provides an unmatched view of Mount Temple’s 1200m north face. You can stay overnight at the Horseshoe Meadow backcountry campground at the head of the valley (9km from the trailhead), though this is popular and often full. A stiff climb over loose rock up to Sentinel Pass on the south side of the valley allows you to connect with the Moraine Lake trails.
The Skoki Valley region east of Lake Louise offers fewer day-hikes; to enjoy it you’ll need a tent to stay overnight at any of the six backcountry campgrounds. The trailhead begins off a gravel road that runs behind the Lake Louise Ski Area, off Hwy-1. Many people hike out-and-back to Boulder Pass (2345m), an 8.6km trek and 640m ascent from the trailhead (6–7hr round trip). Skoki Lodge lies 8km beyond; various well-signposted long and short trails running from here and the backcountry campgrounds are detailed in leaflets available from the visitor centre.
The easiest Moraine Lake area walks are the 1km amble along its shores, followed by the 3km stroll to Consolation Lake, an hour’s trip that may be busy but can provide some respite from the frenzy at Moraine Lake itself. This almost level walk ends with lovely views of a small, mountain-circled lake, its name coined by an early explorer who thought it a reward and “consolation” for the desolation of the valley that led to it. If you’re happy to camp overnight, are fairly fit, or can arrange a pick-up, you could take the highline Panorama Ridge Trail (2255m), which branches off the trail (signed “Taylor Lake”) to run 22km to the Banff–Radium Hwy 7km west of Castle Junction.
One of the Rockies’ premier hikes, the popular Larch Valley–Sentinel Pass Trail sets off from the lake’s north shore, 100m beyond the lodge, and takes around four hours for the return trip. A fairly stiff climb through forest on a broad track, with breathtaking views of the lake through the trees, brings you to a trail junction after 2.4km and some 300m of ascent. Most hikers branch right – left goes to Eiffel Lake – where the track levels into Larch Valley, broad, alpine upland with stands of larch and majestic views of the encircling peaks. If you have the energy, push on to Sentinel Pass, in all some two hours’ walk and 720m above Moraine Lake. At 2611m, this is the highest trail over a pass in the Canadian Rockies. You can take much of the view from the vantage point of the meadows, but the airy vistas over Paradise Valley are reserved for the crest of the pass itself. You could even continue down into Paradise Valley, a tough, scree-filled descent, and complete an exceptional day’s walk by dropping down into Lake Louise Village, or circling back on trails that parallel the Moraine Lake Road.
This third Moraine Lake option, the less-walked Moraine Lake–Eiffel Lake–Wenkchemna Pass Trail, follows the same climb from the lake as for the Larch Valley path before branching off left instead of right at the 2.4km junction. It’s equally sound, virtually level and if anything has the better scenery, taking in the stark, glaciated grandeur at the head of the Valley of the Ten Peaks. At 2255m, Eiffel Lake is a 5.6km hike and 370m climb (allow 2–3hr) from Moraine Lake, and you don’t need to go much further than the rock pile and clump of trees beyond the lake to get the best out of the walk. Ahead of you, a slightly rougher track continues through bleak terrain to Wenkchemna Pass (2600m), clearly visible 4km beyond, which offers still broader views of the Valley of the Ten Peaks as well as into Yoho and Kootenay parks.