Banff National Park day-hikes
(Two Teahouses - Johnston Canyon - Inkpots and Larch Valley - Sentinel Pass Hikes)

Two Teahouses Hike – Lake Louise (18km - 720m ascent – 720m descent)

Lake Louise is one of the best known areas of the Canadian Rockies and has been for a long time. It was here that hiking and mountain-climbing first developed as past-times in Canada and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries an infrastructure developed to support these activities. As well as the well-known Chateau Hotel, this included the construction of tea-houses at Lake Agnes in 1905 and The Plain of Six Glaciers in 1923. Today hikes to these two historic sites, both still in operation, are popular amongst the many visitors to this region. We decided to do likewise, combining them into the two tea-houses hike.

Walking around the shore of Lake Louise

The silt beach at the end of Lake Louise

Pika gathering grass for winter

Ptarmigan - now that is good camouflage

After the snowfalls of the past two days, the sun had finally returned though the air was still crisp. We set off from the Lake Louise parking lot to wander along the foreshore promenade between Lake Louise and the opulent Chateau Hotel. The crowds were already out, taking photos of the famously turquoise waters of this lake backed by tall dark cliffs and blindingly white glaciers and of each other in front of it. We scurried by, stopping briefly to put on an extra layer of clothing as the cold air blowing over the fresh snow and down the lake bit.

The asphalt promenade was replaced by a wide gravel path, as we followed the Lakeshore Trail around the northern shoreline, stopping briefly just before an impressively vertical and high cliff-face to watch a pika gathering leaves and grass and stashing them in one of its larders for the coming winter. Then we continued on, passing the fine silt beach at the head of the lake and following the inlet stream upwards as it cascaded down from above.

View ahead towards Mount Lefroy and Mt Victoria

The number of walkers had dropped significantly, as the lakeside promeneurs turned to head back to the hotel. From here on, only hikers with a mission continued up the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail. The track was no longer manicured and we walked in single file, skirting the spruce forest on the edge of the valley and climbing steadily upwards, along the ledge of a low rock face and up an old lateral moraine. We were passing the region from which the glacier had long retreated and the valley floor comprised mounds of bare gravel left by the ice.

Heading up the Six Glaciers Trail

Lake Louise dwarfed by the dark walls
of Fairview Mountain

The track edges above the debris and
old morains of Victoria Glacier

Looking up the glacier towards
ice-capped Mt Victoria (3464m)

Ahead the impressive sights of Mts Lefroy and Victoria drew us on, while the equally impressive sight of Lake Louise framed by high rock walls and backed by the ski-fields of Whitehorn Mountain was becoming more expansive as we gained height and had us continuously looking over our shoulders. The scenery all around was quite spectacular.

Lefroy, Lower Victoria and Upper Victoria Glaciers
- plus Mt Aberdeen (3152m), The Mitre (2889m) and Mt Lefroy (3423m)

Nello on the lateral morain admiring the
Upper and Lower Victoria Glaciers

The Death Trap Couloir

A series of switchbacks brought us to the tea-house, with its glorious views out over the Victoria and Lefroy Glaciers, but we didn't stop. A bit over a kilometre ahead lay an even more spectacular viewpoint, on a scree slope at the base of the barren Pope's Peak. To reach it we wondered further up the valley and then along the narrow ridge of the glacier's lateral moraine.

Abbott's Hut - at the top of the couloir

From here we could look down on to the crevasses of the lower Victoria Glacier, up to the glistening face of the upper Victoria Glacier, hanging on the edge of the immense rock walls of Victoria Mountain, up the “Death Trap” couloir (a notorious avalanche corridor) to the tiny silhouette of Abbott's Hut, the highest mountain refuge in Canada, wedged between Mt Victoria and the massive rock face of Mt Lefroy, itself rising above the equally impressive Lefroy Glacier. Glaciers below, glaciers above and mountains all around – this was definitely a place to appreciate the majesty of the high alpine landscape.

Heading back down The Plain of the Six Glaciers to the teahouse

Snow being blown off the crest of Mt Lefroy

Content, we doubled back to the Six Glaciers Tea-house, where the numbers of hikers had built up considerably. It seemed appropriate to drop in, and hot chocolate seemed the appropriate drink. We continued to backtrack down the trail until we reached the junction of Highline Trail and took it, traversing across the slope instead of descending.

Plain of the Six Glaciers teahouse

The junction of the Highline Trail

Lake Louise and its iconic chateau hotel

This trail took us across open meadow beneath ochre-coloured rock faces and into the spruce forest. The track climbed gradually and soon we were passing the top of the vertical cliffs that rose up from Lake Louise's far end. Down below through the trees a group of canoeists paddled across the milky green lake waters.

On the Highline Trail
to Lake Agnes

Looking over The Plain of the Six Glaciers
- backed by Mt Aberdeen and Mt Lefroy

Into the tall forest on the
side of Mt Whyte

Looking down on the turquoise
water of Lake Louise

We pushed on towards the impressive rockface of the Big Beehive, before climbing steeply up beneath it to reach Lake Agnes and our second tea-house. The lake is in a spectacular setting, its green waters edged by dark green forest and backed by the rugged profiles of The Devil's Thumb, Mt Whyte and Mt Niblock. We stopped in to order a coffee and cake, but as we sat on the deck, thick bands of cloud accompanied by an icy wind began to roll through. The 30 minute wait for our coffee and cake seemed much longer in these unpleasant conditions – at least the coffee was hot when it arrived.

Mt Aberdeen (3152m) above the forest

View from Lake Agnes teahouse to The Devil's Thumb and Mt Whyte (2983m)

Side view of The Big Beehive

View over the Bow River Valley

Mirror Lake and The Big Beehive

It took a while to warm up once we headed on, taking a different path down towards Mirror Lake, a small pond beneath the dark dome of the Big Beehive. From here we followed the main trail back through the forest to Lake Louise, taking in the occasional views of the famously turquoise water through the occasional gap.

Hikers' boulevard from Lake Agnes to Lake Louise

Glimpse of Lake Louse and Fairview Mountain

The way down was more a hikers' boulevard than a track – wide, smooth and gentle – and it delivered us back on to the foreshore promenade in front of the Chateau Hotel. We wandered into The Chateau, hoping to have an end-of-hike beer, only to be told there was a 20 minute wait for seating in the Lounge; not even a chance to ask for two straws! We did not dally – the beer at the hostel tasted just as good. Thus ended our Two Tea-houses Hike, a more genteel outing than normal, but one that still took us to wildly beautiful, if slightly crowded, places. However, with its manicured paths and crowded trails, this walk may not be everyone's cup of tea.

Johnston Canyon- Inkpots Hike (12km - 520m ascent – 520m descent)

Well we did it again!  We wanted to have a change of landscape from the wide mountain vistas and opted to walk into Johnston Canyon, famous for its waterfalls, and then head on to a series of cool springs known as The Inkpots. The canyon cuts into the ranges from the Bow River Valley, just to the east of the impressive Castle Mountain. The problem was that this walk is as accessible as it is spectacular and is a stopping point for bus-loads of people on spoon-fed tourist packages. Hence, we would once again be sharing the walk with lots of others (and if we don't like it that really is our problem, not theirs).

Up early, we hiked into a canyon still deep in cold morning shade.  Along with the crowd, we followed the asphalt pathway along, occasionally using the steel-framed walkways bolted to the rock wall to pass otherwise unpassable sections of the canyon. Although I have my reservations about such infrastructure, it was the only way to access this small, but impressive canyon, its walls rough-hewn gashes in the bed-rock, fringed by a dark forest and mossy understorey.

Castle Mountain (2850m) rising dramatically above the Bow River Valley

The path winds through the shady canyon ...

... high above the river ...

... deep within the walls ....

.... and past a series of waterfalls

On the way, we stopped to admire the various waterfalls, imaginatively named the Lower, Middle and Upper Falls, as we gradually climbed up the Canyon. The only downside was that at every viewpoint, it was like being in a procession – queue up, take your photo and move on.

The Upper Falls deep in shadow

The weeping wall of travertine limestone


View across to Mt Ishbel (2908m)

After admiring the Upper Falls and the nearby orange-tinted and spring-fed weeping wall of travertine limestone, we headed away from the canyon, now following a dirt track towards The Inkpots. Immediately, the numbers of people thinned dramatically as most people returned to their buses or cars. The route was quiet, apart from the occasional chatter of squirrels, as we found ourselves walking along a wide fire trail beneath the thick canopy of spruce.

The Inkpots - a series of cool water springs

Upper reaches of Johnston Creek

Valley of the Inkpots

For the next few kilometres, the track climbed steadily within the forest to a high point above the far reaches of Johnston Canyon, before descending quickly to spill us out on a long flat, and happily more open, valley. We had arrived at the upper reaches of the Johnston Creek and The Inkpots – a series of pretty pools bubbling up through the gravel, limpid green and blue, and reflecting the surrounding forested slopes and more distant rocky ranges. It was a very tranquil setting and we had an early lunch followed by a brief nap in the warm sunshine – it was that kind of day.

An inkpot spring backed by the Sawback Range

Upwelling in one of The Inkpots

Clear blue water of The Inkpots

Refreshed, we retraced our steps though the forest back to Johnston Canyon to find it transformed with the midday sun now breaking into parts of the canyon, illuminating rock walls and waterfalls. To see the canyon in two different lights was great and, as a bonus, it was now warm enough to finish in tee-shirts – so different to the narrow ice-box in which we had started this walk.

A narrow section of the canyon

One of several falls in the canyon

Sunlight on the Lower Falls

Leaving the sun-dappled Johnston Canyon

Larch Valley - Sentinel Pass Hike (13km - 790m ascent – 790m descent)

It is said that one of the most beautiful sights of the Canadian Rockies is when the larches take on their golden autumn hue. While returning from Assiniboine, we had seen a couple of golden larches but the majority were mainly the pale green of their normal foliage. Clearly though, they were on the cusp of turning, so five days on we decided to do the hike up to Larch Valley to check out their colour – apparently when they start to change colour it happens quickly.

Early morning at Moraine Lake

It was another picture-perfect day with a cold and frosty start. We scraped the ice off the car windows and drove back to Moraine Lake. The valley was still in deep shadow, so we had a coffee at the Lodge to warm us up and set out.

A ranger was waiting at the start of the Larch Valley Trail to make sure that hikers were heading up in groups of at least four people. This area is very active for bears and bigger groups are considered safer for both bear and hiker. The ranger explained that Larch Valley and the neighbouring area is home to a couple of female grizzlies, one of which (Bear 72) had three cubs.

There be bears in Larch Valley!

We attached ourselves to a pair of Quebecquoise hikers and set off on the longish climb up to the hanging valley above. It was a Saturday and a lot of people were out and heading up as well. The track started straight into the climb, rapidly gaining elevation beneath the cool dark canopy of fir and spruce via a series of long switchbacks. We soon warmed up with the effort. People walk at different paces, so we adopted a policy of “loose association”, shifting from group to group as people stopped for a rest or drink, until we finally reached a track junction and headed into the valley.

The path through the larches

By now we were, for better or worse, just the two of us. However, the anticipation of perhaps spotting a grizzly bear soon dissipated, as word got round that they were over in the neighbouring valley, causing a traffic-jam of hikers as they fed on the track.

View across to Mount Temple (3544m)

We wandered on, now entering the predominantly larch forest, interspersed with the occasional thicket of stunted spruce. The larches were indeed changing colour rapidly – many were already yellow, others still part green, but in the morning sunshine, their foliage literally glowed. It was indeed a wondrous spectacle, particularly with the saw-toothed line of the ten Wenkchemna Peaks rising above them.

The ten Wenkchemna Peaks

We climbed slowly up through this light and golden forest, before stopping to sit on a bench for a while and just soak up the sunshine and the ambience. Ahead, the bare massive rock walls of Eiffel Peak, Pinnacle Mountain and Mount Temple rose above the scattered larch.

The glow of larch in Autumn

Eiffel Peak, Pinnacle Mountain and Mount Temple

The forest was becoming thinner as we climbed and we found ourselves on a high meadow overlooking the two Minnestimma Lakes gleaming in the sunlight.  High up on the rock-face of Pinnacle Mountain, a mountain goat looked down us – no doubt we were just as small moving specks to it as it was to us.

Sentinel Pass, between Pinnacle Mountain and Mt Temple

View over the high meadow and lower Minnestimma Lake

The climb up to Sentinel Pass

In between the rocky towers of The Pinnacle and Mount Temple lay The Sentinel Pass, a steep walled scree-slope, etched with the zig-zag line of the track leading up to it. It was our next destination, and fortunately the ascent looked much worse from below than it was. With a steady rhythm of breath and pace, we reached the pass within the half hour to be greeted by magnificent views out over the Paradise Valley. One look past the dark rock spires across the the snowy peaks of Mt Aberdeen and Haddo Peak and you could see why the valley was so called.

View from the pass north over Paradise Valley and Mt Aberdeen

View south over the Minnestimma Lakes to the Wenkchemna Peaks

We climbed a small rocky knoll above the pass and had a long lunch, taking in the amazing vistas, both across Paradise Valley and back down Larch Valley, over the lakes and yellow-tinted forest to the Wenkchemna Peaks and glistening Fay Glacier – we didn't want to leave.

Nello at Sentinel Pass

Pinnacle Mountain from the pass

The flank of Mt Temple from the pass

Returning from the pass to Larch Valley

Mount Fay(3235m) and its glacier

All good things end, so we headed back down from the pass, retracing our steps through the larch forest – I was sure that it had become even more golden since we climbed up a few hours earlier.

A stunted larch on the high meadow

The track back ....

....through the golden larches ....

... with magnificent mountain backdrops

A particularly glowing grove of larches

Farewell to Larch Valley and the Wenkchemna Peaks

As we started the long series of switchbacks down through the denser forest, glimpses of the deep blue water of Moraine Lake appeared far below through the gaps in the canopy. I hadn't even noticed them on the climb and wondered what else I may have missed on other climbs I have done. It also intrigued me how the same route back is always longer than going, but eventually we arrived back at the lake.

Instead of heading back to the car, we followed the Lakeshore Trail for a little while to find a pleasant place to sit and watch the canoeists paddling on its blue blue water, beneath the sheer rock walls of The Tower of Babel and the nearer Wenkchemna Peaks. Moraine Lake is a beautiful and tranquil place.

Looking down on Moraine Lake

Moraine Lake and the Tower of Babel

A good way to explore the lake

Moraine Lake backed by Mts Bowlen and Tonsa

A short stroll back along the lake's edge and our hike was over. It left us feeling very satisfied to have seen this incredible mix of landscapes, the contrast of soft and harsh – and yes, it is true, one of the most beautiful sights of the Canadian Rockies is when the larches take on their golden autumn hue.