Ski Resort Series: Lake Louise

Lake Louise was undoubtedly the most popular of the Banff resorts when we visited. I suspect it draws the most tourists because of its association with the famous lake, as well as it also attracts a lot of locals to its open alpine skiing and back bowls. Plus, the awesome views of the surrounding mountains don’t hurt!

Lake Louise is about a 45 minute drive from Banff, so it is the furthest, though I regularly drive 2 hours to Whistler each way in a single day, so I didn’t find the drive too bad. There are some accommodations in Lake Louise if you’re just there to ski and want to stay nearby, but then I think your restaurant choices would be a lot more limited than if you stayed in Banff.

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Of the three resorts, I found Lake Louise had the most confusing parking. Norquay and Sunshine have straightforward massive lots, but Lake Louise has several smaller lots and several sections of the lot are allocated specifically for VIPs or pay parking. Clearly we weren’t VIPs and we didn’t want to pay, so we ended up parking in the road parking – it wasn’t a long walk to the resort, but the longest of the 3 resorts and we were annoyed to walk past the huge empty VIP lot right next to the lodge.

Lake Louise had a pretty different set-up than Sunshine. At Sunshine, I found a lot of the lifts went to the same locations but had different bases from which to board at the bottom. Whereas at Lake Louise, a lot of the lifts left from the same central area at the bottom and went to different parts of the mountain, which I think is a bit preferable. The main difference is that the Lake Louise base is at the same elevation as the highway, whereas at Sunshine you take a gondola up to the base and at Norquay you drive several switchbacks up the mountain. As a result, I found the ski conditions at Lake Louise were unfortunately, the worst of the 3 mountains.

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It’s partially because of the weather and timing of when we visited that we didn’t get any powder, but overall, I found Louise to be icier because it’s a lower elevation mountain. I also found the runs to be more confusing because it’s a lot of alpine, so there’s not really any discernible runs in a lot of locations. In some ways I really liked that because you could really ski wherever you wanted, but it also made it hard to figure out where you were and we ended up going down a few more advanced runs because we got lost. Not that big a deal, but since it was an icy day, it wasn’t the best conditions for challenging yourself.

So it was a bit of a rough start as we figured out the mountain, but we did still have a good time. We started off on Glacier chair and did a few runs on the Top of the World chair before going up Summit chair once to see the view from the highest point. I liked this area, but it’s where we kept making mistakes and ended up down a gully a few times. One of the biggest attractions at Lake Louise is the back bowls, which is pretty much just all free black run skiing. My biggest regret is that we didn’t ski the back bowl in the morning when we had fresh legs and decent visibility. We were a little bit intimidated by it and there’s so much to explore, so we decided to save it for later.

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After a few runs up at the top we switched over to the Grizzly gondola and explored around some of the bottom part of the mountain. Lake Louise is deceivingly large. Sunshine Village felt large because the lifts are spread out and there’s so many different areas, whereas Lake Louise is more concentrated, but still has a lot of runs, many of which I think are longer than at Sunshine. We didn’t do as many runs in the morning, mostly because it was just taking us longer to do each run.

We had decided to buy lunch at Lake Louise, which was a good decision because packed lunches aren’t allowed in the Lodge of Ten Peaks (though you can eat them at Whiskeyjack Lodge). The nice thing about Louise was that there were several lodges, I don’t know how busy it was over at Temple Lodge, but we found Lodge of Ten Peaks to be a lot less crowded than at Sunshine.

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In the afternoon we made our way over towards the backside of the mountain to get the areas we hadn’t yet explored. We did a few runs on Ptarmigan chair and a few on Larch chair. I ended up really liking the Larch area, likely because it had some easier runs, or maybe because they are more well defined. I think I would really like Lake Louise if I got to ski it more often, but because I only had one day, I wanted to get a lot a variety and in the alpine, I guess I felt like I was just skiing the same thing run after run. It’s why it’s nice to have more than one day at a ski resort, because you get to try everything on the first day, and then return to areas you liked or try things you missed on the second day.

Emily wasn’t really keen to do the back bowls at all, but like Goat Mountain at Sunshine, I still really wanted to tackle every part of the mountain, so I convinced her to do one run with me. We got to scope it out a bit more on the Paradise chair, which runs up the back of the mountain, and I think on a good powder day I would be pretty comfortable skiing in the back bowl (at least in the area under Paradise chair, which is black diamonds as opposed to double blacks). Unfortunately, our mistake was waiting too late in the day. We took the one easy run down the back bowl, but it had really bad flat light when we did it and we felt like we were skiing blind, so we weren’t inclined to try a second run, hence why I say I wish we’d done it in the morning.

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Anyways, sometimes you live and learn. We still ended up having a great time at Lake Louise and surprisingly Emily liked it more than me. I can’t really pinpoint why, but of the three, Lake Louise was probably my least favourite. I may get slammed for that because not a lot of people seem to like Norquay, so I’m inclined to blame the weather on this occasion (we got some great powder at Norquay). In any case, I won’t be too quick to judge it and I would definitely return to try it again and properly ski the back bowl. Overall I think it might just be the vibe that I got from Lake Louise. It was more crowded and seemed a bit more elitist than the others, so I’d be just as happy to ski at Sunshine or Norquay as well. Either way, it’s definitely an iconic resort.

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Hiking the Plain of 6 Glaciers

Our second hike in Banff National Park in August was The Plain of 6 Glaciers (our first hike was Sentinel Pass). Both hikes are located in the Lake Louise area and I feel like maybe I should have branched out a little more, but they were both so incredibly scenic it’s hard to regret.

As I explained in my last post, with Lake Louise being so popular, it’s best to get there early if you want to be assured parking. I’ve heard the lot generally fills up by 8am, but I think that’s only on weekends because there was still lots of space when we got there at 8am on a Thursday. The Plain of 6 Glaciers starts right at the lake and hikes the length of the lake and up into the backcountry. I’d been to Lake Louise once before as a teenager with my parents and the lake was just as scenic as I remembered, but there were so many people so we didn’t want to linger.

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There are tons of trails from the lake; you can hike up immediately to the Big Agnes Teahouse and a ton of hiking options, or you can hike up the near side of the lake to some viewpoints, but of course, we opted to hike towards the back of the lake. Despite the early hour, there were still a lot of people on the lake trail, though the traffic thinned out considerably once we reached the back of the lake. I think a lot of tourists just hike to the back of the lake and then return to the chateau – also on the day we went, there were a lot of climbers, and they all quit at the back of the lake to climb the sheer cliff wall. So we felt much more at home once we left the lake, as beautiful as it was.

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The weather was really nice. It was chilly, but the sun was out, so we slowly started ditching layers after leaving the lake. From there the trail is mostly uphill and continues through the woods and then into what I like to call the barren alpine. The entire valley was once covered in glaciers, so there’s not a whole lot growing there and it’s mostly rock left behind from the glaciers. There are beautiful views looking back at the lake as you ascend, as well as equally beautiful views looking ahead at the glaciers. It’s hard to count them to confirm if there actually are 6 glaciers, but they’re each slowly revealed to you as you hike up the valley.

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My favourite part of the hike is that there’s a cute little tea house located about a kilometre before the viewpoint. There’s a flatish area and they’ve constructed the teahouse and put some picnic tables along the river. We hadn’t really planned ahead properly for the teahouse because I thought I’d read somewhere that it was closed because of Covid, but it was open and fortunately Seth had $20 cash on hand. So we each had a cup of tea and shared a delicious jammy scone. We were thrilled to discover all the teas are from Banff Tea Co, which we had visited the day before, so me and Emily both had the “Plain of 6 Glaciers” tea in honour of the occasion. It’s an herbal tea with a little bit of mint and it was very yummy!

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The weather started to change a bit while we were enjoying our teas. It had clouded in and while it wasn’t raining, the sky was starting to look a little foreboding, so we decided to continue on. It’s just 1 more kilometre, the last part of which goes along the ridgeline and reveals the final glacier right at the back of the valley. It’s not really obvious where the trail ends, eventually it comes to a scree slope and I think you can continue on a little further, but we opted to stop there for our lunch. It did start to drizzle a little as we were eating, but nothing too bad. It just made us glad we had left early again because the weather did get worse and the crowds got larger, but for the most part we had enjoyed a scenic and empty hike up to the top.

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The rain picked up on the way down, making it colder, and the clouds quickly moved in to obscure some of the glaciers. I always find it amazing how quickly the weather can change in the backcountry and its a good reminder to always be prepared. Fortunately we had our rain jackets and merino wool sweaters, but we saw a lot of hikers coming up looking pretty wet and ill-prepared.

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We beelined down the trail pretty fast because of the rain and made pretty good time coming down. It rained on and off for the rest of the hike, stopping for periods of time, but often starting up again. You can go back to Lake Louise via a different route that would take you to Agnes Lake and the other hiking trails, but similar to Sentinel Pass, Sadie was tired and we weren’t really interested in exploring too much more in the rain, so we opted to skip it. It was even more busy at the bottom of the lake as it was now mid afternoon, so we hightailed it out of there and back to our campsite to relax for the rest of the day. So overall, I didn’t like the hike as much as Sentinel Pass, but still very beautiful and I’d definitely go back and explore some of the many other hiking options in the area!

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Banff National Park

Banff was our second stop on a weeklong holiday in August. Check out my post about our first stop in the Okanagan.

Compared to some of BC Parks campgrounds, I wasn’t overly impressed with the campgrounds in Banff. That said, Banff is really a tourist town and I think the campgrounds were more about quantity than quality. We stayed at Tunnel Mountain Village II, which has over 600 sites. Coupled with Tunnel Mountain Village I and the trailer park, that’s a lot of camping just outside Banff (and there’s still loads more campgrounds throughout the rest of the National Park). The benefit to Tunnel Mountain though is that is super close to Banff town and there’s even a shuttle bus that runs between the campground and the town.

We had 3 full days in Banff National Park, so we were planning to do two hikes, spend some time at the lake, and explore the town. Banff really has the look of a ski town, but I’ve only ever travelled there in summer – hopefully one day I’ll make it over there to go skiing as well. Fortunately, the weather in Banff was a lot more comfortable than the weather in the Okanagan. It was still hot in the day, but it properly cools off in the night, making it much easier to sleep. One of the cool things about the National Park is that they provide firewood! There’s a lot of education about not transporting firewood because you can introduce invasive bugs to new areas, so I suspect that’s one of the reasons why it’s provided. You can just drive to the wood lot, take as much as you want, and just make sure to leave behind whatever you don’t use.

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On our first day, we decided to go hiking. It’s unreal how many trail options there are in the Rockies. There are tons in Banff alone, without including all the trails in the neighbouring parks. The top two trails on my list were Plain of 6 Glaciers and Sentinel Pass. The problem is that both are super popular and involve getting up early. 6 Glaciers leaves from the Lake Louise parking lot, which I’d heard filled up my 8am, and Sentinel Pass leaves from the Moraine Lake parking lot, which is really small and I’d heard filled up by 6am! The drive from our campsite was about 45 minutes, so we weren’t willing to get up quite that early. We figured things might be a little less busy since it was a Tuesday, so our plan was to aim for Lake Louise for 8am, but to turn up to Lake Moraine if that lot was still open when we passed (Parks closes the lot once it’s full and limits traffic access). When we passed Moraine Lake at 7:45am, the sign said lot full, but we could still see some cars being let up the access road, so we decided to try and were thrilled to be admitted up to the lake! We grabbed the first parking spot we saw and then got ready for the hike. In retrospect, a good idea would be to make your breakfast once you’ve parked to save a bit of time in the morning.

Moraine Lake is a dream. It was my first time there and it was absolutely gorgeous. You can visit the lake from the parking lot, but Sentinel Pass trail continues on from the lake. I think I will write separate posts about Sentinel Pass and Plain of 6 Glaciers, but Sentinel Pass was by far the highlight of the trip to Banff for me. We had gorgeous weather for it and the meadows at the top were filled with wildflowers! You get the most amazing view from the pass and the entire hike was really a joy. Sadie did really well on the hike, though she’d been having some tummy issues over the past few days and Seth was getting a little concerned about her. We ended up calling the animal hospital in Canmore because she’d had diarrhea for 3 days and Seth was concerned about parvo. They said to try feeding her a bland diet of chicken and rice, so our first stop after the hike was to the grocery story to pick up chicken breasts for Sadie. I boiled them, which was a new experience and pretty much the grossest way I can think of to eat chicken. It worked like a charm though and the next day she didn’t poop at all! (TMI?)

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Our second day was intended as a relaxing day between the two hikes. We slept in and then went into Banff town to do a bit of shopping. We’d been dismayed throughout the trip by the lack of people wearing masks. Whenever we stopped anywhere we would wear our masks, even just using the bathroom at gas stations, but very few people seemed to be doing the same. So it was nice to see some pretty strict rules about masks in Banff. I assume it’s because it’s mostly a tourist town, but they’d converted the main street into a pedestrian road and masks were required everywhere along the stretch. We got some new gear at the Smartwool and North Face stores and me and Emily had a lot of fun tea shopping at Banff Tea Co. We’re both tea addicts, so we picked up a few new flavours.

It was getting progressively hotter, so we went out to Lake Minnewanka in the afternoon. It was super busy at the lake and we had to circle the parking lot for a bit, but eventually we did find a spot. The lake is really interesting. It’s a huge reservoir and you can rent motorboats and canoes. There’s a trail that goes along the edge of the lake and instead of one big beach, there are lots of little beaches along the lake where you can hang out for the day. We found a spot to set up in the shade of the trees and finally decided to blow up the rubber dinghy we’d brought on the trip. It was a good time for the dinghy because Minnewanka was a lot colder than Okanagan Lake. We went for one little swim, but as gorgeous as the lake was, it wasn’t really a swimming lake. So instead we took the boat out for a little spin and marveled at the gorgeous mountains surrounding the lake.

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We returned to the campsite for dinner, but after that Seth and I decided to take Sadie for a walk. There’s a nice trail running all along the campsite and we walked to what was labelled as the “hoodoo viewpoint”. We didn’t know what a hoodoo was, but learned it’s basically just a name for a weird rock feature. The viewpoint was gorgeous! It looked out at Rundle Mountain and from it we could look down at the Bow River, see the hoodoos, and even glimpse the fancy Banff Springs Hotel. It’s just off the main road, which is one of the things I love about the Rockies, you don’t even really have to hike anywhere to get amazing views.

On our last full day in Banff we headed back to Lake Louise to do the Plain of 6 Glaciers hike. Lake Louise is gorgeous, but a little overwhelming. We came back at 8am again and had no trouble finding parking in the massive lots. The crowds were a lot though. Moraine Lake is busy, but because of the size of the parking lot, it didn’t feel too busy (usually there’s shuttles that run up there, but not this year because of Covid). Lake Louise had a very different feel and I didn’t want to hang out for too long because of all the people.

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Both mornings had been chill when we started hiking, but while Sentinel had gotten really hot later in the day, 6 Glaciers remained cool throughout. I’m glad we got up early for the hike though because we finally saw a bit of rain for the first time on the trip. It was gorgeous blue skies when we started, but as we continued to hike, the clouds started to move in. Again, I think I will write a second post about the particulars of the trail, but the highlight for me was that there’s a tea house located at the top, so we were able to each get a cup of tea at the top and shared a scone. It was also a gorgeous hike, but I’d still give Sentinel the edge over 6 Glaciers. The glacier hike is a lot more barren, whereas I liked all the meadows and wildflowers at Sentinel. It started raining on our way back, but fortunately it was after we’d seen the view, so we couldn’t complain about it.

Though it rained in Lake Louise, there was no evidence of rain at our campsite and we enjoyed one last lazy night and campfire. Sadie was beat after the hike and took it easy for the rest of the night. In the morning we packed up again and started to head home. It was too far to drive all the way home in one day, so we had a hotel booked in Salmon Arm. The main motivation for getting a hotel was that all the shower houses in the National Park were closed because of Covid. I get it… but like, also you should want people to be bathing themselves. We made a stop at Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park on the way home (another park I’d like to explore more), but we ran into some trouble in Glacier National Park. We’d planned to stop there again for lunch, but it poured when we passed through, so we held out until the end of the park, when we saw a rest stop with covered picnic tables.

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After that we drove straight to Salmon Arm and had a lazy night swimming in the pool and ordering take-out. On the final day, we made a stop in the morning in Kamloops where we took Sadie to this awesome dog park. It’s located right on the river and she had a great time running around the beach and in the water. We’d intended to stop at Falls Lake for a walk when passing through the Coquihalla, but the lot was closed, so we pushed through to Hope. After that it was just a quick lunch before heading home. It was a great trip, but it’s always nice to arrive home again. I really loved hiking in the Rockies and I think I might have to try and make it an annual thing since there’s just so much to explore! We only visited a small part of the Rockies and I can’t wait to go back for more!