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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Semaphore Lakes Backpacking Trip

I already wrote about my one night backpacking trip to Tenquille Lake, but I also did one night at Semaphore Lakes in the same trip. I decided to split up the trip into 2 blogs though because the two trails are not actually related and writing about them together would make for one really long post. We visited Tenquille Lake and Semaphore Lakes on the Canada Day long weekend in 2016. In hindsight, we easily could have spent 2 days exploring around Tenquille Lake, but instead we hiked out from Tenquille on the second day and did Semaphore for the second night.

The reason we picked Semaphore Lakes for the second night is that it’s super close to the Tenquille Lake trailhead. Instead of having to drive on the 4WD Branch 12 road though, it’s located just off the Hurley Forest Service Road, shortly past where the Branch 12 side road is (see my Tenquille Lake blog for more detailed directions). So you can get to this trailhead with 2WD.

Semaphore Lakes is a much shorter trail, it’s about 5km round trip to the lakes and back, but don’t be deceived because there is still 300 metres in elevation gain in the short 2.5km, so it does make for a pretty steep hike up to the top. With our packs, it probably took us about an hour and a half to reach. We had a bit of a late start hiking in to Semaphore because we had a personal issue come up that required us to drive back to Pemberton between the two trails. Then when we finally got back to the Semaphore Lakes trailhead in the late afternoon (and had all our packs on ready to go), Brandon realized he left his REALLY NICE Nikon DSLR camera on the side of the road at the Tenquille Lake trailhead when we were packing up the car. So we had to drive back up and down the 4WD access road, but fortunately his camera was still sitting there patiently waiting for us!

So I think it was after 5pm by the time we finally started hiking in to Semaphore and it started to rain on us in the last half hour. In my early backpacking days I had a bit of a “rain” phobia because I was terrified of my clothes and sleeping bag getting wet and being stuck freezing cold in the mountains. Actually, this is totally a valid fear and one I go to great lengths to protect myself from. I actually carried an umbrella with me on the entire 50km Juan de Fuca trail because I was afraid of the rain getting my clothes wet on the first day of our 4 day hike. I’ve since chilled out because I’ve acquired some better gear to protect me against these scenarios, but I remember when it started raining on the way to Semaphore I pretty much ran the last 20 mins to the lakes because I was terrified that our tent would get wet because Seth had failed to purchase himself a backpack cover. He thought a garbage bag on top of his pack would work fine – spoiler alert: it didn’t.

Anyways, in retrospect, the rain was a bit of a joke. It was really just sun showers and not a proper downpour, but when we got to the lakes we pretty much threw the tent up as fast as possible and chucked all our gear inside. Me and Seth were still using my parents ancient tent at this point, which is a tee-pee style tent and not very spacious, and I have this really funny memory of the two of us just sitting in the tent staring at each other waiting for the rain to stop because there wasn’t enough room to do anything else.

Brandon travels in style ALL the time, so he and Carolyn were next door happily setting up their mansion while we just stared at each other in angst – me because I was annoyed about the rain and Seth because he never really wanted any part of the trip to begin with. Eventually Carolyn and Brandon got their house all set up and invited us over for dinner, as if we had anything better to do LOL, and we climbed into their nice space and cooked supper poking out through the vestibule. This is like textbook ‘what-not-to-do’ because you don’t want your tent to smell like your dinner and attract bears. I want to say, “but we were rookies and didn’t know any better”, but we did know better, so I really have no excuse. I’ve since purchased a lightweight tarp for future trips, so problem solved next time.

Anyways, the rain did let loose after that. Fortunately we were all set up by that point, so none of our gear got wet, but it did result in a pretty early night. We failed to bring cards, so I ended up reading a bedtime story to everyone instead. I basically yelled at Carolyn and Brandon for 30 mins between the tents so that they could hear me over the sound of the rain, and those kweens just fell asleep on me in like the first 5 minutes, rude.

So our evening at Semaphore left a little to be desired after our awesome night and campfire at Tenquille, but I have no regrets because the rain moved on overnight and the clouds cleared out in the morning. So I woke to the sun shining on me and the most beautiful view of the lake through my tent door. I was afraid of the clouds rolling back in again, so I got up pretty early and me, Carolyn, and Brandon went for a little exploratory morning walk around the area. You could absolutely spend 2 nights at Semaphore Lakes as well because there’s so many other mountains nearby to explore during the day. Since it was only the first weekend in July and we were at a pretty high elevation, there was still a lot of snow around, so we just explored the immediate area, but it had some truly lovely views of the lakes and surrounding mountains.

One of the benefits to Semaphore Lakes was that it has a lot less people. Don’t get me wrong, there were still other campers, but there was a lot less than Tenquille and they were a lot more spread out, so it didn’t feel crowded at all. It also had significantly less mosquitoes than Tenquille Lake, so that was a blessed relief. The clouds did roll in again pretty quickly though, so we didn’t stay too long and packed up our gear after a quick breakfast.

Overall, it was a great foray into backcountry camping and though we had some challenges, they were not enough to deter me from wanting to try it again and I ended up doing 2 other backcountry trips that summer! I would definitely love to go back to both of these trails as a more experienced hiker and check out some of the other surrounding trails in the area.