Hiking Banff National Park – Rockbound Lake

It’s shoulder season in terms of hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Once the calendar reads October, any day that doesn’t require gaiters paired with MICROspikes, crampons or showshoes is a great day for hiking!

Rockbound-LakeThe first weekend of October we took advantage of one such day to hike to Rockbound Lake. We were less than confident in our choice of destination. Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies (our usual “go to” guidebook for the Rocky Mountain National Parks) says “don’t waste your time” hiking to Rockbound Lake. Yet we’d seen some great photos of Rockbound Lake on the interwebz, including several showing a good concentration of golden larch trees. Layer on the fact that our most recent hike was the crowded trail to Larch Valley and we opted to give the much less-traveled path to Rockbound Lake a try.

As we drove from Canmore to Castle Junction on the TransCanada, the wipers cleared light rain from the windshield. We craned our necks and peered at the sky, spotting some encouraging patches of blue sky. The Rockbound Lake trailhead is clearly signed, about 200 meters to the right of where you turn onto the Bow Valley Parkway towards Banff. We donned full rain gear under the cover of the rear hatch and set off, hoping for the best.

Within 15 minutes, the weather began to improve. The light rain stopped, the sky cleared and we enjoyed sunshine all the way up to Tower Lake. The front section of the trail is quite boring. Fall colour added some interest, there’s a short stretch of boardwalk that breaks the monotony and K spotted a ptarmigan along the trail. Otherwise, it’s a gentle ascent along an old road, wide enough to allow for easy conversation.

About 5.5 km along the trail narrows and turns towards the round valley between the back of Castle Mountain and Helena Ridge. I’ve spotted this large cirque many times as we traveled the TransCanada and a couple of times this summer I mentioned that I’d like to hike up into the bowl someday, so I’m glad it finally happened!

There were a couple of muddy sections as we continued to gain altitude on the relatively straight section of trail. The first scenic highlight was a glimpse of Helena Ridge…


…followed very soon after by a view of Eisenhower Peak…


We stepped off the trail into an open meadow for a better view of the back side of Castle Mountain. We found the geology quite striking…very unlike the mountains we usually hike in Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country. I’ve since learned that this is because Castle Mountain is in the Main Ranges of the Canadian Rockies, whereas our more usual hiking area is in the Front Ranges. From what I understand, the primary difference is that the various layers of rock in the Main Ranges are mostly still laying flat, which means as soft supporting layers erode the harder layers above eventually succumb to gravity and break off, forming a mountain with fairly vertical walls. In contrast, the rock layers in the Front Ranges are quite steeply tilted, so they erode away in sheets, forming more angled mountainsides. The other difference that’s easily observed is in terms of colour, with the Main Ranges being more colourful (purple, green, pink, etc.) than the mostly grey rocks of the Front Ranges.


As we continued to Tower Lake, where K was (im)patiently waiting, it was obvious that the first weekend in October is well past prime Larch season. Although some golden needles were stubbornly clinging to Larch tree branches, many more carpeted the ground.


At 8.5 km, having gained 720 meters, we reached Tower Lake, a beautiful emerald-green subalpine lake perhaps named after the nearby peak which was once called Eisenhower Tower. We enjoyed a photography break along the lake shore before continuing to Rockbound Lake.

Rockbound-LakeThe distance indicated on an old sign at the head of Tower Lake was misleading. It was another 1.3 km to our lunch spot near Rockbound Lake. Most of the additional 110 meters elevation gain was over one very steep section where I used my trekking poles for the first time all day. There’s fairly extensive trail braiding near Rockbound Lake, but we stayed generally right since Mr. GeoK was aiming to continue onwards and upwards to gain a bird’s eye view of the lake. A strong wind was blowing towards us from the far side of the cirque and with clouds rolling in, it felt much cooler. We sought shelter behind a bit of a rock ledge and layered up with everything we had in our packs (including toques and gloves).

After lunch, K and I hung around the shoreline, taking photos, observing the glacial striations and generally trying to stay warm. Meanwhile, Mr. GeoK accumulated more distance and elevation gain, working his way up a scree slope and a rock band to a ridge overlooking Rockbound Lake.

It was much cooler on the way back down, under cloudy skies and with a brisk wind (mostly) at our backs. We encountered 15 people on their way up as we were hiking down – much quieter than our Larch Valley hike two weeks earlier. We were about 1.5 km from the parking lot when it started to drizzle again, just enough that I stowed my camera and pulled on my rain jacket.

Total hiking distance = 18.9 km to Rockbound Lake, plus an estimated 4 km (return) to the ridge above the lake
Total elevation gain = 870 meters (785 net) to Rockbound Lake, plus an estimated 150 meters to the ridge above the lake (NOTE: There were a couple of tricky bits Mr. GeoK had to work his way through on the way up to/down from the ledge. Anyone who’s uncomfortable with heights / exposure would not be happy here.)
Total hiking time = 6 hours (including 2 hours for lunch, photography and Mr. GeoKs’ excursion up to the ridge)

Despite the boring front end, we plan do this hike again. It’s probably best done when fall colour adds some extra interest to the scenery. There are two possibilities for changing it up a little next time around: 1) add a side trip to Silverton Falls; or 2) get an early start and hike at least part way along the ridge above the lake and/or attempt Stuart Knob.

Have you done a fall season hike this year? If so, please leave a comment telling us where and/or your tips for staying safe and comfortable while hiking at this time of year. Links to blog posts or photos are welcome.

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