The past few years, almost every time we drove past the Bourgeau Lake parking area on our way to some other trailhead, one or the other of us would remark on the fact that the last time we hiked to Bourgeau Lake was 1995. And that it was probably time to go again. So this summer, twenty years after our first trek along the Bourgeau Lake trail, we finally went again!
The Bourgeau Lake parking area is just a few of km west of the turn off to Sunshine Village. When we arrived fairly early on an August weekday morning, the decently sized parking area was almost empty and we encountered only two other hikers before we reached Bourgeau Lake. Overall, this was the least busy trail we hiked in Banff National Park in 2015, with the Harvey Pass to summit section being the busiest stretch, followed closely by the Bourgeau Lake to parking lot stretch on the way back down.
The first few km of trail are an easy-going, gentle climb. It had rained the day before, so we enjoyed a slightly soft (but not muddy) trail and wonderfully clean-scented forest air. Wildflower season was well past its peak, so we saw just an occasional Heart-leaved Arnica and some Yarrow and Fireweed. We remembered the last time we hiked to Bourgeau Lake that there were all kinds of interesting mushrooms and other fungi along the trail so we also kept a look out for those and spotted a wide range of sizes and shapes. In the interest of speed, we decided not to photograph them on the way up, figuring if we had time on the way down we’d create a visual record for later identification. The other aspect of nature we noticed was the soothing sound of running water – not surprising since the trail roughly parallels Wolverine Creek all the way up to Bourgeau Lake.
The trail crosses Wolverine Creek twice: the first time via a sturdy wooden bridge (3.7 km from the trailhead) and the second time at the base of a multi-stepped waterfall thanks to a sort of flood break made of a bunch of cages of rocks (5.5 km from the trailhead). Between the two creek crossings, the trail also traverses a couple of avalanche chutes where the route becomes quite uneven and rocky. There is also one section of trail that looks like an intermittent stream bed, also fairly uneven and prone to muddiness.
Beyond the waterfall, the trail becomes much steeper and a bit narrower, climbing a series of switchbacks before reaching the final, fairly flat section to Bourgeau Lake. The flatter section traverses an extensive boggy area, so sections of flat stone “paving” and stretches of slightly elevated boardwalk have been installed to minimize damage to this sensitive area.
We arrived at Bourgeau Lake after gaining 700 meters over 7.5 km. K reached the lake about 15 minutes before I did and he called back via walkie-talkie to say that the golden-mantled ground squirrels were quite fearlessly approaching him and even climbing his pack (which he’d placed on the ground to dig out a snack) in search of food. The were clearly habituated to humans succumbing their cuteness factor with treats and/or offering bits of food in exchange for close up photos. Sad face!
Approached as it is via lush subalpine meadow, cradled between some of the most spectacular mountains in the Massive Range, and as the nearest high lake to the town of Banff, it’s easy to understand why Bourgeau Lake is a favoured destination. In addition to the golden-mantled ground squirrels begging for food, we spotted a herd of about 15 Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep browsing on the steep scree slopes of Mount Bourgeau and a couple of chipmunks, too. For those stopping at Bourgeau Lake, it’s also a good place to spot pikas and ptarmigan.
While we were taking a short break at the shoreline, two other hikers accompanied by a large dog (on a leash) arrived and were quick to tell us that they’d had to use pepper spray on a wolf back near the parking lot. We appreciated the alert, but there were so many people on the lower stretch of trail when we approached the parking lot at the end of our day that it was highly unlikely that any predator was hanging around!
With twenty years passing since we last hiked this trail, this time we opted to continue beyond Bourgeau Lake. After winding through dense forest, the trail emerges at the base of a steep scree climb towards a notch that opens into a hanging valley holding a shallow, rockbound tarn. Just before the notch, we stopped for about 10 minutes to watch a couple of marmots.
In my opinion, the unnamed tarn (about 1.2 km from Bourgeau Lake and another 200 meters higher) was the scenic highlight of our hike.
The trail skirts the tarn’s shoreline and then turns sharply left as it climbs a bit higher towards Harvey Pass (1 km and 120 meters gain from the outlet of the tarn). You’ll know you’re almost at Harvey Pass when you’re walking beside the diminutive Harvey Lake!
We found a nice grouping of rocks and settled in to enjoy the views. While we ate lunch, we talked about whether to try for the summit, another 2.4 km and 480 meters elevation gain. For me, the deciding factor was that if another 20 years passed before we hiked this trail again, I’d be 70+ years old and it would be that much harder to make it to the summit. I really wanted to go and Mr. GeoK was swayed by my logic. One of K’s knees was troubling him that day, so he opted to hang out at Harvey Pass and wait for us, people watching, keeping an eye out for wildlife and enjoying views like this:
Reaching the summit was a bit of a slog. We encountered a couple of dozen hikers on their way down as we were going up and were overtaken by a couple of fit young guys with a big dog (on a leash). There’s a bit of trail braiding, especially through one stretch of rubble, but the biggest challenge is just to keep going when your heart is pounding and your legs are starting to tire!
We reached the summit an hour after departing from Harvey Pass. To be honest, the summit was a bit disappointing. There’s a big repeater station, weather station and a bunch of propane tanks. The location makes a lot of sense, since this is truly a high point in Banff National Park, but it really takes away from the scenery and detracts from the sense of accomplishment. In hindsight, we should have walked all the way to the end of the east summit ridge and put the clutter well behind us while taking photos up top. Mr. GeoK made some great panoramas and I was pretty happy to spot a survey marker up top.
Here’s Mr. GeoK’s summit view of Bourgeau Lake, from a bit of a precipice at the summit:
We didn’t linger too long up top, mindful of the fact that K was waiting for us back at Harvey Pass. It took us 40 minutes to descend from the summit and meet up again with K. Add on the 20 minutes we took for photography and he was patiently waiting for 2 hours.
We encountered a few more hikers headed towards Harvey Pass as we made our way back towards the unnamed tarn, including one couple with their dog off leash. Another sad face!
And as we approached Bourgeau Lake, we crossed paths with a family that got a bit of a late start. Guess they were so focused on hustling along they didn’t feel inclined to share the trail at all, nor return our greeting. Third sad face of the day!
The last 7.5 km from Bourgeau Lake to the parking lot seemed interminable and K eventually – and very politely – asked me to keep my remaining time and distance estimates to myself so that he could just call on his indomitable spirit to get him and his aching knee to the end.
When we reached the overflowing parking lot at 4:15 that afternoon, we agreed it just might be another twenty years before our next time on this trail! With the benefit of a couple month’s perspective, I think it will be sooner than that. I’m not sure we’ll tackle the summit again, but hiking beyond Bourgeau Lake to the unnamed tarn or Harvey Pass is well worth the time and effort.
Total hiking distance = 15 km to Bourgeau Lake and back; 19.8 km to Harvey Pass and back; or 24.2 km all the way to the summit and back.
Total elevation gain = 725 meters to Bourgeau Lake; 1060 meters to Harvey Pass; or 1561 meters (1485 net) to the summit.
Total hiking time = 8 hours 15 minutes to the summit and back (including 2 hours for lunch and photography)
What’s the biggest hike you’ve done lately? We’re looking for our ideas for next year’s hiking list, so please leave a comment with your recommendation(s).