Hiking Banff National Park – Bow Hut and beyond

Despite more than 20 years of hiking experience, we occasionally blow our trip planning. What big mistake did we make in preparing for our first big hike of the year? Relying on one source of information, when a more thorough scan of trip reports/other blogs would have bumped a great hike into the truly outstanding category.

Getting There

Traveling the Icefields Parkway (i.e. Alberta Highway 93 between Castle Junction and Jasper), take the turnoff for Simpson’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. Parking is in the lot immediately beside the highway or in the lot next to the public washrooms (the lot behind the Lodge is for their guests). Driving time is roughly 2.5 hrs from Calgary or about an hour and fifteen minutes from Banff.

Bow Lake Shoreline

If you arrive before the crowd that often clogs the shoreline, it’s worth pausing for a few minutes to enjoy (and photograph) the beautiful Bow Lake, one of the largest natural lakes in Banff National Park.


To access the trail, walk along the road to the Lodge parking lot and look for the trail sign. The trail follows the north shore of the lake for about 15 minutes. Wildflowers bloom along both sides of the boot beaten path and marmots can be found sunning themselves on the larger boulders in the rockfall at one corner.


At the head of the lake, there is some recent avalanche debris (mostly downed trees), as well as a couple of options for getting past a short section of the trail that was washed away in the 2013 floods.

Head of the Lake to the Boulder Bridge

Beyond the head of the lake, the trail runs roughly perpendicular to the nascent river, across what appears to be a flood plain.

bow-riverAnother 10 or 15 minutes along, the well-marked trail ascends the right side of the canyon by way of a steep set of stairs.

bow-hut-hikeFollow the trail up the steps and take the first possible left turn, which leads to a chokestone bridge across the canyon. It’s a short clamber up and then an easy step off on the east side of the canyon.


Varied Landscape

On the east side of the canyon, a few minutes of walking leads to an overlook of the confluence of two creeks. Across the way, to the left of the pointed Portal Peak, is Bow Glacier Falls, considered the source of the Bow River.

confluence-bow-river-upstream-of-bow-lakebow-glacier-fallsThe trail then drops back down to stream level for a short distance before ascending and crossing a broad expanse of large-scale talus, roughly parallel to the east side of the canyon wall. A smattering of cairns provide helpful guidance, but you’ll also need to keep a sharp lookout for evidence of the passage of many pairs of boots across the jumble of rocks.

bow-hut-hikeEventually the trail angles up through the trees on the left side of the canyon. In early July, there were a couple of very short, boggy sections – perfect for ensuring you return home with boots that show sure signs of use!

Emerging from the trees, we encountered a lingering patch of snow.


After a slightly challenging creek crossing, the trail opened into a large, moraine-basin
filled with rubble and snow.


Where possible, we followed boot prints in the snow. Otherwise, we took our guidance from cairns as we made our way across the basin towards the large headwall.


Surround sound waterfalls provided a noisy, natural soundtrack all the way up to Bow Hut.


Beyond Bow Hut

After a quick peek inside the hut (there was no one there at the time), we continued onward and upward for just under half an hour.

bow-hut-hikebow-hut-hikeWe opted to stop at a series of glacier-scoured rock ledges overlooking Bow Lake far below. It was the perfect spot to drop our packs, enjoy lunch accompanied by awesome scenery and then do a little exploring.


The geology was fascinating.


We don’t have the training to venture onto glaciers, so we stuck to photographing them and appreciating the turquoise colour they give to our mountain lakes by grinding rocks into flour!


Wandering for a bit after lunch, we discovered one of the prettiest tarns we’ve ever seen!



There’s a multiplicity of trails between the hut and the forest. We followed a slightly different route back, including a long crossing of lingering snow.


It was HOT the day we did this hike, so we took 2 hrs 45 minutes to get back to the parking lot. It would have been nice to hope a ride on a kayak from the head of the lake back to the lodge!


Curious about the tarn, I spent a bit of time looking into whether it has a name. Nope! But while researching this question, I discovered it’s apparently quite possible to clamber up The Onion (the mountain that’s the backdrop to the tarn) for an overhead view of Iceberg Lake – which I also didn’t know about until after we did the hike. I’ll be doing some more reading on the route to Iceberg Lake, apparently a scramble, to try to figure out whether it’s something we can safely tackle. Comments/feedback from those with firsthand experience would be most welcome!


For the first time in more than a dozen years, I forgot to pack along a GPS receiver! Distance, elevation gain and hiking time are estimated from FitBit data adjusted for information from other folks’ trip reports, guidebooks, etc.

Total distance = 17 to 18 km
Total elevation gain = 650 meters
Total time = 8 hours, including about 2.5 hours for lunch and photography

Would we do this hike again? Yes! Not only is the scenery great, but the trail is quite varied. There are also a couple of optional extensions including 1) a close-up view of Bow Glacier Falls and 2) hiking to the top of The Onion, which we will plan to do ASAP.


6 thoughts on “Hiking Banff National Park – Bow Hut and beyond

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