Hiking Banff National Park – Helen Lake

Almost exactly seven years since we first hiked to Helen Lake, we pulled into the parking lot a few minutes after 9 o’clock on a Friday morning, keen to introduce friends to another of our favourite hikes in Banff National Park – particularly during wildflower season.

Getting There

The Helen Lake trailhead parking lot is roughly 33 km northwest of Lake Louise, along Icefield Parkway (Highway 93). As with any hike in Canada’s National Parks, a valid park pass is required. It’s easy to miss the sign marking the parking area, as it’s almost directly across the road from the viewpoint for Crowfoot Glacier.

Forested Front End

The front end of the trail (roughly 3.4 km/2 miles) is mainly through old growth forest. The trail is quite wide and gains elevation at a steady pace, ideal conditions for conversation between friends. In a couple of places, switchbacks ease the climb.

About a half hour along, the trail crosses an avalanche chute, new in 2018. It opened up a new view of Crowfoot Glacier across the valley and Bow Lake in the valley bottom.

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We did not notice this avalanche zone when we hiked to Helen Lake in 2017, so infer it must be from an avalanche event over the 2017/18 winter

Within another half hour, the trail crosses another natural phenomena – an old forest fire – where scarlet paintbrush flowers made it easy to imagine flames licking at the trees.

We stopped at the well-used lookout just off the main trail and took advantage of the fact we were hiking with friends to come back with a photo of the two of us that didn’t require a tripod and remote shutter set up!

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There are several spots along the first 3.4 km of the Helen Lake trail that offer a glimpse of Mount Crowfoot, Crowfoot Glacier and the south end of Bow Lake and this opening due to a long ago rock slide is one of the best vantage points

Lower Meadow

About 90 minutes from the parking lot, we emerged from the forest onto a wide bench that runs along west side of the valley. So many flowers were blooming – we hit peak wildflower!

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Wildflowers abound on both sides of the trail, for more than a km, between emerging from the forest and crossing Helen Creek

The wildflowers were so abundant that they almost overwhelmed the strong impression Dolomite Peak makes on first-time visitors. It’s quite different from most other peaks in the Canadian Rockies, sitting up there looking almost like castle ramparts.

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We paused here, where wildflowers and Dolomite Peak came together in one frame

Over the 1.5 km wide-open stretch to the Helen Creek crossing, we stopped many times to enjoy the scenery, take photos and sip water. We even looked back, to Bow Peak (directly south and across the valley) and the glaciers atop double-peaked Mount Hector to the southeast, all obscured by haze.

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So many wildflowers that we didn’t even take time to identify them all; I noted 8 different types through casual observation as we walked and talked

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Mrs GeoK and a long-time friend pause just long enough for a photo before turning their attention to crossing Helen Creek

Upper Meadow

The few meters gained after crossing Helen Creek make just enough difference to growing conditions that the wildflowers are less “showy” in the upper meadow (which is how we refer to the meadow between the creek crossing and Helen Lake) – mostly white and pink heather.

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When we first hiked to Helen Lake in 2011, the trail through the upper meadow was a single track. The braiding (as many as five tracks in some spots) is due to the popularity of this trail. This summer, there’s a laminated printout tacked to a wooden stake – a bit of a jarring note on the landscape

Cresting the short hill climb from the creek crossing, we stopped to read the temporary sign tacked to a wooden stake. We learned that there’s a research study on brook trout underway. We don’t fish, but found it interesting to learn that for those with a valid fishing license, only catch and release fishing is permitted in 2018.

The Helen Lake greeter was waiting for us as we approached the near shore!

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Approaching Helen Lake along the trail, Ridge Summit and Cirque Peak beyond the far shoreline; notice the two hikers taking a break on a boulder near the shoreline (for scale)

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This big marmot was lounging in the wildflowers as we approached Helen Lake, welcoming(?) all visitors

Helen Lake and Beyond

We gathered round a large boulder and pulled out our lunches. During our 20 minute lunch break, at least 5 more groups of hikers arrived. The accompanying dogs (all properly on leashes) were particularly interested in the hoary marmots sunning themselves on boulders near the shore. We spotted several buoys that looked to be supporting 3 short nets in the lake, presumably all for the brook trout research study.

Also during lunch, we had a bit of a discussion about whether to head back to the parking lot or push on at least to the top of the ridge above the lake. We agreed to go at least part way up to the ridge, to get more of a bird’s-eye view of Helen Lake.

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After a bit of post-lunch discussion, all four of us opted to continue at least part way up the trail to the ridge, to get more of a bird’s-eye view of Helen Lake

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Evidence of relatively recent erosion from the ridge above Helen Lake

Part way up to the ridge top, we agreed to split up. We left a walkie-talkie with our friends, who enjoyed the view for a while before heading back down to the lake shore.

Meanwhile, we hurried on to the ridge top, where we knew we’d enjoy a great view of Katherine Lake in the next valley over and were likely to encounter yet more marmots (this based on our first Helen Lake hike.

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Bands of sedimentary layers visible along the ridge between Helen Lake and Katherine Lake, leading the eye towards Cirque Peak

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Unnamed tarn (left) and Helen Lake (right) viewed from ridge, another ridge opposite

Sure enough, we spotted a couple of dirt-nuzzling marmots as soon as we crested the ridge.

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Cresting the ridge above Helen Lake, we spotted these hoary marmots scratching away in the dirt and finding something edible

We walked south along the ridge for about 10 minutes (mostly keeping our backs to Cirque Peak, which we would very much like to summit one day, but not this trip).

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One of several marmots hanging out on the ridge, this one enjoying the view of Katherine Lake, with Watermelon Peak in the distance and the shoulder of Dolomite Peak on the right

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Mrs GeoK on the ridge between Helen Lake and Katherine Lake, unnamed tarn and Watermelon Peak in the background

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Mr GeoK part way down the far side of the ridge, below Dolomite Peak

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Looking east from the ridge, which places Cirque Peak on the left and Dolomite Peak on the right, with Watermelon Peak in behind and Katherine Lake partially visible at the base of Dolomite Peak

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Mr GeoK atop the ridge, composing a panorama, while Mrs GeoK composed this panorama with Cirque Peak in the background

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Unnamed tarn (left) and Helen Lake (right) viewed from ridge, another ridge opposite and Dolomite Peak on the left

Return

The highlight of our return from the ridge summit was spotting a marmot carrying a marmot pup!

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First time we’ve ever seen a hoary marmot carrying a pup by the scruff of its neck; the parent was moving fast – probably faster than the pup could have moved along – so we only had time to zoom in and snap a couple of photos before they moved out of sight

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Mrs GeoK, descending from Ridge Summit to Helen Lake, unnamed ridge across the valley, Crowfoot Mountain and Mount Jimmy Simpson behind

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Mr GeoK descending from the ridge above Helen Lake, Cirque Peak tantalizingly close in the background

After re-joining our friends, who were patiently waiting at the same flat boulder where we’d enjoyed lunch, we made steady progress back to the parking lot.

We stopped briefly to photograph the cascades at the Helen Creek crossing, where Mr GeoK ended up in conversation with another Olympus shooter. 🙂

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Cascades on Helen Creek, just downstream of the trail creek crossing, unnamed ridge in the background

And of course we stopped for a few more wildflower photos along the way.

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Colourful wildflowers along the Helen Lake trail, Dolomite Peak in the distance

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Mr GeoK and one of our good friends making their way back towards the parking lot, walking, talking and enjoying the scenery

Mostly, though, we enjoyed good company and conversation and – almost before we knew it – we were back at the parking lot!

We saw a grizzly bear on the Helen Lake trail in September 2017, so we were all carrying bear spray “just in case”.  And while it’s something of a thrill to see bears when out hiking, we’re always glad to finish a hike without any close encounters of the bear kind.

Summary

Distance = 16 km
Elevation gain = 716 meters (566 net)
Time = 6 hrs 10 min, including 1 hr 5 min for lunch and photography stops

We’ve long considered Helen Lake one of the hikes to do in Banff National Park, and best done during peak wildflower season. We’ve made it as far as the ridge above Helen Lake a twice now, and are determined to reach the top of Cirque Peak next time out. Are there any hikes you’ve repeated because you didn’t quite make it as far as you’d hoped the first time out (or the second)? If so, which hike? And have you made that next attempt?

One thought on “Hiking Banff National Park – Helen Lake

  1. I would be scared too if I saw a grizzly, but gosh I’d love to photograph one. And those marmots, so cool. The more I read your posts the more I want to catch a flight and go visit those amazing places. Great images, thanks for sharing this 🙏

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