An out and back hike starting from the parking lot at Emerald Lake, the relatively steep trail to Hamilton Lake in Yoho National Park traverses a patch of Western Interior Cedar-Hemlock Rainforest, follows a stretch of Hamilton Creek to the base of a lovely, multi-stepped waterfall, then climbs through more typical forest, crossing a couple of avalanche slopes where wildflowers bloom in abundance, before finally reaching the brilliantly-turquoise Hamilton Lake. We opted to carry on past the lake, up a long talus slope to the base of Top Hat Peak. Looking down on Hamilton Lake brought back fond memories of hiking the nearby Lake O’Hara region of Yoho National Park.
Drive to the end of Emerald Lake Road, just west of Field, BC on the TransCanada highway. We’ve read reports of the parking lot here being very full, as the hike around Emerald Lake is family-friendly and there are several other hiking options in the area. So we headed out early. There were about 10 cars in parking lot when we arrived at 7:30 Pacific time (8:30 Mountain time).
We walked a short distance along the shoreline of Emerald Lake.
In just 10 minutes several more vehicles arrived, so we hustled to get ourselves organized. The trailhead is in the far corner of the parking lot, diagonally, from the bridge across to Emerald Lake Lodge.
The sign provides details for three hikes: Hamilton Falls (about 30 minutes, 1.4 km return, minimal elevation gain); Hamilton Lake (about 5 hrs, 11 km return, 850 meters elevation gain); and Emerald River (to the Natural Bridge, about 4 hours, 15 km return, 140 meters elevation gain).
To be honest, we didn’t do enough pre-hike research to truly appreciate the uniqueness of the vegetation along the first 700 meters of the trail. And we were moving at a brisk pace because there was a large group of 15 hikers heading for Hamilton Falls and we wanted to put some distance between us and them. So we completely overlooked the fact that the trail to Hamilton Falls and Hamilton Lake starts in a patch of Western Interior Cedar-Hemlock Rainforest. The mix of western red cedar, western hemlock and western yew is generally found further west into the interior of BC. So that’s one reason we plan to repeat this hike.
We spotted an old wooden pipe between the trail and Hamilton Creek. Then we heard what sounded like a small cascade where the trail turned sharply right. We followed the arrow on the trail sign and were soon climbing through more typical forest in the Canadian Rockies. Due to inadequate pre-hike research, we completely missed the fact we should have stopped here to view the base of Hamilton Falls. That’s another reason to repeat this hike.
About 1.2 km from the trailhead, after gaining about 175 meters elevation, we spotted a stretch of chain link fence, placed to keep people from falling into the narrow canyon carved by Hamilton Falls. It’s a great spot to view the upper steps and cascades of Hamilton Falls.
After a short stop at this upper viewpoint, we continued up the trail, gaining altitude at a steady rate. In mid-August, we expected the wildflowers to be well past peak blossom (they were) and that we might spot some bits of early fall colour (we did).
About 3 km from the trailhead and continuing to Hamilton Lake, plenty of later season wildflowers bloomed on both sides of the trail: scarlet paintbrush, fireweed, yarrow, yellow sedums and hippies-on-a-stick.
Most guidebooks mention a viewpoint overlooking Emerald Lake at the 3.9 or 4 km mark. We are pretty sure we found the spot, but the forest must have grown up since the guidebook entries were written because there really wasn’t much of a view of Emerald Lake.
Over the next km or so, the trail crossed several avalanche slopes, which offered a fairly wide open view across the valley to the Van Horne Range, where a couple of glaciers still cling to the upper slopes.
At about the 5 km mark, a well-established spur to the left lead to a nice viewpoint across the valley. Hamilton Creek obviously carved the broad gully on the west side of the viewpoint, but in mid-August it was flowing underground and the gully bottom was dry. Looking north up the gully we got our first look at Top Hat Peak.
After a short photo stop, we headed back to the main trail and a few minutes later Mount Carnarvon came into view.
Then, 2.5 hours and 5.3 km from the trailhead, we arrived at Hamilton Lake! Top Hat Peak sits in the saddle between Mount Carnarvon on the left and Emerald Peak on the right.
The rock at the lake outlet is really interesting and makes me wish I knew more geology. Learning more about this area before a return visit is reason number three for a repeat of this hike. One really unique thing is that you can stand just downstream of the lake outlet so that the surface of the lake is basically at eye level.
After several minutes for photography and exclaiming over the rock formations, we opted to carry on via the well-established trail along the left shoreline, perhaps has far as the base of Top Hat Peak. Within minutes, it was clear this was a good choice. We started to get a sense of perspective on the lake that reminded us of what it’s like to look down on turquoise lakes from the Alpine Circuit at Lake O’Hara.
Ascending above the lake, the trail pretty much disappeared. We worked our way up a relatively steep talus slope. The rocks were mostly stable and trekking poles helped. Anytime I wanted an excuse to stop for a short rest, I’d conveniently spot an interesting rock to study for a minute or two! 😉
Approaching the base of Top Hat Peak, we worked our way up a short rock band and then across towards Emerald Peak. Top Hat Peak has sloughed a LOT of rock!
Or maybe it’s just that the rock all around it has eroded away. Regardless, there’s everything from vehicle-sized boulders to smaller stuff, plus several small crevasses. Add in some lingering slabs of snow with who knows what beneath and we had to pay careful attention.
We hoped to have a view of Emerald Lake from the saddle between Top Hat Peak and Emerald Peak. Nope! But the view down on Hamilton Lake was pretty enough that Mr. GeoK set up his gear for a timelapse.
Since the timelapse was going to run for 20 minutes or so, I decided to try to go up to the saddle between Mount Carnarvon and Top Hat Peak. It was tough going, with the slope even steeper than from Hamilton Lake to the base of Top Hat Peak. Plus, the rocks were not as stable. Add I wanted to avoid the steep patches of lingering snow. Move the slider left to see how tiny I am against this landscape as I start my way up.
And move the slider left again to see me where I decided I’d better turn around!
I had hoped to work my way across the snow, just below the one band of rock, but it looked too risky given the slope. I snapped a couple of photos from my turnaround point. The glimpse of Emerald Glacier and the wish to see more from here is reason number four to hike this trail again.
Once I made my way back down to the base of Top Hat Peak, it was time for lunch. Mr. GeoK set up another timelapse, but the gear was knocked over by a wind gust. Fortunately, nothing was damaged or broken. The lesson? Weigh down the tripod by hanging a pack from the hook!!
After lunch, we wandered just a bit more. I tried my best to reproduce the feeling of hiking at Lake O’Hara.
The weather was cloudy, and the feeling would have come more easily if we were under a blue sky to amp up the turquoise colour of Hamilton Lake.
The rocks here are very different to Lake O’Hara, though. I saw many uniquely weathered rocks, including this buttonhole slab.
Time to head back, making our careful way down the talus slope. Trekking poles really helped – both with keeping balance and taking weight off the knees.
Approaching Hamilton Lake, I spotted the most scarlet of Scarlet Paintbrush blossoms I’ve ever seen.
At the outlet of Hamilton Lake, we encountered the first two people we’d seen in about 6 hours. Then a few more at the chainlink fence viewing area for Hamilton Falls.
Just a minute or two down the trail from the upper falls viewpoint, we spotted another spur trail that led to a peek-a-boo view of Emerald Lake and the lodge.
After that, we booted it back to the parking lot. We saw a total of about 15 more people and we could hear car alarms from the parking lot way before we reached it. It was jam-packed, with vehicles circling in hopes of a spot opening up.
All-in-all a good day, with five reasons to go do this hike again:
- Observe the rainforest vegetation along the start of the trail;
- Stop at the base of Hamilton Falls;
- Learn more about the geology of the area so we better appreciate the rock formations;
- Bring cleats or hike later in the season to make it to the saddle between Mount Carnarvon and Top Hat Peak; and
- Go on a blue sky day!
On the drive back to Canmore, we agreed this would be a hike we’d take friends on – at least to Hamilton Lake and along the shoreline to the little hump that lets you look down on the turquoise water.
Total hiking distance = 14.7 km
Total elevation gain = 1199 meters (1162 net)
Total hiking time = 7 hours 20 minutes (including 2 hours 40 minutes for lunch and photography/videography)
A little research since we did this hike also raises the possibility of a loop hike in the area. We’ve bookmarked this page on Bob Spirko’s blog for future consideration.