Smack dab between Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, the Paradise Valley trail to the Giant Steps waterfall somehow manages to be far less busy than its neighbouring hiking areas. Perhaps the tiny, unpaved parking lot with no toilets means it’s easily overlooked. Or maybe it’s because Paradise Valley is prime grizzly habitat; for much of the hiking season Parks Canada requires tight groups of at least four hikers. It could be that beautiful Lake Annette is about 6 km (4 miles) along the trail, rather than sitting like a giant turquoise gem just a few steps from the parking lot. Whatever the reason, the trail to Giant Steps via Lake Annette and Paradise Valley is a great option for those who enjoy a little more solitude with their mountain air.
From the village of Lake Louise, take Lake Louise Drive to Moraine Lake Road. The small parking area is on the right, 2.5 km (1.6 miles) after turning onto Moraine Lake Road. The seasonal shuttle/ROAM bus services to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake do NOT stop at the Paradise Valley trailhead. There are no vault toilets here. If needed, stop at Fairview Day Use area about 200 meters along Lake Louise Drive past the Moraine Lake Road turnoff.
Parking Lot to Lake Annette
We were gaining elevation from the minute we left the parking lot – a good warm up for the day! Since it was a cool, early fall morning, the leaves of shrubs and spent wildflowers were rimmed in frost.
Water running in nearby Paradise Creek provided a lovely sound track for the first 20 minutes or so. There are several trail intersections (well-signed), so we had to pay attention at the junctions.
About 1.5 km from the parking lot, the trail lost elevation on the approach to the first of several bridges crossing Paradise Creek. We stopped here for a bit, to photograph aptly named Saddle Mountain…
…and the half moon hanging over Sheol Mountain.
This stop took longer than expected. It was our first hike with a new, ultra-wide angle lens. We got caught up in analyzing just how wide the framing was and ended up being overtaken by another couple!
The first two bridges over Paradise Creek are also good places to photograph the north face of Mount Temple.
We continued ascending through the forest until we arrived Lake Annette.
Right at the base of the north face of Mount Temple, the lake surface was like a mirror. We spent a good half hour photographing this quiet spot, savouring the contrast to the often crowded shores of Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.
Closer details, such as the prehistoric bird-shaped rock formation, were all in the shade, for easier photography.
Just as we gathered up our gear to resume hiking, the sun popped into view.
Lake Annette to Sentinel Pass Trail Junction
From Lake Annette, we resumed gaining elevation at a steady clip. At one point we followed a spruce grouse through the forest for a couple hundred meters.
The trail emerged from the forest and crossed a talus field for several hundred meters. Turns out you can see the Giant Steps from here, although we didn’t realize it at the time. This photo is from the return trek.
After a few hundred meters, the trail re-entered forest, this one with larches intermixed. We were a week to 10 days too early for peak larch, but they were starting to turn lime and lemon.
From the Sentinel Pass trail junction, it’s possible to see some of the rock sentinels that give the location it’s name – including the Grand Sentinel. Again, photography was challenging due to deep shadows.
Sentinel Pass Junction to Giant Steps
When we first hiked to the Giant Steps in 2012, it was at this point that our kids gave a thumbs down rating to the Paradise Valley hike. Why? Because you lose elevation! When you’re 12 years old 50 or 60 meters elevation loss seems like a big deal!
Down switchbacks and across a small meadow, we arrived at the last bridge over Paradise Creek before the Giant Steps. With the sun shining and a beautiful blue sky, we stopped for more photos.
The final approach to the Giant Steps is by way of a long boardwalk, installed to protect delicate bog plants and to prevent hikers from slipping on the slimy rocks.
We spent a good 20 minutes photographing the top of the Giant Steps.
This is where I was rushed by a flood of memories from hiking to Giant Steps with our kids in 2012. They had a great time exploring upstream of the top of the falls. And our oldest proudly/impatiently instructed us on how to adjust the settings on our cameras to get that smooth blur that waterfall photographers aim for. Thanks to lots of practice between then and now, our waterfall photography skills are now up to the challenge without guidance from our kids! 😉
A couple more groups of hikers arrived. So we retraced our steps a short distance and then clambered down the faint trail to the base of the falls, following directions in Graeme Pole’s Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies.
It was worth the extra effort.
We enjoyed our packed lunch in the cool mist at the base of the falls before making sure we’d eaten or packed away everything we’d brought (Leave No Trace) and starting for home.
The main thing to say about any return trek is that there are different sun angles, so you can make different photographic choices. We stopped to photograph a few more larches showing early signs of yellow. We encountered several more hikers. But there were still plenty of opportunities to take photos that made it look like we were the only ones on the trail that day.
Along the way we talked about hiking this trail with our kids back in 2012. Enough that Mr. GeoK got the idea that we should try to re-create a photo from all those years ago:
You can be the judge of how well we succeeded!
Three or four times on the return trek we heard thunderous noises as Mount Temple shed snow, ice and meltwater. Temporary waterfalls ran down the north face. We caught one such event through a gap in the trees about midway between Lake Annette and the parking lot.
As empty nesters hiking this trail in early September, our repeat experience fell short of the rose tinted memories stored away after we first tromped the route with our kids in 2012. But during peak wildflower or larch season, with the impressive Giant Steps as your turnaround point, this is a great choice for those wanting to avoid the crowds that swarm the trails at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.
Distance = 22 km
Elevation gain = 735 meters (408 net)
Hiking time = 5 hours 30 minutes plus 3 hours 15 minutes for lunch, photography/videography and rest stops (total 8 hrs 45 min)