Kayaking Vermilion Lakes

After a couple of weeks babysitting a major home repair, we were keen to get back to the mountains. And with the new, self-certification permit rules for on-motorized watercraft use in Banff National Park, we opted for kayaking Vermilion Lakes first. That way we’d get the clock ticking on the minimum 48 hours between bodies of water. That maximizes the likelihood of fitting two paddling outings into one week.

Why Vermilion Lakes – again? Two reasons. First, it’s a short drive from Canmore to the first Vermilion Lake. And on a weekend morning, a short drive means you get there earlier and are more likely to get a parking spot! Second, water levels are high because of heat dome triggered snow melt. So the seasonal connection between the first and second lakes would almost certainly be navigable. Taking the first and second Vermilion Lakes together, a paddling route of around 10 km is possible.

Getting There

Take the Mt Norquay exit off the TransCanada highway but head towards Banff instead of the skil hill. Across the overpass, turn right onto Vermilion Lakes Road and drive to the first dock to unload. Conveniently, there’s a dropbox here for self-certification permits (and a supply of blank permits). Once unloaded, park in the small lot that’s about 75 meters back towards town.

NOTE: Depending on traffic volumes, time of day and whether other vehicles are temporarily parked at the dock, you may have to park in the tiny lot and then portage your watercraft to the dock for launch.

NOTE: If the tiny lot (room for about a half dozen vehicles) is full, switch to your plan B for the day OR go into the Banff townsite, park near the Banff Canoe Club and launch from there. If you want to give paddling a try, or you’re visiting from out of the area, Banff Canoe Club has a fleet of rentals for canoeing or kayaking Vermilion Lakes.

Set Up

We’ve got our set-up routine down to under 15 minutes now, a vast improvement over our first outing. The battery-pack powered pump does the hard work. 🙂

kayak on dock at first Vermilion Lake

Launching from a dock is sweet! No wet feet dripping water into the kayak!

First Vermillion Lake

How is it, that after just 5 kayak adventures, we’re already stuck in a pattern of paddling counterclockwise? No discussion needed. Just automatic action. This time, the default led to regrets (more on that later).

The shore is fringed with cattails, grasses and bullrushes. And wolf willow, other shrubs, and some hardy spruce to the mix and there’s a wide range of habitat for water fowl and songbirds. At one point we spotted a Sora, but it was chased off by a red-winged blackbird before Mr GeoK managed to focus through the thick grass.

kayak first vermillion lake

The highlights? One bald eagle and three common loons.

Bald Eagle

I spotted something fairly high up on a standing dead tree. On closer look, it was a bald eagle! It perched on the same branch for over an hour. That was long enough for Mr GeoK to get some great photos with his new telephoto lens (900 mm equivalent). And then after we paddled further around and photographed the common loons for a while, we paddled back over so I could enjoy shooting with a new-to-me 600 mm equivalent telephoto lens.

bald eagle
photographing an eagle
bald eagle

Common Loons

We heard the loons before we spotted them. We watched three actively fish, and heard others.

Other Wildlife

Mr GeoK spotted a coyote on the train tracks – and got a good photo!


He also came away with great photographs of red-winged blackbirds, a Savannah Sparrow (we think) and a female Mallard duck.

Done with the First Lake?

Between looping around to photograph the loons and returning for another bald eagle photoshoot, we eventually decided to head for the second Vermilion Lake rather than completing our circle of the first lake.

track from kayaking Vermilion Lakes

MISTAKE!!! If we’d crossed back to the far shoreline after the second bald eagle photo session, we MIGHT have discovered the entrance to Echo Creek, which winds its way to the Banff Canoe Club. We kind of had that in mind as a possible objective. The silver lining is that it gives us a reason to paddle these two Vermilion Lakes again.

Second Vermilion Lake

The connection between the first and second Vermilion Lakes is a relatively narrow channel that is just a meter or two from Vermilion Lakes Road. We heard cyclists chatting to one another as they pedaled along towards the Bow Valley Parkway, most of them unaware we were paddling along beside them. To get a sense of just how close we were to the cyclists, check out Mr GeoK’s Relive video recap.

Possible Connection to Third Lake?

After a short rest stop at the dock on the second lake, we continued paddling generally west, roughly parallel to Vermilion Lakes Road. It was a long and winding channel. So long, that we started hoping it might eventually connect to the third lake. It’s funny how hope can spring up even when everything you’ve read says nope, there’s no paddling connection to the third lake. Anyhow, it was beautiful. And a canoe followed us until we decided to turn around. Not sure if they tried to keep going or if they’re still stuck in the grass!!

Mount Bourgeau reflection

Main body of the second lake

Back on the main body of water, we continued counterclockwise. Dragonflies were flitting everywhere (yay, there were mosquitos, too, so we cheered on the brown and blue dragonflies). Around this time, a helicopter flew over.


We tried another side channel. Then we heard a train whistle – the first one all morning. So we picked up our paddling speed to get into position to photograph the westbound train. It turned out to be an engine pulling two passenger cars. WTH!!

short train engine plus two passenger cars

Continuing our circumnavigation of the second lake, the views of Mount Norquay were stunning.

Mount Norquay reflection

We also spotted a few more kayaks and another canoe. Time to head back.

We noticed a manmade artifact at the second lake end of the channel between the first and second lakes. After spending a bit of time on research, I wonder if it’s some disused piece of a manmade dam that was constructed between the first and second lakes back in the 1950s, to try to manage water levels. It was decommissioned decades ago. Anyone know for sure?

rusting infrastructure between first and second Vermilion Lakes

Return to Dock

Exiting the connecting channel into the first lake we spotted at least a dozen canoes and kayaks, most with the Banff Canoe Club logo. It was a Saturday morning, so we figure it was a class or a special group outing. Anyhow, with all that traffic on the water, we paddled hard for the dock. The good news? We now know where Echo Creek empties into the first Vermilion Lake!

As we finished our drain, deflate, dry procedure, a SUP approached the dock. And a tandem, hard-sided kayak was dragged down to the shoreline for launch. We silently gave two thumbs up when the kayakers grabbed a Self-Certification Permit from the box.


Total paddling distance: 9.8 km
Total time: 3 hrs 30 minutes including 60 minutes for shoreline stop and photography

We will definitely paddle here again. There are lots of side channels to explore and when I uploaded a couple of bald eagle photographs to iNaturalist, I saw that bald eagle sightings are fairly regular here. The lakes are shallow, and relatively small, so waves don’t have the same chance to build up like on Lake Minnewanka. All of this means kayaking Vermilion Lakes is a good option for relative beginners or for a potentially windy day.

Mid-July Update

We paddled these lakes again mid-July, and were stunned at how much the water plants/weeds had grown over just 10 days. All along the shoreline, thick mats of plants made paddling very challenging and we kept catching sections of water plants/weeds on our paddles. It’s going to be interesting to see whether the entire lakes become choked with plants before summer’s over. For a more thorough update, watch Mr GeoK’s Relive video recap. If you don’t have 3 minutes 30 seconds, here are a couple of photos to give you a general idea:

3 thoughts on “Kayaking Vermilion Lakes

  1. Pingback: Happy?! - Out & About with the GeoKs

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  3. Susan

    Another great post! Thank you. The photos are stunning. Bald eagles may be common, but they are so majestic.

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