The Onion

Five years ago we hiked beyond Bow Hut to enjoy a bird’s eye view of Bow Lake. But due to bad trip planning, we didn’t know to go just a little further. Two amazing views are the reward for the grade 1 scramble to the summit of The Onion: 1) a chain of turquoise mountain lakes in one direction; and 2) the expansive Wapta icefield in the opposite direction. For a video recap of this hike, check out Mr GeoK’s Relive.

Getting There

Trailhead parking is at the Bow Lake lot, approximately 2.5 hours from Calgary. Travel the TransCanada Highway to Lake Louise. Then continue north on the two-lane Highway 93. Watch for signs indicating the turn-off to Bow Lake and Num-ti-jah Lodge. We had no trouble finding parking a few minutes before 8:30 on a weekday morning.

But it was overflowing by early afternoon when viewed through a telephoto lens from the summit of The Onion. And it was still overflowing when we finally returned to our vehicle a few minutes before 6 pm. There are several pit toilets along one side of the parking lot – the only facilities until you reach Bow Hut.

Num-ti-jah Lodge on the shore of Bow Lake

The Trail

Bow Lake Shoreline

The most scenic access to the trail is along the shoreline of Bow Lake. Morning sun beautifully lights up Crowfoot Mountain. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch some reflections.

man photographing mountains and lake

Mr. GeoK spotted several kinds of shore/water birds here, including a female common goldeneye and some kind of gull.

More direct access to the trailhead is via the dirt road that runs from the end of the parking lot past Num-ti-jah Lodge. Once on the official trail to Bow Falls and Bow Hut, I enjoyed the colourful wildflower display.

Just a few minutes along the shoreline stretch, Bow Falls and a tongue of the Wapta icefield come into view. Bow Falls is a relatively family-friendly hiking destination. NOTE: this waterfall is also known as Bow Glacier Falls, to set it apart from Bow Falls in Banff Townsite.

Bow Falls from the shoreline of Bow Lake

Left of Bow Falls, more of the Wapta icefield…

blue ice and watermelon snow on Wapta icefield

The mosquitoes were so bad that Mr. GeoK kept his hands in his pockets as much as possible. We sprayed ourselves with a high-DEET concentrate mosquito repellant at least six times from start to finish.

man walking along lakeshore trail at Bow Lake

Creekside to Chokestone

From the head of Bow Lake, the trail crosses a small boulder field. Then it follows the edge of the alluvial fan at the head of the lake. Unless water levels are high. This was the case for us. And we ended up on an alternate and very-well established trail that goes a little up and down through the edge of the forest. Once you cross a small footbridge, the trail routes across the relatively flat flood plain of the robust creek connecting Bow Falls to Bow Lake.

man crossing small footbridge on path beside mountain lake

Looking upstream, we spotted the aptly name St Nicholas Peak. And just to the right of that, the rounded top of The Onion. Even from this distance we could see a couple of cornices, and made a mental note to stay well back of them.

looking upstream to The Onion and St Nicholas Peak

Trekking along and pausing now and then to photograph a bird or a wildflower, two pairs of hikers overtook us. That got me thinking. In the almost 30 years we’ve been hiking, that’s almost never happened. And we were overtaken by three other groups of hikers before we reached the summit. This hike forced me to face the hard reality that we’re getting a bit slower in our late middle age. Question – when you’re just old enough to qualify for the seniors’ discount at Shoppers Drug Mart is that late middle age? Or do I need to start thinking of myself as a “senior”?

Anyhow, I reached the partially rebuilt “stairs” lading up from the creek to the chokestone over the creek a couple of minutes before Mr GeoK. That gave me time to set up a long-exposure shot and signal him to pause at the base of the stairs until my camera shutter closed.

man standing beside mountain stream

It was our third or fourth time crossing what we call the chokestone – a giant boulder that serves as a natural bridge across the canyon carved by the creek. It’s a bit of a scramble to get up and over. I find it a little easier each time. This time I felt comfortable enough to pause atop the boulder to photograph the creek tumbling down through the canyon.

mountain stream rushing through canyon below Bow Falls

Bow Falls

Less than 5 minutes past the chokestone is the best possible view of Bow Falls from this trail.

Also from here, you start to see how St Nicholas Peak fits into Wapta icefield…

mountain peaks and glacier

Boulder Hopping

Next up is a stretch of boulder hopping. I stowed my trekking poles so my hands were free to serve as a third point of contact. It was pretty easy to follow the route many others have taken, but some of the boulders wobbled badly.

We spotted wildflowers blooming between some of the boulders, including a variant of yellow columbine with pale red.

I paused for a bit to think about the time scale over which the creek carved its canyon.

creek channel in Banff National Park

And as soon as we finished with the boulder field, Mr GeoK paused to shake pebbles out of his boots.

man tying hiking boots while sitting on a rock beside a mountain stream

We enjoyed a colourful mix of wildflowers here, and spotted one hoary marmot.

marmot on rocks

Grind Through Forest

One good thing about gaining elevation through the forest? It’s shaded – a welcome break during a protracted heat wave. But swarms of mosquitoes overwhelmed our appreciation for the slightly cooler temperature. We applied more mosquito repellant here, on both the out and back legs of our day.

This is also where we started to see people who overnighted at Bow Hut hiking back down. One young fellow – couldn’t have been more than about 4 years old – told us there was only one person left at the hut! πŸ˜‰

Cirque to Bow Hut

Immediately above the treeline I fumbled about a little, looking for a spot to cross yet another creek. Then we were in the cirque below Bow Hut. Ahead and waaaay up, part of the Wapta icefield and St Nicholas Peak were stunningly beautiful in the sunshine.

Crossing the cirque, we played leapfrog with a group of four Parks Canada summer students enjoying a day off from work. Mr GeoK paused just before we crossed the last snow patch in the cirque. Bow Hut is visible as a rectangular bump on the ledge above him and to the left.

man taking photograph in mountain cirque

It’s a bit of a grind from the cirque up to the Hut. The boot beaten track switches back several times. Some short sections have ball-bearing type rocks underfoot. And there are several creeks to cross. We made slow and steady progress.

Final Stretch

The trail continues to gain elevation once past Bow Hut. There’s a bit of trail braiding here, but small stone cairns mark the way.

man hiking up to The Onion from Bow Hut

We soon reached the tarn where we stopped five years ago. But this time we carried on, making our way across the rock layers angled at 45 degrees, skirting the edge of the Wapta icefield. We have neither the training nor the equipment to venture onto a glacier.

rock layers at 45 degree angle

This part is the scramble-y bit. Stone cairns are guideposts for he route up small cruxes, along rock ledges and taking long steps from one rock ledge to the next. I used my hands fairly regularly.

Just as we finished gaining elevation along the ledges and were about to turn right for the final stretch across a slanted plateau to the summit, Mr GeoK spotted a white-tailed ptarmigan. It tolerated our presence for a few minutes, then turned and walked away across a snow patch.

white-tailed ptarmigan male, summer plummage

There’s not much forward view while approaching the summit. This was the view looking back as we neared the summit cairn.

St Nicholas Peak and Wapta icefield

Then we dropped our packs at the summit cairn and set off to explore for a bit before enjoying our packed lunch.

backpacks surrounding a summit cairn

Summit Views

In one direction, a chain of turquoise lakes: some nameless tarns across the way, Iceberg Lake immediately below and Bow Lake in the valley bottom…

man on mountain summit with lakes below
mountain lakes and icefield view from The Onion
blue ice in cornice

In the other direction, the vast (but shrinking) Wapta icefield – complete with watermelon snow!

woman overlooking the Wapta icefield

Some of the high-altitude, lingering snow patches reminded us of hiking in Iceland’s highlands.

snow patches in a mountain cirque

Mr GeoK wandered around with his sandwich in hand, enjoying the views and studying the clouds for any signs of a thunderstorm.

man standing on mountain summit

After we finished lunch, was asked one of the Parks Canada summer students to take our photo. Thanks! This photo got Mr GeoK wondering about late middle age…does it make you shrink?

woman and man on mountain summit

Return

We took our time on the scramble-y bit going down. In fact, we took separate routes. But we always kept each other in sight. That’s how Mr GeoK ended up at the very top of the waterfall coming over the side of The Onion. And I was down at the tarn filled by the waterfall, photographing his descent.

The far side of that tarn turned out to be a great spot to photograph The Onion in a way that shows it’s aptly named.

rock layers that give The Onion its name

Idea for a Future Adventure?

Since we wandered along the rock ledges between The Onion and Bow Hut for a bit, we eventually had to make our way back onto the trail skirting the Wapta icefield. This turned out to be a lucky thing, with lucky timing. We spotted a guided hiking group on the glacier. I’m really keen on this as a possible future adventure.

group of people hiking on Wapta icefield

Leap Frog

We played leap frog with the Parks Canada summer students and with each other, all the way to the boulder field. That’s where the summer students left us in the dust!

Man hiking across patch of snow
woman hiking across a mountain cirque in summer

After the boulder field, we were quickly up and over the chokestone.

man standing atop large boulder

Cold Foot Soak

By the time we reached the bottom of the “stairs” Mr GeoK voiced my thought…it would be nice to have a Star Trek transporter to get us back to the parking lot! Instead, we settled for a cold foot soak in the creek.

man soaking feet in mountain stream after a long hike

Feeling somewhat refreshed, we carried on, reapplying bug spray as needed.

Finally, the alluvial fan came into view, and Num-ti-jah Lodge peeked out from behind Crowfoot Mountain. After that, it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, taking regular sips of water and swatting at mosquitoes until we reached the parking lot. πŸ˜‰

alluvial fan entering Bow Lake

Summary

This one is a long day, especially if you spend any time exploring the geology of The Onion or searching for “ice caves” along the edge of the Wapta icefield. It fits the definition of a Class 1 scramble. The toughest bits are getting up and over the chokestone and then going up the rock ledges above Bow Hut, to The Onion. I have been working on my fear of heights for years and years and felt pretty comfortable on this one. The views from the summit are well worth the effort.

Distance = 21.5 km
Elevation gain = 1013 meters (715 net)
Hiking time = 6.5 hours plus 3 hours for photography/videography, lunch and rest stops (total 9.5 hrs)

2 thoughts on “The Onion

  1. Oh, I so enjoyed seeing your gorgeous photos of this special place! Your descriptions are awesome and certainly make a person want to go see the stunning beauty of this place. πŸ’œ

  2. Your posts are so well-written and provide an excellent explanation of the hikes, from the trailhead location through to details of the geography, wildlife, and timelines. The pictures are extraordinary. Thank you for taking the time to write these excellent pieces. They are our family’s guides when hiking routes and we search your site first to give us accurate information.

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