The Plain of Six Glaciers trail ends on a scree slope surrounded by mountain peaks and hanging glaciers. It’s an ideal spot to listen for the sound of ice grinding on rock, and to envision how glacial forces helped carve the Canadian Rocky Mountain landscape over thousands of years. If you’re lucky, you’ll experience the thrill of watching an avalanche plummet off Victoria Glacier. Amazing scenery, an relatively easy trail and a teahouse make this a very popular trail in Banff National Park. View Mr GeoK’s Relive video recap of this hike here.
Parking at Lake Louise is often a challenge. To discourage private vehicle use, Parks Canada charges for parking at Lake Louise from mid-May through mid-October. This charge is on top of the National Parks visitor pass. Paid parking dates coincide with the dates Parks Canada runs a paid shuttle service to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. If you’re not going to arrive very early in the morning (or later in the afternoon), consider reserving seats on the Parks Canada shuttle. Another option is ROAM public transit from Banff to Lake Louise.
Costs, time of year, need for flexibility and other considerations all factor in to deciding the best travel option when planning you and your family’s visit to Lake Louise and Plain of Six Glaciers. Being local, we tend to avoid Lake Louise during the busy time of year. We have the flexibility to head to Lake Louise on a good weather day between mid-October and mid-May. When we arrived about 8:15 on a midweek morning in late October 2021, there were about 15 vehicles in the lot. An added bonus? There’s no parking fee to pay during the off season.
There is a heated/plumbed washroom facility just off the parking lot.
From the parking lot, walk towards the turquoise waters of Lake Louise. A wide, paved path curves to the right, with lots of even wider areas for photography. Even in the later part of October, this area is busy with tourists. Look down the lake to the Plain of Six Glaciers, including Victoria and Lefroy Glaciers.
Continue following the broad pathway, past Chateau Lake Louise and the trail branching off to Lake Agnes and the Beehives. There are plenty of boot beaten spots beside the paved path to stop and photograph Lake Louise.
Head of Lake Louise to Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse
Things get a bit more interesting at the head of the lake. Braided stream channels wind through the mud flat created by glacier flour (finely ground rock dust). There’s a good view of the Chateau back down the lake.
Most people turn around before this point. So once you’re a bit more alone, on dirt and gaining elevation, it starts feeling like a “real” hike. Be sure to check the “Back of the Lake” rock wall to the right as you hike out. This is a popular climbing area. We didn’t see any rock climbers, but maybe next time.
Continuing on, the trees start to thin, revealing views of glacial moraines down to the left and mountain peaks all around. We had some challenges on the steeper sections in late October. Recent snowfall + daytime melt + overnight below freezing temperatures left some stretches very icy. We’d packed our NANOspikes, so did just fine. But those hiking in running shoes risked a bad fall.
Once out of the trees, there’s a short stretch along a ledge. The ledge is comfortably wide even for me, with my fear of heights.
Here’s another view, showing an empty anchor bolt. This made us wonder whether there used to be a wire or chain to grasp. Maybe so. And maybe it was removed during the early days of the COVID pandemic when transmission by touch was one of the theories of how the virus spread?
Past the ledges and up some steeper switchbacks and the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse appears. And pit toilets! Both are welcome additions to the usual no-amenities-at-all hiking experience. 🙂
By mid-October, the Teahouse is boarded up and closed until the following summer season. Built in 1927 by the CP Railway, it served as a stopping point for adventurers on their way to the Abbot Pass hut (via the Death Trap).
Owned and operated by the same family since 1959, the Teahouse has no electricity or road access. Bulk supplies are helicoptered in at the beginning of the summer season, and replenished by staff carrying them up the hiking trail.
The Teahouse generally opens in May or June, depending on the weather. It’s a great spot to enjoy a hot or cold drink, a snack, or even a full meal while taking in the scenery from one of the verandas. Remember your cash…the lack of electricity makes it pretty hard to pay be debit or credit!!
Beyond the Teahouse to the Viewpoint
Our objective was about 1.5 km past the Teahouse. It’s relatively flat, though quite narrow as it traverses a glacial moraine (i.e. steep-sided accumulation of gravel and silt left behind as a glacier melted back). Again, we were glad for our NANOspikes.
The trail just ends. There’s no sign announcing you’re at the viewpoint, nor a railing, nor any other indicator. But it’s pretty obvious when you’ve reached the turnaround point because the path ceases to exist. And there’s a gully that is difficult to cross, which strong discourages any further progress.
We enjoyed our lunch here. Between bites of sandwich, we’d look up at the Abbot Pass hut (dismantled over the summer of 2022, 100 years after it was constructed)…
…and the glaciers…
…and study the way the dusting of snow and low angle sun emphasized the patterns left behind by retreating glaciers.
We were chatting with another couple over lunch when we heard a crack, and spotted a chunk of Victoria Glacier falling to the valley bottom. Fortunately, our cameras were close at hand and we got several shots of the “avalanche” and then of the cloud of snow and ice crystals rolling down the valley.
At a certain point, we put our phones away and lens caps on, to prevent all kinds of water drops forming on the lenses.
We all talked excitedly about our lucky timing, and our gratitude over being far enough away to safely view the event without any risk. We even traded email addresses so we could send them our video and photos.
Eventually, the talk tapered off. And with more hikers approaching along the moraine-top trail, we decided it was time to pack up and start back.
The fastest way back to parking is to retrace the outbound route. But even in late October, the trail was relatively busy. When we stepped off the trail to photograph an early frozen waterfall, several groups of hikers passed us in each direction.
So in an impulsive quest for quietude, we took the Highline Trail (left fork) at the junction about 1.5 km past the Teahouse on our return.
That was a poor decision. There are poor/limited views.
It was relatively hot and humid.
And after pulling out our topo map we realized it was going to add at least a few km and considerable elevation to our hike. So at the first opportunity, we took a trail back down, which actually backtracked in terms of direction.
Maybe it’s worth doing Highline to Big Beehive, continuing to Lake Agnes and then down via the Lake Agnes Trail during wildflower season. Or if you want to do the Teahouse challenge (i.e. visit both Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse in one day). We’ve not hiked to Lake Agnes since the summer of 2009, with kids in tow. If you’ve done this alternate route back more recently, and want to convince us to give it a try, please argue your case by leaving a comment below. 🙂
Atop a Glacial Moraine
Back down on the trail we’d hiked in on, we noticed a boot beaten track along a (lateral?) moraine. So we headed for that in our continued pursuit of quietude.
This worked well for us. But in hindsight, it wasn’t appropriate in terms of conserving the landscape. Eventually we reached a point where the ridge was gone, and we had to descend the steep side and make our way back to the main trail, leaving permanent tracks. Not good!
Back at the mud flats at the head of the lake, we watched a few groups taking selfies. And we paused too, to take photos in completely different light conditions compared to our morning stop.
From there, we hustled back towards parking, weaving and dodging the crowds along the lakeshore trail.
The main parking lot was about 80% full by mid-afternoon, with more room in the upper lot.
Thanks to our ill-advised pursuit of an alternate route back, our hike was longer than expected. The highlight was spending enough time at the viewpoint that we witnessed an avalanche from a safe distance. And Lake Louise is always a turquoise gem. For locals, this is a great shoulder-season hike. But go before snow builds up to create avalanche risk along the trail.
Distance = 17.3 km
Elevation gain = 640 meters (485 net)
Hiking time = 4 hours 20 minutes plus 3 hours for photography/videography, lunch and rest stops (total 6.5 hrs)