An absolutely unforgettable and epic day hike from the shores of world famous Lake Louise to a stunning glacial overlook deep in the Canadian Rockies. During the summer months, ambitious hikers can refuel empty stomachs and sooth tired legs at the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse – an almost painfully charming rest stop tucked aside the glacial valley here. If you’re traveling in the Canadian Rockies, this is a must-hike trail.
Alberta’s Banff National Park was Canada’s first National Park and only the third such park in the world. Although most visitors associate the park with the admittedly incredibly picturesque town of Banff, the turquoise Lake Louise to its north also deserves some attention. A year-round recreation destination, visitors can kayak on the lake or even practice some hockey in the winter. Climbers have some wonderful routes near its shores, and the more comfort oriented can simply admire the view from the Chateau Lake Louise during afternoon tea.
Hikers, though, get the best deal – a fantastic 9.4 mile trip along the lake shore, through pine forest and stunning mountain scenery to a deep valley where you can see (and hear) the dramatic power of grinding ice sheets … with a side trip to a picturesque and adorable mountain tea house stocked with freshly baked scones, pies, cakes, sandwiches, and (of course) a signature blend of tea.
Begin your trek on the shores of Lake Louise near the Chateau. It is likely you will have to fight through some photo-snapping crowds here — this is a major tourist destination and the ample parking and easy access near the Chateau means you will most likely not get trail solitude at the trailhead.
Although this is known as one of the region’s most crowded hikes, I did find that the further along we got on the trail, the fewer people we found hiking with us. We hiked during the tail end of the fall season, though, and I imagine that during the summer months this trail sees more traffic than we experienced.
The paved path passes in front of the Chateau and heads to the lake’s western shore. Ignore the Lake Agnes Trail on your right and stay on the Lakeshore / Plain of the Six Glaciers Trail. The paved path becomes a wide dirt path and although you’ll still likely be dodging strollers and shutterbugs, the trail’s proximity to the lake makes it easy to get lost in the scenery.
You’ll reach the opposite shore from the Chateau at about 1.5 miles, which is a fine turnaround point if you’re just looking for a decent walk outside. The view back down the lake toward the sizable hotel is a classic one — and a small beach lies on the lake’s southern shores formed by the boulders and silt deposited by the braided creek that fills the lake with glacial melt.
Nearby, a sturdy rock wall plays host to adventurous climbers. Look for crashpads and chalked knuckles as you cross some boardwalks over the creek beds and seeping springs and step into a stunning glacial valley. You’ll be embraced by this spectacular scenery for the remainder of your time on the trail here, so soak it all in!
At the 1.9 mile mark, you’ll have bottomed out in the glacial valley … and it’s all very much uphill from this point. Now’s a good time to stretch and get the blood flowing in those legs because you’re about to give them a nice workout. Just remember: there’s cake at the top of this trail!
Here, the trail enters some of the most phenomenal mountain scenery I have ever had the pleasure of hiking in. Not since hiking in the Himalaya in Nepal have I been surrounded by peaks, forests, and glaciers like this.
At 2.4 miles, keep left at the junction with a connector trail that will take you to to the Highline Trail — a good loop route if you wanted to check out Lake Agnes and its accompanying teahouse on another trip. The trail meets the Highline Trail in earnest at 2.9 miles. Stay to the left again to continue climbing up into the glacial valley.
Looking down the valley, you are hemmed in on the left by Sheol Mountain, Haddo Peak, and Mount Aberdeen. The smaller Aberdeen Glacier slides downward from the north slope of Mount Aberdeen, while the larger valley to your left is the Lefroy Glacier, hemmed in by the spiky pinnacles of The Mitre and the wall of Mount Lefroy. Directly ahead is the Victoria Glacier, sitting below snow-and-ice capped Mounts Victoria and Huber.
As with glaciers the world over, warming temperatures and changing climates mean these monstrous ice sheets are in fast retreat. A study from 2015 predicts glaciers in Western Canada will lose between 60-80% of their 2005 volume — and may essentially be gone by the year 2100. From this point in the trail, you’ve risen far enough above the glacial valley itself that you can see some of the moraines that mark the glacier’s previous extents.
Just past the 3 mile mark, the trail hops onto a narrow rocky cliff for a short distance. Chains are bolted into the side here, but unless the ground is iced over or you have a crippling fear of heights, you likely won’t need to use them.
After this short respite from the inclines, it’s back to uphill. As the trail makes a slight turn westward and climbs up some short switchbacks, you’ll get some epic views of the snows on Mount Victoria.
You’ll reach the turnoff for the Tea House at 3.7 miles — and an outhouse if you need it. For now, skip the chalet and continue hiking west toward Mount Victoria.
The trail is unmaintained here and it does become significantly rougher going — although still not anything approaching a technical climb. You’ll basically be hiking atop the ridges of old moraines on the north edge of the Victoria Glacier — eventually ending up at a dead-end on a large, steep scree pile overlooking the glacier’s sharp northeastern bend.
Pull up a seat among the stones and spend a while quietly listening to the glacier. You’ll be able to hear the low grumbling of grinding ice and stone — and the occasional icefall or tiny avalanche in the warmer months. It’s a remarkably humbling experience that everyone should have — especially while the glaciers are still with us.
When you’re done, backtrack to the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse.
Now, you might be wondering what a Swiss-style chalet with Himalayan flags is doing up here in the Canadian Rockies — and that’s a good question. When the transcontinental railway reached the area in the late 1800s, the easy access to the Canadian Rockies lured adventurers and climbers first. Many hotels and outfitters hired Swiss mountain guides to lead guests on expeditions. The original Chateau Lake Louise had more of a Swiss chalet style, and this was reflected in both the Lake Agnes Teahouse and the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, which was built in 1927.
Today the Teahouse has a surprisingly extensive menu that is subject to change (supplies are mostly dropped off by helicopter or hauled in by the staff, who live at the teahouse for days, weeks, or months at a time). Prices are a bit elevated but hey, so is the kitchen. As you’d expect, the tea house is always packed with a colorful collection of hikers and travelers from all over the planet. It’s a great place to strike up conversations with your fellow visitors and the teahouse staff, too!
Although it’s known for its chocolate cake, we found the tea and scones to be more satisfying mid-hike snack (along with some chips and salsa because we may have been a little SoCal homesick at this point).
If you dig the signature herbal tea blend, you can also take some home with you from the Banff Tea Company. The Plain of Six Glaciers blend features peppermint, hibiscus, rose hips, elderberries, dried apple and orange pieces, and dried black currants. You can also purchase the tea online … which is a great way to remember your trip here when you’re brewing up a cup later.
When you’ve successfully refueled your batteries (and hopefully avoided a delicious food coma), return back the way you came … knowing you’ve just been on one of the most unique and beautiful trails in Canada.