Lake Louise to Lake Agnes: A vacation hike worth the walk near Banff

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada (June 2012)  If Banff is on your bucket list, then you need to fill your bucket up to the brim and drive a few miles northwest of Banff along the Trans Canada Highway to Lake Louise.    The modern fascination with Banff and Lake Louise dates back to the late 1800’s when the Canadian Pacific Railroad made it possible for tourists and vacationers to get to the interior of the Canadian Rockies.  Banff had and still has its hot springs while Lake Louise has this turquoise glacier feed water encircled by the towering Canadian Rockies.

Along the shore of Lake Louise

One grand chateau has replaced another over the years and today the Chateau offers all the modern conveniences and service one could ask for.  But,  the Chateau is not why people come here.  The natural beauty of the region is surreal, even on a day such as we had when the clouds hung low, obscuring the mountain tops,  and rain threatened as we stood by the lake.   It was this natural beauty and a chance to walk among these giant mountains while soaking in the unending views that make you think every direction you look is more beautiful than the last that brought us here.   We had a choice to make since we only had one day to hike at Lake Louise: would we hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers and visit the tea-house there, or hike up to Lake Agnes with its tea-house and head out to the Beehives?  The trail-head for the two is the same, along the shore near the Chateau, however,  we decided to do the Lake Agnes hike with a promise that someday we will return to hike other trails in this magical place.

We had read several guidebooks before this trip and the Lake Agnes hike was described as strenuous to difficult, so we anticipated significant elevation gain and potentially rough terrain to cross.  Lake Louise sits at about 5600 feet above sea level and the hike is a continuous up hill with no up and down or leveling out as you might have if you were walking a ridge-line so the altitude and the constant up hill do make it strenuous.   But, probably because it gets so much use in the winter and summer and probably because it was used by rangers to go to fire stations on the beehives until the late 1970’s, the lower part of the trail was practically a boulevard to walk on.

It is enticing, so we were not surprised when we were soon overtaken by two photographers dressed in street shoes and business casual attire.  They smiled as us as they hurried by but three quarters of a mile up the trail, before the first switchback, we passed them panting on the side of the road.  They had brought no water and did not ask for any but breathlessly asked how far to the top.  We told them that the hike was about 3 miles long and that they were less than a third of the way up.  They said they wanted to go to “the top” and take a picture of the lake and chateau.  At this, point the lake was obscured by the trees, so when we told them that they were less than 1/3 of the way up they grimaced, looked at each other, and turned around.  We saw the image they wanted in the picture, but we didn’t believe a camera could capture it.   Less than a quarter mile after they turned around we came to the first switch back, which also afforded an opening for a view of the lake.  We took pictures of the mountain across the lake and debated on whether we should hurry back down the trail to bring them to this spot.

Looking across Lake Louise

Moving up the trail was serenely peaceful.  The trees gave way to the vista’s more often and we saw the lake below frequently.  There was practically no one on the trail but us, as we had started the hike early in the morning. WARNING: If you start the hike at midday, you will be among a swarm of people for at least a part of the way up.  We only encountered the large groups of tourists when we were near the bottom of the trail in the afternoon after we had made our hike.

A couple of switchbacks brings you to Mirror lake, which is a small glacially fed lake that reflects one of the formations on the way up.  The trail splits here with both branches leading up to the tea-house at Lake Agnes, however, the left leads to a junction with a trail to the Plain of Six Glaciers, so be careful if you go left.  It is well marked but you have to keep your head up to see the markers.  We went to the right and soon encountered the horse trail (unmistakable. Why don’t horse riders carry bags to clean up after their horses?  Hikers would appreciate it!)  The trail is not as pristine here but is not a scramble and soon leads to a  paddock where the horses have to be tied and and a wooden stairwell beside the waterfall feeding out of Lake Agnes.

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Waterfall below Lake Agnes

Of course, we had dressed appropriately for the hike, so I had a small bead of perspiration on my brow as we  passed the waterfall and began up the stairwell.  As we neared the top of the stair the wall of the tea-house came into view and the wind picked up.  The temperature of the air dropped twenty degrees and pellets of sleet and snow started hitting me in the face and bouncing off my rain gear.  Then we saw Lake Agnes, beautifully resting partially encrusted in ice and even more surrounded by the mountains.

Lake Agnes in Summer

It was still early in the day, so we decided to press on to one of the Beehives.  The Big Beehive is reached by following a path along the shoreline of Lake Agnes and making an assent around the lake.  It is about a mile hiking distance and is said to be well worth the walk.  We headed up the trail to the right, past the teahouse restrooms, and further up the mountain to the little bee-hive.  Before too much longer the trail was covered over by snow and we saw where others had tried to make the passage before us. The problem was the tracks in the snow lead in different directions.   We looked around and saw that the snow ended to the right of of us and the trail resumed, so we went to the right for a few hundred yards and cleared the snow.   As I mentioned earlier, the Canadian Forest Rangers used a tower on the Little Beehive to watch over the forests and control potential fires up until 1978.  The tower was removed but the base is still there along with a bench for sitting when you’ve expended your time and energy to reach this very peaceful place.  There was no snow or rain and it was a beautiful summer day as we sat and enjoyed the view.

Tower base on Little Beehive

The Big Beehive actually has a gazebo like tower on it if you elect to go that route.  We came back down the trail, crossed the snow patch again and headed down to the teahouse at Lake Agnes.  We began encountering a few more people and when we entered the tea-house at around noon, there were only a couple of seats available.  We gladly scooted into them, because as before, the wind was howling off the little lake with sleet and snow mixed in.  The effect is similar to the winds in cities between tall buildings.   Remember this when you go to the tea-house at Lake Agnes.  They only take cash.  No checks, no credit cards, no IOU’s.  We had spent very little on our trip, but we had used credit cards and only carried a small amount of cash.   Scraping together our change, we had enough for one bowl of soup.  Fortunately, we had packed along a couple of sandwiches and plenty of water, so the soup and sandwich meal was fabulous!!

The Lake Agnes teahouse

The  tea-house is built in a style popularized by the Swiss mountain guides who came to Alberta in the 1800’s to show the tourists how to climb the mountains. Its rustic, homey, and well worth your stop on the mountain.

We crossed a bridge across the stream from the lake that feeds the waterfall and headed down the alternate route mentioned earlier.  The snow was a little trickier on this side and by now there were several groups of people who had made it as far as the tea-house and were heading down.   The leader of one of the groups made an ignominious landing when he showed them how not to cross a snow pack across the trail.  Fortunately, all that was bruised was his ego and his buttocks.

Going down may be more beautiful that coming up.  The sun was trying to break through and the clouds were a little higher and the mountains at the end of the valley were spectacular.

On the trail below Lake Agnes

We came back down around Mirror Lake from the side opposite where we left, noting the trail to the Plain of Glaciers and made it back down to the Chateau on Lake Louise without incident other than running into the groups of people making their way up the trail in the early afternoon.  Should you desire to go, note that there is a campground within a couple of miles of Lake Louise and if you are making it a day trip from Banff, there is a campground in Banff as well.   If you decide to go, let us know, we’d love to go back and join you.






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