Helen Lake, Banff National Park

Helen Lake is a very popular trail given it is largely an easy hike with only a short stretch of elevation with switchbacks. The trail head is located on the north/east side of the Icefield Parkway (93) across from Bow Lake and the Crowfoot Glacier. Helen Lake is about 6km along the trail, making this potentially a 12km round trip. There are other popular hikes from Helen Lake, including Cirque Peak and the Dolomite Pass. This is also an equestrian trail heading into the Dolomite Pass which eventually connects the Siffleur Wilderness Area and the Kootenay Plains. We went beyond Helen Lake for an 18km hike, see our trace here.

The trail head parking area is not very large, and with the congestion of its popularity, one can find it difficult to park. Trailers and motorhomes will want to get in early but may also find themselves backing out as others are driving in. The boogievan is a good size to fit this parking area. We thought that we could have also left the boogievan across the highway at the Bow Lake lookout, especially if you were only heading to Helen Lake and back.

From the trail head you step off into a well-treed path that heads east around Crystal Ridge. As you gradually climb towards the switchbacks you will get a good look at the Crowfoot Glacier, so named as it once resembled the foot of a crow. The sights and fragrances of this mountain trail will be familiar to many who frequent such places, for those new to hiking, prepare yourself for the olfactory pleasures of the mountain trail.

Rounding the ridgle line to the north west the trail remains relatively flat until you begin a gentle ascent up to Helen Lake. At the time of year we hiked, early July, there were a few little streams to hop across which adds to the ambiance of any hike for us.

As you complete the final gentle ascent up the trail you will see Helen Lake in a bowl at the base of Cirque Peak. Many continue on to the summit of Cirque, which will be a future adventure for us. The lake is the stunning dark green of the non-glacier fed mountain lake. Numerous people, including many advanced in age, made this their hike destination and were lounging around the shore enjoying the serenity of the place.

We traveled up the ridge beyond Helen Lake, which connects to the Cirque Peak trail and contains the next set of switchbacks.

Ridge trail beyond Helen Lake Cirque Peak Helen Lake from the ridge beyond

When we reached the top of this little ridge, which opens your view into the mouth of the Dolomite Pass, we crossed a stretch of snow and were greeted with Katherine Lake resting below Dolomite Peak. At this point we wondered why this was the Helen Lake trail as we thought it should be the Katherine Lake trail, such was the amazing Vista before us.

From this vantage point the Dolomite looks like a mighty ship or submarine floating (or a starship landed, depending on your imagination) within Katherine Lake. The contrasts of the sun and rainy skies of that day made the scene all the more amazing. We soon realized that the waterfall we’d seen on the march in was coming from the far end of Katherine Lake, so we set out to find the waterfall’s origin. This took us off the trail and was well worth the extra miles.

You cannot see the falls drop off from here, but you do hear some of the rushing water. Up close, the Dolomite looks well worn and eroded.

We walked back along Katherine Lake to the pass, enjoying the lake, the alpine flowers, and noting the large number of marmot that lived here. You could also hear the whistles of the marmot on the Helen Lake side of the ridge.

It rained on and off during this portion of the hike, reminding us of the need to carry sufficient kit in the back country to handle weather and other unpleasant possibilities. We were all alone this day by Katherine Lake, except for the whistlers, out of sight and earshot of those enjoying Helen Lake.

We walked along the north shore of Katherine Lake to see if we could get into the Dolomite Pass. It is very wet in this area with plenty of runoff heading towards the lake. We ended up being given the choice of a water crossing or a longer hike to see if we could go around the water. There were some large and interesting stones across the way that reminded us of a henge that just seemed to be calling our name. These, along with the Dolomite Pass, will be another adventure.

As we began to head back from our journey the skies opened up, and the thunder began. During our lazy walk by the lake we had lost the trail, so we’re working our way up the ridge to find it again into the driving rain. Some might think this was a low point in our hike, but on the contrary, one seldom has the pleasure of being truly out and vulnerable in a thunderstorm. You can appreciate the awesome beauty and terrible power of nature wile being very aware of how tiny we truly are in the grandness of the universe. Here the marmot is your equal.

All musing aside, these are the moments you truly get to test your kit choices and your resolve. “Kill the hill” as the Sergeant once said.

The way back was the same gentle affair as the way up. We passed a few people who had been in the area during the thunderstorm, some of whom were on Cirque Peak when we were on the ridge coming back from Katherine Lake. They reported feeling the static of the storm in their hair, which would be either an exciting adventure or a frightening experience depending on your viewpoint.

We clocked over 18km in 6hrs 34 mins. It was good to get back to the boogievan and a post-hike recovery drink.

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