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Looking down at Helen Lake
Looking down at Helen Lake

Helen Lake Hike in Banff National Park

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Summary

  • The 12 kilometre return hike to Helen Lake is one of the top day hikes along the Icefields Parkway in Alberta. The trailhead is across from the Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint. Allow 1.5 to 2 hours one way. 
  • There is the option to continue to the Cirque Peak Ridge and even Cirque Peak – called a challenging hike or an easy scramble. I
  • The Helen Lake is a prime one for wildflowers in season.

The Helen Lake hike with the optional scramble up Cirque Peak in Banff National Park is one of the premier hikes in Banff National Park. Plan to hike to the ridge above Helen Lake for some of the best views in the Canadian Rockies. You’ll feel like you can reach out and touch the Wapta Icefield.

While you enjoy fabulous Crowfoot Glacier views early on in the hike, if you get up to the ridge on the Helen Lake hike and scramble even part of the way to Cirque Peak you’re rewarded with a stellar view of the Wapta Icefields. In the summer the meadows around Helen Lake are also notable for their wildflowers including purple fleabane, valerian, ragwort and paintbrush.

The Helen Lake hike is a snap to follow

Initially head through woods filled with fantastic smelling fir and spruce. After only 45 minutes of hiking, you’ll be rewarded with superlative views of the Crowsnest Glacier. And when you turn left (north) Dolomite Peak shows up to the east.

Continue up the valley on a mostly gentle grade. Cross Helen Creek and continue on to Helen Lake. You can see the route up Cirque Peak from the lake.

It’s an easy walk around Helen Lake but the scramble up to the ridge might leave you short of breath. Many people stop here – or continue on to Dolomite Pass. We elected to go for Cirque Peak. From Helen Lake it’s another 493 metres (1,617 feet) of hiking…and scrambling to reach the peak.

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Views of Crowfoot Mountain & Glacier - 45 minutes into the Helen Lake hike
Views of Crowfoot Mountain & Glacier – 45 minutes into the hike
Reasonable grade most of the way to the lake
Reasonable grade most of the way to Helen Lake
Hikers perhaps headed for Dolomite Pass
Hikers perhaps headed for Dolomite Pass

The hike/scramble up Cirque Peak

The first part of the climb is easy. It’s up a sandy slope. Gain the ridge before it gets too steep or you’ll be in for more unpleasant scrambling. Trust me – I followed my husband and he did not take the easy route. Even if you don’t climb to the Cirque Peak summit I recommend gaining the ridge for the in-your-face views.

Looking steeply down to the lake
Looking steeply down to Helen Lake

Climb steeply up scree slopes. Be prepared for fierce winds. Don’t forget to include warm coats and a hat in your pack; you may want to put them on here. Continue up the scree to the rockband. Head right as you face it and continue scrambling to reach the very tiny summit.

The summit itself is small and airy – with steep cliffs – but sensational views according to John. I didn’t go the last few hundred feet up. I figured I was pushing my luck with the dog. John said it was a wise move not to take her the last bit.

The descent is relatively easy. Plunge stepping in the scree returns you to Helen Lake in no time. Then it’s another 90 minutes of walking to return to your vehicle. 

The scree covered slopes to Cirque Peak
The scree covered slopes to Cirque Peak
Views of the Wapta Icefield and Bow Lake
Views of the Wapta Icefield & Bow Lake
Looking down to Bow Lake and Num-Ti-Jah Lodge
Looking down to Bow Lake and Num-Ti-jah Lodge
The view as you walk back to the trailhead
The view as you walk back to the trailhead

Finding the trailhead 

The trailhead for the hike is just 32 km (20 miles) northwest of Lake Louise. It’s right across the highway from the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint, a popular pullover for drivers.

Useful information for the Helen Lake hike and Cirque Peak scramble

Don’t forget: You will need a day pass available to hike in Banff National Park. It’s $9.80 per adult or $19.60 per family – good for seven days.

Distance: It’s 14 kilometres return to reach the ridge above Helen Lake. The vertical to the ridge is 550 metres (1,800 feet). The total vertical to climb Cirque Peak is 1,043 metres (3417 feet). Count on at least another hour to hike from the ridge to the peak.

Time needed: Approximately 4 hours return to the ridge and 6 – 7 hours return for the peak.

Map: Gem Trek Bow Lake & Saskatchewan Crossing

Book: This is a fantastic wildflower hike in the summer. A pocket wildflower guide can come in handy. 

Visit the Banff National Park website for information on any trail closures.

Interested in more great Rocky Mountain hikes?

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The Helen Lake - Cirque Peak hike in Banff National Park

 

 

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