If you’re looking for one of the best hikes in Banff, you’d do well to choose the hike to Fish Lakes via North Molar Pass. Very fit hikers could knock off the 29.6 km return hike to the lakes in a very long day. But my recommendation is to book a backcountry campsite (in January) and stay for a couple of nights at the Fish Lake Campground so you can truly enjoy what is truly one of Banff’s best hikes. The mountain scenery on this hike is superb with a long stretch of trail above treeline. In summer, wildflowers are prolific in the sub-alpine meadows. And Upper Fish Lake enjoys a spectacular setting at the base of a massive wall of rock.
What makes this one of the best hikes in Banff?
There are a couple of things about the hike to Fish Lake that are particularly appealing. For starters the hike starts off gently after you knock off the one short hill at the start of the trail. The gradient stays gradual all the way to the Mosquito Creek Campground, 5.5 km in from the trailhead. Over that distance it only climbs 186 metres. What a difference compared to hikes like King Creek Ridge in Kananaskis Country that have you huffing and puffing within minutes of starting to hike!
You have to cross a couple of narrow bridges over fast moving streams between the start of the trail and the Mosquito Creek campground. As an aside the campground is one of the prettier ones I’ve seen – filled with big boulders beside the river – and very few mosquitoes compared to what we encountered at the Fish Lake Campground. If you were planning a late start to Fish Lakes, it would be a lovely spot to spend the night.
The climbing starts after the Mosquito Creek campground
From the Mosquito Creek campground to North Molar Pass you must climb 575 metres over 6 kilometres – mostly at a moderate grade.
The trail leaves the campground via a bridge over the creek. It continues to follow the creek for about a kilometre with one more creek crossing along the way. Reach a signed trail junction, 1.8 km past the campground. Stay left for North Molar Pass. (If you go right you’d be heading for Molar Pass – another one of the worthwhile Banff day hikes.)
Continue through the woods until you reach beautiful sub-alpine meadows – dotted with wildflowers in July. Rock hop across the stream before you reach Mosquito Lake (not named on the top map). From the lake the trail steepens as it begins to curve southeast. Hike through rock – and perhaps snow to reach the austere looking North Molar Pass.
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The hike from North Molar Pass to the Fish Lake Campground
It’s only 3.3 km from the top of North Molar Pass to the Fish Lake campground. It’s a quick descent – initially steep but then moderate, to reach wildflower-filled meadows. The braided trail through this section can be quite muddy. I found gaiters to be worthwhile on this hike – between the mud and the snow. (You can buy gaiters here.)
The hiking is glorious and the mountain views awe-inspiring on the descent – one of the reasons I think this is one of the best hikes in Banff.
There is one stream crossing via a buckled log you need to make before the final approach to Fish Lake. Enjoy a superb view of the lake, about 10 minutes before reaching the campsite.
Banff National Park backcountry camping – Fish Lake Campground
You need to reserve backcountry campsites in Banff National Park EARLY – as in the day they are available to book – usually sometime in late January. The day changes every year so be sure to check well in advance. To increase your odds of getting a campsite, be flexible with your dates.
The Fish Lake campground is a popular backcountry one because of its location – and the fact there is some great exploring to be done in the area. It’s also an overnight stop on the way to the more remote Devon Lakes.
Don’t arrive expecting wooden tent pads. You’ll be lucky to find a spot on the ground that is level and isn’t muddy. Even after all the rain, it was still hard work to bang in the tent pegs. The campsite does have poles for hanging your food. Don’t forget a waterproof bag and a carabiner to make the job easier. There is also a dodgy outhouse.
Numerous picnic tables can be found closer to the lake. It’s nice to have a flat surface to cook on but I sure don’t understand the table design. If you’re short, your legs probably won’t touch the ground.
We had Rosie the Bernese mountain dog with us and I am so glad we kept her on a leash (the rule in the park). A couple of porcupines wandered right by our tent and I can well imagine the outcome if she’d been off-leash. Porcupines are very destructive so be sure to keep your belongings in the tent. They crave salt so those hiking boots outside your tent might make a delicious snack.
The hike to Pipestone Pass – a true wilderness pass in Banff National Park
We had planned to hike to Devon Lakes and spend the night. The lakes are accessed via Pipestone Pass and Clearwater Pass in a wild, lonely and very beautiful part of Banff National Park. Unfortunately about a kilometre shy of Pipestone Pass the skies erupted with thunder booming and lightning overhead. With inky dark skies over the area we were heading for, it looked like it was going to be nothing but storms for some time.
I’m not a fan of being high in the mountains in the storms. Years ago my ice axe buzzed and the hair on my arms started to stand up straight at the top of a 14,000 foot peak in Colorado. John and I ran off the mountain at full speed, rather than risk becoming a lightning death statistic. Partly because of that experience, I felt that turning back was the right thing to do.
We beat a retreat and will plan a return visit – probably in August one year when the mosquitoes are a little less plentiful. Note that we saw fresh bear tracks on this lonely stretch of trail. Bear spray that is no more than three years old is essential out here – and you should know how to use it.
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The hike back to the Mosquito Creek Trailhead
As much as I prefer a loop hike to an out and back hike, I have to say we enjoyed the hike back to the Mosquito Creek trailhead as much as the hike in. You still get similar mountain views but the lighting changes the look and the feel of the trail.
It took us 6.5 hours to hike back from the Fish Lake campground including a lunch stop. The total return trip from the highway to the campground is 29.6 km with 1128 metres of elevation gain.
Trailhead location for the hike to North Molar Pass and Fish Lakes
The trailhead for the hike to North Molar Pass and Fish Lakes is easy to find. Simply drive north for 24 km along the Icefields Parkway from the junction of Highway 1 and and Highway 93, just west of Lake Louise. There are signs on the highway pointing to the Mosquito Creek Campground. Turn left (west) into a large parking lot. This is also where you’ll find the HI Mosquito Creek Hostel.
The trailhead – with a map and a kiosk – is on the other side of the highway, immediately north of the Mosquito Creek Bridge.
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