In this article, I describe the 10 beautiful lakes in the Canadian Rockies that I got to visit during my trip there. I have attempted in some small way to describe the origins, the contents of each lake, and why I think each lake is special and different from the other.
I just returned from a road trip to the Canadian Rockies, and I am still reeling under its breathtaking beauty.
The Rockies, known as the Great American Outdoors, is one of North America’s finest preserved gems. Most countries offer medieval castles and ancient ruins for visitors to revel in. The Rockies, on the other hand, have their stunning natural beauty. The Banff National Park, set up in 1885, is the third oldest national park in the world. Jasper National Park was set up 22 years later, in 1907.
Wherever you look, the Rockies offers you a picture perfect view. You will find yourself surrounded by countless green conifers lining the road and soaring into the skies. They end at the sub-alpine treeline where pre-historic glaciers cover large tracts of the mountains with enormous amounts of snow and ice. As spring sets in, the glaciers begin to melt, trickling down crystal blue waters down the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, feeding the vast lakes.
This glacial marvel is a sight for sore eyes! One would think that the seeing countless lakes would be tiring, but each lake has its own character, first revealed by its ever-changing colour, its shape, size and finally its contents.
So here goes! My list of the 10 beautiful lakes in the Canadian Rockies:
Banff National Park
This 24km long majestic body of water is Banff National Park’s largest lake. Known as minn-waki, or the “Lake of the Spirits“, the Stoney People believed that this lake was haunted by the spirits of the dead. Perhaps due to some encounters with the supernatural, the early European settlers later called it the Devil’s Lake.
There are several options to spend a day at the lake. It is the only lake in Banff that allows motor boats to operate. Alternatively, you can take the Minnewanka Cruise, in which the guides give you enriching information about the history and geology of the lake and its surroundings. It is also the starting point of several hikes, which you can choose depending upon your time, energy and fitness levels.
The easiest trek is upto Stewart Canyon. The trek is 1.5-2 hours long (roundtrip) that winds through the thicket of the forest, to a wooden bridge across the green Cascade River that feeds into the lake, and eventually winds down into the canyon where you can spend your time by the gurgling waters of the river.
If you’re up for a serious hike, then you can head onto the Aymer Pass trail that forks out after the wooden bridge. However, this trail is usually closed in July and September, as it is the grazing ground for grizzly bears.
Nothing beats the sunset at the Vermilion Lakes. Located at the outskirts of Banff town, take a quick 15-minute drive to this cluster of three lakes. It is possible that you may chance upon a variety of wildlife – elk, bald eagles and osprey. If you luck out, then just sitting quietly at the benches while the sun sets is one of the most beautiful moments of solitude you can find during your trip.
Do you remember those screen savers on your desktops in the 90s? Did you ever sigh and wonder whether the places in those screensavers even existed? Well, you bet they do!
Located 14km from the town of Lake Louise, Moraine Lake is unlike anything you can seen before. Set amidst the towering Valley of the Ten Peaks, this lake is fed by the glacial waters slithering from the slopes of the peaks surrounding it. The best time to view the lake is at sunrise or sunset, when the peaks are washed with the yellow of the sun rays while the lake starts revealing its vivid azure colour.
The lake has a small entry from the parking lot that is littered with fallen branches and barks. As you carefully hop across them, you will come to the shore of the lake in front and a huge pile of rocks on your left. Known as the Moraine Lake Rockpile, its origins are still unknown, but it is at the top of that rock pile from where some of the best vistas of the lake, and the Wenkchemna Peaks beyond it, have been captured.
A quick 20-minute climb from the front side of the Moraine Lake Rockpile can take you to the top. Alternatively, at the beginning of the lake, there is a small marked trail that can lead you to the top. The same trail also leads you to the Consolation Lakes, another grazing ground for bears. Alternatively, on the right of the lake’s entrance is a short path to stroll along the lake, that leads to the lake’s northern shores.
Lake Louise is the most popular (and heavily crowded) lakes of Banff National Park. This stunning turquoise beauty is roughly 2 km long, and is famous for its vivid colour. The colour is different from most lakes, due to the deposits of glacial, “rock flour” silt that runs along the slopes of the mountains and into the lake. If you look at the lake from its shores, then you can see the still waters reflecting the scenery around it. Climb a little higher up the mountains, and the lake has an opaque turquoise look to it.
Since the lake is usually crowded during the tourist season (July-September), make your way to a quiet spot for yourself to soak the stunning vista around you. To view the lake from the top of the mountains, there are several options:
(a) Lake Louise is also the starting point to one of my most favourite treks in the Rockies. At the spur of the mountain alongside it, a narrow trail set amidst the thick forest cover takes you three kilometres uphill, to a beautiful teahouse called the Lake Agnes Teahouse. A little bit further uphill opens up to a lookout area called the Big Beehive, from where you can catch a glimpse of the lake;
(b) Alternatively, take the Lake Louise Gondola that takes you by the slopes of the Whitehorn Mountain, from where you can get a bird’s eye view of the lake and other towering peaks in the horizon.
As you make your way through the dense forests along the Lake Agnes trail, the 3km mark opens up to a small pool of emerald green with swirls of yellow deposits. This is the Mirror Lake, aptly named due to its reflecting surface. It is surrounded by forests, with a towering monolith-like rock structure at the centre. Large piles of snow surround the lake till mid-June, which you have to plough through to reach your final destination, Lake Agnes.
This is the endpoint of one of the most popular treks in the Lake Louise area. Nestled amidst glaciers, Lake Agnes is a stunning emerald green waterbody overlooking a quaint little teahouse. When I went there in early June, the glacial ice was melting into the lake, which trickled down the slopes of the mountain, making a giant gurgling waterfall at the ledge.
Both the Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes are accessible only by foot or by hiring a horse, thus preserving the pristine beauty surrounding it. They make for a wonderful day-time sojourn, completed with a hearty meal at the Lake Agnes Teahouse.
The teahouse is a quaint wooden structure built in 1901, and serves over 40 different varieties of tea along with cake and sandwich chosen for a day. The warmth of the tea and the fresh snacks can instantly rejuvenate any tired body. Sitting on a bench at its balcony while looking at Lake Agnes was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had.
An equally enthralling experience was the way back from Lake Agnes. Since the snow had not completely melted when I was there in June, the trail back was covered with slippery ice down the steep slopes. Perhaps I felt like the slope was steep, because the mush of the snow had completely covered the marked trail. After precariously climbing down while holding any branch within my grasp, we finally made it down to Lake Louise.
The Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper is one of the most incredible roads in North America. Apart from the variety of sights (including wildlife sightings) that it has to offer, there are dozens of lakes that will come your way as you drive on it. Make a pit stop at the Bow Lake, a stunning aquamarine waterbody appromximately 30 mins from Lake Louise.
The Bow Lake is one of the largest lakes in Banff National Park, and is nestled amidst several glaciers in the area. The Bow Glacier of the Wapta Icefields feeds the waters of the lake. On a bright sunny day, the aquamarine waters of the lake glistens like a sparkling diamond.
The Bow Lake can make for a perfect pit stop for a picnic lunch. There are several picnic tables set out at the lakeshore. So while you’re chomping your greens, you will see the breathtaking scenery of the lake and the surrounding glaciers around it.
Yoho National Park
On the way from Banff to Jasper is the little known stretch of the Yoho National Park. It can be accessed by taking a quick detour from the highway by following the signage. Take the exit to Emerald Lake, a stunning green coloured lake surrounded by the coniferous forest.
The lake is also home to geological diversity, often missed if you have not read about it beforehand. Among the shade of the conifers, you may find a variety of fragile wild orchids that can survive in specific climatic conditions. As you make your way around the lake, you can see vast tracts of meadows along the slope. These are avalanche slopes, specifically catering to the dump of snow during the winter months. You can often spot moose grazing in those patches of meadows. The highline trail above the lake is also home to the world famous Burgess shale fossils. Discovered in 1909 by Charles Walcott, these fossils belong to prehistoric marine life. Over time, they have been preserved by a thin layer of shale found in the region. There are several guided hikes that you can take to the fossil beds during summer.
Jasper National Park
Patricia and Pyramid Lakes
These lakes are closest in proximity to Jasper Town. They are one of the best places for astrophotography and early morning pictures. For astrophotography enthusiasts, note that Jasper National Park is a “Dark Sky Preserve”. It is also host to Jasper’s Dark Sky Festival in the summer.
Make your way to the shores of these lakes to get a glimpse of sunrise in Jasper. It looks straight out of an oil canvas painting. As you sit amid the tranquility, you will see the sky change hues from pink, to fiery orange to yellow. You can also rent a canoe, kayak or paddleboat at Pyramid Lake for a peaceful sojourn. Don’t miss the Pyramid Lake Island, a small picnic area at the foot of the Pyramid Mountain. You can access the Island by a wooden foot bridge.
Apart from this, the lakes are also hosts to diverse wildlife found in the Rockies. If you’re lucky, you can catch a grazing black bear, beaver or elk in the area. It also hosts a variety of bird species, including herons, loons and chickadee. During summer, you’ll often spot people fishing at the lakes.
The iconic Maligne Lake is touted as one of Canada’s most beautiful lakes. Situated in Jasper National Park, you can take a guided tour of the lake that Jasper Tourism arranges. The tour’s ultimate destination is Spirit Island.
Take the most iconic pictures in the history of time from the Spirit Island. Famously known as the “Kodak Moment” or “classic scene”, the view was originally captured by Peter Gales in the 1940s. He was sent by the Kodak Company to capture photos that would promote Kodak films. Gales’ image later hung in Kodak’s Colorama showcase in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal in 1960. The rest is history.
Maligne Lake’s rich history has yet another iconic moment in time. In the 1900s, a sole woman explorer, Mary Schaffer set upon a 6 month journey beyond the comforts of luxury trains and hotels, and ended up ‘discovering’ this glacier-rich area. She was a botanist, explorer, writer and photographer, who established relationships with the First Nations people there. During her travels, Sampson Beaver, his wife Leah, and daughter Frances Louise guided her through the treacherous terrain by drawing maps and travelling with her. Of the several mountains surrounding Maligne Lake, three are named after them.
There is no better saying about the Maligne Lake than Mary Schaffer’s herself. She notes that if “Lake Louise is a pearl, Lake Maligne is a whole string of pearls“.
So there it is! A ready reckoner of some of the best lakes I have seen on my road trip to the Rockies!
Watch out for further articles of my trip at this space. I promise to write a comprehensive article with my itinerary soon!