The great scenic places of the world, those locations that are worthy of only the highest of accolades, described in flowery superlatives, oftentimes are overshadowed, if not overrun, by the very people that have come to admire and to preserve them in photos. As a result, it becomes difficult to see the landscape through the crowds. The essence of the place that had set it apart, had given it its uniqueness, seems lost. You know of what I speak. You’ve probably been to such a place. And yes, you surmised correctly—Lake Louise and the Moraine Lake Area are unfortunately exactly two of those kind of places.
If one is to travel into the heart of the Canadian Rockies, then Lake Louise will be directly on your route. Knowing ahead of time what was in store—i.e., a veritable parade of tour buses pulling into the village, we had a plan. Camp near to the action (without being part of it), hit the sights at first light, and then take off for the far reaches off the beaten path (if such places can be found). Whether it would work to our advantage and give us the best Lake Louise and Moraine Lake had to offer, that would remain to be seen.
Leaving Banff, two roads lead past Lake Louise. The Trans-Canada Highway is the quicker of the two. Completely fenced in for the protection of wildlife, there are grassy, overhead arched bridges spanning the dual-lane highway for the passage of animals. The other option, very popular with cyclists, is the Bow Valley Parkway, the more scenic alternative. Thirty-two miles in length, it’s a narrow, two-lane road with a substantially slower speed limit. Not fenced in, the forest hugs the road’s edges; you must be constantly alert for spontaneous wildlife crossings. On our previous trip, a black bear darted out of the forest, crossing the road, barely missing being hit by our car. Not the preferred way to experience a bear sighting.
A very distinctive stretch of the parkway is fittingly called Lodgepole Road. You’ll know when it appears—for several miles the road stretches out uncharacteristically straight as an arrow. The pines rise up seemingly into the clouds, dense as only northwoods forests can be. Definitely a Kodak moment.
Unfortunately, a sudden downpour of rain washed out our plans to make this a more leisurely drive. The natural features of Muleshoe Wetlands, Johnston Canyon and Castle Mountain would have to wait for a return trip. We drove on to Lake Louise to arrive at a slightly soggy campsite.
It was in the summer of 1882 when an outfitter, Tom Wilson, was camped along the Bow River when he heard the distant rumblings of an avalanche. He questioned his Stoney Indian guides and was told the noises originated from the “Lake of Little Fishes.” The following day, led by those native guides, Wilson hiked to the lake to investigate. He became the first white man to lay eyes on the astounding lake that he named Emerald Lake. Two years later, the name was changed to Lake Louise, after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of Canada’s Governor-General.
Its fame spread quickly after that discovery, prompting the Canadian Pacific Railway to establish a station near to the lake and by 1890 to build a modest chalet on the lakeshore facing Lake Louise and Mount Victoria. By the end of the century the influx of wealthy tourists was so great that the chalet had expanded to a two-story frame building, which became the center for climbing expeditions by adventurers from across the world. A road was completed in 1926 and Lake Louise was never to be the same. The number of travelers coming to see the natural marvels increased a hundredfold. By 1910 the Chateau Lake Louise was being constructed. After many additions, a disastrous fire, and the addition of a concrete wing in 1925, the Chateau that stands today began to take shape. With the addition of the Glacier Wing in 1986, the hotel was able to accommodate up to 1,000 people. The construction of a convention center in 2004 again greatly increased its capacity for guests. Once again, the Lake would never be the same.
The Chateau sits on prime real estate. Built at the end of Lake Louise, it faces the spectacular Victoria Glacier, as well as the surrounding mountains. Its perfectly manicured lawns and gardens are open to the public, and yes, they are inundated with tourists. We explored its interior as well, and soon came to understand why the Chateau is known as a ‘diamond in the wilderness’. Impressive and expensive would be a couple of words that initially come to mind.
It didn’t take much smarts to know that in order to beat the hordes that would soon be flocking out to the shores of Lake Louise one needs to be at that prime location by dawn’s early light. That worked for me—early light is the good light. I was in position before the 6am sunrise. Me and just a handful of other ‘serious’ photographers. Unfortunately, the “good light” failed to make an appearance. Lake Louise on our first morning was seen in more of an overcast condition. Sadly, it would hang around all day.
Inveterate travelers that we have become, we’ve learned not to be dissuaded by disadvantageous conditions. “Make the most of what we’ve got” seems to be Chris’ mantra. Disgruntled, I can’t dispute, but also can’t help thinking of what might have been. And so, we headed out—to hike the Consolation Lake Trail, one of the most scenic destinations to be found in the Moraine Lake area.
We needed to attach ourselves to some other hiking group. A sign posted at the trailhead said we were in grizzly country. At least a minimum of 4 hikers “closely grouped” could proceed from here. Hikers that violate the rule would be subject to a $5,000 fine. That did catch our attention. Bear spray aside, someone meant serious business. We sat down and waited for a group.
Longer than I expected to wait, considering it was a weekend day. Finally, a group of four came along, game to let us tag along. Despite the low-hanging clouds and slightly foreboding look, we were determined to make the best of this premier Lake Louise hike.
The trail passes through open water wetlands and expanding scenery until it exits the forest directly into a massive boulder field beneath the towering (and aptly named) Mount Babel, capped by the blue glacial ice of the spectacular Fay Glacier. Unfortunately, the photo op left much to be desired. You win some, and you lose some.
Down the road from Lake Louise, about 8 miles to the south, lies Moraine Lake, a gem-like lake set in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Although less than half of size of Lake Louise, Moraine is just as spectacular, with an even more brilliant, deeper hue than that of Louise. Like other glacial lakes, its color changes with the weather and the season, ranging from dark blue to an almost unbelievable blue-green at the time of maximum run-off.
Although the following day brought more overcast skies, while the surrounding mountains appeared nearly monochromatic, the lake stood out in Technicolor intensity.
A path leads halfway around the lake, and is naturally very popular. Along the way you’re treated to various perspectives, views that could never be considered mundane.
Explorer Walter Wilcox became the first white man to reach its shores in 1899. Although he was a knowledgeable man, he named the lake on the assumption that it was created by the retreating Wenkchemna Glacier. In fact, the waters flowing from that glacier were dammed up by major rockfalls from the Tower of Babel standing south of the lake. Wilcox’s subsequent writings, including “no scene has given me an equal impression of inspiring solitude and rugged grandeur” guaranteed the lake’s future immense popularity.
We were due to receive better weather conditions—overdue if you’d ask me. Ever hopeful, another early morning found me approaching Lake Louise’s shoreline. If nothing else, I relished having this popular place nearly to myself. I set up and began the wait.
At last! Finally! The light came through—in colors beyond my expectations! Scenes like this can make all the lost time much more worthwhile.
As quickly as the show began, low clouds blew in and, like a curtain falling on the final scene, the performance was over. The landscape was veiled in a thick blanket of fog. Surrounding peaks were wrapped in cotton candy clouds . . .
Over the years, some 42 miles of hiking trails have been carved through the timber and over the rocky terrain that surround Lake Louise. One of the most popular is the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail. Although I personally seem to shun anything noted as “popular” or “well-used”, with a write-up quoted as “a high mountain treasure chest, with a collection of impressive peaks and glaciers,” how could I not be persuaded? I set my standards aside.
We started early, hoping to stay ahead of the masses that would surely be following. After winding around the shoreline of Lake Louise for a mile or so, you reach the end of Lake Louise where there’s a delta created from silt deposited by the glacial melt water. The view looking back to the Chateau backdropped by the Lake Louise Ski Area is impressive.
And so it goes for several miles, gaining 1,200 feet of elevation. But the day was fine, and the views all great, so we plowed on—the last leg being substantially steeper.
The views from the top make you forget all the hard effort to get there. A panorama of peaks rise up before you . . . each one filled with glaciers, hence the origin of the trail’s name. Holding center stage, literally in your face and impossible to ignore, is the grandest glacier of all—Victoria, the backdrop to Lake Louise and subject of all those sunrise photos. An amazing, jaw-dropping sight if ever there was one. Nothing to do but take a seat on a bench and contemplate the ice, the mountain, and the incomprehensible span of time to create what you’re seeing.
Not to be overshadowed by the grand view, the perspective closer at hand (or should I say foot?) will bring comfort to your spirit and banish thoughts of having tired feet. Where flowers were scarce on the rugged, rocky path, here in the high elevations you’ll find an abundance. Beauty abounds at the trail’s end on the Plain of Six Glaciers.
Oh, while speaking of rewards waiting at the end of this trail, let me mention this one other feature. This very civilized trail has an authentic Swiss tea house prepared to serve hikers not only teas and other drinks, but quite a nice array of sandwiches, soups and desserts. Now this is a feature more hiking trails need to think seriously about offering!
Quite festively decorated and having lots of charm and character, it was built in 1924 by Swiss guides employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was a rest stop for mountain climbers en route to Abbots Pass. Still today it has no electricity or running water. Everything is prepared on site and cooked with propane stoves. And I will testify to the good food—homemade bread was absolutely delicious, and their blueberry pie can hold its own from any modern, well-equipped bakery.
At the beginning of the season a helicopter makes a trip in to stock the tea house with supplies such as flour and sugar. Additional goods are brought up by horses or packed in by the employees each week. The staff do five day shifts and hike in on the same trail as the tourists. They sleep in cabins surrounding the tea house. It’s open from July to early September.
And so, in the waning hours of our last full day at Lake Louise we attempted to soak up its beautiful setting under much better conditions than when we arrived. Lake Louise is so much more than its lake—you just need to make the effort to look around. It’s not all about lake shore crowds and high mountain trails . . . we found beautiful places within walking distance of our camp.
Today Lake Louise is not exactly the wilderness setting in the Canadian Rockies that the first explorers and early travelers saw, but there is still wonder and beauty here. I think we found its essence, admittedly surrounded by tourists. The crowds have grown exponentially since we first came here 11 years ago. Just be prepared for summer visitors, and look for the less-traveled, out-of-the-way places. Or tolerate the tourists along with the scenery.
Our last image of this area was a location made famous by Nicholas Morant, a CPR photographer from the 1930s and 40s. His romantic depiction of the rail line following the course of the beautiful Bow River cutting through the Canadian wilderness and heading towards the high rugged peaks of the Rockies was instrumental in promoting tourism to Lake Louise. So, if there’s one person we might hold accountable for the onslaught of tourism here today . . . maybe Morant’s Curve might be a good place to look.
Leaving tourists behind in beautiful Lake Louise,
Airstream Travelers, Melinda and Chris