BANFF NATIONAL PARK, Alberta — High in the snow-topped mountains, a sudden low rumble, like a train passing overhead, is a sign of an avalanche. We look around for it — there! On the cliff face, maybe two miles away. A white cloud, nearly a perfect circle, plummets from the glacier, hundreds of feet straight down the sheer face of Mt. Victoria. The roar vibrates in our bones. At a safe distance, it is an incredible thrill. From our position on the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail, it looks like avalanches are pretty common. Massive snow piles are stacked against the cliff base, and the ice on top hangs precariously over the edge like a whoosh of meringue.
We’re here because my wife, Jennifer, and I are on a lifelong quest to hike the best trails in all the national parks. While most of our exquisite collection is from US parks, occasionally it’s good to branch out internationally. The Canadian Rockies score exceptionally well on what I call the hardship-to-scenery ratio. How much logistical effort is required to get to the good stuff? In Banff, rows of jagged, jaw-dropping mountains, snow-topped in mid-July, are a just breezy two-hour drive from the Calgary airport.
After consulting maps and serval guidebooks, including “10 Best Hikes Around Lake Louise,” we’re combining several trails into a long day of unmatched natural beauty. The hike begins at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a grand resort hotel and a great home base for exploring the region, though super pricy. Rooms can top $500 a night (Canadian) in the summer. Ouch. How did we rationalize even one night here? We told ourselves that the currency exchange shaves a bit off the total, like a built-in discount sale. Plus, Canadian banknotes look like Monopoly money, so they’re easy to throw around. Is this even real cash? Give me Marvin Gardens and a lake-view room at the Fairmont.
Lake Louise alone is worth the price. The mountain lake, nearly a mile high at 5,249-feet elevation, is an unreal, iridescent Tiffany blue, looking like somebody has Photoshopped real life. Many of the lakes in Banff are similarly stunning, if each a little different. Nearby Moraine Lake is a deeper blue. Lake Agnes, which we pass later on this hike, is greener. The colors come from the slow writhe of glaciers, which pulverize stone into a dust called rock flour, which is carried down the mountains by meltwater, and into the lakes. Not to get all sciencey, but we see the blue because of the way sunlight reflects off the particles suspended in the water.
Past Lake Louise, the heavy crowds on the trail fall off, and the path rises steadily, and then steeply, toward the sheer face of Mt. Victoria, an 11,365-foot peak. It’s about 4.5 miles to the turnaround, an overlook above the lower Victoria glacier, a massive slab of ice pocked with fissures like slash wounds from a massive sword. Of course, Banff’s glaciers are in retreat and we should see them while we can, before “The Plain of Six Glaciers Trail” becomes “The Plain Trail.”
On this hike it’s hard not to talk about bears. Banff has both black bears and grizzlies. We saw just one bear in the park, and from a car window. But hiking in bear country, whether you see bears or not, is its own thrill. How often do modern people experience the very real and humbling sense of being below the top of the food chain? It is what our ancestors felt every time they left the cave.
We met a former wilderness guide on this trip who explained that bears are a lot like us. They’re sort of lazy. They like to walk on man-made trails because it’s easier than bushwhacking through the underbrush. Not ideal from our perspective; we’re walking on trails, too, and for the same reason. The good news is bears don’t like hassles, and who is more of a hassle than your average human being? Best practice in bear country is to keep up a lively conversation on the trail. Just talk. When you run out of things to say, “Hey bear!” and “I would strongly prefer not to be eaten today!” are good conversation fillers. Bears will hear you coming and generally trundle off out of sight. I’d love to know how many bears saw or heard us, while we never knew they were there.
For peace of mind in grizzly country we also carry bear repellent. It is essentially a can of industrial-sized pepper spray, and costs about $45. Be sure to take five minutes to understand how to hold and fire it. Otherwise it might be possible in a panic to blast yourself in the face. If that happens you hope the bear hurts itself laughing.
On the way back from the glacial overlook, we stopped at an amenity that makes this one of our all-time favorite trails — The Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse. It’s a nearly 100-year-old backcountry restaurant, built of timber and stone, miles from the nearest road and reachable only by trail. There is no electricity and they take only cash — US dollars and maple leaf Monopoly money. After hiking rough trail all morning, hot chai and a PBJ might as well be Dom Perignon and sautéed lobster.
We took a connecting trail toward Lake Agnes, which became brutally steep on the way to the top of the Big Beehive, a lookout spot high above the unworldly blue of Lake Louise, which was dotted with red canoes rented by the hour from the hotel boathouse. Whatdaya know — it’s also brutally steep down the backside of the Beehive, to gemstone-green Lake Agnes and another backcountry teahouse. On worn-out legs, the last couple miles back to the Fairmont felt a bit death-marchy, with little to see except for snippets of Lake Louise through the trees.
We take lots of picture of the lake, so hauntingly beautiful from every angle, because otherwise who would believe it?