Hiking Helen Lake
“It’s an easy hike, only 12 kilometres,” I’m told as the group of writers I’m with drives toward the Helen Lake trailhead on the Columbia Icefield Parkway outside Banff in the Canadian Rockies. “It’s steep at first, then you get to an alpine meadow.”
It’s just my luck to hang out with a bunch of outdoorsy writers who are way more fit than I am. The “at first” part seems to continue forever. My lungs are twisting inside-out in an attempt to get air, and I start thinking about hot tubs, New Age music and back massages.
The best moments are when we stop to look at wild flowers, the massive blue-white Crowfoot Glacier behind us or even a grizzly den up on a rocky slope.
Are we there yet?
Eventually we arrive at Helen Lake, a steely grey lake at the base of a brown treeless peak. Plump marmots whip across the meadow and, as I rest on a rock munching a sandwich I’m filled with a sense of achievement. This is followed by an even better feeling of euphoria because I think the tough part is done.
When it comes to hiking in Banff, the tough part is never done.
“We could do the 19-kilometre hike tomorrow at Healy Pass,” says Don Gillmor, author of the novel Mount Pleasant. I pretend to consider it, but the next day I end up slinking over to Banff’s Upper Hot Springs by Sulphur Mountain to soak my sore muscles instead.
Hiking can be easy … or not
Even the easy hikes in Banff come with added complications with this crowd. The trail up Tunnel Mountain becomes a jogging track. Don Gillmor runs up it in 16 minutes. Ian Brown, author of Sixty, in 17. Celeb writer Leah McLaren doesn’t hike the Hoodoos Trail she “trail runs” it. Something is seriously wrong with these writers, but I still let them talk me into a last hike at Sunshine Meadows before our stay at the Banff Centre ends. The hike begins at Sunshine Village Ski Resort, a five-kilometre uphill bus ride from the parking lot.
Within four minutes, I’m gasping. “It’s the altitude,” I tell myself. Sure enough, by the time we reach Rock Isle Lake with its miniature-sized pine-covered island, I’m breathing easy. As we hit the top of a ridge, a rainstorm moves in and I’m astonished when our group of hikers decides to turn back.
I feel as if I’ve been given a hiking reprieve until we get to Sunshine Village and someone suggests hiking down to the parking lot instead of taking the bus because the sun has once again come out.
All downhill from here
Hiking downhill on a gravel road is even worse than hauling yourself up a craggy peak in the Rockies. Granted, the scenery is sensational, the newly-emerged sun is flicking shadows over the pines, and the snow-streaked mountains look so crisp and gorgeous I want to fling my arms around them in joy, but with each step my toes are being battering against the end of my running shoes. The minute our writing workshop is over, I vow, I’m checking into the Fairmont Banff Springs for some non-athletic recreation.
When the iconic Banff Springs Hotel, inspired by a Scottish castle, was completed in 1888, the nearby hot springs were a major lure for wealthy tourists. As the hot springs don’t reach the hotel itself, the Fairmont has constructed its own deluxe version of a hot springs pool by infusing the spa pool with mineral salts imported from Europe.
Relaxing in Banff
The circular pool is the focal point of the hotel’s 11,600-metre Willow Stream Spa, but the most vivid design element is the pure Canadian view, a panoramic vision of Bow Valley with Tunnel and Rundle Mountain rising up on either side. Afterwards, soaking in the outdoor Jacuzzi, I feel so refreshed I’m struck with the urge to run up Tunnel Mountain, just to see how fast I can go.
Hiking in Banff travel tips
There are so many great hikes in Banff it’s impossible to name them all. On the easy scale is the 1 hour 3 km hike at Johnson Lake off Lake Minnewanka Road or the 40-minute Fenland Trail 2.1 km interpretive trail off Mount Norquay Road, while more difficult is the Healy Pass hike from Sunshine Village parking lot behind the gondola station takes 6 to 7 hours. Parks Canada has an extensive list of hikes around Banff.
See availability and prices (I’m a Booking.com affiliate.)
About the Banff Centre. This cultural hub offers a variety of writing programs, as well as many other cultural programs and events, from jazz concerts to readings and film festivals.
Hiking in Banff is a prime way to get outside but there are other things to do in Banff: The outdoor pools of Banff Upper Hot Springs is one of the best deals in town at $7.30 for adult entrance. You’ll find it at End of Mountain Avenue. Expect lineups, and while facilities are more of the public swimming pool variety, the hot steaming water is fabulous.
The Roam Bus is a great way to get around Banff. Pick up a timetable from the Banff Visitor Information Centre at 224 Banff Ave.; 403-762-1550. You can take it to the hot springs, get off after you see the Rimrock Hotel.
For more about travel to Canada visit my Things to do in Canada article. Happy planning!