It was during the afternoon on my third and final day in Banff National Park in Alberta on August 28, 2016 when I decided to hike the Plain of Six Glaciers trail. My mother and I had spent the morning visiting, admiring and photographing the incredible natural beauty at Moraine Lake, before heading to the nearby Lake Louise. We arrived to the lake at around 10 am and it was already packed with people. We were lucky to be able to get one of the last parking spots. We spent some time taking photos of this picturesque and popular lake before starting off on this hike. To be honest, I much preferred the tranquil atmosphere at Moraine Lake and that lake was far more beautiful in my opinion. The trailhead for the Plains of Six Glaciers hike began at Lake Louise and stemmed off from the popular Lakeshore Trail around the shoreline of this beautiful turquoise-coloured lake.
The Plain of Six Glaciers is a long and challenging hike that passes through a variety of unique and absolutely gorgeous landscapes including rocky, barren terrain and pine-tree forests while also passing on a narrow ledge along the side of a mountain and takes you right up to the Victoria Glacier. The trail offers incredibly breathtaking and unparalleled views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. It eventually leads to a secluded, charming and rustic tea house located high in the mountains and nestled among dense pine-tree forests and if you hike an additional 1.3 km, you are able to overlook the Plains of Six Glaciers (I was too exhausted to complete this portion of the trail though). The trail offers many incredible and unique views. I am a Prairie girl who is used to hiking on relatively flat terrain, so this hike was definitely one of the most difficult and strenuous trails that I completed on my trip, but the beautiful views along the way and the satisfaction of making it to the end, were so worth the pain!
If you are looking for a challenging and amazing hike to complete near Lake Louise in Banff National Park, I would highly recommend this one!
The trail began along the popular and well-trafficked Lakeshore Trail (the trailhead started on a paved pathway at the edge of the lake in front of the Fairmont Hotel) which followed along the shorelines of Lake Louise. This section of the trail was flat, scenic and easy to hike with no elevation gain and it was busy during my mid-morning visit, as it is an easily accessible and scenic hike along Lake Louise. This trail allowed me to see the beauty of Lake Louise from a variety of different perspectives, as we got closer and closer to the end of the lake. There were plenty of beautiful views of the incredible scenery through openings in the trees and fantastic photo opportunities of this gorgeous, calm and turquoise-coloured lake surrounded by mountains along the way. As we walked further and further from the Fairmont Hotel, the crowds thinned out considerably. The trail passed through beautiful forests with the lake on the left side. We finally made it to the end of the Lakeshore Trail and found ourselves on the complete opposite side of the lake from the Fairmont Hotel, which looked so small from where we were standing! It was hard to believe that we had hiked that far already. Little did we know at the time, we were in for a challenging and strenuous hike from this point onwards! I had read about the Plains of Six Glaciers trail on a few different blogs and websites during my pre-travel research and none of them really focused on the steep inclines, so at that time, I had no idea what I was up against!
At the end of the Lakeshore Trail, there was an interesting landscape of cloudy, milk-coloured water that was flowing into a large deposit of silt at the edge of Lake Louise and then emptying into the lake. The appearance of the silt deposits was very smooth and it resembled white sand. There were some people walking on top of it and it seemed to be pretty solid as they were not sinking or getting wet. At the time of our hike, I had no idea what this was but after returning home and doing some research, I discovered that this deposit of silt is known as rock flour, which is created by the grinding of bedrock by glacial erosion. When this silt-filled water flows into a glacial lake, like Lake Louise or Moraine Lake, the silt particles make the lake appear turquoise in colour. How interesting!
We crossed a makeshift and narrow wooden “bridge” across this fast-flowing milky water, which consisted of a series of narrow slats of wood that became more widely spaced apart at the end. There were no railings on this bridge and the bridge didn’t cover the entire distance of the flowing water, so I had to strategically hop across a series of wet stones in order to make it to the other side. It was kind of a fun challenge but also a little bit nerve-wracking and it definitely required my full attention! If you have any sort of physical mobility problems, this trail is probably not well suited for you unfortunately.
After making it across the bridge, the trail began ascending up the mountain as we passed through gorgeous, lush green and shaded pine-tree forests along and a variety of other plants and vegetation with openings through the trees providing stunning views of the surrounding mountains. This was the beginning of the never-ending steep inclines to come. On the right hand side of the trail, there was a completely vertical cliff wall where some people were rock climbing. There were some sections of the hike where the trail would flatten for a short ways before continuing to climb inclines again.
After passing through the forests, the landscape changed as the trail opened up to a unique and wide open rocky terrain, that looked like it has been a very wide avalanche path. Tall rocky mountains surrounded me and towered over the landscape on all sides. The trail continued to climb up the mountain. At this point, my legs were already burning and I was making frequent stops along the way to rest, catch my breath and allow some people to pass us. The trail was busier than I had been expecting it to be for a longer trek and there was a constant flow of people at all sections of the trail. The views of the mountains along this portion of the trail were so gorgeous and awe-inspiring and I could see the thick Victoria Glacier, which was so amazing! I looked back behind me periodically while walking and could see Lake Louise becoming smaller and smaller as we climbed to the point where it just looked like a small blue dot. The terrain became even rockier as we gained elevation on the mountain.
After walking a ways through this terrain, the trail then passed along the edge of a rocky cliff on a very narrow trail with a vertical cliff on one side and a deep valley on the opposite side. There were so many people on the trail and there definitely wasn’t enough room for two-way traffic, so a group of us had to wait while leaning up against the side of the mountain while a stream of people coming back down the mountain from the opposite side, passed us. It was a little nerve-wracking walking on this portion and I walked very carefully, as one misstep could mean falling off the ledge.
We walked a ways along the rocky trail through this landscape before we arrived at a look-out point. The trail had become very rocky with lots of large loose rocks to maneuver and it was difficult to climb. The look-out area wasn’t designated as such but there were quite a few people who were stopping there to take photos and admire the views, so I figured it must be worthwhile. There were a few large rocks positioned perfectly along the trail and after waiting for other people to finish using them for their photos, I took my turn standing on these rocks and admiring the beautiful scenery around me. I could see the vibrant blue waters of Lake Louise way off in the distance and I couldn’t believe how tiny it looked and how far we had climbed! Seeing the lake really put everything into perspective. The views of the surrounding mountains and forests from this point were also amazing.
From this look-out point, we continued onward. The inclines on the trail felt like they were getting steeper and my legs were so exhausted. My mom and I contemplated turning around and heading back down the mountain multiple times but we always decided to continue. As we climbed higher and higher in elevation, the temperatures dropped and it became a lot windier. But since we were working so hard, I didn’t really feel the cold that much, but I would still recommend wearing layers on this trail. This section of the trail was very open and exposed to the elements and there wasn’t much for vegetation along the pathway, except for some low brush and grasses.
We continued hiking through the rocky section as we climbed closer and closer to the Victoria Glacier. I felt like we were almost as high as some of the mountain peaks and it was crazy to think of how far we had come already.
After climbing up a grueling series of what seemed like never-ending steep switchbacks along the edge of a mountain and through some pine tree forests and mixed vegetation, we finally reached the Plains of Six Glaciers Tea House, which took us about two hours. I stopped at the end of each switchback and was completely exhausted. A steady stream of people coming back down from the tea house kept telling us that it was close and it was just a few more corners, but it felt like forever! I did appreciate their encouragement though. The air felt thinner at this high elevation and it took longer for me to be able to catch my breath again. The switchbacks felt like they would never end and after each one, I hoped to see the tea house but it wasn’t until after quite a few of them (I can’t remember the exact number) that my wish became a reality. Coming around the last corner and seeing the log cabin tea house tucked away among the pine trees was such a satisfying and rewarding feeling. I was exhausted and sore, but we had finally made it to the top and I felt so accomplished!
The tea house was simple and had a rustic yet charming appearance and it was nestled among the pine trees and perched on a mountain in such a secluded and peaceful location. It was only accessible via hiking or horseback riding this long and difficult trail so everybody who was there had accomplished a huge feat by hiking this trail. I had read online prior to hiking this trail that the tea house had no electricity or running water and that their supplies were helicoptered in at the beginning of the season and horses were used to bring up additional supplies throughout the season, as needed. It was packed with people sitting on the main floor and second level balconies and at wooden picnic tables scattered around the log cabin building. We had only brought a few energy bars with us and had heard people along the trail who had already visited the tea house, mention the amazing vegetarian chili that they were offering on that day. I was hungry and was so craving that chili. Upon arriving at the tea house though, I learned that they unfortunately only accepted cash and not credit cards and sadly, I hadn’t brought any cash with me. So my mom and I found a bench near the tea house and ate our energy bars instead. The atmosphere was so tranquil and calm and we were surrounded by such incredible natural beauty. It felt so amazing to be able to sit down and rest my leg muscles and the views of the mountains and the Victoria Glacier from the tea house area were incredible! This was the perfect place to relax and enjoy the surrounding mountain views.
As we were sitting there, enjoying our energy bars and water, I heard a loud rumbling noise that sounded like crackling thunder. Everybody else at the tea house had heard it too and we all started looking around to see what was going on. I hadn’t seen any storm clouds and didn’t think that’s where the sound was coming from. Then, I looked through an opening in the pine trees at the Victoria Glacier and saw an AVALANCHE of snow tumbling down the mountainside! “Look, it’s an avalanche!” I said as I pointed towards the massive and thick glacier that was fairly close to us. The avalanche didn’t last long and it was gone mere seconds after I had initially heard the thundering sound. Nevertheless, it was such so amazing to be able to witness an avalanche in plain view! What a unique experience!
If you don’t already feel like dropping dead from physical exhaustion, there is an additional 1.3 km hike from the tea house that continues onward to a look-out area where you would be able to get good views of the Plain of Six Glaciers. I was so exhausted after the climb to the tea house, that I decided not to continue going to see the glaciers, as the trail looked quite steep to get there. It’s definitely something I plan to do next time I hike this trail though!
We spent around 45 minutes sitting at the tea house and just enjoying the views. We ended up meeting a group of men from North Carolina at the top, who were absolutely hilarious to chat with and we ended up hiking down the mountain with them.
Hiking down the mountain and back towards Lake Louise was so much easier and faster than going up! It was very pleasant and it was a welcome reward for my legs. It took us a total of a little more than one hour to make it down to the shoreline of Lake Louise again.
The Plains of Six Glaciers Trail was long, strenuous, challenging and physically exhausting, as the majority of the trail consisted of steep inclines up the mountain. There were many times along the trail when I wanted to just give up, turn around and quit. But I am so thankful and incredibly proud of myself that I persevered and kept hiking, because the views along this trail were simply breathtaking and the satisfaction of finally reaching the end point were so worth the pain of my constant burning in my legs and feeling completely out of breath. This hike was very rewarding for me and now that I know that I am capable of completing it, I would definitely not hesitate to do it all over again.
I can honestly say that, even though it was difficult, this hike ended up being my absolute favourite that I did on my road trip to Banff, Waterton, and Glacier National Parks and I would highly recommend it for those traveling to the Banff or the Lake Louise area. Although it is definitely challenging, this trail is also incredibly rewarding and very scenic, and it provides breathtaking views of the mountains and glaciers as you hike through a variety of unique landscapes.
Tips for Hiking the Plains of Six Glaciers Trail
- Wear supportive and comfortable hiking shoes. The trail is consistently uphill on steep inclines for the majority of the hike and there are sections of the terrain where large rocks and/or tree roots cover the trail.
- If you plan on eating at the Plains of Six Glaciers Tea House (which you will probably want to do after hiking so far), make sure to bring cash as they are in a remote and secluded location and they do not accept debit or credit cards. There is an ATM inside the Fairmont Chateau Hotel on the shoreline of Lake Louise.
- Be prepared to be hiking uphill on steep inclines for the majority of the trail. It is a challenging hike but making it to the end is so rewarding, so don’t give up!
- Wear layers as the temperatures can change dramatically. It gets much colder as you gain elevation and climb higher up the mountain. I wore a t-shirt, thick zip-up hoodie, vest and rain jacket for the tops and leggings for the bottoms.
- Bring lots of water with you, as there are no taps to fill up along the trail and you will want to stay hydrated when you’re hiking up these mountains.
- Take lots of rest breaks if you’re feeling tired and out of breath. There is less oxygen in the air as you gain elevation, so the hike may feel more challenging.
Location – The trailhead is located at Lake Louise in Banff National Park and it starts along the popular Lakeshore Trail at the edge of the lake and in front of the Fairmont Hotel.
Distance/Time – 5.3 kilometres one-way for a total of 10.6 kilometres round-trip. This trail will take approximately four to five hours to complete.
Trail Rating – Difficult/Strenuous
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Have you been to Lake Louise and have you hiked the Plains of Six Glaciers Trail? What was your experience like?
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