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Glacier Lake Backpack
Banff National Park
May 19-21, 2012

Itching to get out and hike after a long snowy winter, we did an early season backpack to Glacier Lake in Banff National Park over the Victoria Day Weekend. Actually, the winter wasn't over yet, and had we decided differently, we could have skied Sunshine Village that weekend, as all the lifts were still open after a record-snowfall year.

Being at a fairly low elevation and east of the divide, Glacier Lake and the area around the Saskatchewan Crossing typically dries out sooner than anything else along the main ranges. We had previously backpacked to Glacier Lake two or three years prior over the Victoria Day weekend. We wanted to get out to stretch our legs, and to see if we remembered how to set up the tent and cook food over the stove.

The trailhead for Glacier Lake is located on Highway 93, the Icefields Parkway, about 1 kilometre north of the Highway 11 Junction. From Edmonton, its about a 4 hour 400km drive.

The hike in is about 9km with an elevation gain and loss of about 250m. Even with the drive in from Edmonton and about three hours hiking, we had set up our tent by mid-afternoon. The trailhead is at about 1450m elevation, and the trail was bone-dry up to about 1550m. However, around 1600m and above, there was still significant snow on the trail. Due to the heavy snowfall last winter, that’s not surprising. However, the previous time we did this trail (on the same weekend in May), there wasn’t even a small patch of snow on the trail. Even more interesting, though, was that there was still ice on Glacier Lake!

There is a campfire ring provided, but no firewood. I think it’s been like this for a long time, as there is very little deadfall nearby that you could use for fuel. It wasn’t a big deal for us, as we rarely make fires (it just takes too much time), but there was a group of newbie backpackers who relied on the campfire to cook. It would be nice if the National Park would fly in a load of firewood once in a while like Kananaskis does, but it seems like Glacier Lake is sort of the forgotten area of Banff – too far away from all the tourism dollars.

On Sunday, we set out to hike around the lake and along the Glacier River. Glacier Lake is about 4.5km long (east to west) and the trail follows along the north shore. It must have been an interesting winter, as there were a few places where avalanches had recently moved vast amounts of vegetation. In a couple places, we abandoned the trail and walked along the lakeshore, as it was not practical to scramble over all the deadfall. The trail continues west past the lake for about another kilometre. After that, sporadic flagging put the trail onto a flooded river flat/swamp. We tried to follow some semblance of trail for another 500m, but only ended up at multiple braided creek crossings. We wanted to reach the end of the valley to see the Southeast Lyell Glacier up close, but it wasn't going to happen that day. We sat down to have some lunch and enjoy being in the mountains in May. We turned around and made our way back to the Glacier Lake Campground.

Monday, our final day, we packed up and made our way out to the trailhead.

Weather over the weekend was partly sunny, with temperatures ranging from just above freezing overnight to daytime highs of 10-15 degrees. It only rained briefly one evening – a good start to the season!

The Glacier Lake trail isn’t the most scenic, and I wouldn’t do a dayhike just to the lake because most of the trail is in the trees. However, the lakeshore trail and beyond provides ample opportunity to gaze upon several 3000m+ mountains. We probably wouldn’t go here mid-summer, as there are many other more scenic places. However, it is a great place to visit in the spring when you need to get out and take in the pristine mountain air.
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