Snowshoeing the Lake Agnes Trail in Banff National Park
Snowshoeing the Lake Agnes Trail in Banff National Park
During our stay in Banff National Park, not a day passed without a dump of fresh snow. Either we awoke in the morning to an additional 6 inches weighing down the trees, or snow fell so thickly when skiing that we could barely see which way to go. One afternoon, owing to the lack of freshly trackset cross-country ski trails, Bob and I opted to go snowshoeing up into the mountains following the Lake Agnes Trail from Lake Louise.
Given the depth of snow…the most the area had received by early January in recent years…the conditions were perfect for trying out a pair of snowshoes. Bob and I are novices in that field, only having used them on one other occasion, and we soon discovered just how useful they can be.
The Lake Agnes Trail originates beside Lake Louise, seen above, and leads to Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes beyond that, while affording a view of Big Beehive, a uniquely-contoured mountain named for its shape. The return trip to Mirror Lake is 5.4 kilometres (3.4 miles), with a 295 metre (968 ft) elevation gain. We planned to decide at Mirror Lake whether or not to continue to Lake Agnes as it would depend on the time and conditions.
The forest of spruce and fir trees was liberally weighted with accumulations of snow, and the trail revealed that only one other person had passed that way earlier in the morning.
Bob and I had rented our snowshoes in Lake Louise Village and were pleased to see that they provided excellent quality snowshoes that were easy to use and performed well. Bob’s sister, had actually recommended the same make of snowshoes, MSR, as they are top of the line and would make for an enjoyable snowshoeing experience.
The weather was relatively mild that day, only around -3C, so Bob and I wore light clothing – wind pants and spring jackets over long johns, but we completed our gear with toques, scarves and mittens. It would be colder as we ascended into the mountains, but our choice of clothing would help prevent overheating. We set out from the trailhead at 1 p.m.
The first 2.7 kilometres were a constant uphill climb, so we progressed at a slow and steady pace being sure to enjoy the sights and sounds. There were few birds flitting about the dense sub-alpine forest, but lots of footprints from little creatures scurrying about made impressions on the surface of the snow. Occasionally, the old-growth forest gave way and afforded a glimpse of the dramatic mountain peaks overlooking Lake Louise. Being a grey day, and with snow clinging to the slopes and boughs, the view could be likened to some old sepia photograph.
Where the trail opens up onto tiny Mirror Lake, we got our first glimpse of Big Beehive, a massive dome-shaped mountain that justifies its name. It is also referred to as The Beehive, but because there is another similarly-shaped Beehive Mountain nearby, they are differentiated based on their sizes: Big Beehive and Little Beehive. Big Beehive is part of the Bow Range and has an elevation of 2,270 m (7,448 ft).
While Bob and I contemplated whether or not to continue on towards Lake Agnes, a mere 500 metres further, granted an additional upward climb, out of nowhere, gale-force winds came sweeping across the lake. The snow was whipped into a frenzy resulting in white-out conditions for minutes at a time.
The sudden blizzard-like conditions had me cowering behind a mounted trail map while the wind cast twigs aside like toothpicks. We were ready to turn back at that point, not because of the conditions, but because it was 2:30 p.m. already, and in the mountains in winter, darkness falls between 4:30-5:00 p.m. Bob and I did not want to be caught on the trail after sunset.
Given our close proximity to Lake Agnes, Bob wanted to push on. We had the choice of two trails to get there, one on the lower side of Mirror Lake, the other, leading left to a junction of the highline trail on the upper side of Mirror Lake. It being a bit shorter, we opted for the steeper terrain up the mountain, in agreement that, come 3 p.m., we would turn around and commence our return back to Lake Louise.
The upper snowshoeing trail from Mirror Lake towards Lake Agnes had not been traversed for a very long time judging by the unsullied surface of the snow, and it continued on an incline through dense forest until suddenly, we found ourselves in the open on the side of a very steep mountain. A fantastic view of Mount Aberdeen and Haddo Peak took my breath away.
We had a dandy unobstructed view of both pinnacles, although intermittent strong winds continued to swirl the snow through the valleys and along the ridges. Mount Aberdeen is located in the upper part of the Lake Louise valley and has an elevation of 3,152 m (10,342 ft).
The translucent blue glacier sitting on the northern slopes of Mount Aberdeen was absolutely spectacular to look at.
The snow had stopped falling long enough to give us an excellent view of the marvelous glacial mass, and that is about the time I thanked Bob for urging me onwards.
Once we turned our attentions back to the trail, Bob and I were a bit intimidated standing there at the bottom of a scree slope buried under 5 feet of snow with Big Beehive looming over us.
We pressed onwards following our noses where the trail seemed to disappear into the trees at the back side of the slope. To accomplish that, we circumvented the extreme lower edge of the slope and then discovered that we could not go any further since the way was not clear.
The back side of the mountain was filled in with snowdrifts resulting in a 60-degree incline that afforded no safe passage.
Given the snow conditions on the trail, we decided at that point to turn around and head back. We carefully retraced our steps across the face of the wide open slope that spread high above us and began our snowshoeing descent through the forest through which we had come.
The hike down the mountain was really straight forward so we made good time , but it was a real trick manipulating the ski poles. By times, they would sink 2 feet or more into the soft snow regardless of the baskets. I had to develop a new technique to lift them out and over my head in order to clear the high banks of snow at trail side before placing them ahead of me in advance of my next step.
We accomplished the descent with ease and were thrilled to have had the whole trail to ourselves except for one young lad that we met at the very beginning of our climb. He had been on his way back from Lake Agnes having made the trek by himself first thing that morning. Dark grey clouds filled the sky as Chateau Lake Louise came into sight, and we knew it wouldn’t be long before a cloak of darkness fell over the landscape.
A good number of hiking trails originate in the vicinity of Lake Louise so it is a good place to consider if you are looking for options. Its central location and proximity to the Great Divide, which offers the tallest glacier-clad peaks in the Rockies, makes it an ideal place to start. An additional benefit is that Lake Louise is already at a high elevation so hikers find themselves enjoying clear views and magnificent scenery in no time.
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