Glacier Lake is located in a lovely valley halfway between Jasper and Banff, near Saskatchewan River Crossing. It is one of the trails that thaws out early(ish) in the summertime, and it is not particularly difficult. So it is a good option to prepare legs for bigger hikes, for newbie backpackers, or as a family friendly adventure. We visited Glacier Lake as a quick day hike on a rainy, misty day. We expected to be rained on the entire time, so we were pleasantly surprised to have some views through the mist and perfect mirror-like reflections of the surrounding Canadian Rockies.
If you fancy seeing some of this scenery, but don’t have 4 hours to spare; You can hike to the red chairs and the Howse River viewpoint (and back) in about an hour.
Glacier Lake hike – the basics
Distance: 18.5 km (4.2km to the red chairs)
Elevation gain: 870m (cumulative)
It’s only 350m elevation change, but the trail goes up and down a few times.
Highest Points: 1704m (the lake is at 1426m)
Time: At least 4 hours (about an hour if you just go to the viewpoint with red chairs.)
What to bring:
Even in summer, bring warm clothes and rain gear.
The 10 Essentials (as always)
Campsite with a pit toilet at Glacier Lake. There are loos, cafe and shops at the nearby Saskatchewan River Crossing.
Dogs: Great for dogs, but keep them on a lead.
How hard is it? Easy/intermediate. The trail is easy to follow and not technical. It’s just longer than the average easy hike.
Glacier Lake hike map
Glacier Lake – Getting started
The trailhead is the first turning to the west of Saskatchewan River Crossing on the Icefields Parkway. It is less than 2km from the Saskatchewan River Crossing resort, so you can stop there for snacks or to use the loo before you start. It is also very close to Mistaya Canyon (we did both hikes on the same day.) There is only one trail from the car park, so follow that!
Meet the locals
We only walked a couple of hundred meters before we got shouted at! This little Douglas Squirrel was a bit sweary, but very cute despite her terrible language. We don’t feel like we’ve been on a real hike until we’ve been sworn at by a squirrel.
About 10 minutes into the hike we saw a small side trail detour. Of course we investigated to peek at the views of Canadian Rockies. The start of the trail is a gentle downhill slope.
North Saskatchewan River Bridge
Just over 1km into the walk, you reach a bridge that stretches high over the North Saskatchewan River. We arrived when the mountains were partly hidden in the clouds, but it was still pretty gorgeous.
On clearer days, there must be great views of the surrounding Rocky Mountains. On soggy days, the views of the river are still impressive as it swirls with raging white waters.
Howse River viewpoint
Even if you don’t have time to hike the whole way to Glacier Lake, this viewpoint (with more of those famous red chairs) would be a pretty good destination on its own. There are great views down the the Howse River and over to Mount Sarbach.
On to Glacier lake
You can sort of see where we are heading next. We walked along the edge of the braided Howse River (to the right of my photo below). We needed to climb up and over that hill in the mist in the middle distance. Glacier Lake is on the other side of that hill, in a valley between the distant mist-covered mountains.
Hiking along the Howse River for a couple of kilometers was a pleasure. We had just seen Mount Sarbach from the opposite side of the valley (at Mistaya Canyon) so it was pretty cool to see how different it looks from here.
There are some lovely wildflowers by the edge of the trail. We saw a couple of huge toads too.
Be bear aware – Buffaloberries
This section of the trail had loads of red and orange buffaloberries (which bears love!) So make plenty of noise as you hike along. You don’t want to creep up and surprise a berry-munching bear!
Trail through the forest
The next section of trail is not the most interesting. The trail climbs up the hill under dark forest canopy. There are some cool log bridges, but not many views. You climb uphill slowly for 3km, then down the other side more steeply for 1.5km.
Survey Marker from 1928
Pretty close to the lake, keep your eyes peeled for a small clearing where one of the trees has been carved with details from a Topographical Survey from 1928. This trail is right below Survey Peak, so it made me wonder if that mountain received its name from this survey!?
Once you start heading downhill, it seems like no time at all before you reach Glacier Lake. This beautiful lake is fed by the Lyell Glacier at the far end. This is the 4th largest lake in Banff National Park, and is surrounded by Mount Outram (left), Division Mountain (in the mist at the far end of the lake), and Mount Erasmus (which links up to Survey Peak on the right.)
Glacier Lake Campground
This would be a great place for beginner backpackers. The trail to Glacier Lake goes over rolling hills, but it is not very hard. I guess it would take a bit more than 2 hours for us to hike here with heavy backpacks full of camping gear!
Facilities-wise, Glacier Lake Campground has space for at least 5 tents, picnic tables, a historic cabin (with no door), a pit toilet and a bear hang.
There were no other hikers around, so we sat at the picnic benches to eat lunch and spent some time enjoying the mountains and their reflections. If you can visit on a sunny day, I am sure the glacier waters are the colour of gemstones. I really like the idea of returning to camp here and swim in this beautiful setting.
Retrace your steps to return to the trailhead. On the way back, it’s only the first 1.5km that are hard. After that you can run along the downhill and flat sections if you want to be speedy.
Final thoughts about Glacier lake
To be honest, this was not high on my list of possible hikes while we were in this area. However as it was a rainy day, we didn’t fancy hiking up to higher elevations to freeze in the rain, so we gave it a go. I didn’t expect such incredible views all to ourselves! Now I know how lovely this area can be, I am keen to come back to camp here. Apparently this trail is snow-free earlier than many other backpacking destinations, so I think it would be a great spring hike to get your legs ready for bigger adventures.
Glacier Lake Panoramas
I’ll finish with a couple of panoramas from the trail.
Click on the pins below if you’d like to save this beautiful trail for later.