Rocky Mountain Hiking: Helen Lake & Cirque Peak


The forecast for last Saturday was sunny and warm – 25C,  perfect for a hike in the Rocky Mountains.

Our destination was Helen Lake and Cirque Peak in Banff National Park, a premier hike for the views according to the book Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies.

"Views of Crowfoot Mountain & Glacier - just 45 minutes into the hike"

Views of Crowfoot Mountain & Glacier - 45 minutes into the hike

The trailhead for the hike is just 32 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of Lake Louise. It’s right across the highway from the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint, a popular pullover for drivers.

The hike up to Helen Lake is a snap to follow. 

Initially head through fantastic smelling fir and spruce. After only 45 minutes of hiking, you’re rewarded with superlative views of Crowsnest Glacier;and then when you turn left (north) Dolomite Peak shows up to the east.

"Dolomite Peak"

Dolomite Peak

Continue up the valley on a mostly gentle grade, cross Helen Creek and continue on to Helen Lake. You can see the route up Cirque Peak from here.

"Cirque Peak in the distance"

Cirque Peak in the distance

"The approach to Helen Lake"

The approach to Helen Lake and Cirque Peak

"View of a small lake above Helen Lake"

View of a small lake above Helen Lake

It’s an easy walk around Helen Lake but the scramble up to the ridge might leave you short of breath. Many people stop here – or continue on to Dolomite Pass. We elected to go for Cirque Peak. From Helen Lake it’s another 493 meters (1617 feet) of hiking…and scrambling to reach the peak.

"The easy part of the hike up Cirque Peak"

The easy part of the hike up Cirque Peak

The first part of the climb is easy; it’s up a sandy slope. Gain the ridge before it gets too steep or you’ll be in for more unpleasant scrambling. Trust me – I followed my husband and he did not take the easy route.

"Looking steeply down to Helen Lake"

Looking steeply down to Helen Lake

Then climb steeply up scree slopes. Be prepared for fierce winds. Don’t forget to include warm coats and a hat in your pack – you may want to put them on here. 

Continue up the scree to the rockband. Head right as you face it and continue scrambling to reach the very tiny summit.

"The scree covered slopes to Cirque Peak"

The scree covered slopes to Cirque Peak

"The final few hundred feet to gain the summit"

The final few hundred feet to gain the summit

The summit itself is small and airy – with steep cliffs – but sensational views according to John.

I didn’t go the last few hundred feet up. I figured I was pushing my luck with my dog. John said it was a wise move not to take her the last bit.

"The Wapta Icefield and Bow Lake"

Views of the Wapta Icefield and Bow Lake

"Descending scree slopes"

Descending scree slopes

The descent is relatively easy. Plunge stepping in the scree returns you to Helen Lake in no time. Then it’s another 90 minutes of walking to return to your vehicle. 

"The view as you walk back to the trailhead"

The view as you walk back to the trailhead

Useful Information

  • You will need a day pass available to hike in Banff National Park. It’s $9.80 per adult or $19.60 per family – good for seven days.
  • It’s 14 kilometers return to reach the ridge above Helen Lake.
  • The vertical to the ridge is 550 meters (1800 feet).
  • Count on at least another hour to hike from the ridge to the peak.
  • Total time is roughly four hours return to the ridge and six to seven return for the peak.
  • Total vertical to climb Cirque Peak is 1043 meters (3417 feet).

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