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Canadian Rockies: Lake Louise and Moraine LakeCanadian Rockies: Lake Louise and Moraine Lake

Editor's note: Part two of a four-part series.

After two nights in Banff, Canada, pampering yourself in the hotels, exploring the town, and admiring the tilted mountain ranges, it’s time to head north to some of the most mind-blowingly beautiful scenes anywhere in the world—Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

  • On a still, early-summer morning, Victoria Glacier and the adjacent steep mountains are perfectly reflected in Lake Louise. In this photo, the sun is at too low an angle to show the lake’s bright sea-green color. Photo by Sheila Sund via Flickr.
  • Poppies and other summer flowers flank the walkways around Lake Louise. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • With restaurants from an Italian kitchen to fondue specialties to afternoon tea in the Lakeview Lounge accompanied by a harpist, the dining possibilities at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise are vast. Photo courtesy Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
  • Canoeists enjoy a hazy summer day on Lake Louise. Photo courtesy Brewster Tours.
  • While seated on a bench along the Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail, the author offers a handful of raw nuts to a Clark’s nutcracker. These large, highly intelligent gray-and-white birds frequent alpine mountains throughout western North America. Each bird will hide thousands of nuts during summer, remember where they are, and retrieve them later when food is scarce. This bird deftly snatched them all before flying off and then returning for more. Photo by Fred Worthy.
  • The Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse. The Canadian teahouses are built in the Swiss tradition, to provide beautiful views and delicious, nourishing food for hikers in need of a rest before they continue on their way. Photo by Cody Wellons via Flickr.
  • When it comes to fine dining at the Fairmont, the emphasis is on fresh nouvelle Canadian cuisine: we enjoyed dinners of cedar-smoked salmon, roasted bison, and elk tenderloin, accented by intense sauces, fingerling potatoes, and crunchy baby vegetables, followed by densely rich, hand-made desserts—all with views of the lake and glacier. Photo courtesy Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
  • This Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise scene gives new meaning to “Room Service with a view.” Photo courtesy Brewster Tours.
  • A summer sunrise gives Victoria Glacier a pink glow. The canoes are ready for the day’s customers. Photo courtesy Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
  • The Lake Agnes Teahouse is perched beside the hanging lake, far above Lake Louise. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • A view of Lake Louise from the Lake Agnes Trail. This photo shows the lake’s color accurately. The tiny black dots on the lake are canoes. Photo by BigBeehive via Wikipedia.
  • Hikers stop for the “Twenty Dollar View” of Moraine Lake, so called because this scene has appeared on Canada’s twenty dollar bill. You can also row a canoe out on the lake. Photo courtesy Brewster Tours.
  • Moraine Lake’s color changes from early to late summer, according to its depth. The color also changes depending on your angle of view, cloud cover, and time of day. This scene is one of the world’s most photographed. Photo courtesy HD Wallpapers.
  • Larch Valley Hike: Climbing through a forest of spruce and fir above the lake’s north shoreline, you glimpse the lake ever bluer and farther below, until reaching Larch Valley after 1.5 miles. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • Larch Valley is like a large open meadow carpeted by wildflowers and dotted with small alpine larch trees. In September the larch tree needles turn bright gold and Larch Valley becomes a worldwide magnet for photographers. Press on to Sentinel Pass, a notch in the mountains north of the valley, or just relax with a picnic. Grizzlies do occasionally wander through, so stay alert, make noise when visibility is poor, and if you see a bear, stop and retreat slowly from the area. Photo by Andy Simonds via Flickr.

It’s an hour northwest up Highway 1 from Banff to Lake Louise; Highway 1A along the Bow River offers better scenery, more wildlife, and doesn’t take much longer. The standard view room, several floors up in the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, is small, with a Swiss-chalet feel. But a walk to the west-facing window is literally breathtaking, as your eyes drink in the view: Red Flanders poppies fill the foreground, behind which lies a glacial lake of an impossible light sea-green color—Lake Louise. Tree-clad hillsides rise steeply on either side, and behind the lake the massive Victoria Glacier crowns the scene with layers of snow and ice to 11,365 feet. All of this is perfectly reflected in the still waters.

If you can tear your eyes away from the window, try the Lakeshore Trail, a flat and easy walk along the north shore. Hikers will want to continue up the Plain of the Six Glaciers Trail, climbing west toward Victoria Glacier above and past the end of the lake. The valley below your left has been carved by glaciers. As advancing glaciers push downhill, their incomprehensible weight literally carves valleys, piling rubble into “lateral moraines” on either side, and pulverizing the granite below into rocks, pebbles, sand, and powder. As meltwater courses over these rocks, it picks up the powder and carries it along. This water is called “glacial milk,” and if you walk by a glacial stream it actually looks like someone poured milk into the water—it’s white. The powder is so fine it remains in suspension even after flowing into a lake, where the sky’s reflection turns the lake into various turquoise shades. Aerial photo of Lake Louise, Victoria Glacier, and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.Each lake has its own color according to depth, shape, and surroundings. Here the lateral moraines rise 200 feet on either side, left high and dry as the glacier has melted, and you’ll hear the mighty roar of rushing meltwater descending through the rocks. We stopped for a delicious tuna sandwich and apple pie on the open verandah of the Plain of the Six Glaciers Teahouse, 3.4 miles from the hotel. Rest and watch the squirrels, birds, and the frequent avalanches that fall down the glacier before continuing about another half-mile across a lateral moraine where the trail peters out among the talus.

In the morning, don’t miss the sunrise as it paints Victoria Glacier pink as a rose, reflected in the lake. If you’re energetic, grab a quick hike up to Lake Agnes and its teahouse, hidden in a hanging valley above. The trail begins at the north lakeshore and climbs up switchbacks for stunning views of Lake Louise. After 2.2 miles you’ll see the teahouse roof and a waterfall below the lake, climb a staircase, and suddenly the tiny green lake comes into view, backed by steep mountains.

Sunrise at Moraine Lake, in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.

No visit to Lake Louise is complete without the eight-mile drive to Moraine Lake, in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, the second valley south of the mountains that flank the southern shore of Lake Louise. Under a summer sun, Moraine Lake is the color of perfect blue Kingman turquoise. From other angles it looks like Windex! You can canoe on the lake, but the higher you get above the water the bluer it appears, so at least walk up to the viewpoint on the rockpile at the lake’s east end, one of Canada’s most photographed views. Your friends back home will think you Photoshopped your pictures; no lake can be that blue! The classic hike here is to Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass (see photos for details on this hike).

After two days in Lake Louise, it’s time to head for Jasper and its incredible wildlife. But first, take a day to explore what National Geographic says is one of the top “Drives of a Lifetime: the World’s Greatest Scenic Routes,” the Icefields Parkway.

Moraine Lake on a late summer day. The lake’s color changes from early to late summer, according to its depth. The color also changes depending on your angle of view, cloud cover, and time of day. Photo by Mike Boehmer via Wikimedia Commons.
Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: Canada

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