Having admired the towers of Castle Mountain dozens of times from the Trans-Canada Highway, Stephan and I thought we’d head to neighboring Helena Peak to get a bird’s-eye view of the iconic massif. Located halfway between Banff and Lake Louise, Castle Mountain is loved by photographers and climbers alike. Castle Mountain Hut, one of the thirty or so backcountry shelters run by the ACC, can even be found on Goat Plateau – perched precariously about halfway up the peak.
Just east of Castle Mountain’s broad ridge, Rockbound Lake sits nestled in a glacial cirque beneath the massif’s sheer cliffs. To reach the lake, it’s a fairly long approach through the forest – clocking in at about 10.5 miles (17 km) roundtrip. Consequently, Rockbound remains one of the quieter lakes in the Bow Valley area, and a place where you can probably find a slice of solitude away from the crowds.
If you’re looking for a bit more – in the way of a steep scramble that offers views of both Rockbound Lake and Castle Mountain – you can push on to Helena Peak’s 9,400-foot summit. At just under 15 miles (24 km) roundtrip, it’s a pretty solid day trip that easily accessible from the town of Banff or Lake Louise Village.
The route to Helena Peak begins from the Rockbound Lake Trailhead, just off the Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A) near Castle Junction. For the first 4.6 miles (7.4 km), the trail snakes through a mixed conifer forest until it reaches Tower Lake. There isn’t really anything in the way of views through here and, admittedly, we found this first half of the trail a little underwhelming. Luckily, we did come across a family of grouse. The birds never fail to entertain us with their curious glances and genial behavior.
The trail gets slightly more interesting once you reach Tower Lake. The picturesque, turquoise pool sits at the base of Eisenhower Peak, one of Castle Mountain’s most prominent spires. Depending on the time of year you visit, the meadows near the lake could be rife with either colorful wildflowers or golden larches. From Tower Lake, it’s a mere half mile (0.8 km) to Rockbound Lake. It’s short, but easily the steepest section of trail you’ll find en route to the lake.
Once you arrive at Rockbound Lake, you’ll immediately see how the walled tarn earned its name. Bounded on the west by the sheer bluffs of the Castle Mountain plateau, the lake is a serene little spot, and there was just one other pair of hikers at the lake when we arrived mid-morning. The rocky eastern shores make a nice spot to pause for a snack or lunch (if continuing on). From here, you can look up at Helena Peak’s rocky summit rising above the northern end of the lake.
After navigating the flats along the eastern side of Rockbound Lake, the trail quickly steepens – gaining about 2,200 feet (670 m) over the 1.2 miles (2.7 km) to the summit. The trail climbs through a short section of forest until it opens onto a rocky slope above the lake. From here, the narrow, dirt path then traverses the exposed hillside beneath Helena Ridge.
At around 6 miles (10 km) from the trailhead, there’s a bit of route-finding to reach the bottom of the col that leads up to Helena Ridge. The well-worn dirt path continues heading northwest toward Stuart Knob. To reach Helena, you’ll need to bear hiker’s right along a vague trail that traverses a rock-strewn meadow to the bottom of the col. From here, a more obvious trail leads up a scree-filled gully to the top of Helena Ridge. It’s a short but steep ascent, gaining 700 feet (200 m) of vertical in just 0.3 miles (0.5 km).
Once you gain the ridge, you’ll find yourself atop a broad saddle. The flat, wide expanse kind of precludes a great view of the lake, although you can find one if you wander a bit further east. For the best views, you’ll have to make one final push to the summit from the Helena Ridge. From the ridge to Helena Peak’s summit, it’s another quick, steep, quarter mile (0.4 km) scramble over scree and talus that gains an additional 600 feet (180 m) of vertical.
From Helena’s 9,400-foot (2,865 m) summit, the views of Eisenhower Tower, Castle Mountain, and Rockbound and Tower Lakes are pretty impressive. To the west is the neighboring bump of 9,350-foot (2,850 m) Stuart Knob; and across the valley to the north and east, are the rugged peaks of Banff’s Sawback Range. Another seemingly less-visited summit, we once again had an entire mountain to ourselves.
While it was a nice enough outing (I mean, how bad can it get in Canada’s mountain parks?), I can’t say this was one of our favorite Banff trails. That said, we also didn’t have the best conditions. Between the unrelenting 90°F (31°C) temperatures, impenetrable wildfire smoke, and me feeling like absolute shit for at least a third of the hike, we found ourselves kind of just wanting to get it done rather than fully embracing the moment. Additionally, while it seems that every trail description for scrambles in the Rockies begins with ‘long approach’ (and often rightfully so), this one really felt like it for some reason.
Maybe it was the combination of heat, smoke, and stabbing abdominal pain that left me less than impressed. Or maybe it just didn’t live up to the breathtaking beauty of some of the other trails we’ve done. I guess I’d have to do it again to give a truly unbiased opinion. Favorite or not, though, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Any day spent outside in the mountains is still a good one.
Total distance: 14.6 miles (23.5 km)
Elevation gain: 4,934 feet (1,500 m)