Toward the northern tip of Alberta’s beloved Banff National Park, the Helen Lake (Cirque Peak) trail is a nature lover’s paradise – boasting spectacular mountain views, a pristine lake, and rolling meadowlands teeming with colorful wildflowers and playful hoary marmots. About 30 minutes north of Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway, the trailhead is accessed via a small parking lot across from the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint at the southern end of Bow Lake (and about 2.5 km south of the Bow Glacier Falls trailhead).
The out-and-back trail begins with a moderate ascent through a pine forest, eventually reaching a small clearing that overlooks Crowfoot Glacier, towering above the brilliant, turquoise waters of Bow Lake. As the trail continues to climb above the tree line, the views slowly open to a range of sharp, serrated peaks (including Bow Peak) with the rolling green hillsides of Bow Valley that extending endlessly into the distance.
Once out of the forest, the landscape transforms to a lush, undulating meadowland dotted with clusters of columbine, Indian paintbrush, and western anemone. The trail crosses a small stream and gradually begins zigzagging up the hillside along Dolomite Peak. Near the end of the trail, Helen Lake awaits – a small pool of deep blue water tucked in amongst the lofty peaks. Here we paused for a snack, and to watch the playful marmots chase each other around the meadows, some gathering enormous mouthfuls of grass before scampering off into the rocky slopes. If you’re in search of even more spectacular views of the countryside, the trail continues to the right of Helen Lake, ascending a short scramble to Cirque Peak (unfortunately, we only made it about halfway up Cirque Peak before having to descend, as we were really pushing it for daylight hours and weren’t about to scramble down in the dark).
Pros – Stunning mountain views, abundant wildflowers and adorable marmots in Helen Lake meadowlands
Cons – Much of the trail is forested (patience required if seeking mountain vistas)