One of the most well-known hiking routes in BC’s Yoho National Park is the Iceline Trail. Beginning beside Takakkaw Falls, one of the tallest chutes in Canada, the trail climbs a few thousand feet of vertical where it opens onto an alpine wonderland. Here, a well-worn path meanders through rocky tundra – passing beside jewel-toned tarns and beneath the glacier-capped peaks of the President Range.
Iceline can either be hiked as an out-and-back (about 10 miles round-trip) or as a slightly longer loop that traverses Little Yoho Valley (13.5 miles). Having done mostly return hikes during our time in the Rockies, we opted for the loop. Aside from the difference in distance, both routes have their advantages. If you’re undecided, we’ve provided some of our thoughts in the ‘Route options’ section below.
Starting at Takakkaw Falls, we hiked the loop clockwise. We’d definitely recommend starting in this direction, as it gets you up into the alpine section first. Once you’re up there, you’ll be able to decide if you’d like to make it a loop or just hike it as an out-and-back.
There aren’t a ton of trails out there that begin at such a scenic spot. Meaning ‘magnificent’ or ‘wonderful’ in Cree, it’s immediately obvious how Takakkaw earned its name. This gorgeous set of falls plunges 1,246 feet (380 m) from Daly Glacier, part of the Waputik Icefield, into Yoho Valley. What makes the chute unique is the powerful rooster tail that explodes from a steep headwall in an 833-foot (254 m) freefall. Whether you’re standing beside the falls or much further away atop the Iceline Trail, Takakkaw’s powerful thundering is ever-present. With a charming footbridge and a pair of Parks Canada’s iconic red chairs nearby, it’s a beautiful little spot to pause and take it all in (especially in the morning before the crowds arrive).
Continuing from the falls, the trail crosses Yoho Valley Road and passes beside the Whiskey Jack Hostel, where it then begins ascending the hillside via a series of switchbacks. The grade is pretty moderate, and after just a couple miles (3 km) the trail opens onto a ridgeline. From here, you get a bird’s-eye view of Takakkaw Falls. Listen carefully as you walk along the ridge; you can hear the resounding roar from the falls in the distance. As the trail dips behind a wall of rock, the sound suddenly disappears. It is so abruptly silent it’s as if someone flipped a switch and shut off the flow.
Once you gain the ridge, the tree-lined, wildflower-laden trail quickly transitions to an unspoiled alpine landscape. For about three miles (5 km), the trail rises and falls gently along the rocky, alpine tundra. The barren landscape is peppered with small tarns that rest below the commanding peaks of The President and Vice President. Along the rugged slopes, fragmented chunks of Emerald Glacier cling to the mountainsides, and small cascades of glacial run-off tumble toward the turquoise pools.
If you’re able to shift your gaze from the imposing peaks, the views out to the east are equally striking. Across the valley, Mt. Daly and Mt. Niles rise above Daly Glacier and Takakkaw Falls. A bit further north, the ice-capped summits of Mount Balfour and Mt. Gordon dominate the landscape. I was particularly taken with Mount Balfour’s majestic profile rising above the Yoho Valley.
As you make your way across the alpine expanse, the views get better and better. The crystalline tarns become increasingly more vivid, and the heavily glaciated slopes of Mt. McArthur, Isolated Peak, and Whaleback eventually appear before you.
At just under five miles from the trailhead, you’ll reach the Iceline Summit – not a true mountain summit, but rather a 7,310-foot (2,230 m) highpoint that sits atop a small moraine. The hill is easy to spot along the right side of the trail, with a set of discernible switchbacks snaking to the top. From here, the views are really spectacular. Two more jewel-toned tarns lay out in front of you, with Kiwetinok Peak, Mt. Pollinger, Mt. McArthur and Isolated Peak all rising prominently in the distance.
From the route’s highpoint, the path dips down for one last mile of alpine traverse before descending moderately into Little Yoho Valley. Soon after, the trail reaches the Stanley Mitchell Hut, a historic log cabin operated by the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC). The cozy chalet is nestled in a picturesque meadow alongside the Little Yoho River, and looks like an idyllic spot for a backcountry basecamp.
After departing the Stanley Mitchell Hut, the trail winds through the forest for the six-mile return to the trailhead. There’s not a whole lot of scenery through here, save for a quick look at Laughing Falls about halfway back to the parking lot. Though it’s a nice little falls, it’s a bit underwhelming after seeing Takakkaw’s dramatic drop. As you near the Takakkaw Falls Parking Area, there’s also the option to tack on a couple of short spurs (each less than a quarter-mile one-way). One leads out to Point Lace Falls, the other to Angel’s Staircase. Between increased foot traffic over here (it’s an easy 1.5-mile walk from Takakkaw Falls) and the fact that we were dripping with sweat from an unremitting 32°C (90°F) heatwave, we took a pass on both and returned to the trailhead.
Overall, it’s easy to see why people love this trail. The close-up glacier views and colorful tarns are otherworldly for those who haven’t done much alpine hiking. It’s also a bit more accessible than some other alpine areas we’ve visited, that have had either longer approaches or more elevation gain. If you’re looking to get out of Banff for a day and do some exploring around nearby Yoho, Iceline is a pretty decent place to start.
Total distance: 13.5 miles (21.7 km)
Elevation gain: 2,941 feet (900 m)
The route can be hiked as an out-and-back to the Iceline summit (10 miles; 16 km) or as a loop returning via Little Yoho Valley (13.5 miles; 21.7 km). If you don’t mind a little extra distance and enjoy the ever-changing scenery you get with a loop (who doesn’t?), the descent to the Stanley Mitchell Hut is quite pretty. After that, the trail is primarily wooded with one quick look at Laughing Falls. It’s a nice little cascade; though at just 30 meters, it’s a bit anticlimactic after seeing Takakkaw Falls’ massive rooster tail.
The primary benefit to hiking Iceline as an out-and-back is that you get more time to explore the alpine region. Additionally, you get an extra opportunity to gaze down at Takakkaw Falls from the high ridge (the falls are not visible on the descent to Little Yoho). If you start hiking in the morning, Takakkaw Falls (east-facing) is largely in shadow, and Mt. Daly, Daly Glacier and Mt. Niles are all heavily backlit. If you take your time in the alpine region and opt for the out-and-back, the sun should have moved enough that the falls (and Daly Glacier) will be beautifully illuminated on your return trip… a nice bonus if you’re into photography.
- You could hike the entire length of alpine portion as an out-and-back, which continues for about another mile past the Iceline ‘summit’ point. This would be about the same distance as hiking the loop (~13.5 miles).
- You could do an out-and-back to the Stanley Mitchell Hut if you were interested in seeing Little Yoho Valley and then revisiting the alpine region on your return. It would be a bit longer, at around 15 miles (24 km), and would add about another 700’ (200 m) of vertical.