The Egypt Lakes area of Banff National Park is an absolutely gorgeous swath of Rocky Mountain backcountry stretching along the Continental Divide. Curiously, the area’s most prominent features all have names evocative of Ancient Egypt: Scarab and Pharaoh Peaks; The Sphinx; and Egypt, Mummy, and Scarab Lakes.
Some of the locals joke that the Egyptianized monikers were conferred during Cleopatra’s 1st century BC visit to Canada. In reality, the lakes and peaks were named in 1922 when the Interprovincial Boundary Survey was charting the border between British Columbia and Alberta. I have to wonder if Howard Carter’s Valley of King’s expeditions inspired the survey’s nomenclature, or if it was merely coincidence that Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb near the end of that same year. Either way, the names are certainly unique from anything else in Canada’s mountain parks.
Sitting along the Continental Divide, the Pharaoh Peaks are a cluster of three rocky summits ranging from roughly 8,645’ to 8,901’ (2,635 m to 2,713 m) in elevation. Getting out to the peaks makes for a pretty aggressive day hike, covering about 20 miles (32.5 km) and 6,000 feet (1,830 m) of vertical, but the views are kind of unbelievable. This was one of the top few hikes I’d hoped to do during our six-month stay, and it totally lived up to the expectation.
The standard route for a day trip to Pharaoh Peaks is via Healy Pass. If you’re looking to bag Greater Pharaoh, be ready for a fairly big day in terms of distance and gain. Before even beginning the scramble up the peak, you’ll need to cover 9.5 miles (15 km) of ground, including traversing two mountain passes (Healy and Whistling Pass). Beginning from Sunshine Village, the route gains 2,200 vertical feet as it climbs to the top of Healy Pass, then immediately loses 1,200’ on the descent to Egypt Lake. From there, it’s another 2,600’ of vertical to Greater Pharaoh’s summit, with 1,500’ of that coming over a half-mile (0.8 km) scramble. After descending the ridiculously steep gully back to Egypt Lake, there’s one more climb on the return – regaining the 1,200’ back up to Healy Pass.
The trail to Healy Pass starts at the Sunshine Village Ski Resort, about a twenty-minute drive (18 km) from the town of Banff. The first five or so miles are fairly unexciting, climbing moderately through forests alongside Healy Creek. As the trail exits the trees, however, the landscape abruptly transforms into sprawling wildflower meadows. Of all the trails we hiked this summer, this was one of the most beautiful in terms of sheer density of blooms. With paintbrush, asters, and anemone – as well as the first stems of larkspur we’d seen around Banff – the hillsides were just bursting with color.
After about 5.6 miles (9 km), the trail tops out at Healy Pass. Rising to an elevation of around 7,800’ (2,380 m), the pass offers great views of The Monarch to the south, as well as Scarab and Pharaoh Peaks to the west. In addition to its brilliant wildflower meadows, the pass is also rife with larches. I may have only been halfway to Greater Pharaoh at this point, but I was already plotting a return trip later in the fall to walk amongst the golden conifers.
After cresting Healy Pass, we made a quick descent down to Egypt Lake – losing about half (1,200’) of the 2,200 vertical feet we gained along the moderate trip up. As we neared the campground, a small footbridge took us across Pharaoh Creek, with the eastern slope of Greater Pharaoh Peak now staring us in the face. We’d only completed about a third of the day’s distance and gain at that point, but we were feeling totally energized and stoked to get up to that summit.
From the trail’s low point near Egypt Lake, we made a second ascent toward Whistling Pass. Just before gaining the pass, we finally spotted the scrambling route to the top of Greater Pharaoh – a slog of 1,500’ of vertical (460 m) over just half a mile (0.8 km). The scramble is nothing technical but it is seriously steep. Additionally, there’s very little traction on the sandy dirt/scree which, for me, always brutalizes my knees on the return.
After trudging about two-thirds of the way to the summit up an obvious gully along the loose dirt, the trail reaches a saddle between Greater and Middle Pharaoh. From here, it’s just another quarter mile or so to the summit cairn (hiker’s right after reaching the ridge). I was beyond delighted to discover that the terrain here transitioned to a beautiful field of talus and boulders – a welcome sight and one I will take any day over that slick, sandy shit.
The reward for our efforts was a view of epic proportions. Greater Pharaoh’s 8,901’ crown offers mind-blowing panoramas over the entire Egypt Lakes area, with The Sphinx (Sugarloaf Mountain) and Scarab Peak towering above Egypt, Mummy and Scarab Lakes. If you look closely, you can spot a small waterfall tumbling down from Mummy Lake, which is perched on an alpine bench above Scarab Lake. It is stunningly beautiful.
If you can take your eyes off those sapphire lakes, you can easily spot Mt. Bourgeau’s blocky, 9,616-foot summit to the east. One of our favorites and one we’ve tagged a couple times now, we had to make sure we snapped a quick pic.
Looking north, there are gorgeous views out to a distant (and massive) Mount Ball as well as Mount Temple and Storm Mountain. As you gaze out over the neighboring peaks of Middle and Lesser Pharaoh, the thought of bagging all three becomes pretty tempting. But I suppose that would be an adventure for another (shorter) day. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to just invest in some damn camping gear and find a place to stash it if we’re going to continue roaming around the continent in our Outback.
After soaking in those incredible views atop the summit for a solid hour, we were finally able to pull ourselves away to make the 10-mile (16 km) return to Sunshine Village.
Sometimes you get all hyped up for a trail and it doesn’t live up to the anticipation. This was not one of those times. Not only was the scenery stunning, but the weather and temperatures ended up being perfect – a pleasant surprise coming on the heels of an atypically nasty heat wave. While the daily temperatures had been hovering around 30°C to 32°C (around 90°F) for weeks, it was a cool 5°C (40°F) when we set out around 8 a.m., with afternoon temps topping out around 22°C (70°F).
Additionally, although the scramble up Greater Pharaoh was kind of a doozy, it ended up being much easier than I expected. We finished the whole thing in about 9 hours moving and 10.5 hours total (including our hour-long stay at the summit).
I don’t know if it’s because I was so friggin’ stoked about finally being out there, but I was ready to hit the trails again the next morning. Stephan, however, didn’t necessarily share the same enthusiasm. Luckily our friends were staying in town and, as soon as the overzealous suggestion of a next-day outing slipped out of my mouth, I noticed a text inviting us for a tour of the buffalo ranch they were staying at. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect on that one. Until next time, Egypt Lakes. We will definitely be back.
Total distance: 20.2 miles (32.5 km)
Elevation gain: 6,001 feet (1,830 m)