A stunning swath of high alpine backcountry, Skoki was undoubtedly one of our favorite areas of Banff. Peppered with jewel-tone lakes and scree-covered slopes just begging to be scrambled, it’s easy to see why Skoki is a beloved spot for multi-day backpacking trips. If you happen to visit the area in the fall, you’ll be in for a real treat – Skoki is also prime larch habitat. For a short window every September, Skoki Valley becomes draped in an eyepopping yet ephemeral blanket of gold.
While there’s a whole network of maintained trails and off-trail peaks to explore here, the standard backpacking loop winds around Skoki and Fossil Mountains by way of the Skoki Lakes, Red Deer Lakes, and Baker Lake – clocking in at a total distance of around 40 km (25 miles).
Access to Skoki requires a 2.5-mile (4-km) walk up Temple Fire Road, followed by another 2.5 miles (4 km) through the forest up to Boulder Pass. Consequently, the route is actually a lollipop with this five-mile section needing to be retraced on the hike back out. The long approach may not be the most fun, but the effort to get out here certainly helps keep the crowds at bay.
Skoki was at the top of my list for fall larch hikes, so we really wanted to time this one for when the trees would be at their absolute peak of gold. Having surveyed the larches over on Saddle Mountain just three days prior, we knew that climax was getting close. With an unseasonably stunning Wednesday in the forecast, we raced out of Golden at the eleventh hour for this one.
Because we were doing a day hike with rapidly dwindling daylight hours the last week in September, we settled on a slightly shorter, inner loop (rather than the standard 25-miler) so we could include a scramble up Skoki Mountain.
We hit the trail around sunrise, not caring about the dimly lit landscape as we trudged up Temple Fire Road and through the ensuing forest. About an hour and a half and five miles later, we arrived atop aptly named Boulder Pass – a series of rock-strewn slopes on the north side of Redoubt Mountain. The sun was just beginning to warm the rugged terrain, igniting the alpine larches with a brilliant blaze of gold. Looking back to the southwest, Mt. Temple’s ice-capped summit towered above the sunlit trees.
As we crested Boulder Pass, the trail skirted the south side of Ptarmigan Peak where it soon reached the shores of Ptarmigan Lake. The water was glass-like, offering a perfect mirror for Fossil Mountain and a hazy look at Mt. Saint Bride.
From Ptarmigan Lake, we decided to hike the loop clockwise. With the late-season sun about as high as it was going to get for the day, we hoped to get some nice light on the Skoki Lakes. It turned out to be a great decision, as the lakes did end up largely in shadow by mid-afternoon thanks to neighboring Pika and Ptarmigan Peaks.
We skirted the northern shore of Ptarmigan Lake – now about six miles (10 km) from our starting point – ultimately following an unmarked path that forked slightly left toward Packer’s Pass. The trail was initially faint as it pulled away from the lakeshore, but ended up being easy enough to follow up the grassy hillside.
After about a half mile (0.8 km), the trail reached the top of Packer’s Pass. To the south, we looked back at Redoubt Mountain and the larch-peppered landscape. To the north, we could make out the trail zigzagging toward the Skoki Lakes. Zigadenus was the first of the two lakes to come into view, with the Wall of Jericho creating a pretty dramatic backdrop. As we made the half-mile descent to the lake, golden larches began to dominate the terrain.
Just steps beyond the shore of Zigadenus, Myosotis Lake quickly came into view. The pair of turquoise tarns were named for two genera of resident wildflowers – white camas and forget-me-nots. Initially, we thought the views couldn’t get any better than those from Zigadenus Lake; however, Myosotis was not to be outdone. Looking north across the lake, Skoki Mountain was perfectly reflected in the azure water and gilded alpine larches beautifully framed the horseshoe-shaped summit.
After passing along the eastern side of Myosotis Lake, there was a short downclimb along the Myosotis Headwall. Here, a narrow passageway cut through the rock and we had to scoot under a giant chockstone. Sanchez was in her glory clambering over this section of boulders, and we thoroughly enjoyed the sweeping views of Skoki Mountain and the larch laden Skoki Meadows from atop the rocky outcropping.
After descending the headwall, the trail wound through meadows and sparse forests until it popped out at Skoki Lodge. As we neared the backcountry hut, we stumbled upon a giant fork in the road. As a die-hard Jim Henson fan, I was totally thrilled with the piece of Muppety memorabilia. Any route whose navigational aids mirror those used by Kermit and Fozzie as they crisscrossed the county in a brown Studebaker is a winner in my book.
If you time it right, Skoki Lodge makes the perfect stopping point for lunch. Tucked beside a babbling brook in Skoki Valley, the lodge grounds are flecked with picnic tables and Adirondack chairs. You can even enjoy a high tea or craft beer during the afternoon hours. If you’re hoping to score a reservation at the rustic retreat, however, it’ll require a bit more planning… and luck. The 1930s-era lodge has been named a National Historic Site and books up incredibly quickly, with accommodations for just twenty-two guests. There’s no electricity or running water on site, so be ready to enjoy more of a wilderness experience replete with kerosene lamps, wood and propane stoves, and outhouses.
Wanting to bag at least one summit while we were out there, we decided to head north and scramble Skoki Mountain. From the lodge, it’s a straightforward yet steep route to the top, clocking in at a mile (1.7 km) one-way with 1,700 feet (215 m) of vertical. Part of the Slate Range, Skoki’s 8,881-foot (2,707-meter) summit is absolutely littered with remnants of marine fossils. Almost every rock contains what looks like some ancient species of tabulate or tube coral, and you could spend hours examining and admiring the prehistoric relics.
Knowing we’d be pushing daylight with the amount of distance we had to cover for the day, we casually inspected the vestiges of the primordial sea as we plodded on to the top. From Skoki’s bare crown, we were treated to sweeping panoramas in every direction. To the southwest, we looked back toward Redoubt Mountain and Packer’s Pass where we’d hiked earlier that morning. From this angle, the Wall of Jericho sharply bisected the terrain between the Skoki Lakes and Merlin and Castilleja Lakes. Behind the Wall of Jericho, the trio of Mt. Richardson (Skoki area’s highest summit), Ptarmigan and Pika Peaks towered above the rest of the landscape.
To the north, we looked out over the Pipestone and Red Deer Valleys, with Pipestone and Cyclone Mountains soaring overhead. Directly below Skoki’s summit, the largest of the Red Deer Lakes had water reminiscent of the Caribbean, with blinding aquamarine shallows surrounding deeper areas of crystalline sapphire. To the east, Mt. Douglas’ massive summit looked pretty intimidating behind Oyster Peak.
Looking toward the northwest, Molar Mountain’s twin summits – and unmistakable dentine shape – were easily identifiable. Just west of Molar, Mt. Hector (11,135’) and Andromache towered above a sea of golden larches. It was an absolute stunner of a day and, once again, we were fortunate to have the entire summit to ourselves.
After descending back to Skoki Lodge, we hiked another two miles south until we reached Deception Pass. The short scramble up neighboring Fossil Mountain was incredibly tempting; but given the abbreviated autumn day, we figured we’d have to make a return trip someday to bag that one.
As we dropped down from Deception Pass, we took in one quick view of Baker Lake before heading back to Ptarmigan Lake to close out our loop. From our vantage point, we could make out the summit of St. Bride, Lychnis and Tilted Mountain, as well as nearby Brachiopod – yet one more Skoki scramble we’d be keen to check out.
As soon as we reached the lake, Sanchez immediately started pulling up the hill back toward Packer’s Pass, stubbornly asking to repeat the circuit. Clearly the route earned the approval of a little Thai street dog. Unfortunately, our little power hiker was disappointed to learn that her people weren’t quite up for a second go around. One of these days, maybe we’ll find her limit. All we know is that, right now, 40 km doesn’t seem to come close.
From Ptarmigan Lake, it was another six miles back to the car via Boulder Pass and Temple Fire Road under a swiftly sinking sun. Really, this was the only lackluster part of the day. It always sucks when you finish a gorgeous hike only to realize that, not only are the views finished, but you’ve also got no choice but to hoof it back out along a service road. Having just hiked the Lake O’Hara Fire Road (13 miles roundtrip) a couple weeks prior, we were kind of feeling a bit over it.
After headlining the top of my list all season, Skoki turned out to be even better than I imagined. The area is not only incredibly scenic, but also lightly trafficked – presumably because of the effort it takes to get out here. As we traversed the loop, all we could do was point at different peaks and lakes we wish we could have fit into our hike – Castilleja & Merlin Lake, Fossil Mountain, Red Deer Lake, Oyster Peak… Seriously, one of these days we are going to invest in some friggin’ camping gear. When we do, one of the first places I’m coming back to is Skoki. I could easily spend several more days exploring this quiet corner of Banff.
Total distance: 21.2 miles (34.1 km)
Elevation gain: 5,316 feet (1,620 m)