Skoki: Packer’s Pass Peak & Fossil Mountain

The Skoki area is undoubtedly one of our favorite parts of Banff National Park, and one we’ve found ourselves habitually returning to. A day trip out here doesn’t come easy, however. Pretty much any journey out to this scenic swath of backcountry requires a minimum roundtrip distance between 20 and 40 km. Although it’s beautiful at any time of year, Skoki Valley is exceptionally striking during larch season. Our first visit was in 2022 and included a 21-mile (34 km) circuit out to Skoki Lodge with a scramble up neighboring Skoki Mountain. It was the last week in September and the larch trees were right at peak. Before even getting back to the car, we vowed that it wouldn’t be our last larch march to Skoki.

Almost one year later to the day, the larches were again peaking, with the Thursday and Friday forecasts calling for pleasant temperatures and ‘plentiful sunshine.’ Additionally, most of the wildfire smoke that had besieged the area nearly all summer was now a fading memory. With just a fleeting window to enjoy the alpine larches (typically less than two weeks), you’ve got to seize those fair-weather hours whenever you can.

While Thursday and Friday looked stunning, weather conditions were projected to deteriorate quickly over the weekend. We knew we couldn’t waste a minute. On Wednesday afternoon, we managed to book the last available cabin at Storm Mountain Lodge and planned a two-day, forty-mile (64-km) larch march through Banff’s backcountry. We couldn’t believe our luck scoring a reservation, and it saved us about four hours of driving on top of two eleven-hour days on the trail.

Banff’s historic Storm Mountain Lodge was built in the 1920s by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and served as one of eight Bungalow Camps during the earliest days of tourism in the Canadian Rockies. One hundred years later, the original lodge and cabins are still being enjoyed by visitors. We found the rustic retreat cute and cozy, and Sanchez was stoked to sample their game burger – a bison and elk patty topped with bacon and berry barbeque sauce. After a 19-mile (31 km) day exploring the Marvel Pass area, it was the perfect spot to crash before an even longer day at Skoki.

The next morning at sunrise, we grabbed a couple of freshly-baked pastries from lodge’s dining room and set out for Skoki. Our journey to Skoki began as any does – with the 2.5-mile (4 km) march up Temple Road to the Lake Louise Ski Resort. It’s never that bad first thing in the morning and, actually, could be considered a nice little warmup if you’re a glass-half-full type of person. However, at the end of a long day, the return trip feels entirely too tedious.

From Temple Lodge and the bottom of the ski runs, it’s another 2.5 miles (4 km) up to Boulder Pass. The trail is largely forested for most of the way, but the views finally start to open up as you gain the pass. The lower slopes of Redoubt and Whitehorn Mountains are blanketed with larches, and they were glowing a brilliant gold in the early morning light. Across the valley, Mount Temple was also looking particularly impressive on this beautifully clear fall morning.

From Boulder Pass, it’s a short half-mile walk to Ptarmigan Lake. I love this part of the hike. Here, the trail emerges from the chilly shadow of Redoubt Mountain and you’re suddenly drenched with warm sunshine as you round the north end of the hulking peak and hit the lakeshore. Not only does it feel amazing on a frosty morning, but the landscape is now completely bathed in light.

Grateful for what was shaping up to be a second flawless fall day, we made our way around the north side of Ptarmigan Lake and up the moderate hillside to Packer’s Pass. The pass affords a stunning view of turquoise Zigadenus Lake with the Wall of Jericho towering overhead. Although we’ve seen these views before, I don’t think seeing them a dozen times could make them any less incredible.

Unlike our previous trip, this time we chose to head up to Packer’s Pass Peak – an unofficial knob just east of the pass. Standing at around 8,480 feet (2585 m), the highpoint separates Packer’s Pass from Deception Pass, the other port of entry into Skoki Valley. Although the peak is just a few hundred feet (100 m) higher than the pass itself, that tiny bit of elevation really improves the view. We reached the top after hiking off-trail up the southwest slopes, and were met with a gorgeous panorama of Redoubt Mountain and Ptarmigan Lake. Neighboring Heather Ridge looked like it had just received a fresh dusting of snow and we could now make out Redoubt Lake, perched on the bench between Redoubt and Heather Ridge. In the distance, the peaks of Mount Temple and the Lake Louise Group reigned as majestic as ever.

Looking down off the north side of the peak was equally striking, with views down onto Zigadenus and Myosotis Lakes and out into Skoki Valley. The larches were absolutely incredible on this day and made it really hard for us to pull ourselves away. However, given that we were just seven miles into a twenty-one-mile trip, we begrudgingly did have to move on.

On descent, we used the peak’s northwest slopes to head directly to Zigadenus Lake. Along the way, we met up with a friendly ptarmigan who was content to show us the path down. From there we retraced our track from the previous fall, making our way next around the south and east sides of Myosotis Lake. Myosotis is the scientific name (genus) for the forget-me-not, and it’s certainly easy to see how the tarn earned its moniker. The larches here were draped in their finest gold beautifully framing the jewel-toned pool. There wasn’t so much as a ripple in the water, creating a flawless mirror for Skoki and Fossil Mountains.

Just beyond the lake, we scrambled down the Myosotis headwall into Skoki Meadows where we rambled through larch stands along a meandering creek. After crossing the meadow, the trail reentered the forest where it made its way to Skoki Lodge. The historic ski lodge first opened in 1931 and still hosts guests year-round. Now a registered National Historic Site, the rustic, backcountry shelter was the first of its kind built specifically for ski tourism in Canada and, quite possibly, in all of North America.

The lodge marked the rough midpoint of our trip, and was the perfect spot to pause for lunch. Adirondack chairs and picnic tables pepper the grounds around the lodge and, if you time it correctly, thru hikers are welcome to grab a high tea or cold beer. Unfortunately, we were a couple hours early with a summit still to bag, so we had to settle for our packed PB&Js before heading off toward Deception Pass.

From the lodge, it’s just over two miles (3 km) to the top of Deception Pass. As you climb through the valley, there are great views looking back toward the Wall of Jericho and Skoki Mountain, as well as back at Ptarmigan Peak and Zigadenus Lake.

By the time we reached the top of Deception Pass, we were already twelve miles (19 km) into our trek. To our east, we gazed up at our objective. Fossil Mountain doesn’t look particularly steep from this vantage point, but we quickly learned exactly how deceiving that foreshortened view is. From 8,120-foot (2475 m) Deception Pass, there’s another 1,600 vertical feet (500 m) to gain in just three-quarters of a mile.

Admittedly, we were feeling kind of toasted by the time we started our scramble up Fossil. We’d hiked 19 miles with 4,000 feet of vertical the previous day, and were now already 12 miles and 4,300 vertical feet into this outing. With another 1,600 vertical feet staring us directly in the face – and then an 8-mile (13 km) hike back to trailhead awaiting us after summiting – we approached the bottom of the scree slopes with less enthusiasm than we normally would.

With a cumulative 31 miles and 8,300’ of vert in the last 24 hours, Fossil’s summit seemed less and less appealing with every shitty step up that pile of loose scree. However, we were standing right there and had no intention of leaving without the summit. Tired legs on a scree treadmill was the prize punishment we earned for saving the scramble for the back end of our Skoki trip.

We huffed and puffed and swore and stumbled our way up the seemingly endless mound of scree, but reached the 9,665-foot (2946 m) summit less than an hour after leaving Deception Pass. The extra effort was worth it, as the views from the top were spectacular. To the west we looked back at the trio of Ptarmigan, Pika and Richardson above Myosotis Lake (Zigadenus was now entirely in shadow). Beneath Ptarmigan’s lofty crown, Packer’s Pass Peak now looked like a tiny bump in the landscape. Beyond the Wall of Jericho and Merlin Castle, we could make out the unmistakable summits of Mount Balfour, Mount Hector, and Molar Mountain.

With better light to the east and southeast, the views in this direction were even more impressive. Beyond the long spine of Oyster Peak stood two Skoki giants, Mount Douglas and Saint Bride. Immediately below Fossil’s southern scree slopes was jewel-toned Baker Lake. Rising beyond Baker Lake was a sea of serrated peaks, including the nearby summits of Brachiopod, Anthozoan, Tilted, and Lychnis Mountains. The larches around Baker Lake were similarly in their full golden glory, and the stands enveloping the small tarns on the bench below Brachiopod and Anthozoan Mountains were particularly eye-catching.

Before beginning our descent, we paused beside the memorial that sat alongside the summit cairn – a plaque honoring two men killed in an avalanche while skiing Fossil in 1988. It was a touching tribute, but also a tragic reminder of the inherent danger that’s intermingled with the boundless beauty of these mountains.

As we tested our knees during the steep descent to Deception Pass, we enjoyed some final views to our southwest. In the harsh afternoon light, we could see the distant trail – our egress route – skirting Ptarmigan Lake. Beyond the lake and Redoubt Mountain stood a hazy string of summits, including those of the Valley of the Ten Peaks, Mount Temple, and the peaks of the Lake Louise Group.

As we made our way back toward Ptarmigan Lake, we glanced back for one last look at Fossil Mountain. From much further below, it now looked like slightly more impressive an effort than it did from Deception Pass. Admittedly, we were now very much enjoying the gainless rambling through larch-flecked meadows. When we reached the lake, and turn-off for Packer’s Pass, Sanchez dug her feet into the dirt and started pulling to the right. Apparently fifteen miles on the day wasn’t enough for her. Just like last year, she was desperate to extend the trip.

After leaving the lake, all that stood between us and a couple of cold seltzers was the 5.5 miles (9 km) back to the car, disgruntled street dog in tow. While the road walk inevitably sucked, the hike down from Boulder Pass through the Ptarmigan Valley was amazing, even on tired (human) legs. With the sun sinking lower in the sky, we were treated to one last display of gold as the larches along Redoubt’s western slopes were ignited by the fading light. No matter how many times we visit, it’s always sad to say goodbye to Skoki.

Total distance: 21 miles (34 km)
Elevation gain: 5,920 feet (1800 meters)
Scramble rating: Easy (Fossil Mountain, Kane)

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