The Onion (Polaris Peak)

Bow Lake is a stunning body of water along the Icefields Parkway, about thirty minutes north of Lake Louise. The turquoise pool sits in the shadow of Crowfoot Mountain and Crowfoot Glacier and is fed by nearby Bow Glacier Falls. Having previously hiked the easy, six-mile out-and-back trail to the falls on a crappy weather day, we were excited to return for a more challenging day hike. After researching a few trails in the area, we ultimately settled on The Onion.

Looking southwest across Bow Lake from the shoreline near the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, The Onion is a dome-shaped summit that rises just west of the Crowfoot Mountain massif and directly above Bow Glacier Falls. It’s flanked on either side by the pointed peak of Mt. St. Nicholas and a section of the Wapta Icefield, the headwaters of the Bow River. Compared to its neighbors, it’s a comparatively stunted summit. However, it makes for a fun scramble and offers some really fantastic views.

When we made it back to Bow Lake the penultimate weekend in July, we were psyched to find we finally had a little bit of sun. Both times we’d previously visited Bow Lake, in 2014 and again this June, the weather was kind of rubbish. And although some clouds and haze ultimately moved in around lunchtime, the bright morning skies were a really nice treat.

Beginning from the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, the out-and-back route to The Onion starts along the same trail that leads out to Bow Glacier Falls. As the trail skirts the western side of Bow Lake, it affords that iconic view of Crowfoot Mountain’s North Peak rising above the glacial-fed pool. As the lakeside trail then turns away from Crowfoot’s imposing flanks, the summits surrounding the Wapta Icefield come into view – including Mt. Gordon, Mt. St. Nicholas, The Onion, Portal Peak and Mt. Thompson.

The trail continues to hug the lakeshore, intermittently passing through evergreen forests before arriving at some rocky creek flats. Looking back across the lake from the meandering creek, the bright red roof of the Num-Ti-Jah lodge provides a pop of color beneath Cirque Peak’s 9,820-foot (2,993 m) summit.

About two miles from the lodge, the trail to The Onion (via Bow Hut) finally splits from the Bow Glacier Falls route, making a sharp left across a narrow canyon. The turn is obvious, in large part because of the massive chockstone you have to clamber over to cross the gorge. Though the giant boulder may have been a few meters tall, it was no match for our badass little street dog. I have to think that someday we’ll find something that challenges her slightly… or maybe at least something where she doesn’t make her humans look like a couple of feeble wimps.

For the next couple miles, the trail continues to roughly parallel the canyon and creek, popping in and out of forests and traversing a couple of boulder fields. To the west, there’s a nice view of Bow Glacier Falls – a tiered, 410-foot (125 m) cascade tumbling from a steep headwall. When we hiked at the end of July, heaps of yellow columbine peppered the shaded sections of terrain.

Eventually, the trail opens into an alpine basin, crossing a small creek and continuing up a short stretch of scree until it reaches Bow Hut. The scenic basecamp sits at the edge of the Wapta Icefield and is one of about thirty backcountry huts run by the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC).

From Bow Hut, it’s only another mile (1.6 km) to the top of The Onion. A visible trail heads to the left of the shelter, and gradually fades as it approaches a series of glacially-sculpted rock ribs. From here, he view of Mt. St. Nicholas’ sharp spire piercing through the Wapta Icefield is quite striking, and we even spotted a few riders enjoying some summer boarding beneath the pointed peak.

This final section of trail involves some easy scrambling over the thick bands of rock. There’s not much in terms of exposure, but you do need to be comfortable using your hands in places (be careful, as some of the rock is incredibly sharp here). The trail here isn’t consistently obvious, and seems to be more of a labyrinth of cairns in a few places. That said, it’s easy enough to forge your own path if you get slightly off course.

Once you reach the summit, the views are stunning. The best is arguably to the north, where you can look down on Iceberg and Bow Lakes. The former is an eye-catching glacial tarn that sits a few hundred meters below The Onion’s 8,793-foot (2,680 m) summit. The small lake is drained by Bow Glacier Falls, which subsequently flows into Bow Lake and forms the headwaters of Alberta’s 365-mile-long (587-km-long) Bow River.

If you can manage to pry your eyes away from Iceberg Lake, to the south and west you are enveloped by frozen sheets that make up part of the Wapta Icefield. This collection of glaciers stretches for miles along the Continental Divide between Banff and Yoho National Parks. I have to say, it was pretty incredible to see the tiny frames of a guy and his little Thai mutt silhouetted against such a vast sea of frozen white.

When we started out in the morning, we thought this might be a good one. It turned out to be great. The varying scenery and terrain kept it interesting, the route-finding up the rock ribs was fun, and that final view was pretty awe-worthy. If you’re looking for an easy scramble along the Icefields Parkway, we thought this one certainly delivered.

Total distance:  12.2 miles (20.0 km)
Elevation gain:  2,896 feet (880 m)
Scramble rating: Easy

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