Ah the end of the summer is nigh.
There’s been more rain and snow throughout August and September than I would have liked. It’s not that I dislike rain and snow- I actually enjoy both of them from time to time. But I haven’t conquered as many peaks this summer partly because of the weather. So when Saturday’s forecast looked amazing, and with the gradual colour changes that are happening in the Canadian Rockies at this time, I knew I had to do a special hike.
On Saturday, Robbie and I hit the road at 6:45 am. Of course, any day that starts that early required an immediate caffeine fix courtesy of Starbucks, as well as breakfast sandwiches and other munchies. You see, we were embarking on a long drive to the Icefields Parkway, where we would hike to Helen Lake. Then I would attempt to summit Cirque Peak. Many blogs and book sources indicate that it’s an amazing hike and scramble with views that are difficult to top. I recently had someone contact me through this blog telling me that it’s one of his favourite scrambles from Alan Kane’s “Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies”. And then I chatted with a random hiker who mentioned that Cirque Peak was great. Clearly all signs pointed to this hike! So off we drove for a few hours before pulling into the busy Helen Lake parking lot. We geared up and hit the trail.
The hike to Helen Lake was pleasant: a well-worn path over roots, streams, and through forest before opening up to wonderful views of Dolomite Peak to the east and Cirque Peak in the distance to the north. Hiking through the valley alone is stunning. Between the mountain visuals, feel of the sun’s heat, smells of the alpine flora and sounds from happy hikers, my senses were in overdrive… and yet, it was all so calm and peaceful. Helen Lake is beautiful and makes a great rest spot before heading up to the ridge, or making a push for the summit of Cirque Peak.
After stopping at Helen Lake for some snacks and photos, we headed up to the ridge. If you’re tired once you get to Helen Lake, then find a bit more energy and make sure to get to the top of the ridge, as the views of Helen Lake and the valley from this vantage point are awesome. As Robbie explored the ridge, I turned north and aimed for Cirque Peak. Already spent by this point, just looking at the peak was incredibly daunting. As I ascended the rocky scree slopes, I stopped for many breaks, but persevered until I reached the summit. I dropped my bag and sat, winded, but amazed at the views around me. Mountains… everywhere. Helen Lake looked tiny! To the south, Katherine Lake and Dolomite Peak were in view; I could see Bow Lake and the Wapta Icefields in the distance in the west; to the north, the snow-filled cirque. I left my bag and headed to the (higher) east peak of Cirque, which is an additional five minutes max and a fun scramble. I felt like I was on top of the world! “Breathtaking” is the word that comes to mind, but I’ll let the summit views speak for themselves.
It was a quick scree descent, then a long gradual hike all the way back to the car. Robbie and I reflected on our hikes and the scramble and agreed with all the literature out there: this area is crazy beautiful and the hike and scramble are worth all the effort. I guess there’s a reason why it’s considered a “Classic” or “Premier” hike in Banff National Park. So if you’re passing through the Icefields Parkway and looking for a day hike, or you’re heading out from Calgary and want something with epic views… then YES, do this one! Do it now!
Logistics: Go north on Highway 93 (Icefields Parkway) from the Lake Louise junction for 33 km. There’s a sign for the Helen Lake parking area on the right. We left Calgary at 6:45 am, made a stop for coffee and food, and by the time we parked in the Helen Lake parking area at 9:45 am, the lot was pretty full. When the weather is nice, make sure to get there early! You can also park at the Crowfoot Glacier lookout area on the other side of Highway 93. It’s a 6 km hike to Helen Lake with a 455 m elevation gain. Continue onward to the ridge (an additional 100 m gain or so?) for amazing views of Helen Lake and Dolomite Peak. From here, you can head to Dolomite Pass and Katherine Lake, or go north to ascend Cirque Peak. Alan Kane’s “Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies” shows a path to the right of the water body you’ll pass at the base of the peak; however, there are cairns to the left of the water for a quicker climb up the rocks to the ridge. Unfortunately I got lost and went too far to the left, so just make sure that you’re following the right cairns and heading upward in the direction of the peak. Cirque peak stands at 2993 m, and once at the summit, you have gained 1050 m of elevation since the trailhead. It’s not a fun scree ascent, but it makes the descent super quick. Many hikers descended down the sandy left side of the ridge (following Kane’s path), but I opted to descend the same rocky way as before. My total time with breaks was 7.5 hours, but if I hadn’t mis-stepped twice, it would have been closer to 7 hours roundtrip: 4.5 hours roundtrip to Helen Lake, and 2.5 hours roundtrip from Helen Lake to Cirque Peak. My roundtrip distance was about 18 km.