Last updated on September 8th, 2021
Featured image: Dawn’s colours paint the snow-topped cap of Mt. Victoria and Lake Louise in this view from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise / Photo by Linda Barnard
It’s Worth the Trek to the Top for Stunning Views and a Well-earned Cup of Tea
By Linda Barnard, Guest Writer
To have tea with the queen of the Canadian Rockies, all it takes is a pair of hiking boots. Snow-capped Mt. Victoria, named for the 19th-century British monarch, is the regal backdrop for turquoise-coloured Lake Louise in Alberta’s Banff National Park.
The famous milky blue-green lake? Lake Louise is named for Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta. It’s good to be queen.
Millions of visitors have been captivated by the extraordinary scene of the 3,464-metre mountain, glacier and colourful lake.
Not 12-year-old me. I was there on a family vacation as a moody pre-teen, more concerned with hating her frizzy hair and wishing she was back home with her friends. Sorry, mom and dad.
Fifty-one years later, on an overcast day in September 2020, it was a different story. I was knocked back by the spectacle. I felt slightly off-kilter, my brain whirring to catch up with the powerful impact of the scene.
Could I get an even better look at Mt. Victoria?
The Plain of Six Glaciers Trail is a 14-kilometre, round-trip hike that gets trekkers much closer, with the extra lure of a cup of tea and fresh-baked pastry at the trail’s end at the historic Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse.
The sturdy two-storey wood and stone teahouse was built in 1927 by the Canadian Pacific Railway for mountaineers and Lake Louise guests. Then as now, there’s no electricity. Staff make soup and bake loaves and treats for arriving hikers using propane stoves. Several tonnes of kitchen supplies come by helicopter at the start of the June-to-October season. Teahouse staff, who work five days on and two off, carry up fresh provisions when they return to work on their inspiring commute. It’s a family-owned business, bought by Joy Kimball in 1959. Daughter Susanne Gillies-Smith is proprietor now.
Paddlers take one of the signature red rental canoes on Lake Louise, with Mt. Victoria in the foreground. Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise photo
Although I’m no mountain goat, I’m a passionate hiker. I admit I have grown tentative in my 60s, bedevilled by wonky balance and a cranky Achilles tendon. I’m also a worrier. I rarely hike for more than a couple of hours. Could I manage a five-to-six-hour climb? I Googled things like: “how hard is the Plain of Six Glaciers hike?” The searches called it “moderate.” My partner, Hans, was encouraging. You’ve got this, he said. I wore sturdy hiking shoes and had trekking poles for stability. My backpack held a litre of water and enough snacks for days. I’m a worrier, but a well-equipped one.
Cloud obscured part of the mountains as we started out on an overcast, mild morning from the trailhead below the terraces of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The trail starts out flat, skirting Lake Louise. We took a few minutes to walk on the delta beach at the end of the lake, watching tourists paddling bright-red rental canoes on the blue water.
Linda Barnard and Hans Pellikaan at the Abbot Pass lookout, with Mt. Victoria in the background. Linda Barnard photo
A few horses from Brewster Lake Louise Stables passed us, carrying riders who had paid $230 for the up-and-back trip to the teahouse.
The path followed a gentle, steady incline beside glacier-fed streams before heading up more steeply through the forest. An occasional look back at the lake and the hotel showed me how far we’d come. The view ahead and all around us was thrilling.
Don’t look back, unless the view is worth it. Linda Barnard admires the view of Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise from the Plain of Six Glaciers trail.
Hans Pellikaan photo
Above the treeline and along the next ridge, the vistas opened even wider, with mountains ahead and glacier below. The path became narrow, rocky and steeper, flattening occasionally before rising again. I’d read there were steel cables fixed to one a rock wall at a potentially slippery flat section, but they’d been taken down, probably as a COVID safety measure. I took my time and made it through.
We paused often, so struck by the enormity of the views we were compelled to stop to fully appreciate the surroundings. Hikers on the trail ahead looked tiny. The rocky climb was occasionally challenging, but I was so exhilarated by the scenery, I didn’t flag. It got tougher as we followed switchbacks up. I avoided looking down at patches of loose scree and the drop to the valley on my left.
A final push up through Alpine forest and the teahouse was in sight, colourful Nepalese prayer flags strung across the front porch.
The Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse was built in 1927 and rewards hikers with baked goods, sandwiches, hot soup and beverages. Linda Barnard photo
A delicious scone and some inspiring words from the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse staff. Linda Barnard photo
Elated by completing one of the most stunning hikes I’ve ever done, I was delighted to reach the teahouse. But I was also disappointed. Heavy fog obscured much of the mountains. I couldn’t see one of the hanging glaciers, let along six. Still, the hot tea was welcome, the staff friendly and the scone with butter and strawberry jam delicious. We sat on a log bench, sipped our tea and gazed up at what we could see of Mt. Victoria from our perch 2,100 metres up.
You know that corny moment in a movie when the clouds part, the sun streams through and there’s the swell of an angelic choir? That happened. Minus the choir.
The six hanging glaciers were revealed against a brilliant blue sky: Lower Victoria, Upper Victoria, Aberdeen, Lefroy, Upper Lefroy and Popes. They were magnificent.
Energized, we hiked a slim, 1.3-km path from the teahouse up to the Abbot Pass viewpoint for an even better view of Mt. Victoria and Mt. Lefroy. It added about an hour to the six-hour hike and incalculable happiness to my day.
Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario has been an intriguing destination for me. Its proximity to Tobermory’s turquoise waters, its significance to the Anishnaabe (Ojibway) people as home to the Great Spirit, and its stunning views from Cup and Saucer hit all of my travel buttons.
There was a party atmosphere among the small group of hikers we met at the top of the ridge. All of us were giddy with the accomplishment, the sudden shift to blue skies and the mountains around us as we took photos for each other.
I felt small amid the grandeur, immensely grateful to have made the trek for an audience with the queen of the Rockies.
Overlooking Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Linda Barnard photo
Fun fact: How Lake Louise Gets its Colour
Mt. Victoria and neighbouring glaciers give Lake Louise its signature hue. As with all glacier-fed lakes, the melt water contains fine-grained “rock flour” silt, which appears brilliant blue-green when sunlight hits the lake.
When you go
Check the Alberta government website for the latest on COVID restrictions and travel.
The Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse is open daily from June to October. Check the website for hours, menus and opening-closing dates.
The teahouse is a cash only business. Bring a small bag to take your garbage back with you. There are clean, well-maintained outhouses.
Rooms at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise start at $799 for a midweek stay. Check the website for most current rates.
Be sure to visit Moraine Lake, a short drive from Lake Louise. It’s also a blue-green glacier-fed lake, with the magnificent Valley of the Ten Peaks as its backdrop. The scene is familiar to many Canadians as the onetime reverse side of the $20 bill.
Linda Barnard is a former Toronto Star reporter who packed it in to become a freelance travel, food & wine and film writer. She lives in Victoria, B.C. Follow her on Instagram: @barnardwrites and on Twitter @barnardfilm.
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