Distance: 27.5 km
Elevation gain: 1300 m View map Download GPS track
A few years ago while seeking inspiration on backpacking destinations, I came across a photo by Banff photographer Paul Zizka of Alice Lake
. A quick search revealed this lake was tucked away in a fairly isolated area of Banff National Park and was rarely visited. In other words, it was a perfect area for backpacking! Ironically, someone else had exactly the same thought and a year later a report on a trip to Alice Lake appeared on Clubtread
, followed two years later by a scramble up Watermelon Peak
with a base camp at the lake. With the weather aligning nicely this week and a bit of new backpacking gear to try out we figured it would be the perfect time for an overnight stay in the area!
Our journey started at the Helen Lake trailhead at about 8:45 am. We were surprised that several tourist groups were already on the trail at this hour, and were even more surprised that we ended up passing all but one group within about 10 minutes of starting out, despite our heavy packs. After a bit over 3 km in the forest with only the occasional view across the highway to Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Peak, we emerged into the beginnings of the vast Helen Lake meadows. An hour later we reached Helen Lake, then hiked up to the ridge above the lake to have lunch in the breeze. We saw at least a dozen marmots in this area, two of which were chewing on a wooden sign that is now completely illegible and another two that were play fighting.
From the ridge we made our way down to Katherine Lake on faint but cairned trail, then picked up a good trail and wandered through Dolomite Pass. We were by now moving quite slowly simply trying to take in the scenery of the vast alpine meadows! A glacier flowing down from the north side of Dolomite peak was particularly stunning, but the entire area was simply gorgeous! Dropping down into the Dolomite Creek valley we crossed the creek on strategically placed rocks (although we still got wet feet), then continued downstream. Perhaps a kilometer from the crossing the creek braided and filled the width of the valley. Most channels were wide and shallow and the gravel bottom made it easy to just walk across when necessary. Just before the channels converged and dropped through a gap we began to ascend grassy slopes towards the Alice Lake basin. I'd been expecting a steep ascent, but the going was remarkably easy and a leisurely 30 minutes later we stood on the shore of Alice Lake.
I'd been a bit worried about finding a level patch for the tent, but there were plenty of spots near the far (east) end of the lake. We stayed near the lake, but further into the enormous boulder patch there were many creative places to bivy or camp too, some complete with overhanging rock for shelter. "Interestingly", the lake basin was also a breeding ground for some sort of non-biting flying insect and swarms of thousands would fill the air with each step or whenever the breeze stopped. Breathing without inhaling a fly was actually quite difficult!
After setting up camp we headed for the ridge to the northeast, termed Alice Ridge by an earlier visitor. I also wanted to evaluate the feasibility of ascending Bobac Mountain. We stayed to the right (south) of the boulder field as much as we could, but the glacial rubble and boulders made the going absolutely miserable, especially in the afternoon heat, and after 45 minutes or so of frustration we said the heck with it and returned to camp. Continuing would have granted wonderful views into the Siffleur River valley and Clearwater Pass regions, but having dinner and reading on my Kobo was more appealing at the time!
This trip, although short, ranks as one of our more scenically spectacular backpacking trips. After we emerged from the trees below Helen Lake the remainder of the trip, a round-trip distance of over 20 km, was spent wandering through alpine meadows dotted with lakes, tarns, streams, and a profusion of wildflowers. Marmots and ground squirrels were everywhere, as well as the large diggings made by grizzly bears looking to have one for dinner. The scenery was simply amazing! And at least from our perspective, the fact that we didn't see a single soul past Helen Lake made it all the more wonderful!