Total distance: 61 km
Total elevation gain: 1900 m
Trailhead to Fish Lakes camp (one-way): 14.8 km, 750 m
Fish Lakes to Devon Lakes (one-way): 15.7 km, 450 mView mapDownload GPS track
The Devon Lakes are two remote alpine lakes in the heart of Banff National Park. At over 30 km by trail from the nearest road and with 3 mountain passes to traverse to reach them, they are beautifully wild and isolated. This trip isn't only about the destination, however, as a full 22 kilometers of the journey (over 40 km round trip!) is essentially above treeline with alpine meadows stretching as far as one can see.
The trail starts on the east side of the Icefields Parkway across from the Mosquito Creek Hostel. An initial steep climb quickly dissipates into a gentle ascent, reaching Mosquito Creek backcountry campground in 5 km. After the campground the trail steepens and deteriorates, becoming a mix of roots, mud, and streambed that distracts you from the fact that you're slogging through forest at the moment. Around the 8 km mark, however, you emerge into the expansive meadows of North Molar Pass and from this point forward, with a few minor exceptions, you will be above treeline. The meadows simply defy description; just crossing the meadow you just entered requires an hour or more. Tarns, streams, and flowers are everywhere.
The approach to North Molar Pass is obvious and the final ascent up the rocky slopes is far easier and much shorter than it appears from a distance. Upon crossing the pass you are greeted with about 3 km more of meadows and towering peaks. The Fish Lakes campground is about 3.5 km away at this point, down through the gap visible to the left in the distance. It should be noted that near the bottom of the descent a stream will be encountered that is - at least in early July - too deep to rock-hop. The trail obviously continues on the other side and so we de-booted and easily crossed, but within seconds after continuing noticed a bridge further downstream!
Fish Lakes campground lies on the northern shore of Upper Fish Lake near the eastern end of the lake. There are no defined tent pads, but there is apparently room for 5 tents. While we didn't notice until we left, the campground appears to have once been much larger and a little exploring to the northeast from the obvious "set your tent up here" spot reveals a few other nice areas to pitch a tent. These spots would be better than the main area should you be unfortunate enough to share the campground with inconsiderate tourons. The campground also has 4 picnic tables, a bear pole, and a surprisingly clean outhouse.
While Devon Lakes can be reached from here by descending into the Pipestone River valley and ascending to Pipestone Pass, this makes no sense whatsoever as a trail also exists much higher up that offers vastly superior scenery and far less elevation gain and loss. It is known as the "highline route". To find the trail, head roughly north (downhill) from the outhouse, cross the stream, then ascend the hill. It's steep, but less than 100 m up. As you climb, curve north-northeastwards. With a little routefinding, you will encounter a trail that contours to the north, then descends to Moose Lake. (If you come to the top of a cliff, just follow it north and you'll connect up with the trail). The trail shortly becomes very obvious as it gently undulates through meadows filled with patchy trees, tarns, and streams.
From this point forward just follow the trail over Pipestone Pass and into Clearwater Pass. The scenery again defies description. A few forks in the trail on the approach to Pipestone Pass all reconnect later on; just be sure you're aiming for the actual pass - it is the gap to the east (right), not the west. Clearwater Pass lies to the north of the broad mountain (Devon Mountain) flanking Pipestone Pass to the east. When it starts to look like there might be a route around it, keep your eye out for a fork in the trail doing just this. It is marked with a small cairn and while the main trail will also eventually head into Clearwater Pass this shortcut avoids losing elevation that would need to be regained.
Clearwater Pass is a huge alpine meadow. Near the eastern end are the two Devon Lakes; the further one being the smaller of the two and about 30 m lower. There are superb areas to pitch a tent all around. As there is no bear-proof storage here, you must have a bear cannister or other method of keeping your food safe. Two large boulders, one on the north side of the upper lake near the trail and another to the west of the lake, offer places to hang food; there are apparently trees large enough to hang food from near the lower lake as well. We stored our food in an Ursack
and hung it from one of the boulders.
As testament to how isolated this area truly is, we spent 20 minutes watching a wolverine forage in the bushes near our tent! Surprisingly, other common wildlife was much more skittish and we only saw marmots and ptarmigan during the trip. The entire trip, however, is prime bear country and evidence of this is everywhere. Be certain to make lots of noise as you hike!