Total distance: 40 km
Total elevation gain: 700 m
Trailhead to Glacier Lake (one-way): 9 km, 270 m
Glacier Lake to Lyell Lake (round trip): 22 km, 80 mView mapDownload GPS track
This is an easy, early season backpacking trip. While we did this at the first of July, it is regularly in shape by mid-late May.
The trailhead is located about 100 m north of Saskatchewan River Crossing on the Icefields Parkway. Initially broad, the trail heads south towards the North Saskatchewan River. After crossing the bridge the trail turns towards the southwest and wanders along generally flat terrain for about 3.6 km, passing a nice view of the Howse River en route. (See the photo
of this vantage for more details on the overall route). The trail then ascends a hill about 250 m high, then descends the same amount to Glacier Lake. The ascent is more gradual on the way in than on the return trip.
Glacier Lake campground is in an idyllic setting on the eastern edge of the lake. There is a pole for safe food storage, an outhouse, picnic tables, and a fire pit. There are not, however, any designated campsites and while we managed to find a flat area to set up our tent, this would be quite difficult if the campground was near capacity (which is apparently 5 tents). The overall condition of the campground is appalling, but on par with what we've come to expect in the mountain parks.
A common dayhike from the campground is to the end of the lake, approximately 4 km distant. The obvious trail follows the north shore, but presently involves stumbling over significant deadfall in two avalanche paths. While not fun, it is easily accomplished. We continued beyond the lake a further 7 km to a lake below Southeast Lyell Glacier (the glacier visible from the campground). This route, however, involves significant bushwhacking and careful routefinding. While the trail is initially very good and obvious as it heads across the outwash plain, it soon disappears at the main river channel. At this point, backtrack a few steps and head to the right (north) and you'll soon find a new trail that slowly turns towards the trees to the north. Follow this until a clear (non-glacial) stream is reached and must be crossed. Several trees bridge this stream. The first one is narrow and precarious; a much better alternative anyone could cross is visible about 50 m upstream.
After crossing the stream meander about without a trail, generally making your way more towards the center of the outwash plain. A few small streams and boggy areas must be hopped over or avoided. Eventually you will encounter the old trail, but after following it a short distance you will again encounter the main river channel. When this happens, follow bits of poor trail involving heavy bushwhacking into the trees, emerging out to the outwash plain whenever possible. Several very nice campsites are passed along the way, although I doubt you're allowed to camp there.
The last kilometer to the glacier is on generally trailless terrain. We followed the path of least resistance, ascending slightly and keeping far from the main channel and using a GPS to keep on track. About 11 km from the campground (4.5 hard hours), arrive at the shore of the lake below Southeast Lyell Glacier. Ironically, the view of the glacier from this point isn't as spectacular as from further away as the large upper portion is hidden from view. While it is likely possible to circumnavigate the lake and go right up to the toe of the glacier, several large icefalls had occurred earlier that day and it would've been seriously unsafe to do so.