How to Get There: Approximately 40 kms north of Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway you will find the Helen Lake parking lot. Located just before Bow Lake, opposite the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint.
Difficulty: The difficulty of this hike depends on where you intend to stop. If Helen Lake is your final destination, then this is a moderately challenging, well labeled tromp through Banff backcountry. Remember your bear spray and hikers of all levels should be able to reach the scenic Helen Lake destination. However, if you intend to summit Cirque peak, this becomes a challenging journey with some scrambling and route finding experience required.
Distance: Helen Lake: 7.5 miles roundtrip (12km), Helen Lake with Cirque Peak 10.5 miles (17 km) elevation gain: 1,300 feet (400 meters)
Time: 5-7 hours
Helen Lake to Cirque Peak is one of the most popular day hikes on the Icefields Parkway. This well known trail combines all the major elements that draw people to the area: Glaciers, glacial lakes, wildflower flush prairies, panoramic views and a backcountry sense of adventure, all packed into a single intermediate day hike. After slogging through the hordes of tourists that descend upon Lake Louise and Moraine Lake for the summer season, this is the hike that will truly satisfy your adventurous outdoor spirit.
After departing the trailhead, you will immediately encounter an unforgiving grade as your journey begins, but do not despair, as most of this hike will be a calf-friendly, gradual ascension on a well beaten path. In fact, if you choose to skip the optional leg up to Cirque Peak, this prologue will be the steepest section you will encounter. Trek through two miles of heavily forested trail and the tree line will eventually break, revealing obstructed peeks at the nearby Crowfoot Glacier.
Continue on and the hike will finally open up into expansive valleys flanked by the surrounding Dolomites. Helen Lake awaits you a mile and a half in the distance, topping out at a one way total of 3.7 miles. If you choose to continue on and ascend toward the looming Cirque Peak, you will add a grueling 3 mile up and back leg to your roundtrip journey. Completing this appendage trail however will reward you with some absolutely breathtaking views of Banff National Park. Helen Lake to Cirque Peak stands as my favorite hike in Icefields Parkway because of the summit panorama, especially in August when the wildflowers are in full bloom.
Once you reach Helen Lake, this is a great spot to grab lunch and refuel. Hikers may have to contend with swarms of biting flies that patrol the area, a phenomenon that often flushes hikers upward toward the imposing task of summiting Cirque Peak, or retreating back down toward the relative safety of the river. For those travelers choosing not to make the pilgrimage up the unforgiving Cirque route, I would still encourage a climb above the Helen Lake headwall for an elevated recap of their journey.
Those attempting to complete the Cirque peak challenge, a steep scree filled giant awaits you. Depart from Helen Lake and take the path around the right side of the water to trek above the headwall. Once you reach the top of the headwall, follow the path onward toward Cirque. One cairn laden path drifts off to the left taking hikers through a precarious section of scrambling along the ledge of the headwall. Navigate your way and rejoin the main path at the base of the Cirque trail.
From the base of the path, you will now have 1500 feet of elevation gain to conquer over the next mile. In addition to those stifling parameters, most of the trail is loose scree, which makes it an even more strenuous plod upward.
Once you complete the final push and approach the summit, mind your surrounding as you will be boxed in by sheer drop offs on both sides. Locate your footing and stand atop Cirque Peak. Enjoy the benefits of your hard work as you gaze out at one of the best views Banff National Parks has to offer with Peyto Lake, Dolomite Pass, Bow Glacier and the Wapta Icefields in sight.
The view from the summit is amazing. It is the opening shot of my Centriphone Canada video below.
Trip Report: 7 hours
Departed Trailhead: 1:30pm
Reached Helen Lake: 3:20pm
Cirque Peak Summit: 5:10pm
Trailhead return: 8:25pm