The Plain of Six Glaciers hike is one of the most spectacular and popular in Banff National Park. If you’re looking for a way to enjoy Lake Louise without the crowds, this hike is it.
Plain of Six Glaciers Hike
Lake Louise is the most iconic of all the lakes in the Canadian Rockies, and with good reason. Its turquoise water, surrounded by towering mountains and in the shadow of Victoria Glacier, makes for one of the most picturesque places on earth. Unfortunately, millions of other people around the world think so too. During the busy summer months, up to 15,000 people visit the lakeshore every day. Every. Day. If you, like me, don’t like crowds, that number may make you want to go run, scream, hide, and go just about anywhere except for Lake Louise in the summertime.
Fortunately, if you’re willing to get up early and put in a bit of effort, there’s a way to enjoy the beauty of the lake without the hordes. The Plain of Six Glaciers hike was a highlight of our Canadian Rockies trip, and I highly recommend it if you’re headed to Lake Louise. You’ll get to hear the roar of a glacier (so cool!!!), get up close and personal to Mount Lefroy, Mount Victoria, and Victoria Glacier, and eat chocolate cake at the historic Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse.
If I haven’t sold you on the hike yet, read on for details first and then our personal experience on this popular trek second.
Things to Know Before Hiking the Plain of Six Glaciers trail:
- The first two miles along Lake Louise are completely flat and easy. But once you get past the lake, it’s uphill for the next 2.5 miles. There are a few sections that are very steep.
- I didn’t have any problems with the hike, but I also didn’t complain when my parents asked to take a break. My parents did complete the trek, so if you are of average physical ability, it’s totally doable.
Time to complete: 5-6 hours
- Depends on your speed, the number of breaks you take, if you stop for food at the tea house (which you should absolutely do)
- About 8 miles round trip
- 1,925 ft elevation gain
Where/when to start:
- The Lake Louise parking lot fills up early, so plan to at least be parked by 7:30 AM. And if you want to get on the Plain of Six Glaciers trail before it gets busy, you want to start hiking early.
- The trail starts with the paved trail around the Lake Louise lakeshore. Just stay on the flat, paved path until you reach the end of the lake. The paved path will then turn to gravel and go up a small hill. This is the beginning of the Plain of Six Glaciers hike.
What to pack:
- Rainproof jacket
What to wear:
- Layers, as the weather can change quickly and be unpredictable. And it’ll be cooler and windier at the top of the hike than at the bottom.
- In August, I started the hike in a light winter coat and ended in just a t-shirt
- Hiking boots with good grip
- Hat/visor/sunglasses as you’ll be exposed most of the time
Tea House information:
- Open early June to October
- Hours are 9-5, 7 days a week
- Cash only (American and Canadian dollars accepted)
After I nearly killed my parents with the 16 mile Highline Trail just a week before, I was hesitant about the Plain of Six Glaciers hike. I knew it would be beautiful and worth the effort, but I also knew it would be mostly uphill.
“If you feel too tired, sore, etc., we’ll find something else to hike!”
My dad, who has wanted to see Lake Louise since he was 4, never hesitated. But my mom, at this point in our trip, was a little worse for wear: she had an infected and squished toe from her hiking boots, a nasty cold, an infected finger, a scraped leg, and a damaged hand from falling on it earlier. Hence, my hesitation about this hike. But she never turns down a challenge!….and the promise of chocolate cake at the top of the trail probably helped convince her too.
Fortunately, the first 2 miles of the Plain of Six Glaciers hike were extremely easy, pleasant, and flat. The trail leisurely wound its way around the shore of Lake Louise. Many of those 15,000 other visitors, with their strollers or walkers, and feet clad in flip-flops or dress shoes, wander onto this part of the trail because it is so lovely. It’s shaded by trees and there are no roots or rocks to trip over. Part of it is even paved!
But my mom discovered that you do need to watch out for bear poop. Less than 30 minutes in, and she could add “bear poop covered shoe” to the list of her other ailments. We were off to a great start!…..*insert sarcasm*
But most other tourists don’t venture further than those first couple of miles. At the end of the lakeshore, the trail climbed a short, steep hill, a deterrent for most casual visitors. But this is just the warm-up; the trail leveled out again for a bit, as it crossed over the end of the lake and the stream of glacier-melt that feeds it before the trail starts the real climb.
It’s here, at the junction of the lake and the river, that you can see one of the best examples in Banff of exactly why glacial lakes are so blue. The “rock flour,” produced by the glacier grinding away at the mountain for hundreds of years, mixes with the melted glacier ice as it flows downhill. When the water is moving in the stream, it’s a white, chalky color. But when it reaches the lake and stops moving, the way the light interacts with it makes it appear turquoise.
It’s also here that you can look back for an iconic view of the Fairmont Lake Louise on the opposite side of the lake.
Past the stream/lake junction, the Plain of Six Glaciers trail started its upward climb. For the first half mile or so, the trail followed the stream as it rushed down the mountain, and meandered in and out of pine forests. Which we were thankful for, as the day was starting to warm up at this point.
But the trees didn’t last long. Eventually, the trail left the shade behind for good as it entered its namesake, the Plain of Six Glaciers.
Before you ask, yes, you can actually see six glaciers from this hike, but some are so small you may not realize it. The six are Aberdeen, Upper Lefroy, Lower Lefroy, Upper Victoria, Lower Victoria, and Pope glaciers. I didn’t realize at the time that you can actually see all six. I thought that the hike was named such because, at one time, six glaciers worked together to grind down the incredible valley, or “plain”, that the trail takes hikers through, but that most of those glaciers have since melted. But the research I’ve done since then has proved me wrong – all six are still there!
Once we left the trees, the pine forests and alpine wildflowers gave way to a desolate, incredible landscape. It’s also one of the most amazing mountain landscapes that I have ever seen. I didn’t mind whenever my parents asked to take a break, because it just meant we could stop and soak in the view!
We found ourselves in a moonscape created by the glaciers, surrounded on three sides by towering monoliths, still snowcapped by late summer. At one point, the trail passed right next to a large snowbank. In August, no snow remained on the trail, but from what I’ve read from others, it’s not uncommon to have to hike across snowfields all the way into late July.
Around the 3 mile mark, the trail leveled briefly and followed a narrow cliff edge. The guidebooks say that there’s a chain to hold onto here, but it wasn’t there when we did this hike. But honestly, unless the trail is covered in ice or you have a crippling fear of heights, you don’t need it. Just pay attention to what you’re doing!
Eventually, the trail left the side of the valley and ventured onto the rocky moraine of the Plain of Six Glaciers. From here on out was the most difficult part of the trail. The path went straight up a rocky slope, directly into the wind coming down off the mountain. We actually found ourselves physically bending over to fight the wind gusts!
Our reward though was that we were now close enough to hear our first “glacier roar:” a thunder-like grumbling filled the air, and we looked up soon enough to see some ice breaking off from the glacier above us.
The last 0.5 mile was a series of steep switchbacks as the trail made the final approach to the tea house. It was a bit tough, and was one of those annoying places where everyone coming down reminded everyone still working their way up that “you’re almost there!” Tip: for the non-hikers, this is a good time to remember that there’s chocolate cake at the end.
The switchbacks began to feel endless, but around every corner, Victoria Glacier loomed just that bit closer. The roars were louder than before. Finally, around one last bend, the trail flattened out and…there it was. The tea house!
At 10 in the morning, the pinewood structure, draped in Nepalese prayer flags, was already fairly busy, but not compared to what it would be like later in the day. The Plain of Six Glaciers hike is much less crowded than the Lake Louise lakeshore, but it’s still extremely popular. It’s all about that chocolate cake, I’m telling you.
Beyond the tea house is a mile left of trail that takes hikers to the base of the glacier. My mom had accomplished what she wanted to: she made it to the tea house! So she grabbed an empty table and cheerfully waved goodbye to me and my dad as we set off for the last stretch.
If you do have a fear of heights, I 100% recommend NOT doing the last section. Hang out at the tea house. Enjoy your chocolate cake. Listen to the glacier roar. You won’t be missing out.
If, however, heights don’t bother you, you still have some fuel left in the tank, and just can’t stop until you reach the end of a trail (like me), do it. Getting to hike all the way to the base of Mount Victoria and her glacier is an awesome experience. Just don’t be fooled by the signs that call this a simple “overlook trail.” It’s a mile of uphill narrow ridges and unstable scree slopes.
At the beginning of the overlook trail, there’s a sign that says this section of trail is unmaintained, which makes me think it’s probably impassable without proper gear most of the year, until the snow melts. The altitude really started to affect my dad at this point (remember, Plain of Six Glaciers hike climbs over 1500ft of elevation from where it starts at Lake Louise). So we moved a little slower than before, as the trail worked itself past a massive avalanche chute and through groves of scraggly, hardy trees.
Eventually, the trail turns left and moves out onto the narrow ridge of a moraine. The picture doesn’t properly show just how much the sides drop directly down, or how unprotected the trail is here, especially with steady wind gusts, but trust me, it was a little…exciting.
The trail then takes a steep uphill tilt straight up a scree slope until it reaches a dead-end at the mountain face. My dad went part of the way up but stopped before the end; if you’ve ever hiked a scree slope, you know – steep inclines, slick gravel, and very windy conditions just don’t mix well.
I went to the top because, as I said, I can’t stop, but it allowed me to be able to come back down and reassure my dad that he hadn’t missed anything by stopping where he did. Which was true – from anywhere on that ridge, you have a clear view of the glacier and the narrow chute (known as the “death trap” for its frequent avalanches and hidden crevasses) between Mount Victoria and Mount Lefroy that the glacier flows down. Most people stop here, and that’s a wise decision.
By the time we made it back to the tea house, my mom had not just chocolate cake, but also apple spice pound cake waiting on the table for us.
So what exactly is a tea house doing all the way up here? The Plain of Six Glaciers tea house was built in 1927 as a stopover for hikers climbing one of the surrounding summits. It’s been owned by the same women and her daughters since 1950.
Supplies are brought in on horseback or via helicopter. Staff live in cabins near the tea house so that they don’t have to make the trek in every day. Electricity has never been installed, so the owner has been using the same propane-gas recipes for 50 years; my ravenous taste buds saw no reason for her to change them.
The tea house doesn’t just serve cake though – you can also order soups, sandwiches, biscuits and jelly, tea, coffee – a full assortment of yummy things. Just make sure you bring cash – propane can bake cakes, but it can’t operate credit card machines!
On the way back down, the trail was much busier than it had been earlier in the morning, but it wasn’t so crowded as to be unpleasant. And my mom didn’t have any more mishaps – no more injuries, no more bear poop. Her spiky hair was crazier than normal from wearing a hat for the first time ever, but if that’s the only black mark she got from this hike, it was a good day!!
The Plain of Six Glaciers hike might be one of the most popular in Banff, but that’s because it’s absolutely spectacular. And despite its acclaim, it’s far less crowded than the packed Lake Louise shore. With a little bit of effort, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views, smaller crowds, a historic tea house, and, most importantly, chocolate cake.
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