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The Charm of Lake Louise

When many people think of the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise jumps to the forefront of their mind. Its name is synonymous with ‘gorgeous lake with absolutely unreal colour’ — so much so that I’ll admit that this ignorant American often got Lake Louise confused with its nearby neighbour Moraine Lake up until a few years ago.

Lake Louise Panorama

Lake Louise and the mountains that surround it (with Mount Victoria and the Victoria Glacier at the back).

Sitting deep within the borders of Banff National Park at the confluence of two major highways, it’s no surprise that this lakeshore sees some of the highest tourist numbers in the Rockies–over 3 million visitors a year! However, it’s the amazing natural setting of the lake that keeps those visitors coming back for more.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be one of the first explorers to find this blue glacial lake bounded by seemingly endlessly tall walls of rock. It would have been awe-inspiring knowing you are the first of your countrymen to see this view…but a bit depressing at the same time, knowing that your goal won’t be achieved until you find your way up and over those same mountains!

The Calm Shores of Lake Louise

It is possible to get photos of just the lake without any sign of other people.

One of these first explorers was Tom Wilson, who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway that was being cut through the mountains in the 1880s. Unaware that the Native Americans called the lake “The Lake of Little Fishes,” he christened it Emerald Lake, a moniker that would end up being bestowed on one of the lakes of Yoho National Park as well. It was renamed a final time in honour of the Governor General of Canada’s wife, who also happened to be Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter. That also explains the name of the glacier that feeds the lake–the Victoria Glacier, which sits on Mount Victoria at the far end of the lake.

On the day we were to visit Lake Louise, the morning dawned dull and gray. By the time we’d made the 50km drive from Banff, the weather was no better. Unperturbed, we still headed into the packed parking lot, which like most parking lots in the national parks was not only devoid of empty parking spot but also full of cars patrolling in case one opened up. Luckily we weren’t on a tight schedule, otherwise the 15 mins it took to nab a spot might have stopped us from seeing the lake completely.

Canoes

Red canoes dotting the lake.

I thought that being under a thundery sky would take some of the vivid colours out of a scene, in which case I think it may be possible to be blinded by the lake on a bluebird day. It was so brilliantly green and inviting… although it was inviting in a “rent a canoe and go paddling” way rather than a “let’s jump in and possibly freeze to death” way!

Because we visited the lake on our way north along the Icefields Parkway, we only had lunchtime to explore; otherwise a canoe on the lake and a walk much further around the lake would have been on the cards. Instead, we stuck to the trail between the carpark and the Fairmont Chateau further down the lakeshore. Unfortunately, since that was where busloads of other tourists were, it was quite loud and full of people snapping selfies. I managed to find a bit of peace and quiet…but only when I hid under a bush to try to capture the lake from a different angle!

Lake Louise in black & white

Black and white suited this scene pretty well too.

The Fairmont Chateau, while extraordinarily expensive to stay in, was well worth a visit. This building has stood in some form on the shores of Lake Louise since 1890. Through thick and thin–and many fires–this hotel has played host to some of the world’s most famous.

Since the tiny town of Lake Louise actually sits right next to the highway rather than at the lake itself, the Fairmont was our only option for lunch…and for a respite from the occasional rainshower as well as the bloodthirsty mosquitoes that lurked along the shore. While the cafe we chose was not the cheapest, it was certainly cheaper than the restaurant and still had a number of options.

Fairmont Chateau

The lake side of the Fairmont Chateau.

So would I recommend a visit to Lake Louise? Absolutely. No trip to Banff National Park, summer or winter, is complete without seeing this iconic view. Sure, it’s a bit of a pain to find parking, and it’s bound to be crowded whatever time of day you go, but it’s still worth it to see the otherworldly emerald colour of the lake and the sheer mountains that drop into it. And, as the photos in this post show, you should go there rain or shine!

Recommended ways to avoid the crowds:

The Crowds

Just some of the many people crammed into the walkway along the lakeshore. I had to wait about 5 minutes for this spot to even free up for a photo!

Rent a bright red canoe and paddle across the ¾ mile width of the lake. You’ll have to wait in line to get your canoe, but once you’re out on the lake, there’s plenty of space to fan out and enjoy the lake’s serenity.

There are a number of hikes available that will get you away from the central hive of activity on the lakeshore. I would have loved to do the 7km track up to Lake Agnes and its teahouse, taking in the stunning views of Lake Louise from above along the way. Just make sure you check on grizzly bear activity and hiking restrictions before you head out, since in some places of high activity you’re legally required to walk in groups of 4 or more.

Lake Louise sits high in the mountains about 4km away from the Lake Louise townsite. The road is clearly signed from the town; simply follow the Lake Louise road to the west and keep straight when the Moraine Lake road veers off to the left. Parking, in the lot at the end of the Lake Louise road, is always at a premium so leave plenty of time for getting there.

 

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