Helen Lake – Cirque Peak

Sheena and I had a few days of last week and decided to venture into the tourist town central of Alberta, Banff National Park. We had plans to hike one of the peaks off the Icefields parkway, about 30 minutes from Lake Louise. This area is relatively less travelled by tourists, but still receives its fair share of hikers on the trails. I’ve found the Icefields parkway hiking to be just a bit more extreme terrain than the areas closer to Banff. (Cirque Peak and Helen Lake are located as #50 on this map.)

The trip to Helen Lake usually takes about 4 hours and add an extra two to the summit of Cirque Peak which overlooks the area. So, because the hike would take most of the day and we’d have to drive 2 hours to the trailhead from Calgary, decided to camp for the night at Mosquito Creek Campground. It was pretty handy and not a 5 minute drive from the start of the hike.

Hiking to Helen Lake is fairly hilly, well…for the first hour, it’s all hill as you ascend through the forest to the plateaus surrounding Dolomite Peak and Cirque Peak. Although the first part of the trail is a bit boring, the sights after you round the top of the forested area make the trip worthwhile. Once on ‘flatter’ ground, you follow a trail beaten into the tundra like terrain as it rolls toward Helen Lake. It was on our final approach to Helen Lake that we encountered … a grizzly bear. It was certainly quite a sight for both of us. I had just finished mentioning to Sheena, yah, we’ll just keep an eye out for bears seeing we have open terrain now. And not a few seconds later, I spotted a bear on a grassy slope off to the east of us. The bear spotted us right away, I hollered to be sure. He continued his jaunt along the slope, probably 200 meters from our location. Sheena and I were amazed and concerned at the same time, just watching the brown animal travel closer to our direction of travel. Eventually, the bear would actually sit on the ridge before Helen Lake, browsing without a care. At this point, Sheena and I turned around. We had our first grizzly bear encounter, and were determined to ensure it wouldn’t be our last hike. Heh. The bear continued eating, then disappeared from view behind another grassy bluff. A few minutes later, we found a group of hikers that we had passed along the trail and warned them of the bear. But, because they had significant numbers, they offered to hike with us and continue along our way. This was good, as bears have never attacked groups more than five people according to a couple of books I read on the creatures. Eventually, we saw the bear again, but he was well on his way upstream and north from our position. Making very good time as well…those bears can really climb slopes fast. That was our excitement for the day, finally seeing a bear in the wild from a relatively safe distance.

We continued to Helen Lake, then ascended the short but steep slope to the plateau before the Cirque Peak climb. After having a break, we continued on, but the going was fairly slow due to just sheer elevation. It had been Sheena’s first real mountain climb and a good one at that. However, as we got about halfway up the slope, we ran into a slight problem. Thunderstorms. Booming on the mountain next to us, we decided to cut our losses, having experienced a good day of hiking, we decided to head back down. Of course, what took us 30 minutes to go up the rocky ridge, really only took us a couple minutes to decend on the scree. What a blast…for thirty seconds, you bound down the slope of thumbsized flat rock to the plateau floor. Almost impossible to ascend, it’s a joy to go down. The rain began and we continued our return.

Overall, it was a great day. We certainly were a bit tired having travelled about 16kms in mountainous terrain. We’ll take on another mountain on days off perhaps and hopefully one with a waterfall nearby. Here’s our pics from the trip.

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