Backpacking from Banff to Lake Louise: The Sawback Trail

Between August 13th and 18th, 2007, Kris and I ventured to Banff National Park to do a 74 kilometre backpacking trip into the Sawback Range Mountains.  The Sawback backpacking trail is one of the longer backpacking trips available in the Banff and Jasper National parks, aside from the epic 160-170 kilometre North and South Boundary trails  (with our side trips and trail-end walking, I would estimate the total trip distance we traveled at 82 kms.) There are also many variations on the trip, depending on your route.

If you want a trip that has the isolated ‘backcountry’ feel to your travel, this is the adventure for
you.  In only two spots on the trip are you within a day hike distance from the highway.  The rest, well, you can expect only mountains, trees, animals and the occasional backpacker.  (While on the main backcountry trail, we only saw 6 other people in 4 days).  Although the Sawback trail follows forested valleys for the first day and a half, the rest of  the trip has glorious views of surrounding mountains.  Pulsatilla Pass was one of the more spectacular sights I’ve experienced, without attaining a summit.

All in all, the backpacking adventure took 5 days and 4 nights.   We were expecting to take 7 days, which included spending a few days in the Skoki area for scrambling.  However, we changed our mind while traveling on the last day and decided to finish early for several reasons.  These included: forest fire smoke impairing the mountain views; a sad realization that there were summer long-weekend type crowds in the Skoki area (we saw upwards of 50 people in the last day); simple tiredness from heavy travel over the past 4 days; and a great chance for Kris to visit with Rebecca before he left.  In just sticking to backpacking, the trip was challenging in itself and had long days of travel, but spectacular views while hiking through mountain passes, valleys, river crossings, forested trails and sub-alpine meadows.  In general, we took our time – spending a typical 8 hour day of travel – with breaks for photos, water, snacks and lunch.

Our backpacking itinerary and description was as follows:

Day 1 – Mt. Norquay to Mystic Junction camp

An approximate 19kms with an unexpected side trip.  Follows a well-trodden horse trail through forest for most of the day.  Sporadic views of mountains along the way, including Brewster, Fifi, Louis, Edith, Cockscomb.  A gentle incline for most of the day.

Day 2 -Mystic Junction camp to Larry’s Campground

Day 2 –  13.4 kms over Mystic Pass and descending to the Johnston’s Creek Valley.  The solitude of backcountry experience sets in while experiencing the arid terrain of Mystic Pass.   A long descent is required to reach Larry’s, although through an eclectic mix of terrain. Passing Mount Ishbel and the south peaks of Block Mountain. Larry’s campground is only 8 kms from Johnston’s Canyon, but was one of the more enjoyable camps available.


Day 3 – Larry’s Camp to Badger Pass camp 

Day 3 –    14.5kms beginning through forested trails and opening up to scenic mountain valley travel which was exceptionally hot.   Views throughout of the east walls of Castle Mountain,  the long outlying walls of Block Mountain and the impressive cliffs of Pulsatilla Mountain. The campground at Badger Pass is not readily near any water source and comparatively had many bugs due its semi-swampy surroundings.  However, the Badger Pass camp was probably the most scenic right out-of-the-tent, as you camp at the foot of Pulsatilla Mountain.

Day 4 – Badger Pass camp to Baker Lake Camp

15.8kms of travel through mountain meadows and the Mars-like landscape of Pulsatilla Pass.  Expansive views of the Skoki area range begin, with hard and challenging travel down from the pass into the Skoki region.  Views of many many peaks throughout the day, including your destination at the foot of Mount Redoubt.

Be wary of trail deterioration after leaving Wildflower  Creek Campground and stick to the marshy meadows while  below the east ridges of Anthozoan Mountain. The final climb to Boulder Pass and Baker Lake plays on your tiredness and is steeper and more rugged than you’d expect, especially at the end of your day.

Once entering the Skoki Valley, it’s dream-like landscape from here on in.  If arranging a trip differently, try and include Wildflower Creek campground as a rest stop.  It is beautiful and is well-constructed for campers.

Day 5 – Baker Lake Camp to trail-head at Fish Creek + Lake Louise Mountain Resort.

13.4 official kms of travel to Deception Pass and the long downhill march toward the trail-head.  Beyond officialness, we walked to the resort area to wait for a ride.  Along the way,  there were more expansive views of many mountains in the area, including higher glacier topped peaks in Skoki of Mt. Douglas and St. Bride.  Baker Lake and Ptarmigan Lake were exquisite.  Leaving Skoki, the Lake Louise region’s Mt. Temple dominates your view, along with the Valley of the Ten Peaks and glaciers abound.  You really have a sense of your elevation here while you trudge the steep descending wide trail toward the trail-head.  The last 5 kms are road travel, try and meet up with a shuttle to spare the monotony or take the ‘ski out’ path from the ski hill.


Overall, its an epic adventure in one of the driest lands available.  Make use of any and all water and water filters on your trip.  You will definitely be glad you stopped that extra time to refill.

7 thoughts on “Backpacking from Banff to Lake Louise: The Sawback Trail

  1. How tough was it, we do a big trip every year, average about 8 miles a day, but do more elevation gain and loss. SO a couple fo questions.
    1. How tough was it and are you sorry you only took 5 days? I was planning on doing it they way you ended up doing it. Good idea?
    2. What would you do differently in route or time?


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