15 Things to Know About Visiting Bow Lake in Banff

Bow Lake is one of the many lakes that line the Icefields Parkway and a popular stop for visitors to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. It’s no secret that the Canadian Rockies are not short of spectacular vistas and lakes.

It’s one of our top recommendations for a stop to stretch the legs on the Icefields Parkway as the short walk along the lakeshore trail is a family-friendly hike.


Bow Lake

Mount Jimmy Simpson Scramble

Bow Lake is a tremendous stop on the Icefields Parkway and one of our favorite lakes to enjoy. While it’s not a large lake in the scope of the world it is big for the Canadian Rockies. In the summer months when the lake thaws it turns a dizzying blue from the glacier melt of the Crowfoot Glacier and Wapta Icefield. The sheer rock wall of Crowfoot Mountain, the hanging glacier, and the expansive Wapta Icefield provide have an innate way of humbling all who gaze on the landscape.

Bow Lake sits at an elevation of 1920 meters and spends the majority of the year locked away in ice. This makes it a popular spot for winter activities like snowshoeing and ski touring. Most notable is the lake acts as the source of the Bow River a notable river in Banff National Park that flows through Banff, Canmore, and Calgary.

We love Bow Lake in the summer and have spent a lot of time exploring the area as there are several peaks and hikes. That means there are a plethora of options for hikers, scramblers, and mountaineers around Bow Lake. Bow Lake also has an excellent picnic site along the shoreline just off the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93), the perfect stop for lunch. It’s also an awesome spot to hang a hammock and relax along the shoreline.

The Onion Scramble

Along its shore lies Num-Ti-Jah Lodge a historic site that was built by one of Banff’s early mountain guides, Jimmy Simpson. The mountain above the lodge that sits at the North end of the Lake is also named after the man, Mount Jimmy Simpson. Mount Jimmy Simpson is a wonderful objective for rock climbers or scramblers as there are multiple routes and views from the summit are sublime.


Directions to Bow Lake

Bow Lake is located off the Icefields Parkway or 93N. The highway begins just off the Trans-Canada Highway #1 a few minutes West of Lake Louise. From there it’s another 35 km to Bow Lake. Watch for signs for Num Ti Jah Lodge off the Icefields Parkway and the turn off will be on your left coming from the Trans-Canada or Right from Jasper.


Best Time To Visit Bow Lake

The best time to visit Bow Lake is from June to September. Spring arrives around June and is a tremendous time as the lake melts and you can witness tons of wildflowers. In summer the lake remains full and is always a great visit. In the Fall, late September to October there are almost no larch trees so fall colors are not present. If you plan to go hiking around the lake the best time is from July to mid-September.

Once the lake locks into the winter it can make for a fantastic place to snowshoe along the lake surface. The lake will be frozen and covered in snow so you can not witness the gorgeous blue. Be cognizant to not approach the slopes of Crowfoot Mountain or any steep slopes as avalanches are very common. It also makes for a great photo stop along the highway in the winter. Otherwise, wintertime access is limited to the more adventurous and experienced on skis or split boards.


Things To Do at Bow Lake


Photography

With the dramatic rock wall face of Crowfoot Mountain, hanging glaciers, and the vivid blue Bow Lake it’s one of the most popular stops for photographers to Banff National Park. The classic shot is to park near the Num Ti Jah Lodge and take photos near the small footbridges at the water’s edge. It’s a stunning scene. We think evening light is best if you’re a photographer planning out your photographs, the photo above was taken about an hour before sunset.


Hike

There are a number of tremendous hikes around Bow Lake. We’ll get more into the hikes further on in the post. The parking lot also provides access to the ACC Bow hut for backcountry and mountaineering trips.


Scramble

For those who like to conquer some peaks there are a number of mountains around Bow Lake that make for a great scramble. The views around Bow Lake are some of the best in all of Banff National Park, at least for day objectives!


Fish

You are permitted to fish in almost all of the bodies of water in Banff National Park including Bow Lake. The lake is stunning so for anglers who want to spend some time with a great view you can fish in Bow Lake. It requires a permit and license. Fishing here is open from July 1st to October 31st and is catch & release only.


Canoe/Kayak

A paddle around the waters of Bow Lake is a fantastic experience. We recommend a canoe or kayak over a SUP as the large body of water can receive winds that make the surface a little too rough. There are no rental facilities at Bow Lake so you’ll need to have your own watercraft.


Wapta Traverse

There are a number of slopes for backcountry skiing, but most notable is the Wapta Traverse. The famous mountaineering and ski tour is widely considered one of the greatest adventures in North America. It’s a hut based trip that traverses the large icefield that sits above Bow Lake. The most common route is from Peyto Lake into the Yoho Valley.


Hikes Around Bow Lake


Bow Lakeshore

The Bow Lakeshore is a great family-friendly hike. If you’re looking to stretch your legs and enjoy the sublime nature along the shoreline it’s the perfect stop. The trail is a nice mellow grade and gains no elevation. It does move over some large sections of roots so a stroller would not work on the lakeshore trail.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation: 5 meters
  • Distance: 3.5 km
  • Time: 30 minutes

Bow Glacier Falls

Mount Jimmy Simpson Scramble

Hike to the origin of the Bow Glacier Falls for some outstanding views and a gorgeous waterfall. It’s a pretty relaxed hike that spends the majority of time along the shoreline of Bow Lake.

However, the views from along the Bow Lake are spectacular and at its finish hikers witness the birth of a vital river in Alberta from the Wapta Icefield high above. It’s a great hike for those driving the Icefields Parkway as it only requires a few hours and gives a chance to stretch the legs.

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation: 266 meters
  • Distance: 8.7 km
  • Time: 2 – 4 hours

Helen Lake

Helen Lake is a beautiful lake along the Icefields Parkway and the hike starts across the street from Bow Lake. To get to Helen Lake you must hike in on a moderate trail for 6km (one way). The trail is well maintained and absolutely stunning with views of mountains and blooming wildflowers everywhere!

Bring lunch here, enjoy the views, and keep an eye out for hoary marmots. Due to the stunning alpine meadow views out to Mount Hector the hike can draw a crowd so be prepared for limited parking. All together it makes for a great day in the mountains and one of the best hikes in Banff.

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation: 559 meters
  • Distance: 12.6 km
  • Time: 3 – 6 hours

Cirque Peak

From Helen Lake, you can head up to the Dolomite Pass that provides views of Lake Katherine. If you’re interested in adding more the climb up to Cirque Peak is great for a first scramble. The views of the surrounding region are outstanding!

  • Difficulty: Difficult / Easy Scramble
  • Elevation: 1,135 meters
  • Distance: 15.9 km
  • Time: 4- 8 hours

Bow Hut

The Onion Scramble

The hike up to Bow Hut is a bit of a grind, but it is not overly challenging or in poor condition for a trail in the Rockies. The hike climbs through a large cirque and once at the hut hikers can enjoy great views of the Wapta Icefield. Once above the slope, you’ll find yourself at the Bow Hut. It’s one of the most well-known and frequented huts in the ACC collection used as a stop for the famous Wapta Icefield ski traverse.

  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Elevation: 714 meters
  • Distance: 15.8 km
  • Time: 4- 8 hours

Bow Peak

Bow Lake Towards Bow Peak

Bow Peak is a great scramble that starts off with a chilling river crossing. What follows is a wonderful walk through the forest to a seldom-visited alpine pass. Once at the summit views up and down the Icefields Parkway are breathtaking. A classic scramble objective in the Canadian Rockies.

  • Difficulty: Difficult / Easy Scramble
  • Elevation: 1,055 meters
  • Distance: 12.1 km
  • Time: 4- 7 hours

The Onion

The Onion Scramble
The Onion Scramble

There is no shortage of hikes and scrambles along the Icefields Parkway that offer views of craggy peaks topped by glaciers, and the Onion scramble is no exception. The scramble up to this unofficial peak places right next to the Wapta Icefield, the source of the Bow River. Expect to see glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, tarns, and unique rock formations. It all adds up to a glorious day in the mountains. Plan for a lot of time at the summit as there is so much to explore.

  • Difficulty: Difficult / Easy Scramble
  • Elevation: 840 meters
  • Distance: 19.7 km
  • Time: 5 – 8 hours

Jimmy Simpson

Mount Jimmy Simpson Scramble
Mount Jimmy Simpson Scramble
Mount Jimmy Simpson Scramble

While Jimmy Simpson is far from a popular objective for scrambles it’s one of the finest views in the Canadian Rockies. The route can be a bit of a grind at moments and has a very mild taste of exposure. This is not one we’d recommend for first time scramblers, let alone hikers. However, if you have some experience under your belt you’ll have a hard time doing better than Jimmy Simpson for a day out in the mountains.

  • Difficulty: Difficult / Easy-Moderate Scramble
  • Elevation: 1,097 meters
  • Distance: 16 km
  • Time: 5 – 8 hours

Holidays at Bow Lake?

The Lake is always busy in the summer, but you should take note of the following holidays as it’s even busier.

  • Victoria Day Long Weekend – 1st Monday of May.
  • Canada Day – July 1st
  • Heritage Day Weekend – 1st Monday of August.
  • Labour Day Weekend – 1st Monday of September.

Tips For Bow Lake

  • Arrive early to avoid the crowds. Grab a thermos and enjoy the stunning views in the fresh morning air and some coffee.
  • Always make sure to bring appropriate clothing. It’s cold year-round and the mountain peaks often see temperatures below zero even in August.
  • Watch out for bugs and mosquitos as they can come out in hordes during the peak of summer.
  • It’s worth venturing just little past the overlook to escape the crowds even if you do not plan to hike.
  • If you have plans to hike in the area bring a GPS or download a map to your phone as there is no signage.
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