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.

Bow Lake is 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. Here’s all you need to know about this beautiful Banff lake.


Visiting Bow Lake

Mount Jimmy Simpson Scramble

Bow Lake is a tremendous stop on the Icefields Parkway and one of our favorite Banff 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 Banff 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

Bow Lake sits at an elevation of 1920 meters and spends most of the year locked away in ice. This makes it a popular spot for winter activities like snowshoeing and ski touring. 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. 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
Hiking Near Bow Lake

Along its shore lies Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, a historic site 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

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 on the right from Jasper.


When is the Best Time To Visit Bow Lake?

Bow Lake in October

The best time to visit Bow Lake in Banff 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.

Bow Lake makes for a great photo stop along the highway in the winter, there’s an amazing bridge there that gives picture perfect photos. 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 Alberta lakes 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 several 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

Many mountains around Bow Lake make for a great scramble for those who like to conquer some peaks. 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 water bodies 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.

New in 2021, to prevent the spread of Aquatic invasive species visitors must now fill out a Self Certification Permit with Parks Canada for any nonmotorized watercraft entering the water. This includes kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards. The Self Certification Permits can be found online.

Wapta Traverse

There are several 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 and one of the easiest hikes in Banff. 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 Banff 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 road 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 and gives outstanding views towards Iceberg Lake and the Wapta Icefield.

  • 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?

Bow Lake

Bow 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.

Camping Near Bow Lake

Mosquito Creek is the closest Banff campsite and backcountry hostel to Bow Lake. From the campsite, it is just over a five-minute drive to the shore of Bow Lake. It is an affordable campground that often doesn’t get too busy in the summer months.

It’s a great base if you’re going to explore sights on the Icefields Parkway. If you’re not equipped for camping, consider staying at the HI-Mosquito Creek Hostel, but keep in mind it is very basic accommodation and requires some self-reliance.

  • Operating dates: June 12 – September 7
  • Reservation: First-come-first-serve
  • Amenities: Solar treated potable water, greywater sinks are available, one picnic shelter, dry toilet, food lockers
  • Fees: $17.99 / $8.80 fire permit
  • Number of sites: 32

Tips For Visiting Bow Lake

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 a 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 or signal.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you swim in Bow Lake?

Yes, you can swim in Bow Lake, but you will not want to for very long. The average temperature of the lake rarely gets above 5C or 41F. It’s best done on a hot sunny day after a hike!

How to get to Bow Lake?

To reach Bow Lake requires driving 37km north of Lake Louise village along the Icefields Parkway (93N).

Where is Bow Lake?

Bow Lake is in Banff National Park 37km north of Lake Louise along the Icefields Parkway (93N). It sits about a kilometer north of the Crowfoot Glacier and at an elevation of 1,920 m.

How Large is Bow Lake?

Bow Lake is one of the largest lakes in Banff National Park with a surface area of 3.21 km2. It is 3.2 km long and 1.2 km wide.

Are There Visitor Services Around Bow Lake?

There are no visitor centers at Bow Lake. However, there are nice restrooms at the parking area near Num Ti Jah Lodge. While there are fantastic places to picnic around the lake, there is also no food at Bow Lake, so it’s best to grab snacks in Banff or Lake Louise Village before you drive the Icefield Parkway. These towns will be your last option for food until you reach the Saskatchewan River Crossing.

Where Can I Stay Around Bow Lake?

You can book a room at the historic Num Ti Jah Lodge (open 2022). Beyond that you have Mosquito Creek, and Waterfowl Campgrounds. The best hotels in the area can be found at Lake Louise. Paradise Lodge and Bugalows are among some of our favorite places to stay in the area.

Plan Your Trip to the Canadian Rockies

  • Hotels in the Rockies: From luxury hotels to wilderness cabins, there are plenty of places to stay in the Rockies. See all our favorites here.

↓ Join the community ↓

The Banff Blog Facebook Group is your headquarters for the Canadian Rockies travel advice and information. Including hike info and off-season travel information. This is also a place where you can meet one another when you need adventure buddies. 

About Cameron

Cameron Seagle is a resident of Canmore, Alberta. After traveling the world for six years, he settled down in the beautiful Bow Valley with Natasha. He has been featured as a travel expert with numerous publications worldwide and has spoken on several occasions about the power of travel. He has a passion for all things in the Canadian Rockies and loves to spend his time snowboarding, scrambling, camping, biking, and trail running. Conservation is a deep fundamental in his life, and he aims to inspire others to care about our natural world.

You can learn more on the about us page.

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