Helen Lake/Dolomite Pass
Banff National Park
Time: 5 hours
Distance: 12 km (return from the lake) + 5 km (return from the pass)
Elevation Gain: 455 m (to lake) + 100 m (to pass)
How To Get There: Take Icefields Parkway 33 km north of Lake Louise junction. Watch for signs for the crowfoot glacier viewpoint. The parking for Helen Lake is on the other side of the highway.
This was not the first time my sister and I had attempted this hike. Back in May of 2015, we had decided it would be a good idea to attempt to get to Helen Lake despite all of the snow that was still on the ground (spoiler: it wasn't a good idea). Long story short- Kim ended up falling into the snow stomach up, hilariously resembling a turtle on its back. Needless to say, we only made it about 2 km into the hike before giving up and we promised ourselves we would conquer it another day.
Today just happened to be that day. The forecast was a bit cloudy but that didn't deter us. We wanted to say we had hiked Helen Lake once and for all! So even as it began to spit on us as we started on the trail, we paid it no mind.
The trail is fairly wide at the beginning as it makes its way up a gradual ascent through a thick forest of pine trees. Make sure to watch your footing on this trail, especially at the beginning, as there are tons of tree roots sticking up from the ground!
Other than a few trickling stream crosses, the first 3 km of this trail, while beautifully green, isn't much to look at.
The reason for this trail's popularity reveals itself about 2 km into the hike, when you start to see occasional breaks in the trees that allow you to steal glances at Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Lake below you.
Just as soon as Kim and I reached the same point we had turned around at last time, we were greeted by a large group of hikers led by a park's administrator. The administrator warned us that there had been several bear sightings and to exercise caution going forward. We briefly considered turning back around but were then joined by two other hikers. With a larger group and having our bear spray in hand, we felt confident enough to keep hiking (we definitely increased our noise levels after that though).
We walked through a large section of burnt out trees before finally reaching the largest incline of the trail, a series of very short switchbacks that practically lead straight up.
This only lasts for a short while though and soon the trail spits you out on the other side, allowing for a miraculous view of Dolomite Peak, and further off to your left, the vast meadow (about 3 km wide!) that holds Helen Lake.
You then begin looping around until you are caught in between a giant scree slide from the mountain on your left and the valley that leads up to Dolomite Peak on your right.
An abundance of wildflowers of all shapes, colors and sizes guide you through the trail as you go up and down, through a patch of pine trees and up and down again until finally you catch your first glimpse of the beautiful creek that separates the scree from the meadow.
After hopping across the water, we began walking towards our first main objective. The meadow, dotted with yellow and white flowers, seemed to stretch on forever!
Now, Helen Lake isn't exactly the most impressive lake out there. It's not very big and the water's colour doesn't hold a candle to say, Peyto Lake. But it is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, providing ample opportunity for wonderful photographs.
One of these peaks is none other than the challenging Cirque Peak.
Kim isn't a huge fan of going down a steep incline so I decided to take her up Dolomite Pass instead. So after we stopped for lunch at the lake and took a few photos, we continued on our way towards the Pass.
Once you get to the other side of the lake, you begin gaining elevation almost immediately. The switchbacks weren't particularly difficult but they definitely had us pausing to catch our breaths several times. Or maybe we had to catch our breaths because of the immediate gorgeous view (because it took our breath away...get it?).
While we climbed, we were accompanied by quite a few hoary marmots. If you ever want the chance to see a hoary marmot in the wild then definitely go on this hike. Those little guys were everywhere! And they are very accustomed to humans as they came right up to us while we were sitting and taking a rest.
The hike to the top of the pass isn't very long but there is a lot of elevation gain and no trees to provide any shade so it was a bit of a slog. But once we reached the top (marked by a giant cairn), the views were definitely worth it! It was gorgeous. From the pass, were able to see the valley, lake and meadow in one quick glance!
As we stood and admired the view, we were visited by a few more hoary marmots, who gave us numerous opportunity to take pictures of them. They were natural models!
After a few minutes, a few dark clouds began to move towards us from the north so we decided it was time to head home. I'm so glad we continued up the trail despite the bear warning. Attempting this hike for the second time was definitely worth it as it provided numerous gorgeous photos and some wonderful pictures.
While this is a common area for a generational family of grizzly bears, don't let that deter you. We hiked by one hiker who was very familiar with the area and he told us as long as we practiced bear safety, no one had ever had a problem with the bears as they were very accustomed to people in the area. It's a great hike for people of all ages (at least to the lake) and can even be snowshoed in the winter!