Vista/Arnica Lake Trailhead to Twin Lakes Campground
Distance: 7.2 km
Elevation Gain: 700 m
Elevation Loss: 280 m
Time: 4 hours
How To Get There: While driving westbound on Highway 1, turn left on Highway 93, heading towards Radium. Drive for about 20 km and keep your eye out for the Vista/Arnica Lake Trailhead that's on the left side of the road. This is where the trail begins!
The forest fires in the summer of 2017 were some of the worst I’ve ever seen. As a result, my plans to hike in the Egypt Lake area were scratched when much of the area was closed down due to fire damage. I was disappointed, as I had heard that this backcountry area was some of the best to visit in Banff. However, Parks Canada was nice enough to re-book my trip so that I would be hiking close enough to the area that I would still be able to get a teaser of the Egypt area but wouldn’t be in any danger of the smoke or fire damage. While I considered foregoing the backcountry trip, as I’m not a fan of not being given the chance to fully research an area before hiking it, I wanted to continue my tradition of solo backpacking. So I decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it.
The newly revised trip consisted of hiking to Lower Twin Lakes Campground and then migrating to Shadow Lake Campground. The hike was tedious and difficult and definitely wasn’t my favourite, but it was a good work out and it allowed me to get a good look at the Shadow Lake Lodge.
I got a very late start on my first day. By the time I reached the trailhead it was already three o clock in the afternoon. The weather was gorgeous and the sun was high but I still had to move at a quick pace to get to the campground before the sun completely disappeared.
The first portion of the trail is easy as it actually loses 130 m of elevation, working it’s way down via switchbacks to Vista lake for 1.4 km.
As I moved around corners, there was a red rock nodule to my left and a view of the valley below to my right.
Soon I found myself hovering over the first lake of the day, moving downwards until the trail was almost at the shoreline.
I was surprised by the neon blue colours of the water as I had never heard much about the lake until today.
I walked along the north end of the lake until I reached the end where a small bridge took me across a stream outpouring.
After that, I knew I had another 3.7 km to reach my next destination, Arnica Lake. Unfortunately, that’s when the elevation gain kicked into high gear. Where I had lost 130 m in elevation, I quickly gained it all back and then 600 more as I moved up the other side of the valley. The trail was narrow and rocky but I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by large pine trees on all sides, so the sun barely touched my backside for the first few kilometres.
Small bridge crossings dotted the trail several times in an attempt to protect the fragile environment beneath it.
While there wasn’t much to see view wise following Vista Lake, there was an abundance of purple fireweed that dotted the trail, guiding me along the way. It acted as a reprieve for my eyes as I continued to make my way upwards.
This section of the trail was a constant grind upwards as there wasn’t even a switchback to offer a brief break.
But when there is elevation gain, a scenic reward often follows. The trail towards Arnica Lake was no different. The more I moved upwards, the smaller the trees became and the easier it was for me to start to see the valley below me, as well as the mountains that surrounded it.
Over time, I was even able to make out Highway 93 in the distance.
As if to remind me of the difficulty of the trail, the sun chose that moment to begin peaking it’s way through the trees.
So up and up I went, simultaneously loving and hating the challenge of carrying a 30 pound pack vertical.
Several times I took a moment to take a picture of Vista Lake below me, if only to catch my breath. The lake looked like a tranquil blue stone among a sea of dark green.
Just when I thought the elevation gain couldn’t get any more severe, the trail had a way of proving me wrong. The last kilometer towards Arnica Lake was extremely hard on the legs.
I knew I was getting close when the trail finally let up a bit and led me through a thicker brush of trees, followed by a newly formed grassland.
A few hundred meters more through the pine forest and I was finally pushed out to the large glacier lake.
The sun had already tucked it’s way behind the Storm Mountain, which served as a backdrop to the gorgeous lake.
While I did take a moment to enjoy the peace and quiet that comes with any mountain lake, I also knew I had 5 km to go until I reached my final destination of the evening, and it was already 5 pm. So I continued heading southeast until I was working my way through a heavily braided but mostly flat trail.
The easiness didn’t last long however and soon I was starting to work my way upwards once again.
My climb was interrupted briefly when I stumbled across a mother spruce grouse and her chicks. It was adorable to sit back and watch them waddle their way through the grass and roots.
Once I carefully moved past the wildlife, I continued to pick my way upwards over the widened trail of rocks and roots, enjoying the various wildflowers as I moved.
The last point of elevation gain between Arnica and Twin Lakes is when the path splits into two and resembles something more closely of a wagon trail then a hiking trail. There’s no view at the top of the gain but there is the wonderful moment when you realize it’s all downhill to the third lake of the journey.
As I made my way downwards for the last kilometer, I passed more pine trees, a series of small wildflower-filled meadows and the challenge of a curvy trail that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a switchback or not
When I finally saw Upper Twin Lake, I was happy to have made the trip with some daylight to spare.
The campground itself sits on the east side of the lake and you have to do a bit of rock hopping to get to it.
After moving to the southeast side of the lake, there is a fork in the road. Turning left takes you to the “kitchen” area while turning right takes you to the camp site pads.
There are only five campsites in total. I decided to stay at Site #2 because it sat the closest to the outhouse, which was in fairly decent condition.
Once I set up my tent and explored the area for a bit, I made myself some dinner and then took a few more photos of the lake.
Then it was time for bed. My feet were sore from the long hike and harsh elevation climb I had just endured so I definitely had no trouble falling asleep! I rested easy knowing the next day was definitely going to be much easier.
I was taken back by how quiet the campground was as I quickly realized I was the only one there. I had never camped in the backcountry completely alone but it was kind of a neat feeling, knowing I really was the only one around for miles.
Click here to check out Day 2 of my adventure, which covers Twin Lakes Campground to Shadow Lake Campground!