Helen Lake is one of the most popular day hikes in Banff as it provides spectacular views over an Alpine meadow with a lovely lake and stunning views of the Bow Valley and Mount Hector.
It’s one best Banff hikes and in the summer months can draw bit of a crowd to enjoy the wildflowers that line the trail. The hike to Helen Lake also provides the option to scramble to the top of Cirque Peak for stunning views of the Wapta Icefield.
It’s one of our favorite hikes and easy to complete in a morning or afternoon. Afterward drive a little further up the Icefields Parkway and take in the views at Peyto Lake.
Helen Lake Hike & Cirque Peak Scramble
Helen Lake and Cirque Peak Route Description
Across the Bow Lake is a signed parking lot designated for the Helen Lake hike. You can find a limited number of parking spots along with two long drop toilets that usually pretty clean.
From the parking lot, the well-maintained trail follows through the forest for almost 4.5 km. It’s a steady 2 km uphill until a series of switchbacks leads you up to a pass and then another 2 km to reach the alpine meadow. The meadow is truly breathtaking and the remaining 2km to Helen Lake blows by as the trail is stunning. It’s arguably the most beautiful meadow in the park, at least that we have seen thus far.
Once you reach Helen Lake it should be around 400 meters of elevation gain and 6 km. It’s a great place to stop and have lunch along a rock, but be mindful of bugs because they can sometimes become bothersome around the lake. They were bad on our last hike here so we pressed on without stopping at Helen Lake.
The trail wraps around the Southside of the lake or your right-hand side and moves toward the headwall. It leads right up to the base of the cliffs and then snakes through the rocky outcrop.
This ends at the top of Dolomite Pass and in our opinion a great turn around point for many or spot for lunch. A lot of large flat rocks provide adequate space to relax and enjoy the view while hoary marmots scurry between rocks.
From the pass, the trail moves to the North or hikers left and over several rock bands. Cairns and a fairly well-beaten trail make it pretty easy to follow the route. Once past a series of rock bands, the trail climbs a sandy ridge that gradually turns into loose scree.
The last 15m or so of the hike arrives to a rock band that requires some light use of your hands to make it to the peak. It’s pretty tame as far as scrambles go, but you are at an impressive elevation with several cliffs in close proximity. It can feel pretty unnerving to those new at scrambling.
From the top, you have stunning views of Helen Lake down below, Bow Lake, The Wapta Icefield, and the Valley. It’s a pretty spectacular vista that is tough to beat in Banff.
Do take care on top of the peak and along the ridge, as the cliff drops down below are massive and definitely fatal. You can also scramble down the peak and on to the peak next peak. However, one or two moves to the next peak are very exposed. You do get a pretty awesome photo with the peak and the source of the Bow River.
The return is the same route into the hike as it is an out and back hike. Enjoy the scree for the first section down from Cirque Peak as it’s easy to run down. The hike out gets a little boring in the trees as you backtrack so you’ll be pretty happy when you arrive at the parking lot, at least it’s downhill.
How Long Does Hiking Helen Lake Take?
The Helen Lake Trail and the addition of Cirque Peak is a challenging hike at 16.1 km in length and 1,129 meters of elevation gain. If Cirque Peak feels too challenging there is also the option to climb the headwall behind Helen Lake and arrive to the Dolomite Pass for views of Katherine Lake down below.
Expect the full hike to take 4 – 7 hours. If you plan to do the hike to Helen Lake you can expect 2 – 5 hours which all depends on your fitness. We were able to complete the hike up to Cirque Peak in about 4 hours of hiking time and an hour for lunch and photos.
How Hard is Helen Lake Hike?
The hike to Helen Lake is a moderate challenge and the challenge lies more in the distance. It’s also a steady uphill climb for the majority of the hike which can tire many legs out who do not regularly hike. We saw a wide range of ages on the hike to Helen Lake. That being said it is a physical challenge and you should be prepared for such.
How Hard is the Cirque Peak Scramble?
The climb to Cirque Peak should be considered a challenging and difficult hike or an easy scramble. Although the distance and elevation gain can make it a more difficult scramble. It’s more a physical challenge than a technical one with only a short section that requires the use of hands at the peak with minimal exposure. We rate it as a great introduction to scrambling in Banff National Park.
When Can You Hike Helen Lake?
The best time to hike Helen Lake is between June and early October. Cirque peak is a popular ski tour in the winter, but it passes through avalanche terrain. Best for most people to stay away in the winter. We hiked Helen Lake in late June and had great conditions, however, it was one of the busier trails we had tackled in a while.
How Busy is the Helen Lake Hike?
AllTrails rates this as a moderately trafficked trail, and it is. Helen Lake is considered one of the best Banff hikes and the parking lot can often fill up around midday in the peak summer months.
Don’t come here expecting to be alone. Your best bet at having a crowd-free experience is coming mid-week at either sunrise or sunset. We knew this and with experience at timing our hikes were able to leave around 3:30 in the afternoon so we saw people ending their day, but were the last to summit Cirque Peak and return to the car park.
What About Dogs and Kids on Helen Lake Hike?
The hike Helen Lake is totally appropriate for medium and large-sized dogs, in fact, it may be one of the best in the park. That being said you are traveling in prime bear country so keep your dog on a leash and carry bear spray. You should also be prepared to keep your dog under control should you cross paths with a bear.
We’d say older kids to teenagers should be okay for the hike to Helen Lake and preteens/teenagers for the hike up to Dolomite pass. Every kid is different it’s several hours of sustained hiking uphill so if you think they’re up for it there shouldn’t be any issues.
Cirque Peak is more of a scramble and brings about some risk so it’s up to the parents or dog owners judgment. However, it is not technically hard and an active dog or teenager should be able to handle it. Worst case scenario you turn around at the rockband and still get amazing views one direction.
Is there Parking for Helen Lake?
Yes! There is an official parking lot and long drop toilets designated for Helen Lake. As stated earlier it’s a popular hike and the parking lot does occasionally fill up around mid-morning. As they say, the early bird gets the worm or the late one in our case.
That being said there is a pull-off area across the Icefields Parkway where you could park should the lot fill up. It’s also the most appropriate place for small RVs to park as the lot can be a little tight for large vehicles.
Wildlife Awareness on The Hike
If you’re on any hikes in Banff National Park you should practice proper wildlife awareness. In the region, there are frequent sightings of black bears, grizzly bears, moose, coyotes, and cougars. They all a potential threat to humans and we should reduce our impact on their natural lives.
Before any hike or walk-in Banff, you need to have bear spray. Remember that the bear spray is worthless if it’s in your pack, you’ll need to be able to grab this in two seconds or less in an emergency. We wear our bear sprays on our hip.
The likeliness of seeing wildlife on this trail is high. It is a heavily trafficked trail, but bear sightings have occurred. The meadow and valley is prime grizzly habitat and the trail has been closed in the past due to bear activity.
When you’re on the trail make noise by banging hiking poles, talking, whistling, clapping, or singing. This is particularly important around blind bends and corners. You’re through the deep woods during these times, and it’s prime time to sneak up on a bear. Once you’re at the summit, you’re safer as you can see wildlife from afar, but still, don’t let your guard down and keep the bear spray on you just in case.
As always while hiking, you need to stay alert, travel in a group, mind children and pets, and finally carrying bear spray and knowing how to use it. If you’ve come to the park without bear spray Valhalla Pure Outfitters in town sells spray and holders with employees who will demonstrate how to use properly.
Besides bears, it’s common to see hoary marmots and pika near the rock wall behind Helen Lake. We asked a marmot for directions, but they only gave us a whistle.
Advice on Hikes in Banff
If this is your first time hiking in the Rockies take a conservative approach. Pick an adequate hike for your fitness, plan for plenty of time, pack water and food, and don’t be afraid to turn around. If you want to learn more about what to wear hiking we have a great post.
For long hikes, set a turn around time at the departure. Any time we set out for an objective I determine a time at which we need to turn around in order to arrive at the parking lot or campsite by dark. I would recommend not hiking in the dark as it’s easy to get lost and it’s not fun in bear country.
On that note, always carry bear spray if you plan to hike in the park. We carry ours in the neighborhood and bears have been known to stroll through town and busy parking lots. Always practice wildlife awareness when you’re on a trail, and please give animals space.
In regards to times keep in mind your mountain fitness — different than the gym. The low end of the times in this post is a constant fast pace uphill with little to no breaks and a brisk pace downhill. Most hikers should plan for a middle of the road time with the estimated duration.
It’s also super important to know that there are limitations and to come prepared. These are very serious mountains and it easy to get in well over your head with life-threatening consequences.
What To Wear On the Helen Lake Hike?
Just because Helen Lake is a popular hike doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared. It’s still a long day in the mountains and proper clothes and shoes should be worn. Don’t attempt this one in sneakers – there is a lot of loose rock! Proper layering should be in effect, it’s cold and windy at the summit!
The most basic principle of what to wear hiking is layering. Anyone that has spent time in wilderness or mountains can speak to the fact your temperature can fluctuate a lot on a hike. You can easily start off cool at the base of the mountain and get hot as soon as you begin moving.
The goal of hiking clothing is to help regulate your body temperature, element protection, and moisture management. Temperature management is best done through a layering system if you want to learn more about what to pack for a day hike or what to wear on a hike, you can see our full post!
Here is exactly what we take on hikes in the Canadian Rockies
Fjallraven’s Keb Pant
Both Cameron and I have Fjallraven’s well known Keb pants. Fjallraven’s Keb pants are a mountaineering staple, but they are heavyweight and not excellent for quick dry properties yet extremely durable.
They kept me warm throughout this entire hike and are windproof. When I was too hot at the base of the mountain, I was able to unzip the sides for airflow. These are, without a doubt, my favorite pants to hike in the Canadian Rockies. You can also check out the best hiking pants for women and the best hiking pants for men.
Outdoor Research Shirt Echo Series
I have six Outdoor Research Echo shirts and rotate them on all my hikes. They are lightweight and moisture wicking. Seriously, you don’t want to be stuck with a cotton shirt while hiking it traps all your sweat and then when you get cold it becomes a problem.
Outdoor Research shirts provide full coverage with their long sleeve collections, but you won’t get hot under the sun. These shirts are built with UPF sun protection, AirVent™ moisture management, and ActiveFresh™ odor control technology.
We ALWAYS have a down jacket with me on every single hike I go in the Rockies. It’s a just in case jacket that we usually end up wearing when we reach the summit, and it gets cold. Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint – Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded Jacket, Patagonia Down Sweater, REI Coop Down Jacket)
I also always have a water-resistant windbreaker/rain jacket in my hiking backpack. This is for if it rains (which it did on this hike) or if it gets windy. I have never regretted having a windbreaker in my back.
Again, it’s another piece of clothing that is super light and could save your life. The one I wore on this hike is by one my new favorite companies – Topo Designs. They make a Global Jacket that is waterproof, with a structured hood, and venting pockets.
I have a pair of Outdoor Research gloves in my hiking pack at all times. They are great for when you are scrambling and I always end up using them. I never want to come back with bloody hands and they protect against that.
We’ve learned to love our feet with a good pair of merino wool hiking socks. You will want to keep your feet nice and dry while you walk around. Most importantly wool socks stay fresh for several days as they have natural antimicrobial properties.
We travel with a couple pairs of the Darn Tough Merino socks and our feet have never felt cold or wet. As a bonus, they’re produced in Vermont!
We personally like to use between a 30-40L pack for most day hikes in the mountains as it allows for us to carry everything we could need. The major plus side is a large bag means we can bring things like a stove to make coffee or a hot meal for a nice rest on long hikes. We also love to use our Camelbak’s for easier objectives.
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun since you’ll likely spend a lot of time hiking in the sun at elevation. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes. Sunglasses are particularly important if you plan to visit any glaciers or high alpine passes as sun reflection from the snow is damaging to your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses; however, we love ours and will never buy cheap ones again. Polarized glasses are great at enhancing vision in bright environments and removing glare from windshields and the water.
I always have a baseball cap in my bag in case the sun gets too intense. I’ve been out too many times without one and my forehead gets too toasty for my liking – even with sunscreen. A baseball cap protects against that and I highly recommend having one in your bag.
If you have plans to take part in a long day or multi-day hikes a pair of hiking poles are a great way to save your knees and prevent injuries. If you’re on a full day of hiking in the mountains you’ll gain and descend a lot of elevation. So, it’s easy for your legs to get tired so a pair of hiking poles will pay off. Although I don’t always need hiking poles, they are always in my pack. I ended up using them while hiking the ridge and descending on this hike.
Black Diamond is a company dedicated to mountain sports and has worked hard to craft wonderful products. I personally use the Black Diamond FLZ Hiking Poles, but there are some other great poles out there produced by companies like REI and MSR. “Z” poles are fantastic as they’re lightweight and can be stashed inside a backpack should you not need them.
Peak Design Capture Clip
This is has been one of our favorite additions to our camera equipment and hiking outfit. The Peak Design capture clip allows for a camera to be clipped on to your backpack strap or belt.It has to be one of the best accessories we’ve ever used for carrying our camera.
The clip feels secure and robust with a straight forward design that makes switching straps easy. We’ve brought it on several hikes around the Canadian Rockies now and it has changed the way in which we photograph hikes. The access it provides to your camera is so much better than a camera strap that allows a camera to swing and banging into everything.
It’s super handy and a must for anyone who want to carry their camera on hikes, but not have to fumble around in their bag every time they want to take a photo.
Camera (We have the Fujifilm X-T3)
This beautiful and reasonably priced camera is both weather-resistant and mirrorless. It is easily the best ASP-C camera on the market and gives a serious run at many of the full-frame cameras. After all, is a full-frame camera really a necessity? In my opinion, not at all! We love photography, posting to Instagram, and posting on this website so we always have a camera on us on any hike.
This is a non-negotiable item if you’re in bear country and in some parks, it’s actually required by law. Bear spray should be on your person and not in your pack. We each have a neoprene sleeve that holds our bear spray on our belt pocket. It’s easy to reach in case of an emergency which the most important detail.
It’s a good idea to make noise while hiking in bear country whether that is singing, ringing a bell, clapping, or banging your hiking poles. Be wary of blind spots on your hikes such as tight bends and forested sections of the trail.
On any trip where we’ll spend time outside, almost every trip, a headlamp is on our packing list. I typically don’t plan on using it on a day hike, but it’s always there just in case.
We have several, but one of our favorites is the Biolite 330. It took several recommendations online before settling on this one because of its affordable price and durability. It delivers 330 lumens, costs $60, and it’s rechargeable.
Pack some high-calorie snacks for your hike on the trail. Popular options are energy gels, bars, or balls, jerky, nuts, or even a Snickers. Hiking at elevation can burn a lot of calories so it’s important to maintain your glucose levels.
It’s advised to eat as much as 200-300 calories per hour of exercise. If it’s a long day on the mountain you can always bring a packed lunch with a sandwich and high calorie like dried fruits. (I’m pretty much a kid and still love a peanut butter and jelly sandwich). We fell in love with the Nut Butter filled Clif Bars.
This is where preparation for spending a night out in the wilderness comes into effect. If you’re on a short loop around town it’s probably not necessary, but any significant hike in a national park or wilderness area presents the risk of spending the night outside.
When temperatures drop at night it presents the very dangerous threat of hypothermia or frostbite. Every time I pack this thing the photo cracks me up, but I suppose it’s better than a smiling couple.
Check Out These Posts
- What To Wear Hiking In The Mountains
- Best Hiking Backpacks in 2019
- Best Backpacking Stoves
- The Best Banff Hikes
- Best Daypack For Travel Around The World
- The Best Travel Backpacks For Europe & Abroad
- Best Travel Water Bottle To Carry On Your Next Trip
- Best Travel Towels For Backpacking Around The World
- The Ultimate Canada Travel Guide
- Best Lightweight Hiking Boots!
All Around Alberta
- Why We Moved to Alberta
- Things to do in the Winter in Banff
- An Epic Day Hiking Wasootch Ridge
- A Breathtaking Hike on Tent Ridge
- 50 Things to do in Canada!
- Hiking Grassi Lakes Near Canmore
- The Best Ski Resorts in Canada
- Epic Things To Do in Canmore
- Hiking Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park
- Amazing Things to do in Banff All Year Round!
- Hiking Sarrail Ridge in Kananaskis Country
Travel Quote Inspiration
Tips For Your Next Trip
- Top 25 Tips For Female Travelers
- How To Save Money For Travel
- Travel Banking Tips To Save Money
- Long Haul Flight Survival Tips
Pack Your Bags
Last Updated on