Have you heard of the Instagram famous Peyto Lake? Most visitors park in the nearby carpark and walk up an easy 10 minute maintained path to see it in the summer. However those looking for an alternative more adventurous way to see Peyto Lake and the rest of beautiful Baff National Park should consider scrambling Observation Peak.
Observation Peak is a moderate scramble that can be done in half a day. It was one of our favorite scrambles in the Canadian Rockies as it provided an excellent workout, stunning views, and little to no other visitors.
One of our goals last summer was to check this one off the list, and I’m so happy we did! Here’s the ultimate Observation Peak hike/scramble guide.
An Observation Peak Scramble/Hike Guide
Observation Peak Parking
Just off the Icefields Parkway, almost directly across the street from the Peyto Lake/Bow Summit carpark area is a small access road to turn off of for parking. Once you see Peyto Lake carpark on your left (coming from Banff) be on the immediate lookout for a short gravel road on the right. Turn here and park on the side of the road. There isn’t much parking here, so make sure you aren’t blocking anyone else.
Observation Peak Route Description
To get to the start of Observation Peak follow the old road trail through the woods, this is the easiest part of your day so enjoy it for a few minutes. Once you get past the treeline you can look up and see the mountain in front of you. This is what you are about to climb.
Follow the trail up the major gully to the left of the avalanche zone. There are a few cairns to follow, although we didn’t notice them until the descent so keep your eyes open. If you stay out of the gully you should be able to avoid problematic scree.
As you continue upwards you’ll notice some cliffs about 2/3 the way up, stick to the right for the easiest ascent up and through the cliffs. You’ll have to use your hands and stretch your body (if you’re short like me) to connect your foot to footholds. This, to me, was the most difficult part of this scramble.
Alan Kane suggests avoiding this area entirely if you start your day further south, but then it would be endless rubble and scree. This would be a decision you make at the beginning of your day.
When you make it past the cliffs continue on, you’ll notice a false summit. You’re going to be on very loose treadmill scree for about 45 minutes to an hour before you reach the false summit. It looks closer than it is. If you attempt this with any snow or ice on the ground it will be harder. Push towards there and admire the view. Although this seems like the highest peak the true summit is about 20 minutes further to your left, the good news it’s a very easy 20 minute traverse so you definitely should go for it.
Pass the cornice hanging to the east. Do not stand on the cornice! We saw footprints here and couldn’t believe it this thing could break sending you on your way to a certain death.
You’ll find a summit book and cairn to mark the true summit that is about 100 meters higher than the false summit. Chill here and admire the amazing views over the Wapta Icefield, Bow Lake, and Peyto Lake. This is why this is called “Observation Peak.”
Head back the same way you came. I preferred to run down the loose scree section as it was much easier. I wore regular trail runners but would have preferred high ankled shoes for the scree. Note* A helmet should be worn on this hike as there is lots of loose scree and rock. It’s one of those backpacking essentials we recommend on scrambles.
When Can You Hike Observation Peak?
Observation Peak is best hiked between July and early October. You’ll likely find snow in June and October. Pack a pair of crampons and dress in layers if you are going out during this time. Observation Peak should be hiked on optimal days. It’s not for times when it’s raining or snowing.
How Long Does Take To Scramble Observation Peak?
With a distance of 8.2 km and an elevation gain of 1067 meters, Observation Peak can be accomplished in 5-7 hours round trip. It took us about six hours with a 30 minute summit stop enjoying a beer with views.
How Hard is it to Scramble Observation Peak?
As far as scrambles in the Canadian Rockies go I would personally rate this hike on the moderate side. Alan Kane rates this as a moderate scramble with moderate exposure and I would have to agree.
It’s more difficult than Paget Peak, but less difficult than Mount Niblock by Lake Louise. If you are new to scrambling this could be a bit intimidating for you as there are some maneuvers you’ll have to towards the false summit using your hands.
That being said, there is nothing technical about Observation Peak, and nothing death-defying here. You’ll definitely want a helmet for this one as there is a lot of loose rock.
There is no route signage on Observation Peak and a few cairns on your way to the top. Follow the AllTrails GPS.
Are dogs and kids appropriate on Observation Peak?
It would be best to leave them at home unless they are experienced with scrambling.
How Busy is Observation Peak?
You’re likely not going to see anyone out on Observation Peak. We went on on a beautiful summer day and only saw one other person. The summit register only had a few other recent signatures.
If you haven’t seen Peyto Lake before it’s definitely worth it to stop before or after you scramble up Observation Peak for some great views. To get to Peyto Lake is very easy. Only a 10 minute walk up a maintained path will get you to the viewpoint. You can see our full guide on visiting Peyto Lake here.
Wildlife Awareness on Paget Peak
If you’re on any hikes in the Canadian Rockies 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 the Canadian Rockies, 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 moderately 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. We saw a male grizzly near the saddle of this hike. Thankfully he was fairly far away and we had a large group.
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. We asked a marmot for directions, but they only gave us a whistle.
Advice on Hikes in the Canadian Rockies
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.
Lastly, a GPS tracker could save your life – it’s one of those backpacking essentials I like to have on me just in case I need to hit SOS.
Alltrails is our favorite app to have on a hike. It shows the correct trail way, elevation, and other hiker reviews. We paid the subscription fee so that we could download all the data we need to our phones. Best $2.50 (per month) ever spent!
What to Wear On a Hike?
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 are the best hiking clothes for men and the best hiking clothes for women.
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. See the best cameras here.
This is a non-negotiable Banff packing list 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.
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Plan Your Trip to the Canadian Rockies
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