Cirque Peak is an easy scramble in Banff National Park. It starts with a spectacular approach through alpine meadows on a well-maintained trail. After reaching Helen Lake the peak is ascended off-trail on a scree ridge with a short rock scramble to the summit. From the ridge line onward the views are spectacular. With each step upward the panorama continues to expand as more glaciers, alpine lakes and rugged mountain peaks come into view.
We really enjoyed this hike. It was one of the top three hikes of our two month road trip to Alaska.
Why did we enjoy it so much? First and foremost, we had the summit to ourselves in the peak summer season. Everything in Banff National Park seemed so crowded but this hike (especially the second half) was not.
Second, scrambling! Cirque Peak is one of the least technical high elevation peaks you can find in Banff. So it’s accessible AND gives you a good taste of some mountain scrambling. Which is fun.
Third, the views are incredible. But that’s not surprising for the Canadian Rockies. Jagged snow covered mountains, turquoise high alpine lakes, and glittering glaciers as far as the eye can see. The Canadian Rockies far surpassed my expectations.
via Vern Dewit.
Another good resource is Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies by Kathy Copeland.
- Round trip length: 8.5 miles
- Start elevation: 6,510 feet
- End elevation: 9,820 feet
- Elevation gain: 3,310 feet
- Trailhead: Helen Lake Trailhead along the east side of the Icefields Parkway Hwy 93.
- Permits: a national park pass is required for entry into Banff National Park. It was $9.80 (CAD) per adult per day or $136.40 per adult for an annual pass. We spent a week in the Canadian national parks so the annual pass was approximately one Canadian dollar cheaper. #thrifty
The hike to Helen Lake is straightforward. Start on a well-maintained trail winding through a fantastic smelling fir and spruce forest. It’s relatively flat at first and never gets too steep on the way up to Helen Lake.
After about 45 minutes of hiking we turned left (north) and had some excellent views of Dolomite Peak to the east. Thirty more minutes of hiking up the valley brings you to Helen Lake.
From Helen Lake we followed the trail up the Helen Lake headwall. When it flattened out we reached a trail junction and turned left (north) toward the base of Cirque Peak. From there we took the sandy switchbacks to gain the ridge.
Once we gained the ridge we heard thunder in the distance. Gah. As much as we hike I always feel uncertain (read: panicky) with looming mountain weather. Which is probably a good thing. What I really mean is that I don’t know how to read the weather except to say THE CLOUDS ARE BUILDING AND I’M SCARED.
So the clouds were building and we heard thunder. We stood on the ridge for a few minutes chomping on some Canadian cheese and crackers deciding what to do. Well it wasn’t right over us, so onward!
I’m not telling you to do this. Turn around if you hear thunder! We were succumbing to the silly mountain gumby move of “the summit is so close, I bet we can do it!!”
But the summit was well worth the risk of dying by lightening in a horrific fashion. Horrific too for those that find you. If you somehow survive maybe you could get a sweet lightening tattoo like these guys.
We stayed at the summit for about a minute as the sky grew darker. We took some pictures and started the descent. Although it is marginally more dangerous at the summit, the real concern was the additional hour we had above treeline. We passed two other groups coming up the ridge on our way down. This fed into the herd mentality – oh we’re probably fine because other people are here! DON’T BE FOOLED. MULTIPLE PEOPLE CAN DIE AT THE SAME TIME.
We got rained on but survived. Hah. We drove to the Mosquito Creek campground and anxiously filled out the fee form hoping our spot wouldn’t get taken out from under us. Did I mention there were a lot of people? It was August, I think that is high peak season. I have no room for complaining, I know.
Since we have our car camping situation figured out, I really dislike paying for camping. But as far as paid camping goes, Banff and Jasper National Parks had some pretty awesome camping.
And for your viewing pleasure, the real highlight of the hike: