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Lake Agnes

Banff National Park

July 28th, 2009

4.6 miles
1420 vertical feet
Total Time: 7:14

Starting elevation
5715 feet
Max elevation
7012 feet

Rating: 8/10

Directions: From Lake Louise village, take Highway 1A to Lake Louise. Park in the large public parking lots.   View Driving Map



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We arrived in the large public parking lots at Lake Louise around 9:30am. It was raining quite steadily, so I checked the weather forecast. It called for rain up until about 11am, and then mostly clear after that. So we simply waited inside the car. No need to get ourselves soaked if the rain would stop soon. About 45 minutes later, the rain stopped and the sky rapidly turned blue.

Sitting in the car, waiting for the rain to stop

45 minutes later, it's bright and sunny heading to Lake Louise

We walked to the west end of the parking lot to start our hike. There's a paved path to the eastern edge of Lake Louise, where hundreds of tourists were milling about, taking pictures, admiring the lake. The lake is backed by steep forested mountains on the western shores, with glaciers sitting on the mountains on the far end. The lake is famed for its beauty, but to be honest I think Moraine Lake is prettier. In any case, it is still a pretty sight. A path runs along the edge of the lake to the right. There are benches to sit, canoes to rent (a few were already out on the lake), and the large Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel sitting next to the path.

Canoes in Lake Louise

We navigated past all the tourists, all the while getting looks and comments about our kids, who were dressed in full hiking gear. One man even asked to take a picture of the kids, but they're thankfully bashful about having strangers take their pictures. They are very happy to have me take their pictures, though.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

Very shortly we passed the hotel and reached the somewhat calmer northern side of the lake (calmer as in fewer people). There were colorful displays of wildflowers here. Then we veered off the lake shore path and headed up the Lake Agnes trail, the sign telling us we had 3.4 kilometers to go to reach the teahouse at the top. There are basically no switchbacks on this part of the trail as it climbs steeply through the forest, Lake Louise now hidden behind the tall trees. The trail is hard packed gravel, so we didn't use our trekking poles on this part of the hike.

Trail on the north side of the lake

Trail headed up through the forest to Lake Agnes

The trails here are all very well signed, telling people where to go and how far they have to go. We passed by the horse trail which forks off to the right, continuing our westerly climb through the forest. About a mile into the hike (and after about 150 vertical meters of climbing), the trees parted ever so slightly and we had a glimpse of the lake below, and the trail made a sharp hairpin turn to the right. The trail continues to climb, but finally veers away from the lake. We climbed some more before we stopped at another trail intersection. The horse trail comes in from the right here, and horses would use the same trail that we would from here until Lake Agnes.

Finally, a small view of the lake

After a brief snack break, we continued up the trail. The trail was now muddy and riddled with horse manure. Finally, we reached Mirror Lake, which isn't so much of a lake as a pond. Above and behind it is Big Beehive. We stopped briefly at Mirror Lake to take a few pictures (it's not the prettiest sight), then continued on the trail to the right. The sign told us we only had 0.8 kilometers to go.

Big Beehive over Mirror Lake

The trail here is not as steep as the lower parts of the trail, but it finally has some switchbacks. Another thing we finally got was some views of the surrounding mountains. We could see the Chateau far below, as well as the big parking lot. We could also see that the sky was becoming overcast again. It started to sprinkle. We passed some horses coming down from the lake, and then it started to rain. We quickly walked over to the final staircase leading up to the teahouse. There are only about 50 or so steps on this well-built wooden staircase.

Views starting to open up

Horses heading down the trail

When we reached the teahouse, it was just after 1pm, and people were huddled into the teahouse and outside at the covered tables. In other words, it was packed and we had no chance of finding a table to sit. Well, we'd brought our lunch, anyway, so when the rain let up a few minutes later we decided to leave. We found an unoccupied bench off in a corner next to the lake and sat down for lunch. We figured we'd go to the teahouse later for dessert. Or even tea.

Lake Agnes Teahouse

Lake Agnes

The chipmunks here, perhaps because of all the people who come through and all the crumbs they leave behind, are quite aggressive. One chipmunk even pounced on one of our packs looking for food before we chased it away. Keep an eye on your food while you're here!

To be honest, Lake Agnes does not look spectacular from this vantage point. I could name dozens of Sierra lakes which are prettier. But those lakes don't have a teahouse next to them. There are also other treats awaiting the hiker who ventures beyond the teahouse. There's Little Beehive, a 1.1 mile round trip (about 400 feet of climbing) from Lake Agnes, which provides great views of Lake Louise below. There's Big Beehive, on the other side of the lake. We didn't think the kids could handle those lengthy extensions to the hike, but we did think they could walk to the far end of the lake, where there's a vast assortment of rocks available for skipping.

It was mostly sunny as we walked along the northern shore of Lake Agnes. As our first treat, we saw a hillside full of wildflowers. Then, as we passed through the talus field next to the lake, we saw a pika, its distinctive mouse ears clearly visible. We also heard the occasional "eep!" from the pika. I quickly switched to my 500mm lens and took as many shots as I could, catching him in the act of eating. They sure are cute little creatures.

Talus field at Lake Agnes

Trail next to Lake Agnes

Pika

Pika

Pika

We then continued along the lake shore. We walked through a beautiful section of forest with a carpet of wildflowers at our feet. This then opens up onto a rocky area at the end of the lake. We were planning to sit down there and enjoy the lake, but unfortunately it started to rain again. It was getting relatively late, anyway, and we still wanted to visit the teahouse, so we decided to turn around. Of course, after we turned around it stopped raining, but that's ok.

Wildflowers at the far end of the lake

Lake Agnes (teahouse is at the end of the lake, on the left)

We ended up stopping near some other rocks, and the boys threw rocks in the water while I took out my macro lens and took some pictures of the beautiful flowers here. There's also a strange-looking plant with dozens of tentacles circling around its center. Rain drops from the recent rain were captured in it. Not sure what it was, but it was a pretty sight.

Strange looking plants

Rain drops on strange looking plant

Trail curving along the Lake Agnes shore

On our way back through the talus field, we encountered another animal, this one about the size of a marmot. It didn't look like the yellow-bellied marmot we are used to in the Sierra Nevada. It was brown on the end, but black and white in the front. We would later learn that it is the hoary marmot. It went from flower to flower, eating away, while another pika scampered away in front of it.

Hoary marmot

This flower's all mine!

Yum yum yum, that was tasty!

We finally made it back to the teahouse and had no trouble finding a sheltered table outside. We had to wait 10-15 minutes for someone to take our order, but once we did order the food and drink came quickly. The teahouse offers sandwiches, soups, baked goods, hot chocolate and lemonade, and of course tea. All at (of course) inflated prices. Still, this is a rare opportunity so we had no problems spending the money. We read that they get their supplies from a once-a-year helicopter drop, in addition to horses and people carrying stuff up. The teahouse staff actually live up here.

Teahouse menu. Bring cash -- lots of it.

We enjoyed our baked goods and beverages, with views of Lake Agnes and (far below) Lake Louise, barely visible over the treetops. Just as we left, the rain started again, and everyone crammed into the teahouse again. We just put on our rain gear and headed down the alternate trail. There are two trails to the teahouse from Mirror Lake. We had taken the more gentle climb up. We now took the steeper route down, partly because I knew it would be devoid of horse manure.

View of Chateau and Lake Louise just above the treetops from next to the Teahouse

Bridge near teahouse at edge of lake

This alternate trail is noticeably steeper. The rain started to subside as we descended. We passed a couple coming up; one of them had a camera similar to the VHoldR ContourHD that I've been considering, strapped to the side of his head. I think it would be nice to have something like that for hikes, drives, and bike rides. I still haven't quite pulled the trigger on that purchase, though.

Heading back down the trail

Soon enough we were back at Mirror Lake, and then back on the trail to Lake Louise. Along the way, we happened to see our campground neighbors coming up the trail. We continued down the trail, back to Lake Louise, and then back to the parking lot. There were a lot fewer people milling about the Lake Louise shore now. The thought crossed my mind that it must be a beautiful place for a night walk. I am sure many people staying at the hotel must do just that.

Back to Lake Louise

I read afterwards that the Canadian Pacific Railway built 5 historic teahouses of which the Lake Agnes one is just one. You'd encounter another on the Plain of Six Glaciers trail, which is something I'd definitely plan to do on a return trip to the area. In fact, I may just have to try to visit all the teahouses in the future (two are now lodges).

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