Meltwater from glaciers carry silt downstream, refracting blue and green light, forming the beautiful turquoise lake colors in Banff National Park.

A Turquoise Lake in Banff Without the Hub-Bub; Go Ahead, Skip Lake Louise

Part 1 of a series:

Ice blue. Mint green. Cyan. Turquoise. However you describe the hue of the lakes and rivers fed by glacial meltwater in the Canadian Rockies, it is spectacular. But why the unique color palate? A hike to the headwaters of Bow Lake is an amazing way to enjoy and explore the effect.

They key ingredient is rock flour. As glaciers grind their way across bedrock, they produce ultra-fine silt. Meltwater from the glacier carries the rock flour downstream in uniform suspension, refracting blue and green light. Light, angle and time of day all impact the hue. Pretty simple.

But wait. Why visit Bow Lake and not Banff National Park’s internationally renowned Lake Louise? Isn’t that the crowd-pleaser?

Lake Louise from the Fairmont patio.
Lake Louise from the Fairmont patio.

Long long ago, MontaraManDan’s grandfather described Lake Louise as akin to the Mona Lisa covered with flies. Harsh, but we had to agree when we stopped by. It probably didn’t help that we truncated our hike beyond Louise to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House when the hour grew late and we feared missing our parking shuttle. We soothed that trail fail with beer and cider on the patio at the Fairmont Chateau Hotel. The 20-ounce pours helped. The roving server with a sunblock dispenser was a nice touch.

The 5.8 mile trail to Bow Glacier Falls and back begins at the red-roofed Num-Ti-Jah Lodge at the foot of Bow Lake, which offered turquoise water every bit the equal of Lake Louise. So what was different? A half dozen people treaded water off-shore instead of a full-on beach scene. One red canoe plied the blue water rather than 30. A single unhappy grade-schooler was yodel-whining a complaint rather than a busload.

Bow lake in Banff National Park. Dawn Page / CoastsideSlacking
Bow lake in Banff National Park. Dawn Page / CoastsideSlacking

We headed up the trail.

“Up” is the key. Once a trail begins to gain elevation, foot traffic beings to evaporate. In this instance, the rise away from the lake into the woods was a fake, but it did the job. After bouncing our way up a brief stretch of trail covered in thick, dusty mulch, we dropped back down into a broad moraine of small river rock crisscrossed with rushing, milky-blue meltwater meanders.

The trail was visible only because the larger stones had been kicked away or piled neatly to mark the way. Very little grade. And very little competition. Nice.

banff-IMG_6633But then we hit the oversized rock and timber staircase that climbed into a wood alongside a slot canyon. Oof. We must have encountered 400 of the 500 feet of elevation gain on those stairs. We let a group of older teens pass as their mothers admonished them not to race ahead. So depressing.

banff-IMG_6638Near the top of the stairs we could peer into the canyon and see the rushing water. A giant boulder formed a natural bridge to the far side of the canyon. Revitalized, the Geek grabbed her camera and began leaning toward the edge at precarious angles. M-Man panted dizzily nearby, leaning against a tree in a cloud of mosquitoes and black flies. Perhaps they were attracted by residual traces of Stiegl Pilsner from the previous afternoon at the Fairmont.

Even with the falls in sight, M-Man was contemplating a second consecutive trail bail when he saw the energetic teens turn back. The thought of out-pacing a pack of Centennials put that mulch-field bounce back in his step.

The final leg of our hike took us across a field of large-ish but well-tumbled multi-colored rocks. Orange, black, white and striped variations of each matched the strata on the cliff walls that surrounded the bowl stretching out from the falls. Water seeped beneath much of the field, with a primary channel roaring past to one side.

The trail was essentially non-existent at this point, but it didn’t matter since we could see the base of the falls. Reaching it was more a matter of not breaking an ankle rather than finding an actual path. We arrived ankles intact.

While the Geek picked her way across boulders, looking for just the right camera settings and images to shoot, M-Man pulled up a comfortable rock and pulled an apple from his pack. He smiled as he chewed, secure in the knowledge that the great thing about hiking to the source of a lake is that it’s all downhill on the way home.

This post is the first in a series on the wonders of the Canadian Rockies pegged to the 150th year of the Canadian Confederation. Happy anniversary!

7 thoughts on “A Turquoise Lake in Banff Without the Hub-Bub; Go Ahead, Skip Lake Louise

  1. Thanks, Roberta! You kind words mean a lot. We’re still working on building an audience. Please share with your friends as you are inclined. Best wishes. MontaraManDan & The Geek 😀

  2. “Mona Lisa covered in flies”… I’ve never heard that one before! 😆So glad you found Bow Falls at the base of its Glacier. What other hikes did you do while you were here? This is a big place and there are so many great spots, like the one you found, to get away from the hoards. It’s a little work, but the pay off can be grand!

    1. Hi Sheri. We’ve also posted on walks at Marble Canyon and the Paint Pots at Kootenay. Plus a look at trying to track down wildlife to photograph. Check the blog archive. We’ve got a post in the works on our drive up the Icefields Parkway we plan to share early next week. Stay tuned!

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