The Glacier Lake hike was my first backpacking experience in Banff National Park. In fact, this was also one of my first-ever multi-day hiking trips. After a moderate jaunt to Glacier Lake, the serene campground offers pure backcountry bliss. In the early season, there’s a good chance you could have Glacier Lake all to yourself. The perfect place for beginner backpackers or anyone looking for scenic camping in the Rocky Mountains. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Backcountry camping is one of the best ways to spend time in Canada’s vast wilderness. In May 2019, my friend Kevin and I ventured into Banff National Park for a weekend adventure. While I grew up with multi-day canoe trips, I had limited exposure to backpacking. For someone like me, the Glacier Lake hike was a way to ease into something new—with amazing views!
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About the Glacier Lake Hike
Location: Banff National Park, Alberta
Distance: 18 km out and back
Elevation: 230 m elevation gain
Time: 6 – 7 hours
Dog-friendly: Yes, but dogs must remain on a leash.
Features: Glacier Lake trail is the perfect backcountry route for beginners. And the backcountry campground is a worthwhile early-season destination. You’ll find spectacular Rocky Mountain views as you make your way toward the fourth largest lake in Banff Park. Glacier Lake’s turquoise blue water is mesmerizing, with the Southeast Lyell Glacier towering above the south end.
Finding the Trailhead
You shouldn’t have any trouble finding Glacier Lake. Head north from Lake Louise along the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) for about 75 km until Saskatchewan River Crossing. Continue north after Icefields Parkway meets David Thompson Highway for about one kilometre. Then turn left into the Glacier Lake parking area. From Calgary, the entire trip is about 260 km and will take about 3 hours. Find the signed trailhead near the south end of the parking lot.
Glacier Lake Hike—Banff Backcountry for Beginners
Are you planning to ease into backcountry camping? Glacier Lake Campground makes an excellent early-season destination. Prepare to hike about 9 km one way with 230-metre elevation gain—perfect for beginner and intermediate backpackers. However, two days wasn’t quite long enough to fully explore the area, so consider three days for more flexibility. It’s also possible to complete Glacier Lake as a longer day hike instead of an overnight trip.
You’ll find the Glacier Lake hike pretty easy to follow. Beginning in pine forest, the moderate trail opens up after one kilometre where you’ll cross the bridge over the North Saskatchewan River. Then continue another km to the Howse River viewpoint. Take a few minutes to soak in the view from Parks Canada’s iconic red chairs. Afterwards, head west (right) down the Howse River bank. Continue to hike in view of the river before darting back into the forest.
Most of the Glacier Lake trail is through the forest, without any noteworthy views. But in the shoulder season, you could have the trail all to yourself. And the promise of Glacier Lake will keep you going. Though I recall the return trip being more difficult, with a steep climb after leaving the campground. But that could’ve had more to do with getting used to a heavy backpack.
Read more: Devil’s Thumb Hike at Lake Louise, Alberta
Camping in Banff: Glacier Lake Backcountry
Glacier Lake Backcountry is a hidden-gem campground in Banff National Park, with five tent sites and plenty of trees for a hammock. The campground is also equipped with an outhouse, bear cache, picnic tables, and a communal fire pit. Plus an old historic cabin as a point of interest. The lake itself is 4.5 km long and 1 km wide.
Booking: Advanced reservations are required through the Parks Canada reservation system. Select Glacier Lake campground (GL9) and choose “Glacier Lake Trailhead” as the access point. Reservation fee is $11.50 and backcountry camping fee is $10.50—a total of $22 per night.
Park Pass: Along with overnight camping fees, a park entry pass is required to visit Banff National Park. You can either purchase a day pass or the Parks Canada Discovery Pass. Day pass is $10.50 and the annual pass is $72.25 per adult.
Toilet: Outhouse is available at the campground. Where there’s no outhouse, dig a hole 70 metres from the trail, water sources, and campground. Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
Fire: Campfires are permitted in the fire ring. Only burn dead fallen wood. Campers should carry a stove and be prepared to make meals without a campfire.
Food: Store all food and scented products (toothpaste, etc) at the bear cache. Bring a dry bag to protect from the elements. Further, cook and eat meals away from your tent.
Wildlife: Banff is bear country. Carry bear spray and know how to use it.
Note: Glacier Lake Campground (GL9) is popular in the early and peak seasons. Book in advance to avoid missing out on backcountry bliss.
Backcountry Camping Etiquette
Here are a few more backcountry etiquette tips:
Stay on the trail: Hike on designated trails and avoid shortcuts. Minimizing impact on the environment will help keep trails accessible for future outdoor recreation.
Camping: Camp on designated tent pads or sites to reduce your impact on the environment. Glacier Lake doesn’t have tent pads or platforms, but there are five designated sites. When backcountry camping, use tent pads when they’re available or choose a durable surface. Further, camp at least 70 metres from lakes, rivers, and streams.
Washing dishes: Don’t put any food waste or grey water in the lake. Grey water (i.e. dish water) contaminates freshwater sources and can impact wildlife and natural ecosystems. Instead, collect water for dishes and then dig a small hole in the forest. When you’re done washing, strain the grey water in the hole and cover it up. Then pack out any remaining food waste. Never dump grey water or leftover food waste in the pit latrines.
Pack it in, pack it out: Leave nothing behind in the campground. Pack out all garbage, food scraps, pet waste, and any personal belongings.
What To Bring
If you’re new to backcountry camping, it can be hard to know what to bring. You’re going to want supportive hiking footwear and a comfortable pack. A fully-loaded backpack should not weigh more than 20 percent of your body weight.
Here’s what I brought along:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag liner
- Hiking boots
- Rain shell
- Rain pants
- Jetboil camp stove
- Campsuds soap
- 2L water reservoir
- Nalgene water bottle
- Trekking poles
- Bug spray
- Toilet paper
- Toothbrush + toothpaste
- Water filter
- First aid kit
Glacier Lake Hike Map
Thanks for reading! Have you been able to hike to Glacier Lake or camp in Banff National Park? Tell me about your experience below.
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Thomas is currently participating in the 11-month Ocean Bridge program through Ocean Wise, a globally-focused conservation organization on a mission to protect the ocean. As an Ocean Bridge Ambassador, he is creating a series of blog posts for the outdoor community to share information and spark motivation for ocean and freshwater conservation in Canada. Thanks for reading!