Hiking Banff: Helen Lake / Cirque Peak

Located along the Icefields parkway in Banff National Park, Cirque Peak is rated a premiere hike in “Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies”, with awe-inspiring panoramic summit views.  Unfortunately, on the day we hiked it, fires blazing through British Columbia had created a significant smoky haze throughout large sections of Banff National Park.  Fortunately, we had a freak once-in-a-lifetime trail incident in which we saw a #$@!*^& LYNX.  You win some, you lose some.

Cirque Peak is 9 miles round trip with ~3400 feet of gain, topping out at a summit elevation of ~9800 feet.  In comparison to the other hikes I’ve completed in the Canadian Rockies so far, that sounds like a stroll through the park!

The first few miles of the Cirque Peak hike shares a trail with the very popular Helen Lake, so the path is gently graded and relatively smooth.  It was on this gentle path through the woods that we encountered the #$(@&#$^ LYNX!  We started hiking at 8am, well before the crowds, since apparently people in the Canadian Rockies are lazy.  The quiet early morning trail created the right conditions for what we stumbled upon.

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#$&$*&@($*#& LYNX

We heard the high-pitched cries of an irritated marmot as we moved up the trail, and eventually the cries became so loud that we knew the marmot must be practically on top of us.  Sure enough he was, and I spotted him under a tree about a foot or two off the trail.  He continued his screaming and I was wondering what he was so upset about, until I saw that there was a FREAKING LYNX staring down the marmot, perhaps 15 feet off the trail.  I’ve never seen one of these elusive animals so close; it was TRES SHOCKING!

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marmot not being eaten by a lynx

We backed away slightly and stared with our mouths gaping open.  The marmot decided that we looked way less scary than a lynx, and he suddenly ambled up the path, squeezing between David and I, using us as a human lynx blockade.  I tried to scurry away from the marmot in case the lynx decided to pounce despite our presence, since I didn’t want lynx-minced legs.

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almost at helen lake

The lynx crept closer but didn’t pounce.  If it could talk, it would’ve said “thanks for spoiling my breakfast, I HATE YOU”.  We snapped some pictures of the pissed off lynx, and watched it slink away into the woods.

After recovering from our stupor, we started hiking back up the trail, and ran into the lynx again as it used the hiking path to make its way up the mountain.  We stopped as soon as we saw it on the trail, about 20 feet ahead of us.  It turned its head around to stare at us, as if to say “you again, really????” and quickly removed itself from the trail and vanished into the woods.

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squirrel!  that’s what you came here for, right? pictures of squirrels?

Back to our regularly scheduled programming, we hiked the easy trail up the Helen Lake, and were greeted with rolling hills of wild flowers, peeping squirrels, screaming marmots, and some mountains and glaciers hazy with smoke.  At Helen Lake, the summit of Cirque Peak towers above you.

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helen lake in a smoky haze with cirque in the back

Above the lake, the trail swings right to ascend around some rocky outcroppings.  This obvious path continues on to Dolomite Pass, so don’t keep following it!  At some point, you must cut left.  We cut left at the top of the rocky outcroppings and found some cairns that led us to the Cirque Peak trail.  The trail becomes more and more obvious as you approach the base of the peak.

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starting up cirque. PC: David

For the majority of the climb up the spine of Cirque Peak, the trail is a manageable grade and the scree is shallow.  It was downright pleasant in comparison to my other Canadian Rockies hikes!  Only in the last few hundred feet does the going get rough.  The trail becomes significantly steeper and the scree thicker.  The scree then becomes mixed with talus and some more careful footing is required to avoid sending boulders rolling down the trail below.  This section slowed me down significantly but was not uncomfortable in terms of exposure or feelings of imminent death 🙂

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me talking to some guy with very hazy glaciers in the background! PC: David

There was a group of 6 behind us on the trail, and surprisingly, only two joined us on the summit.  Methinks the incredibly popular Helen Lake trail brings many casual hikers that decide to try the mountain, but they become uncomfortable with the scree and turn back.

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starting down. PC: David

The views from the summit were obscured by the smoky air but we could tell they WOULD BE amazing.  They were still pretty good, though.  The weather, however, was not looking so good, so our time on the summit was short.  I carefully ambled down the steep section of talus/scree, and then we picked up the pace surfing down the “regular” scree.  By the time we were back to the rocky outcroppings above Helen Lake, thunder was rumbling in the distance, and I judged all of the nutters still plodding their way up to the summit of Cirque.  Have these people no fear of death!?!?

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very hazy scenery on the way down. PC: David

The rest of the hike down was sunny, then rainy, then thundery, then sunny, then thundery, then sunny.  That’s the Canadian Rockies, for you.  But at least I saw a $*#&!($* LYNX!

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6 thoughts on “Hiking Banff: Helen Lake / Cirque Peak

  1. Back to our regularly scheduled programming – ARE YOU KIDDING ME A *&&%^ LYNX. I studied those &^&%$ bastards for an entire summer in Yellowstone and never saw a one. Then again, we did a pretty solid job hunting them in the states soooo…

    * by studied I mean I hung flattened pie plates in trees and covered a bit of carpet with nails in it with beaver butt juice and then to trees. ECOLOGY.

    Liked by 1 person

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