Most of the day hikes in the Canadian Rockies are one way, up-and-back. But there’s no doubt hikers prefer loop trips, or circuits, that don’t require retracing their steps. Here are a few of the best.
One of my favourite guidebooks is the UK’s Classic Walks in the Lake District by Walt Unsworth (yes, trail guide authors love to collect trail guides). When I last flipped through this guidebook, published in 1988, I suddenly realized that nearly all the day hikes are loops.
Lake District topography is more gentle and rolling than the Rockies, which partially explains the number of loop trips. But Parks Canada has created very few day hiking trails. When it has, there has been a serious lack of imagination and virtually no loop hikes. (Many hiking trails in the 1950s and 60s were created using a mini-bulldozer.)
There is no doubt that some of the best hiking trails in the Mountain Parks have been created by the CPR and other volunteer groups and individuals. And nearly all have provided loop options. Here are a few of my favourites.
Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit—11.8 km
Yoho Park’s Lake O’Hara has long been recognized as the premier day hiking centre in Canada. And nearly every trail can be connected to another to create a loop trip—Wiwaxy Gap-Lake Oesa; Lake Oesa-Opabin Plateau via Yukness Ledge; Opabin Plateau-Schaffer Lake via All Souls Prospect, etc.
The Alpine Circuit is the ultimate loop connecting all of these options. With lots of ups-and-downs, it is a full day’s effort for strong hikers, but the scenery is unmatched anywhere in Canada. It is described in detail on pages 286-287 of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, 9th edition.
And if all the O’Hara loop hikes seem a bit much, or the weather settles in, you can always follow the 2.8 km circuit around the lake itself.
Wapta Highline Circuit—19.7 km
Emerald Lake has been a prime destination in Yoho Park ever since the CPR built Emerald Lake Lodge in 1902. More genteel visitors have enjoyed the remarkable peaks surrounding the lake from the flat 5.2-km circuit trail around its shoreline for the past 119 years. But the real Emerald Lake experience comes with a full day outing on the Wapta Highline Circuit.
In just 20 kms, you travel beside the shores of Emerald Lake, visit two passes, and make a high traverse across Wapta Mountain, where you overlook the lake and all its surrounding peaks.
Iceline Trail-Yoho Valley Circuit—20.0 km
All of the trails in the upper Yoho Valley were created by the CPR during the first decade of the 20th century, some on the advice of the visiting mountaineer, Sir Edward Whymper (conqueror of Switzerland’s Matterhorn).
The Iceline Trail is actually a more lofty variation of Whymper’s Highline Trail, and one of the most spectacular hikes ever created by Parks Canada. If you hike the loop clockwise, you will overlook Takakkaw Falls (one of Canada’s highest) and travel beneath the sheer face of the Emerald Glacier during the steady 6.4-km ascent to the trail summit.
From the summit of the Iceline, you descend to the Little Yoho Valley trail at the Alpine Club of Canada’s Stanley Mitchell Hut and descend along the Little Yoho River to Laughing Falls in the main Yoho Valley. Then it’s a nice, flat walk back to your starting point at Takakkaw Falls, with two more waterfalls (Point Lace and Angel’s Staircase) along the way.
Once upon a time, we extended this circuit over Whaleback between the Little Yoho Valley and Twin Falls—a very energetic 29-km day!
Lake Agnes-Plain of the Six Glaciers Circuit—14.5 km
Like all the trails around Lake Louise, those leading to Lake Agnes and the Plain of Six Glaciers were constructed by the CPR before the turn of the 20th century. They are amongst the earliest recreational trails in the Canadian Rockies and, when connected together as a loop, create the most scenic day hike in Banff National Park.
Many people hike to either Lake Agnes or the Plain of Six Glaciers separately. But if you don’t linger at the teahouses at both destinations, you can complete a classic circuit by connecting the two via the Big Beehive traverse.
Depending on which direction you want to attack the loop, you can find directions for the circuit on page 95 (Lake Agnes) or page 97 (Plain of the Six Glaciers) in the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, 9th edition.
Sunshine Meadows Loop—7.0 km
This is a classic loop hike from the Sunshine Village Resort. While many visitors cut the loop in half by riding the Standish Chairlift (when lifts are operating), we like to start the hike on the uphill trail from the lodge complex to Rock Isle Lake. Then we hike to the Standish Viewpoint platform (near the top of the Standish Chairlift).
Continue on the circuit clockwise across the Meadow Park and, after visiting the Wawa Ridge viewpoint (0.6 km round trip), descend back to the resort. This circuit is described in detail on pages 56 to 59 in the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, 9th edition.
Be aware that the trip a much more demanding 19 km in 2021 thanks to the closure of the Sunshine Gondola, which requires hiking the resort’s 6-km access road at the beginning and end of the day.
Healy Meadows-Sunshine Circuit—21.3 km
This is an option for strong hikers during the 2021 pandemic summer that has seen the closure of the Sunshine Village gondola.
Start the hike by ascending Healy Creek to the Healy Meadows in 7.7 kms.
Continue 1.5 km to the summit of Healy Pass for panoramic views, including the Egypt Lakes far below.
Return to the 7.7 km junction and follow it to the right through the vast Healy Meadows and down to the summit of the historic Simpson Pass. Then it’s on back to Wawa Ridge and Sunshine Village.
Once you reach Sunshine Village, there’s nothing left but a steady if uninspiring 6-km downhill on the Sunshine access road to the parking lot and the starting point for your trip.
On a normal summer, with the gondola and Standish Chairlift in operation, I’ve truncated the loop by riding the lifts to a starting point atop Standish Ridge. Then I completed the circuit clockwise by hiking the Meadow Park trail to Wawa Ridge summit, Simpson Pass, Healy Meadows and Pass. Then back down Healy Creek to the parking area. This eliminates a lot of climbing and shortens the day by approximately 6 kms.
A more complete description of this circuit can be found on pages 62-63 in the 9th edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.
Cory Pass-Mount Edith Circuit—13.0 km
Though it one of the shorter trips in this guide, it is also one of the most demanding.
Located near Banff in the Bow Valley, the trail strikes off from the Fireside Picnic Area at the east end of the Bow Valley Parkway.
Therein follows a 915m (3,000ft) ascent over the first 5.8 km—one of the steepest and most unrelenting trail climbs in the Mountain Parks.
From the spectacular 2350-m summit of Cory Pass, the trail drops down through the Gargoyle Valley, loops around Mount Edith clockwise, and contours above the summit of Edith Pass.
You finish your circuit with a 4-km descent through forest back to Fireside Picnic Area.
A detailed description of the circuit can be found on pages 36-37 in the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, 9th edition.
Trip planning and special considerations
Needless to say, parts or all of these circuits are among the most popular hiking trails in the Mountain Parks. You’ll need some careful planning if you want to complete these hikes.
Any of the trips starting at Lake O’Hara, including the Alpine Circuit, require booking well in advance, maybe by a year or more. (Consider Lake O’Hara a “bucket list” destination.) Check out access requirements at Lake O’Hara-Plan Your Trip.
Both Emerald Lake (Wapta Highline) and Yoho Valley (Iceline) trailheads are very busy. Parking lots are often clogged with vehicles. Avoid weekends and holidays and try to arrive soon after sunrise to avoid parking frustrations.
Lake Agnes and Plain of the Six Glaciers are two of the busiest trails in Western Canada. While some people find space in the Lake Louise parking lot by arriving before sunrise, most are turned back at the traffic control below the lake. Book transport on the shuttle bus from the Lake Louise Park & Ride, or a ROAM bus to Lake Louise from Banff, a couple days in advance of your trip.
Sunshine Meadows and Healy Meadows hikes should require little planning at the end of another pandemic summer. But once the Sunshine Village Resort is back in full operation, with the gondola and chairlift running, expect the Sunshine Meadows Loop to be very busy.
The Sunshine-Healy Meadows Loop will always be a better way to escape the crowds. However, be aware that hikers are required to stay on designated trails in the Sunshine Meadows region all the way to Healy Pass (no idle off-trail wandering allowed).
The Cory Pass-Mount Edith Circuit is busiest on weekends and holidays and parking is limited at the Fireside Picnic Area. Go early.
All photos by Brian Patton