Although it is generally eclipsed in popularity by nearby Lake Louise, Moraine Lake is a must-see stop for visitors to the Rockies. Lake Louise is picturesque, but gazing at Moraine Lake is simply a jaw-dropping experience. It is quite literally a perfect mountain postcard come to life – and you are standing in the middle of it. Now, just try to get there early before the noise from the other tourists tarnishes the perfection of the moment.
The lake and the surrounding “valley of the ten peaks” have their Canadian claim to fame in that this is the area pictured on the back of the old (late 1970s – 1990s) twenty dollar bill. Fortunately for visitors, nature provides a far more perfect picture than any two-tone bank note could.
Moraine Lake is about a fifteen minute drive away from Lake Louise (its access road leads off from the road to Lake Louise – so you will have already left the Trans-Canada highway). The access road is not ploughed in the winter, and as such the lake and its access are closed during the winter months.
There is one accommodation lodge at the lake; otherwise the area is strictly for day-use visitors. For those who prefer a leisurely visit, there is a short hiking trail that leads up a small hill for a great look at the deep turquoise water of the lake. There is also a walking path around the edge of the lake if doing some minor rock scrambling is not your thing.
The lake’s unique colour comes from rock that is crushed to powder by the source glacier at the far end of the lake – and the powder is carried into the lake as silt. This is contrary to my father’s explanation to me when I was a child – that the colour was simply that shade to indicate its degree of coldness. He used to tell me that Moraine Lake and Lake Louise were different temperatures based on their different colours. I can’t tell any difference – there are just bleeping cold. You might enjoy dipping your feet in the icy water after a long hike, but unless you are a polar bear (not found in the Rockies), these are not lakes for swimming in. However, canoe rentals are available if you want to go for a little cruise.
For those with a little more time and energy, there are some longer hiking trails that lead from the lake base. The first climb (a well worn tourist path, but somewhat strenuous) is about a half hour walk and leads to Larch Valley. This is a very neat area with many larch trees interspersed among the boulders. Many new peaks reveal themselves at this level – hidden from the parking lot below by the hill you just climbed. This valley is particularly pretty in the fall, as the larch needles turn a bright gold before they fall off with winter’s approach. Yup, larch trees are evergreens that don’t stay green through the winter.
One of the more amazing days I’ve had came when some friends and I hiked from Larch Valley up the longer “ten peaks” valley to Sentinel Pass. Round trip from the parking lot was somewhere in the 20 km range, so I was quite tired by the end. However, what a payoff at the end! Sentinel Pass is a low point between peaks at the end of the valley and is part of the Great Divide. Look out one side and you see the long valley you just hiked through (in Alberta); look out the other side and a whole new vista of peaks has opened up to your view (welcome to British Columbia!). It’s a place where I felt very small in the grand scale of the universe, yet I was proud of the accomplishment of reaching the summit of the pass. Maybe it was those same feelings that kept driving the early explorers forward.
I should note that if you want to take on the hike to Sentinel Pass, all you need are a decent pair of hiking shoes, some strong legs, and ample food and water. No ropes, no pitons – just energy.
If you want the quick visit to Moraine Lake, try to arrive early in the day as the parking lot fills up quickly. Consider using this as a first stop and then swing over to Lake Louise for more strolling around that area. If time permits, perhaps a quick visit to Johnston Canyon (between Lake Louise and Banff on highway 1A) could round out your day.
If you plan to picnic at Moraine Lake, there are numerous benches along the lakeside path, and there are plenty of rocks to perch on as well. Just make sure to guard your lunch bag, as there are many cute and cuddly chipmunks who will gladly lighten your food load if you let them.