Cirque Peak, Banff National Park

Wanting to test our elevation limits before leaving for Peru, we did this hike, high in Banff National Park. Situated across the valley from Bow Lake, Bow Glacier, Crowfoot Glacier and Iceberg Lake, it was a hike with breathtaking views! Seriously, it was stunning… one of my all time favourite hikes!

The hike to Helen Lake, and then up and onto Cirque Peak was a hike that would take us up into an alpine valley that was at approximately the height of Machu Picchu. From there we’d ascend a long scree ramp that would take us up another 800m to a point that was still 500m or so shy of Cusco (where we plan to acclimatize for 4 days). It wouldn’t get us to that Cusco height or to the height we’d be attaining over the Sulkantay Pass, but it would at least give us an idea if we’d be in trouble at elevation in Peru as it takes us into the arena where altitude issues begin to rear their heads. Thankfully, other than a wee lack of energy, we felt no side effects!

Far across the valley from our trail, the Bow Glacier carves out a spectacular panoramic mountain scene.
As we began our hike, we had spectacular, eye-level views of the Bow Glacier across the valley. It is the source of the Bow River that runs through Banff, Canmore and Calgary.
When we emerged into the subalpine area, with its smaller trees, an opening appeared through which we had a small taste of what was to come.
Soon we lost views of the Bow as we turned up and into the valley we’d be ascending. Off in the far left of this photo is the peak we’d be hiking up. And if you look really carefully, you can see the trail that goes up through the scree as a faint white line on its left flank.
There were water courses to cross, with beautiful mountains, streaked with colour, as a spectacular backdrop along the route.
At the end of the valley was Helen Lake, the destination of most hikers to the area. At 2370m (7775′), it is almost at Machu Picchu’s elevation of 2430m (7972′). We’d be continuing up the rocky ridge on the right.
We climbed up a rocky shoulder ridge to the next, high altitude valley. Behind Bill you can see the trail we took across the meadow and along the shore of Helen Lake.
Here’s a better view of Helen Lake and its surroundings. It was SO beautiful!

As we ascended the ridge, we kept hearing a marmot call out warnings to its colony with its seriously loud & shrill whistle. They love to hide in bouldery rocky rubble. Up top there were lots of marmots around, like this mom & babe, snaggin’ all of Seamus’ attention!

A marmot is like a cross between a beaver and a ground hog that lives in the rocky debris of mountain environments.

Below was our tea spot on the rocky are of Dolomite Pass. With views of Dolomite Peak (in the background) and alpine tarns, it was spectacular. But what was most intriguing is the rock formation that we sat on. Like a petrified mud flow over giant dinosaur eggs, each one of these humps was a good foot high. We sat on them like seats in an amphitheatre. 

Dolomite Peak in the background looks a lot like the spectacular Dolomites of northern Italy.
This was the view from our tea & chocolate spot. It was a very bright day, causing the colour of the sediment rich tarns to really show off their colour.
Our destination, as seen from our tea spot. Just look at the colours on the flanks of Cirque Peak!

We would be heading up the thin line in the red part of the mountain’s shoulder that you can just barely make out here. In hindsight, we’d have been better off scrambling up the small rocky cliff at the far left of the ramp, than climbing up that steep sandy, scree slope.

Heading up the side of the slope to get to the scree ramp was tough slogging through deep, red, eroded sand. It was steep (see the small people down below in this photo for perspective), dusty when the wind came up, and ever so long.
But the setting was spectacular! Our tea spot was between the two lakes in the middle and left of this photo. I love how a shot like this shows the different heights of the mountain lakes. It’s such a neat landscape!

As we came up the side and onto the scree ramp, we got views once again of Bow Glacier as it cascades into Iceberg Lake (a lake that had been hidden to us on the hike up so far). It was hard work, making our way up that ramp, but the beauties revealed along the way were like hidden gems, making the sweat and toll on our breathing so worthwhile!

Looking back down the scree onto the shoulder of the mountain, you could see where we had come up the red sand on the left side. You can see people, like ants, down below for perspective (it was a busy, summer Sunday with bluebird skies).
Another look back at Dolomite Peak with its bumpy, towering spires.
We took refuge from the wind, part way up the scree, behind a massive boulder. I love its bright orange lichen (and its views of the valley!)

Climbing higher and higher, we ascended 600m up the scree slope. 

We are almost at the peak here, looking back on the Bow Glacier and are now over top of the mountain ridge that once towered above us along the shores of Helen Lake and the valley through which we’d hiked.

The scree was loose and rough at times. Sometimes there was a distinct trail, and sometimes it was just rock rubble that slid and moved under your feet. You just had to trust that each time you slid, you’d stop.

This was the last push to the top, up between two ribs of rock.
The last push to the top was a tough one.
Looking down the ramp we’d ascended gives you a good sense of just how steep and exposed it was, getting up to this peak. For the first time in my life, the height we’d climbed to felt a bit sketchy.
Almost there!
The top of Cirque Peak (2993m/9819′)… so incredibly rugged and beautiful… and small!
It was a very windy place! Just look at our dog’s fur. It’s amazing how easily he goes places like this with us, having no trouble climbing rock or motoring through scree.
Seen from the top of the mountain, here is the source of the Bow River: the massive Bow Glacier (in the distance). Do you see just how thick it is? Its meltwaters cascade down a powerful waterfall into Iceberg Lake, and then down another waterfall into Bow Lake.
Seamus has no fear of heights at all. He is right beside a sheer drop off, getting buffeted by the wind, looking down on the small glacier that is tucked in behind the peak we’re on.
Looking northwest: range after range of peaks spreading out as far as the eye can see.
Looking south from the top of Cirque Peak. This was really quite a small space up top… the smallest peak we’ve been to so far in all of our hikes of the area. It was very windy and very cold, so we headed back down after a short stay up top in the views.
We said goodbye to this view and headed back down to ride the scree (that’s always great fun… the way down is knee punishing but far faster than going up!)
Our trail down from the peak… we had a long way of steep terrain ahead of us. Hiking with poles really helps both with your stability (it’s like having 4 paws on the ground) and it takes some of the weight and pressure off your knees.
As we came off the scree into a rock fall area, there were a dozen rock ptarmigans. They camouflaged so well into the rocks that we didn’t see them at first, we just heard their strange cooing sounds… and then, within 3 feet of us, they started to move, taking us completely by surprise! It was as if the rocks came alive. (There are 4 in this photo.)


Here’s one up close. It’s amazing how well they blend into the colours of the rocks.

Hiking back along the shores of the lake to the rocky ridge above Helen Lake.

Time to head back down the ridge… Helen Lake sparkled and shimmered the whole time. It was so beautiful!
Good-bye, Cirque Peak! You don’t look that steep or high from here!

Heading through the flowering meadow with Dolomite Peak across the ever-widening valley on our left.

Click here for more terrific hikes in Banff National ParkAnd check out more hikes from Canada and our adventures around the world here.

15 Comments on “Cirque Peak, Banff National Park

  1. Your pictures took me through a virtual hike! Fantastic! I hope I can get my fitness levels up to do something like this. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your piece of heaven with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It definitely is! But the scree ramp is tough, so make sure you’ve got good footwear and poles because it will move under you quite a bit. We had to help a few people who were really out of their element.

      If you can, build in time to explore the valley that is up the slope/ridge from Helen Lake, before you head up the scree ramp to Cirque Peak itself. It’s really neat. There are a few lakes up there and some very, very interesting rock formations.

      And then, the guide books don’t tell you this, but if you’re at all comfortable with scrambling, the small cliff at the end of the ramp is far easier to negotiate than the red sand loose path along the side. If I were to do it again, I’d go that way.


  2. I’m speechless. This hike is so gorgeous…minus the actual climb up to Cirque Peak. 😅 The perspective of the height and the steepness from the picture was mind-numbing. I’m glad to have gone on a virtual hike with all three of you without fighting those loose screes myself. Helen Lake and surrounding area seem to be a great place to explore when we are in Banff NP this coming summer.

    Thanks for sharing your experience through such a great post and pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One question Sheri. To get to Helen Lake, I saw that you could either take Helen Lake Trail or Crystal Ridge Route. What are your thoughts about both options? Perhaps doing it as a loop? Thanks.


      • Hmm. We did just the Helen Lake Trail. I looked up the route you’re talking about and it is more of a scramble off-trail with route finding involved.

        I’m in Ontario without my maps right now, but it looks as if you climb the ridge across the valley from where we were that day. You’d certainly escape any other people on the trail and have the area to yourself.

        From the photos I saw, and the description I read, you don’t get up as high as you do from the ridge that lies above Helen Lake, across the valley from this route, up where we began the harder ascent of Cirque Peak itself.

        I would say it’d be better to explore up there instead of this route you are talking about for one main reason… unless you’re very good at reading contour maps, you can get easily turned around below the tree line… but the area above Helen Lake on the official trail is out of the treeline so you can see forever and there is a lot of room to explore up there, including 3 other beautiful lakes.

        Hope that helps!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wonderful suggestion. Thanks for taking time to look it up and to reply. Exploring above Helen Lake seems to be a much better option. Cheers.

        Liked by 1 person

    • When you’re there, you’ll HAVE to do Eiffel Lake and Wenkchemna Pass (Valley of the 10 Peaks) too… it’s the scene on the old $20 Canadian bill and it is spectacular. It begins at Moraine Lake… a place where hoardes of people come to look and take photos right beside the parking lot and then head on up the road to Lake Lousie. They almost never venture down the Eiffel Lake trail. I plan to post about it in the near future.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks. Banff and Jasper NP have been in my dream for a long time but never had enough time off to make it there when we lived in Virginia. Now that we are full-time RVing in the west, we plan to be in Canadian Rockies for about 1.5 months. I cant wait to visit.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. That sounds fantastic, Keng. I would reserve camp spots wherever you are able to determine your timing ahead of time.

    2017 is Canada’s 150th birthday, so the federal government is giving free access to the national parks for all Canadians. We’re anticipating the roads, trail heads and especially camp sites to be quite busy. To avoid the inconvenience, plan early morning starts and pre-book your sites. Closer to the time, if you want more info or a list of recommended hikes, feel free to email me.

    And if you’re taking 1.5 months, promise me you’ll add Yoho National Park (down the road from Lake Louise a short distance near Field BC) to your list!!. It’s spectacular. (See the Iceline Hike…… on my hiking page for a taste of what it’s like. There’s a good camp ground at Takkakaw Falls that you should put on your list and then explore the trails nearby).


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  6. Pingback: Hiking Helen Lake Trail, Banff National Park | David and Keng on the Road

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