Bow Glacier Falls: The Right Mix of Everything (Except Difficulty)

Looking to do a hike that our daughter would enjoy… one that lacked the “spicy-ness” of our regular adventures… we settled on Bow Glacier Falls. And what a gem it was! It lies across the valley from Helen Lake & Cirque Peak, at the turn out to Num Ti Jah Lodge.

Bow Glacier melts into the small Iceberg Lake and then tumbles over the cliff through Bow Glacier Falls. Its incredible volume of water is the source of the mighty Bow River that heads to Banff, Canmore, Calgary and beyond, and it’s a beauty!

This is a hike with the right blend of everything for a wonderful day:

  • a relatively flat shore line walk along a lake that’s as beautifully coloured as Lake Louise,
  • only 160m elevation gain (that’s “flat” as far as mountain hikes go!!),
  • a decent distance (about 10km to the falls, return),
  • a few fun & easy optional stream crossings on a gorgeous, gravel strewn delta,
  • a gurgling stream to follow with ice cold glacial meltwater in it,
  • a magnificent canyon, sculpted & dramatic & breathtakingly beautiful,
  • a set of stairs (rather then a slippery slog) that take you safely up the canyon’s side,
  • a fantastic natural feature (a boulder suspended over the canyon that makes a natural bridge),
  • a glacially scoured landscape complete with moraine piles to walk along and sculpted cliffs to scramble (only if you’re so inclined),
  • and at the end of it all, a most spectacular waterfall, with fun rock slabs that make the best natural chairs, loungers and picnic tables going, at its base!

Yup this trail has it all… the right blend of everything! It’s terrific for out-of-town guests, for seniors’ hiking groups (we met a few groups on the way out), and for anyone wanting a gentle hike in our magnificent mountains. It has everything except strenuous ups, crazy distances and hardy fitness level requirements. It’s only down-side is that it’s missing adequate exiting of the trailhead parking area… more on that later. For now, come be inspired by the beauty of the place.

You start out on the shore of Bow Lake beside the Num Ti Jah Lodge.
As you walk along the lake’s right hand side, the intense colour becomes more and more apparent. You can see the thickness of the glacial ice sheet in the distance.
Look carefully here & you’ll see Bill & Em along the shoreline trail. It’s flat and it’s right at the water’s edge. The delta area lies between the lake and the forest. You bend around the forest, following the stream that carves up the delta and fills the lake.
After crossing the delta at the end of the lake, you enter a gravel-filled valley. The stream is now your trailside companion as you walk along, heading up toward its source. Look carefully and you can see the tip of the glacier whose meltwater is the source of your gurgling hiking buddy.
At one point, the stream is forced through an incredible canyon.
We stopped for a snack at the mouth of the canyon, resting up for the stairs, having come along the valley behind us in this photo.

Imagine the force of the water over time that has found and widened a crack in the rocky cliff band, creating this magnificent canyon feature in the landscape! In places like this, and Johnston Canyon and Maligne Canyon, I stand in reverent awe! (Well, if truth be told I’m that way in every canyon actually… that’s why we love canyoning so much!)

The hardest part of this hike is the set of stairs that takes you up to the top of the canyon. (They’re not bad at all, built wide and supported well with timber edges & packed with gravel.)
The hike to Bow Hut, the Alpine Club of Canada backcountry hut, goes across this hanging boulder. It forms a natural bridge. If you look closely, you can see a man descending on its trail. We’d be heading to the right.
After passing the hanging boulder, you can look up canyon and see the Bow Glacier Falls off in the distance: our destination for the day, framed perfectly by the slope of the upper entrance to the canyon.
I love spending time with my girl! Who loves ya, baby!?
Coming up and over the canyon, we looked back and saw Bow Lake, where we’d started, like a bright turquoise gem off in the distance.
As you come to the head of the canyon, you have this view of the moraine field and the falls. Don’t stop. For some reason, we noticed quite a few people stopping here and using this as their turn around point. Descend down the little hill on the dirt track and then follow the cairns to the falls. It’s a beautiful, very safe walk in.
We came up through the stony valley, on what was once the bottom of the glacier, following a series of rock cairns. The trail twisted and turned along the side of the stream. The mouth of the canyon lies in the forest back there… so it’s not really that much farther to the falls.
You had to watch where you stepped to avoid squishing beauties like these fragile alpine flowers.
Getting to the waterfall was a fantastic end point… and the huge rock slabs made for a terrific picnic spot.

The volume of water coming through the falls is tremendous… have a listen!

We poked about finding the perfect spot. Look carefully here and you’ll see Bill walking amongst the rock debris. These are BIG rock chunks that have fallen from above! The freeze-thaw cycle, the incredibly persistent movement of water over and right through the rock, and the power of avalanches all work to erode this landscape over time, transforming it, bit by bit, each season.
And all the while, the water kept pounding down, over the cliff.
While Em & Seamus rested after lunch, Bill and I went playing for a bit, scrambling around on the rocks. It was quite fun… look carefully in this pic and you’ll see Bill, by the closest mini water fall, following me as we climb up a little cliff band. His wee body kinda puts the falls, and their tremendous size, in perspective! There were lots of little leaks… little water chutes coming out of cracks in the rocky cliff face. One day this cliff will succumb to the inevitable!
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Just remember, if you play around here, you need to come down what you scramble up. But the rock is grippy and it’s a super fun playground.
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And if you love rocks the way I do, you’ll see plenty of fun ones up there!
Bill, Em & Seamus on our picnic rock.

A little trail beta: This was a perfect weather, hot summer day at the very end of July. We’d timed our hike to get up to the falls for a noon picnic, and as we arrived, there was only one group of people ahead of us. As we were leaving, people were really streaming into the valley, so if you want your choice of picnic spots, I’d get there early.

One more thing: parking is definitely an issue here. Overnight parkers, the people heading up to Bow Hut, can use a fair number of the spots in the trailhead access parking lot. The road in is narrow and long… and people park on both sides of it when the parking lot is full, leaving room only for the passage of one car… tricky, when you can’t see what’s coming, and have tourists in unfamiliar rental vehicles nervous about backing up.

Getting out, after your hike, can be a real issue. I had to get out of the car, and with one other wonderfully helpful person, head up the road on foot, helping to guide people (a.k.a. aggressively park them), in order for us to be able to leave. So… either park up the road yourself and walk in so that you can easily leave at the end of the day, start your hike late in the afternoon, or stick around for a bit and swim in the (cold) lake and wait it out.

*** A little shout out: There’s awesome washrooms at the parking lot to use… clean and plentiful and not smelly. Someone’s doing an awesome maintenance job there!

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

18 Comments on “Bow Glacier Falls: The Right Mix of Everything (Except Difficulty)

  1. Scrambling up next to the falls looks like fun. We enjoyed this hike too. We forgot our insect repellent in the truck and I got eaten alive by those mosquitoes during this hike.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This hike is on my list next time we get up there. Last time I just drove right on past, probably headed to Jasper. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s well worth the stop! There are, of course, many fabulous places/hike spots to stop at on the way to Jasper! One experience I highly, highly recommend is hiring a guide at the Columbia Ice Field and walking up on the glacier there. It’s far removed from the Brewster tourist machines that take bus loads up the side. It’s intimate, it’s fun, you learn lots, and it takes you far from the crowds there. But you must go with a guide who knows how to read that shifting ice and who’s trained in glacial rescue. It’s like being in a different world. And it’s not strenuous.


  3. Pingback: Getting caught without DEET on Bow Glacier Falls Trail | David and Keng on the Road

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