Hiking the Paradise Valley to Sentinel Pass & Moraine Lake

We had a plan. And we thought it was a great one (probably our first mistake!).

Knowing how crazy Moraine Lake parking can be, we thought we’d drive up, park & lock up a bike, then head 10km back down the road to the Paradise Valley trailhead, park, and hike in. We’d do the detour to have lunch at the giant steps waterfall, hike out the other side of that loop, head up and over the lofty 2600m Sentinel Pass for a fantastic snack, and wind up back where we’d planted our bike on the shores of beautiful Moraine Lake. Bill would then ride down to the car & bring it back up the road while I waited with Seamus and our packs. IMG_4974.jpgIn theory, it was a sound plan… in reality, well… let’s just say we should have been prepared with a Plan B. And we should have never expected to pull this off on a weekend!

Let me back up a bit.

IMG_6736.jpgParadise Valley is a spectacularly beautiful valley, running parallel to the majestic Valley of the Ten Peaks, sharing the slopes of imposing Mount Temple, Pinnacle Mountain and Eiffel Peak. It has a beautiful creek, waterfalls, picturesque Lake Annette (a great day hike destination in and of itself), lots of little wildflower meadows, an impressive rock fall area to explore, lofty heights from which to see the mountains and the valley through which you’re passing, and a gorgeous glacier-filled cirque. Its beauty gets right in to your very core and infects you with a sense of euphoria… so great that you don’t notice the lengthy distance you’re putting in with those dusty hiking boots.

The trail begins at a small parking lot 2km up the Moraine Lake Road. It is an access point to a number of fun destinations… you can also hike to Fairview Mountain (and Saddleback Pass) and into Lake Louise from here.
It follows the course of Paradise Creek, passing through fir and spruce forest, heading gradually up to Lake Annette.
It’s quite gentle and has perfect little bridges to make crossing the creek an easy affair.
After a little climb you reach Lake Annette. The perfect place to have a snack, it is calm and serene, with Mount Temple looming behind it, its impressive flanks reflected in the blue-green mirror that is the lake’s surface, below.
The panoramic photo of the lake, above, didn’t capture the intensity of the colour. The greens and the aquamarine colours that came through in this setting are astounding!
It’s truly a great little picnic spot.

Lake Annette is the day hike destination for many entering this valley. There were already quite a few people gathering up there when we arrived at about 9:30am. One group was setting up an inflatable dingy to take out on the lake. So we decided to cut our visit here short, and head back out and up along the trail and find a more peaceful rest spot.

The trail headed out and up steeply, hugging the forest that lay at the side of massive Mount Temple.
We came out on an avalanche path filled with wildflowers, the first of many that were to come.
And to the left, we saw this rock fall area. It was quiet and beckoned to be explored! THIS was our snack & chocolate place!
Look carefully here and you can see me & Seamus exploring the area. It was a gigantic landscape! There were so many different kinds of rocks here… I was like a kid in a candy shop, spotting and investigating them!
We stayed here for a while, taking it all in.
Then it was time to head back out onto the trail in search of the Giant Steps Waterfall. With a name like that, we just had to see what it was all about!
As we entered the forest again, the sides of the trail and the forest floor itself, were carpeted in wildflowers. We passed a group of hikers from Grant MacEwan University who were stopped, quite literally, dead in their tracks taking photo after photo after photo of the flowers. It really was THAT beautiful!
We crossed Paradise creek once more to head over to the Giant Steps Waterfall area (it’s also a backcountry campground location).
There was a long boardwalk approach in to the waterfall viewing area.
Mr. Dainty Paws was all over THIS way into the area… no chance of wet toes here!
It was a neat place, where water seeped from the cracks that lay between gigantic slabs of rock.
The water seeping gently through & over the slabs supported incredibly lush moss gardens.
And the waterfall itself, while not super high, was spectacularly beautiful, spilling over great chunky slab steps.
This was our lunch spot! Bring on the sannies & pickles! (Not for everyone, I know!)
Our timing was perfect as we had the place to ourselves for lunch. As we got up to leave, we realized quite a few people had trickled in behind us, but we hadn’t heard them over the sound of the water rushing by our perch. Take a listen in the video below.
It was time to move on, hiking back out the falls’ access trail with its beautiful trail-side flowers.
It was time to head back through the larch forest with its bright green, ever-so-soft needles.
And it was time to get our first glimpse of Sentinel Pass. Can you see those rocky pinnacles, looming up, like ever vigilant guards on the right hand side of the mountain pass? THAT’S where we were headed.
First we had to cross Paradise Creek once again.
The valley was wide open and spectacular here!

Horseshoe Meadow was a drop-dead-gorgeous place. Hemmed in by Pinnacle Mountain, Eiffel Peak, Wenkchemna Peak, Ringrose Peak, Mount Lefroy and The Mitre, it is a dramatic landscape. Horseshoe Glacier is tucked away up there. As the crow flies, a little to the right through the photo above, lies Abbot Hut. It is simply a beautiful spot. You can hear the creek gurgling past and a massive waterfall off in the distance. The flowers bring in the bees and insects and birds. It is incredible.

After crossing over the creek, and taking in the wide-open expanse of Horseshoe Meadow, we headed up over ancient rock falls that led into the approach to the pass. See all that amazing sage green lichen everywhere!? This place has not been disturbed for a very long time!
There were really neat sink holes that you hiked around, up and through here that I just couldn’t capture on camera. Most likely they were where rockfall lay to rest over glacial ice that’s long since melted away. There’s such a sense of ancient history here.
Our trail switchbacked through the rockfall area, twisting and turning on a very solid (clearly maintained) path.
The larch trees rejoined us, part way up the mountainside, while pikas called out, alerting the rest of their pack to our presence, as they hid, sheltered in the gaps between the boulders.
After switchbacking through the rockfall area and gaining some height, we were back into a flowery meadow… our approach to the pass was magnificent! Soft, gentle larches and so many flowers… what’s not to like?
Looking back out over the way we’d come, we were now high enough to see the ice & snow, the glacier and its rubble-covered ice that was the source of the beautiful creek we’d been following all day long. Looking through the trees on the slope of the terminal moraine, you can see a waterfall… it is huge! We’d heard it, but not seen it until this point on the trail.
A good distance through the hike, it’s always nice to get what we affectionately call the “Seamus Assist.”
Our approach to the pass. That doesn’t look too bad, right? Ha!
Hiking past those rocky sentinels that give the pass its name was really neat! The whole time we were there (though you can’t see them in the lack of detail on this phone photo), there were climbers ascending Grand Sentinel (the rock column with the light coloured stripes, to the left here).
It’s that tallest rock tower in this photo that they were climbing.
As we headed up the scree slope, there was a trail of sorts, at first.
There were two choices here: right or left. Our guide book said to stay to the right, so off we went.
This rock was quite loose and gives good practice for what you’d attempt at the Abbot Hut, as some of the big boulders really move, should you want to take that challenge on.
IMG_6810 2.jpg
Looking back down the valley (and stopping to catch my breath, I’ll admit it!), the light green patch that you see is the larch forest with the pine forest, a darker green, cozying up to it from below.
Seamus slipped a few times, and caused little rock falls, but he managed just fine.
We were in the shadows of the pass now, and looking back on that sunlit valley was one of those “Wow” moments!
And then we’d made it! We were up on the pass, that narrow col/shoulder that lies between Mount Pinnacle (ahead) and Mount Temple (behind). It’s from this point that the scramble up Mount Temple begins.
Bill on top of Sentinel Pass. It was a lofty place with tremendous views.
Seamus was ready for that treat! He’s learning… climb something big and rocky: EAT.
Looking over the other side of the pass, our route was clear. We’d be heading back on the more popular approach to Sentinel Pass, heading down through the switchback of trails that would take us through “Larch Valley” and back to the shores of Moraine Lake.
It is truly a spectacular hike out, down the gentle Larch Valley Trail. The grade is perfect, at the end of a long hike.
Looking back at Sentinel Pass from the Larch Valley side… you can see it’s a far easier approach from this side.
Down through the larches we went, to join up with the main trail that would take us back to the shores of Moraine Lake where we’d parked that bike.

So… best laid plans and all. We got to the lakeshore and the bike was there, where we’d left it, unharmed. So THAT isn’t where the Plan B comes in. Bill shed his pack, gulped some water, ate a snack and rode off into the distance… just one hill up, and then it would be all down hill to where we’d parked the car. Easy peasy. Done in 20 minutes (even wearing hiking boots).

Seamus was unnerved because the lakeshore there, perched as it is at the side of the parking lot, is packed with people. Seamus hates vehicles and the cars and loud busses and RVs kept circling past, looking in vain for places to park. It was Seamus’ worst nightmare AND Seamus was heartbroken that our “pack” had split up, that Bill had left… he wined and wined for 96 minutes of the 100 minutes Bill was gone! Offers of treats went ignored; no pats would settle him.

One of the four minutes where Seamus didn’t whine… morose, collapsed, snout resting on my boot, giving up all hope that Bill would return and our pack get reunited.

Yup, I said 100 minutes!!! Over an hour and a half! It took Bill an eternity, at 5:30pm to get back up the last kilometre of that road. The traffic was insane! And he had no way to reach me to say, “just walk down the road and find me in the line-up” because there’s no cell service up there!

Twice, men on mountain bikes rode by us, and Seamus lunged after them, leash stretched taut, extended to its fullest range, shouting a long tirade of hurt feelings barks! I’m not sure what he was thinking… maybe those men were Bill, maybe they’d lead him to Bill on those strange 2-wheel machines. Who knows! Poor guy.

So… should you do this yourself…. and if it happens to be on a weekend… have a Plan B in place…. and learn from our mistake! There’s just no underestimating how popular our National Parks are this year, with the Canada 150 free passes! The jump in attendance is insane! And this particular hike (and it’s access points in either direction) will get even busier once the larches start to turn their spectacular fall colours.

IMG_6850Distance: 19.8km (so a long day)

Elevation Gain: a little over 1040m

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 “Hiking the Paradise Valley to Sentinel Pass & Moraine Lake

  1. I’m so envious of your clear skies up there! We haven’t been on a decent hike in weeks here in GNP. The air quality is just too bad with all the fires. And I know what you mean about attendance levels. Sheesh. We’re DOUBLE from last year, and our services just can’t handle all the traffic. Something’s gotta give.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s too bad, Monica! The smoke comes and goes here. There are good days & bad. And as for the crowds, well, that’s more people having experiences in the natural world, which hopefully translates into their loving these spaces and working to protect them for generations to come. In the meantime, we just have to be creative in our attempts to avoid them!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Sheri.

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! It looks like an amazing area to hike! I particularly liked the Lake Annette and the high peak just above the lake. Also the Grand Sentinel looks massive and very nice to climb.

    Thanks for sharing

    P.s. I really enjoy to read through your blog and to look at all these beautiful places you have been hiking to.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Poor Seamus. My heart was broken to know that such a sweet guy was so sad even treats wouldn’t fix it. The hike was spectacular, Sheri. If there’s a petition to Parks Canada to add summer shuttles to Moraine Lake, sign me up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s near Banff, but closest to Lake Louise. But at this time of year it’s exceptionally hard to get to with all the people flooding in to see the larches turning colour in the Moraine Lake area. The parks service offers shuttles to Lake Louise, and then shuttles from there to Moraine Lake. I’m sure it could drop off at the Paradise Valley Trail head en route.


  4. HI. I’m planning to hike in a big group thru Sentinel Pass then to Paradise Valley. My question is should we start in Paradise Valley or in Moraine Lake? We want to avoid most uphill. Either way how many miles is it total one way? thanks in advanced. Jackie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jackie. I’m a little confused. Are you heading to the back country campground in Paradise Valley? In one direction, and then out the other?

      If so, the most pleasant route would be going from the Paradise Valley parking lot turn out. You’d have some uphill through Paradise Valley for sure, but it’s steady and not daunting.

      Do note, that if you are planning to hike up through the pass no matter what, you’d have the far more difficult “up” on the Paradise Valley side to the pass, but I would still recommend doing it this way (see my comments at the end). Also note that you get more elevation gain going from the Paradise Valley side, up & through the Pass to the Morraine Lake side than you do going in the other direction, by a lot…. that Morraine Lake road has a steady climb to its parking lot from the Paradise Valley parking turn out on up to the Morraine Lake parking terminus. But I would still do it in the other direction.

      BUT if you are only going one way, on an “in and out,” then you would miss the experience of standing up on that incredible pass by coming in from the Paradise Valley side.

      If you ARE camping there, you can still go up to the base of the pass, a fascinating, sheltered landscape itself, and see those rock columns from the Paradise side without doing the pass completely.

      Despite saving yourself some significant elevation gain, if you go from the Moraine Lake/Valley of the Ten Peaks side, there are three disadvantages:
      1) the crowds on the lakeshore area at Moraine and its lack of parking are real issues (especially if your group is arriving by a number of cars);

      2) there’s a very long, monotonous trudge up a series of switchbacks in the forest with no views and lots of people (about 2km of the journey) until you get up to the Larch Valley (a wide open valley at the base of Sentinel Pass on the Valley of the Ten Peaks side); and

      3) there’s switchbacks up to the pass which really aren’t too bad, BUT the way down, over the other side, is quite tricky if you aren’t experienced with scree slopes. You’ll need to assess the skill level of your group, and if they’re inexperienced, take precautions. Believe it or not, going up that treacherous side (from Paradise Valley) is easier than coming down it. (Going down the Moraine Lake/Valley of the Ten Peaks side is a cinch!).

      Let me know what you are planning to do in Paradise Valley and I can advise you further. And I’ll have to get back to you about the distances once I have my maps in front of me again (I’m away now). I do remember that doing the whole thing… Paradise Valley to Moraine Lake was a long day… 20+km (over 12.5 miles), so going only one way is obviously shorter (if you’re camping).

      One last thing, Jackie. You say you want to avoid the up… but this is the mountains. You get that no matter what. 😉 It’s almost better to think of it in terms of the downs… if there are extreme downs, as there are from the Morraine Lake/Valley of the Ten Peaks side to Paradise Valley direction, that can be more treacherous, and far, far harder on your body to do than the strenuous grunt of an extreme up is on your heart and your breathing. I’d take the hard up over the hard down any day. 😬


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