Iceberg lake + Bow Glacier’s Big Toe

Fall is often spectacular in the Rockies here in Canada. Having a perfect weather window, we were up for a little adventuring. Loading up our packs, we went on a bit of an exploratory romp along, up and through the amazing landscape on the shores of Bow Lake. Our goal: to get to the source (the true source) of Bow Glacier Falls, that magnificent waterfall near Num Ti Jah on the Icefields Parkway.
Our first stop was Iceberg Lake, the lake that lies above the cliff band, down which  the waterfall cascades. We followed that with going over to the location of the Alpine Club’s Bow Hut so that we could hike up and touch the tow of Bow Glacier that feeds that lake, those falls (among many others) and ultimately Bow Lake.
It was such a fun adventure!!!
We climbed ancient moraines, balancing along their very pointy, lofty, narrow ridge-like tops. We scrambled up steep scree slopes. We accessed heights that from below seemed totally daunting, but up close were simply a grunt. We crossed (and got soakers in) many mountain streams. We hiked through pristine high alpine meadows with no trails, marmots, pikas and fall colours. We revelled in lofty views. We walked along airy ledges. We scrambled a bit through notches in cliff bands. We saw cascade after cascade of icy glacial water. We got above the Bow Glacier to marvel at its wrinkled skin and poked our head into the vast blue depths of its toe (a little like peeking under a toenail!!).
Come along and see…
Version 2Here is a glimpse of our day. We started off hiking along the shores of Bow Lake. What’s really neat here is you can see for yourself the path through which the glacier has retreated. It used to fill the bowl where the falls are, pushing with incredible force, ground up rock up and into the towering pyramids of rock you see off to the left, immediately below peak known as The Onion. The moraines are towering! Standing on top of them is like standing on top of an office building! That’s how big this landscape is!IMG_1610.jpegHiking along the path that borders Bow Lake, we could see where we were headed.IMG_1613After passing through the delta at the end of the lake, we hiked up the side of this canyon. IMG_1614Branching off the main trail to the falls, we started off on the trail to Bow Hut. To access it, you have to climb this boulder… a taste of the adventures to come in the day. What this picture doesn’t show is that the boulder is wedged in place over the top of the canyon, forming a natural bridge! (It’s called the Chock Stone.) Here Bill climbs up its polished side (polished from the hands and feet of those who have gone before).IMG_7571The first scramble of the day: getting up and over that boulder bridge!IMG_1616These are the views from on top of the boulder! Bow Lake is that turquoise jewel off in the distance.IMG_1617We’d be hiking up the canyon, along the left side of this photo. The tremendous cutting, carving force of water always amazes me… just look at how deeply cut this passage is!IMG_1620 2.jpegWhen we emerged from the canyon, we saw the first part of our route ahead, across the wide open valley filled with glacial till. We’d be heading up the side of the lateral moraine, to the point where there were two gigantic boulders embedded in the till, and then setting out along a series of ledges to get into the next level of terraces on this gigantic landscape.IMG_1621The first obstacle to cross was the stream. Though it was early in the day, the current was strong and there was a lot of water tossing through it. Then we were aiming for those two big boulders you see, near the top of the moraine.IMG_7576The stream wasn’t too deep. No soakers (yet!).IMG_1629We headed up that moraine slope with views of the valley, the canyon, and Bow Lake behind us.IMG_7578It was a bit steep, but not too bad. It’s always amazing what you can do, simply putting one foot in front of the other: obstacles like this pass relatively quickly. You can see the boulder we were heading for up above. That’s where we’d turn left and head out onto the ledges.IMG_1624Nestled in amongst the boulders were these tiny plants, putting on their brilliant fall colour displays. We saw these a lot throughout the day.IMG_1635At the top of the moraine, we could see where we needed to be: across that jumble of big boulders and onto the ledge. Can you see Bill up ahead?IMG_7585The boulders were big, and grippy underfoot, so they were easy to navigate.IMG_7582.jpegI set out ahead and it was very easy to find our way… even though you couldn’t see that there were ledges for the life of you, from below!IMG_1643.jpegThe ledges weren’t bad at all. The ground was solid and they were a good width. At times there was actually dirt on the ledges and plants growing. It reminded us a bit of hiking at Lake O’Hara.IMG_1650.jpegBy now, we’d covered some good distance. You can see Bow Lake off in the distance. Pan around and you’ll see the wonderfully lofty views from the ledge. We stopped there for our first tea & cookie break of the day and took in the views.IMG_7594At times we needed to step up bits of rock to connect ledges.IMG_1654Here Bill clambers up one of the cliff steps. The footing is good. The hand holds are solid. The consequences are minimal. It’s a very easy scramble.IMG_1657.jpegThis is the point where you emerge through the trees at the top of the cliff band.IMG_1659.jpegWhen we came through the little forest up top, we were in a tiny alpine meadow, nestled at the base of the upper part of that lateral moraine.IMG_1660.jpegThat moraine began again, near where pour trail emerged. If we were to do it again, we’d ignore that rock arrow, and head up the moraine right here, climbing ever skyward until we were above Iceberg Lake. Instead, we followed the arrows and the cairns of those who came before us. But first, we went over to the right in this photo to see the falls (we could hear them!). It was a very neat perspective.IMG_1663.jpegNow time to climb…. up and up that giant moraine of rocky rubble. At times it was smooth going because the rocks were big and like steps. Grippy and textured and firmly cemented into place, they made the going easier…IMG_7601… easier than the parts that were like this (the photo below) where the stones were small and the dirt was dry and the earth beneath your feet wanted to move and slip and slide with gravity and the action of your weight on moving feet on that steep slope!

IMG_7603.jpegWe climbed and climbed, keeping a good distance between us in case we let loose rock… we should have had our rock helmets with us! In the photo below, Bill is up above me, balanced on the top of the moraine.

Here Bill is up above me, balanced on the top of the moraine.

And here’s the really neat thing… a moraine like this has a very pointy top… it’s really a lot like a 3D triangle with a rectangular base, so the top is quite sharply, steeply shaped. As I emerged up onto the moraine, it was quite steep… and as my head came level with Bill’s feet I saw the reason for his, “Oh MY! You have GOT to see this!” As my head came up, THIS is what I saw!IMG_1673IMG_7613.jpegThis is the top of the moraine. We had to actually descend it a bit to get down to the lake. (If you are going to try to repeat our adventure, be sure to go up the moraine from that rock-arrow photo, instead of coming the way we came… it will be easier, faster… and despite the steepness of the moraine sides it is solid footing).IMG_1683.jpegWith a cold wind coming down off that ice, a beautiful waterfall at the end of the lake cascading down from the toe of the glacier, and the rock flour (that sort of grey looking cloud in the water at the forefront of this photo that gives the lake, as if by magic, its startling beautiful colour!), it was a brilliant setting.IMG_1685.jpegWe poked about for a bit, our boots sinking into the very soft shores of the lake. The fine, powdered light grey sand mixed with little rock fragments, ground into existence by the action of the glacier, were lapped gently by the icy waters of the lake, before overflowing over the cliff band and becoming the powerful, pounding, loud and raucous waterfall that became Bow Glacier Falls, at the end of the lake.IMG_1689.jpegThe lake drained over the lip of the cliff band here, so we followed it to what would be our lunch spot. We bundled up to keep the chill off and settled in for our lunch. Somehow, a sandwich just tastes so much better outdoors, in a place like this!

IMG_1696.jpegTime for the next stage of our adventure: heading up the moraine again, over to the base of the rock feature known as “The Onion,” and then heading out a long alpine valley to meet up with the trail to Bow Hut.IMG_7616.jpegOne last look at Iceberg Lake.Then it was time to climb that moraine again and head toward The Onion.IMG_7621.jpegBeing up high on a moraine is like being on top of the world! I love it!IMG_7622Where the moraine meets the cliff, it dips down somewhat, making it easy to pass through and into the valley on the other side (being mindful of rocks falling from the cliff above).IMG_1707.jpegNext up: making our way down this valley toward the waterfall coming off the cliff to the right of the end of the arrow. There is no path. You just poke your way, wherever you want to go, keeping the gully by the trees on your left and the cliff on your right. Down, down you go… and it’s a lovely alpine romp!

It was a beautiful alpine valley.

When we got to the end of the valley, we were met with this site! What a thunderous roar! With icy waters coming from the Bow Glacier above, we knew we were in for a treat, tracing this to its source. But crossing it was going to be a bit tricky! That was some volume of water cascading down! Yikes!IMG_1715.jpegWhat better to do then just get on with it! So we wandered downstream a bit, trying to find a ribboned, shallower spot to cross. IMG_1732.jpegBUT, it went up to my thigh in one place and was very powerful! The water wanted to wrench your poles away and carry your feet out from under you. But cold temps mean no algae, so the rocks were grippy, thank goodness! No matter, it was wet feet for both of us from then on!IMG_7628.jpegNext up: where was the trail and how were we going to get up the tall cliff band? From a distance, looking back, it looks like there’s absolutely no way you can get up there! But those crafty, mountaineering trail builders made a way up a rocky crevasse between two waterfalls.IMG_1805.jpegIt’s like so many things we’ve learned in these mountains… things often look far worse and far steeper from farther away. Get up close, and the way becomes apparent. It becomes do-able.IMG_7632.jpegIMG_1736.jpegAfter we mounted the cliff band, crossed two more streams and passed the alpine club hut, we went off in search of the glacier toe. I was going to touch it! We hiked up past rock scoured and scratched by the retreating glacier. IMG_1749.jpegUp and up we hiked over sculpted rock, mini waterfalls and little stremlets. Though the sun was hot and bearing down on us, the wind coming off the surface of the ice left us chilled and putting on more layers.IMG_1745.jpegThen finally, we were there! We were at the toe of Bow Glacier. (One of her magnificent toes, anyway!) We decided to keep exploring up there… the sculpted rock, the little water channels, the waterfalls, the scouring marks, the views…. they were all so incredible. Rather than push on up to the onion, we stayed put, poking about and taking it all in.IMG_1750.jpegThere were lots of little puddles that reminded us of tidal pools.IMG_1754Some of the little ponds had that rock flour in them so that they caught the light in ways that brought out that startling, glacial blue colouration.You could IMG_1756.jpegYou could see the ways that the weight of the glacier dragged little rocks across the surface of the underlying rocks, making really interesting marks across their horizontal surfaces… they were like the formations you’d see dripping down vertical cave walls. This landscape was off kilter!IMG_1758There was a larger lake up there, catching some of the run off from the melt water, spreading its tentacles out into what looked like ancient, prehistoric mud flats.IMG_1759.jpegUp close, those petrified mud bubbles were really something! And big, too!

More of that other-worldly moonscape!

IMG_1771.jpegIt was an incredible place.

IMG_1766.jpegWe followed these layered rock steps to a good viewpoint for the rest of our tea and cookies.IMG_1765.jpegAnd what a viewpoint it was!IMG_1768.jpegThen we headed back toward the glacier to go explore a cave we’d seen.IMG_1770.jpegThe wrinkles of the glacial ice, like aged skin… it’s fascinating to see.IMG_1780.jpegWe headed out over the mud bubble rock… it was the best playground.IMG_1781.jpegWe jumped from ridge to ridge over clefts of water and digested rock rubble.IMG_1787.jpegWe passed water oozing out of cracks in strangely coloured rock bands.

And then we got to that ice cave! IMG_1788It was like peeking under the toe nail of the giant glacial toe! When you got up close and peered inside, the ice was so dense and incredibly blue! The drip line of surface ice melting over the lip of the cave made this little rain curtain across its opening.IMG_1790

Can you see it raining inside the ice cave?

IMG_1797.jpegSadly, it was time to start heading down. We had a long hike out ahead of us on what would be a good 12 hour day. So we followed this orange band of rock, knowing that the stream that flowed alongside it became one of the waterways we had to cross to hook up with the trail once again.IMG_1802.jpegWe hiked down the cliff below the Alpine Club hut, enjoying the coolness of the lengthening shadows of the day. We’d be following this stream out until it ultimately hit Bow Lake, where our journey began.IMG_1807.jpegOur trail out took us up high, as the water soon rushed through a deep canyon that grew ever deeper as it worked its way across the landscape. Looking back, we could see the hut, the thunderous waterfall, parts of the glacier, and the heights to which we’d climbed.IMG_1814.jpegThe canyon lay below our trail out (can you see the trail to the left?). Can you see the beautiful fall colours coming out in the plants?IMG_1823.jpegOur trail passed through and beneath many rockfall areas, with the sound of the rushing river flowing up from the canyon. The water levels are higher now, with the heat of the day’s melt powering it through the rock crack.IMG_1829.jpegAt times our trail climbed higher! (What the heck… we’d had a lot of climbing in the day already!)IMG_1830.jpegAnd then we were back at that boulder canyon crossing, with the waters rushing below.IMG_7647 2.jpeg

This was a BIG day with lots of elevation gain and steep slopes, but it is one we highly recommend. It had a little of everything: the ledges of the Lake O’Hara area, the lofty moraine walks of a good ridge walk, a number of drop dead gorgeous gorges and canyons, pristine mountain water crossings, tight little alpine forests, BIG high alpine meadow romps, incredibly powerful waterfalls, little scrambles, lofty viewpoints and high peaks. Seriously. It was amazing!

A word of caution: While you most definitely need to have experience in these types of alpine environments and features to do this adventure (as you’re going off-trail for some of it) nothing is too difficult, from a technical standpoint. You need stamina and endurance, and a healthy respect for heights. You need experience on scree and a bit of five-fun climbing experience. A good set of warn in hiking boots and gaiters, of course.

And you need water & high energy food!

Remember, too, that though we had a good weather window, this is the mountains and weather can change on a dime, so bring layers. You’ll need warm clothes for those breezes coming off the glacier (and a toque) and some strong sunglasses meant for high alpine environments as the sun is intense up there. Don’t forget the sunscreen and sun screened lip balm. And have a blast!!

Many thanks to On Top for inspiring us to try out these ledges and to the Rocky Mountain Ramblers for motivating us to connect the Onion and the Iceberg Lake in this way.

This was a BIG day. Because we weren’t working from official trail guide recommendations, I can only hazard a guess based on our Gem Trek map (Bow Lake and Saskatchewan Crossing) and my step counter. Distance: approximately 18-20km. Elevation gain: about 600-700m.

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


11 Comments on “Iceberg lake + Bow Glacier’s Big Toe

  1. What a fantastic hike, Sheri. Just amazing country. I’ve never been ‘on the other side of Bow Lake,’ Perhaps that will change, if I get up that way again within the next few years. I’d like to repeat a past drive through that area, up to the Yukon and into Alaska to visit relatives… if so, I’ll check this one out. Such a beautiful hike!! Thanks for the post and great text accompanying the great photos.


  2. Ugh. I’m not sure what happened to my subscription to receive an email notification when you post on your blog, Sheri. It appeared I had been missing the last four posts. Today I was using WordPress Reader and saw this post, which implies that I’m still followed. Upon digging further my subscription via email might have been lost. So, I re-subscribe to see if that fix it. Oh well, it seems you and Bill had been doing posts of fantastic hikes. I need sometime to catch up on what you were up to recently.

    We’re in Switzerland for almost a week now. Still the beginning of our 8-week Switzerland/Italy trip. My head is stuffed up by a cold I got from the travel. Once better, I’ll start posting again after several months break.



    • Thanks, Dave! It was one of my favourites this year. There is nothing like getting right up and touching a glacier. They’re ancient, otherworldly, and their impact on the landscape is tremendous and fascinating.

      For us, this hike was a step up on the evolution of our skills… connecting special places without following trails. It was a really neat adventure.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Beat the Heat At Iceberg Lake – Peaks and Pathways

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