Iconic Lake Agnes Teahouse is perched above Lake Louise in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
The drive west from Calgary to the mountains in Banff National Park is uncharacteristically a late start. The objective for the day is a hike or snowshoe which will be decided on the spur of the moment when the spirit moves us. Snowfall is forecast. The scenic drive continues past the distinctive and perennially impressive profile of Castle Mountain at the junction of Hwy 93 south to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia, Canada.
The spirit moves us at the exit to world-renowned Lake Louise. There are plenty of options to consider, ranging from easy to very challenging. The short walk from the parking area to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise at the north end of Lake Louise is always a WOW! moment with a view south to the Plain of Six Glaciers from running water at Louise Creek. Predominantly overcast skies, and a light snowfall at higher altitudes, provide a subdued view of the hanging glaciers past the far end of Lake Louise.
An added bonus is the remaining remnants of ice sculpture created for the annual Lake Louise Ice Magic Festival, which ended nearly a month earlier. It is worth our time to view the wide variety of sculptures, too numerous to include here. A few examples follow. They are remarkably well-preserved given recent warmer weather.
The casual stroll continues past the back of the Chateau Lake Louise to consider the flat, 1.9 KM (1¼ mile) Lake Louise Lakeshore trail along the north shoreline of Lake Louise. Throughout winter months, frequent and regularly scheduled horse-drawn sleigh rides are provided on the shoreline trail. Near the beginning of the trail there is an option to hike, or snowshoe, the 3.5 KM (2¼ mile) one-way trail, with an elevation gain of 390 m (1,280 ft), to the Lake Agnes Teahouse at an elevation of 2,120 m (6,955 ft).
Again the Spirit moves us to hike the trail to Lake Agnes Teahouse with hiking crampons favored over snowshoes. This speculative decision could prevent reaching the chosen destination, but the trail is well-traveled and may be packed to a solid base for the entire distance. Recent snowfall has been minimal. There are occasional glimpses of Lake Louise, progressively further below, combined with spectacular mountain winter scenes along the trail which gains consistent, moderate elevation to one major switchback in an avalanche gully at 1.6 KM (1.0 mile).
Snow coated mountain views of Fairview Mountain on the other side of Lake Louise lead past the junction with the horse trail to the basin which contains tiny Mirror Lake hosting the impressive and aptly named Big Beehive looming large behind.
From Mirror Lake, a right turn leads to a series of short switchbacks which pass the trail junction to Little Beehive. Big Beehive changes form as we gain elevation around it, and soon arrival at the bottom of the two-tiered, steep stairway leads to a sketchy ascent to Lake Agnes and the historic Teahouse.
Hiking crampons have been the preferred weapon for the trail ascent and now become the only sensible choice for climbing the steep wooden stairs whose steps are covered in light snow over mounds of polished ice. Steps can easily be punched into the ice on a sideways ascent while holding onto the wooden hand rails (for dear life). The rustic, and very popular log cabin destination throughout the summer is, of course, closed for the winter. Pity.
From this vantage point there are amazing views across the TransCanada Highway, to the mountain range hosting Lake Louise Ski Resort. WOW! The world famous resort is a long-established, world-class complex which annually attracts local recreational skiers in addition to the best ski talent on the planet who participate at international competitions.
Directly behind, light snowfall masks the rugged definition of the mountain bowl containing snow-covered Lake Agnes, named after Lady Agnes Macdonald, wife of Sir John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada who visited this area in 1886. The named honor is shared with the very skilled Toronto speaker of the time, Agnes Knox, who was escorted, to what was then known as Lakes in the Clouds, at nearly the same time.
The return trip, initially by the same route, offers up spectacular and breathtaking views of Fairview Mountain as the sun fights to penetrate thinning cloud cover. This is the definition of winter.
Just past Mirror Lake, with Big Beehive in the background, a questionable decision is made to gamble on return via the horse trail. The lesser quality and more rustic trail is narrow but well-packed. To veer from center is a three-foot, thigh-deep posthole situation but the trail has more switchbacks and diversity through predominantly spruce and fir evergreen forest supporting and enhancing amazing snow sculptures.
The horse trail ends above the back of Chateau Lake Louise where we wander beside cross-country ski track to locate access to the original trail-head. The view along Lake Louise is always spectacular and a long lens image is captured of the large, blue-ice glaciers hanging from The Mitre, Mount Lefroy and Mount Victoria. The camera struggles with contrast in the broad range of light. The editor gives up hope.
Back at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, we enjoy final views of Lake Louise with ice sculptures on the perimeter and the annually popular Ice Castle on the lake's surface where several cleared ice surfaces provide a popular surface for recreational skating or an impromptu game of hockey.
The entire 2.0 KM (1¼ mile) length of the lake is track-set for cross-country skiing in the awesome, surrounding, snow-covered, mountain ambiance.
Louise Creek provides foreground for the final view of Chateau Lake Louise before the return drive to Calgary with one stop at the lookout above the Town of Banff for a late afternoon view of Mount Rundle over Vermillion Lakes.
This excellent impromptu day arrives back in Calgary at dusk as winter days are mercifully and noticeably lengthening.