Hiking (and Glissading) on the Saddleback Trail at Lake Louise

My parents and I spent the morning of Sunday, October 19, 2014 in Banff before arriving at the village of Lake Louise around lunchtime.  Lake Louise (the town’s namesake) is one of many sights in Banff National Park, a glacial lake surrounded by the handsome mountains of the Continental Divide.

16 Lake Louise
Lake Louise in Banff National Park.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

My father, ever the railfan, planned to drag us to see the Spiral Tunnels in nearby Yoho National Park.  This is an engineering feat that allows Canadian Pacific Railroad trains to ascend or descend the steep Kicking Horse Pass.  He agreed to drop me off at the lake so I could hike by myself.

Lake Louise Visitor Center

I consulted staff at the visitor center for hiking recommendations.  I was disappointed to learn that following some snow, very few trails were open for hiking; one of the few was the Saddleback Trail.

The Saddleback Trail ascends from Lake Louise to Saddleback Pass, located between Saddle Mountain (left) and Fairview Mountain (right). Cropped image taken a distance away at Morant’s Curve on the Bow Valley Parkway.

The Saddleback Trail ascends to Saddleback Pass, located between Saddle Mountain and Fairview Mountain on the south side of Lake Louise.  At the pass, other trails branch off including one to the summit of Fairview Mountain, though I didn’t have the opportunity to hike any of them on this visit.  The Saddleback Trail is about 3.7 km or 2.3 mi one-way (7.4 km or 4.6 mi if hiking out and back instead of making a loop with other trails), with an elevation gain of 595 m or 1,952′.

4 Trailhead

My parents dropped me off at a parking lot near the Chateau Lake Louise around 2:30pm.  Signage at Lake Louise is good and I located the trailhead with no difficulty.  The trail is quite steep and alternated between conifer forests and fields.

5 Saddleback Trail

6 Chateau Lake Louise
View back down towards the Chateau Lake Louise in infrared

7 Saddleback Trail

About halfway up, the trail began passing through areas that had snow accumulation.  This was interesting because the lower elevations at Lake Louise and Banff showed absolutely no signs of snow yet.  The snow was by no means deep, but on the center of the trail it had been compacted by foot traffic into ice.  At the beginning, it didn’t make hiking much more difficult as long as I stuck to the outer edges of the trail.

9 Trail and Saddle Mountain
The Saddleback Trail with Saddle Mountain in the background
10 Saddle Mountain
Saddle Mountain

The trail was particularly slippery and difficult during the final climb to Saddleback Pass, which consisted of a series of steep switchbacks through a boulder field that is apparently scoured by avalanches during the winter.  Going up wasn’t so bad, but I considered turning around several times due to concerns about how dangerous the trail might be to descend.  I hate to give up partway through a hike, and I was hoping for some great views at the pass.  I pressed on.

11 Icy Trail

The mountains looming above the pass, with their dusting of snow, were quite pretty against the blue sky.  Near the pass there was a forest of what I believe is tamarack (larch), a deciduous conifer that turns a brilliant yellow in the fall.  I’d seen them at peak colors while traveling through the Canadian Shield a few days before.  I heard that the tamarack forest along the Saddleback Trail is at peak in mid-September, but I was about a month late.

12 Snow zone

13 Tamarck Forest
Tamarack forest (I think) and Fairview Mountain

14 Snowy

I arrived at the pass around 4:00pm.  Disappointingly, the forest at the pass blocked any view beyond its far side.  The trail onward to the Sheol and Paradise Valleys was restricted to parties of four or more as a precaution against bears.  Next visit, with an earlier start (and hopefully, a snow-free trail) I’d like to hike a full circuit or at least scramble to the top of Fairview Mountain.

15 View from the Pass
Saddle Mountain seen from near Saddleback Pass

I turned around and started my descent.  As I’d feared, the snow and ice made the trail a lot more difficult on the descent than it had been on the ascent.  Since I hadn’t anticipated doing much hiking during this rail-centric visit to Canada, I didn’t even have my trusty hiking pole to stabilize myself.  After a couple close calls where I slipped and almost fell, I tied my raincoat around my waist and took to sliding on my butt down the trail, using my hands to keep my speed under control.  It was actually quite fun, except when I went over rocks.  I later learned that mountaineers call this technique a sitting glissade…surely a more graceful term than “sliding down the trail on one’s butt.”

Hike Near Lake Louise
Saddle Mountain as seen during my descent

There’s also a more challenging technique known as the standing glissade.  I saw this demonstrated during my descent by three girls hiking with their parents.  I was amazed that these children, maybe 8 to 12 years of age, were able to slide on the ice upright without losing their balance (even when the trail was as steep as roughly 30°).  Passing me effortlessly, one of the girls suggested I try glissading by hugging my knees against my chest.  I gave this a try but was worried about going too fast and tumbling off the trail, so I went back to using my hands to slow myself down.

I admit I was relieved when I exited the icy portion of the trail.  Aside from some somewhat slippery muddy areas of the trail that I took at a gingerly pace, there weren’t any other challenges for the rest of the descent.  I arrived back at Lake Louise around 5:15pm.  As fun as this first experience in glassading was, I hope my next visit to this trail will be earlier in the season when the forest is colorful and the trail is dry!

Date: Sunday, October 19, 2014

Distance: About 7.4 km  (4.6 mi) roundtrip

Elevation gain: +/- 595 m (1,952′)

Equipment: Merrell Chameleon 4 Stretch hiking shoes

Duration: About 2 hours, 45 minutes


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