|Trailhead||The parking lot is on the Icefields Parkway, 33 km north of the Trans-Canada Hwy. and 8 km south of Bow Summit.|
|Distance||6 km (3.7 mi.)|
|Elevation Gain||455 m (1,492') to Helen Lake, 1,043 m (3,421') to Cirque Peak|
|Maximum Elevation||2,405 m (7,888') at Helen Lake, 2,993 m (9,817') at Cirque Peak|
Helen Lake is one of the best day trips in the Rockies. After a relatively short and easy climb through the forest, including a brief burnt, but not unattractive, section, the trail turns into the Helen Creek drainage, revealing a dramatic view of castellated Dolomite Peak and the mountains of the upper Bow valley. The second half of the trail traverses open meadows, and the combination of lush wildflowers and austere mountains provides a striking contrast in alpine scenery. Helen Lake is a pleasant spot to spend an afternoon, but for those interested in further exploration, the trail continues past the lake and makes a short ascent to the top of a ridge. Views from the ridge (2,500 m (8,200')) are excellent in all directions, especially towards Dolomite Pass and Katherine Lake. This map, based on a Parks Canada pdf brochure, indicates the location of the trail, just east of Bow Lake. Click here for a more detailed view of the area, extracted from the Hector Lake 82 N/9 topographic map.
The meadows and tarns of Dolomite Pass provide further options, and the summit of Cirque Peak (2,993 m, 9,817') is an easy scramble. More photos.
Begin the scramble from the top of the trail to the 2,500 m ridge, turn left, and hike along the rocky ridge towards the scree slope leading up to Cirque. There is a cairned, easy route on the ridge crest (avoid the cairned path that skirts the left, Helen Lake, side). Once you reach the broad scree slope, the trail is steep but well-beaten all the way to a short cliff band at the foot of the false summit. It's possible to scramble up these cliffs to the false summit, and then make a steep descent to the saddle between the false and true summits, but the easiest way is to just turn right and find the path around the cliff band, and walk up to the true summit. Among the peaks that are visible from the summit are: Assiniboine, Ball, the Lake Louise peaks, Hector, Daly, Balfour, Gordon, Baker, Rhondda, the Mummeries, the Lyells, Forbes (barely), and Chephren. Even the chisel profile of Columbia can be seen on a clear day. Lakes include Peyto, Isabella, Bow, Iceberg, Helen and Katherine, plus numerous tarns.
If you are driving to the trailhead from the south, the peaks above Helen Lake are visible from several points on the Icefields Parkway. In fact, in early September, 1858, just a week after the famous incident that gave the Kicking Horse River and Pass its name, Dr. James Hector, of the Palliser Expedition, recorded these comments as his party travelled up the Bow Valley near what is now known as Hector Lake:
"The mountains to the north of our camp had a very curious outline, the men saying that they were like an old woman's jaw."
The "jaw" was undoubtedly Dolomite Peak.
Additional photos of the area are posted here.