Glacier Lake Backpacking Trail – Banff National Park
‘Tranquility’ is the word I’d use to describe my Glacier Lake backpacking trip.
Glacier Lake is the 4th largest lake in Banff National Park, measuring 4.5k long by 1km wide. Its size is impressive and its views are just the same. The lake is surrounded by mountains, glaciers, and a mature forest. The best part? It’s fairly easy to access!
You can day hike to the lake and back in about 4.5 to 6 hours, but I’d highly recommend spending at least one night camping to really appreciate the grand splendour that is the view you get from the campsites along shore.
Now, let’s go backcountry camping!
- Getting to the Glacier Lake backpacking trail
- Glacier Lake backpacking trial
- Glacier Lake backpacking campsite
- What to pack for Glacier Lake
- What to wear backpacking
- Tips for a successful trip
- Best places to stay in Banff
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- 50+ Things to do in Banff in summer
- Discover more Banff trail guides
- Complete guide to the Icefields Parkway
- Step-by-step guide for planning a trip to Banff
- Banff’s backcountry gear guide: What to pack for multi-night hiking trips
Getting To The Glacier Lake Backpacking Trail
Glacier Lake is located along the Icefields Parkway, a highway that connects Banff and Jasper. The trailhead is located just past the Saskatchewan River Crossing if you’re coming from Banff or Red Deer. Conversely, it’ll be located just before the Crossing if you’re coming from Jasper. The trailhead is hard to miss, it has a sign indicating where to turn off from the main highway.
The hike to the lake is fairly quick, so consider doing one of the many beautiful stops along the parkway before hitting the trail. Mistaya Canyon is located 6.4km/8 minutes south of the trailhead; it’s a quick walk and leads to a gorgeous, fast flowing canyon that overlooks a glacier. A great addition to the trip if we’re sticking to the theme of glaciers.
More: here’s my complete guide to exploring the lakes, hiking trails and sights along the Icefields Parkway.
If you’re driving North (from Banff) along the parkway to get to the trailhead, you’ll pass Bow and Waterfowl Lakes. However my favourite place along the way – and the best kept Icefields Parkway secret – is this little dirt-road turn off right by the bridge that crosses the Saskatchewan River. There’s only room for a few cars, but it has the most amazing view of the river, 360 degrees of mountain views, and to top it, a few glaciers in the surrounding area. This spot is one of those “wow” places, and the best part is that no one really knows about it! Keep your eye out because it’s easy to miss, but this place is a great spot to have lunch before starting the hike in, or to have a snack on the way out.
*I’ve added some photos of these pitstops to the pins on the map.
Glacier Lake Backpacking Trail
- Distance (roundtrip): 16.9km
- Elevation Gain: 870m
- Route Type: Out & Back
- Rating: Moderate
- Estimated Time (Roundtrip): 4.5 – 6.5 hours
This map comes from Alltrails. If you don’t have the app already, make sure you download it on your phone before hitting the trail.
Glacier Lake is rated as moderate and is considered a good trail as an introduction to backcountry camping. The trail is best used from May until September – I completed this hike on August 18/19, 2021 and had relatively warm sunny/cloudy weather both days.
The gals and I completed the trek to the lake in just over 2 hours and the trek back in about 2 hours, granted we were hiking at a relatively fast pace. This hike could easily be done as a day hike, but I do recommend camping for a night so you have more time to really appreciate the views.
The trail is very up & down the whole way and has LOTS of exposed roots. Watch your step! The trail starts out flat and then goes downhill until the bridge that crosses the North Saskatchewan River.
After this the trail has a quick, steep uphill grind and then is mostly flat until you come to the viewpoint for the Howse River Valley. Take a break here and relax on Banff’s classic red Adirondack chairs, the view is spectacular.
After this the trail turns right, goes downhill briefly, and then is mostly flat for about 1.5km. You will then reach a steady uphill section that stretches about 3km. After about 1.7km of downhill trekking you’ll reach the lake which boasts incredible views of Mount Outram, Division Mountain & Lyell Glacier, and Mount Erasmus. Enjoy the serenity that comes with this place!
Glacier Lake Backpacking Campsites
To camp at Glacier Lake (GL 9) you must have a reservation. Reservations can be made through the Parks Canada reservations site, but be warned this campsite is a popular one. You normally have to book months in advance to get a spot or consistently check back for cancellations. It is well worth the effort!
In order to get here, you must hike. This means not only hiking yourself in, but also hiking in all your gear. Not sure what to pack for a Rocky Mountain backcountry camping trip? Check out my guide for all the essentials – I’ve learned the hard way what to pack and what not to pack!
Also keep in mind that whatever you pack in, you must pack out. Do your part to keep Canadian parks clean & beautiful!
The GL 9 campsite features open tent pads, a communal fire pit, picnic tables with an excellent view of the lake, an outhouse (bring TP), and bear poles. The tent pads themselves aren’t really tent pads and you can pretty much camp wherever you can find flat, open space on the ground. There is a shoreline trail that wraps around the lake, you can follow this which will lead to more flat areas. These spots aren’t technically tent pads, but they are a little more secluded than the main campsite.
Things To Do At The Campsite
If you’re camping more than one night at the lake, consider doing additional hikes. There are a few trails surrounding the campsite, however I was only there for a night and did not have time to explore them. Upon doing some research I’ve come across Glacier River which is located about 1.4km South-East of the campsite, Survey Peak Trail, and the Howse River Valley Viewpoint trail. To find routes for these trails you’ll need to zoom into the Alltrails map for Glacier Lake (see previous map ^) and seek out the dotted lines that lead you to where you want to go. I’d definitely recommend exploring these trails and wish I had the chance to check them out myself. However since I have not hiked these trails, I cannot comment on their quality or ease of use.
The trail I did use while camping here is one that hugs the shoreline (North side) of the lake. I didn’t walk the entire thing, but according to Alltrails it stretches for 9.2km. The section I walked was nice, flat, and is well marked/easy to navigate. We did it just before bed to warm up for the night.
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Looking for More Banff Adventures?
Banff is an adventurer’s & view seeker’s paradise. If you’re planning a trip to this gorgeous Canadian Park, you can start with this step-by-step guide designed to help you plan the perfect Banff itinerary.
Alternatively, check out this page with all my Banff resources.
Banff Hiking Resources
On this page you can find all my Banff trail guides. A few signature hikes in Banff are these easy trails, Tunnel Mountain, Sulphur Mountain, Lake Louise, and Johnston Canyon. If you’re only in Banff for a few days, start with those!
A few of my personal favourite hikes in Banff are Mount Bourgeau, Sentinel Pass, Tower of Babel, the Banff Skoki Loop, and the Sulphur Mountain Traverse Route.
More Banff Resources you Might Find Interesting:
Want to continue your Canadian Rockies expedition outside of Banff? Check out my trail guides & travel resources for British Columbia and Kananaskis Country as well as Jasper, Waterton, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks 🙂
Best Gear For Backpacking
If you wanna spend time in the Canadian backcountry you’re gonna need gear – no ifs, ands, or buts. I talk about what I bring on my backcountry camping trips in detail here, but the following are my favourite pieces of gear that make the “essentials” list for every trip:
No one wants to spend their night in the wilderness frozen which is why it’s super important to have a warm sleeping bag. The Hotcore winter sleeping bag (comfort rating -12) is cheap, WARM & Canadian made – my fav sleeping bag! You’ll also want to pick up a sleeping bag liner: fleece (extra warmth), cotton (cleanliness – good in cool temps), or silk (for cold temps & smooth material is great for people with claustrophobia; me)
A good quality stove is worth the investment. In my opinion the best stove out there is the Pocket Rocket (I use the Deluxe). This stove is compact, lightweight, great on fuel, and reliable in any conditions. A MUST-HAVE for backpacking.
Having a good quality backpack is imperative for multi-day trips, especially when you’re carrying 25lbs+ on your back. I have the Osprey Aura 65L (men’s version) and I swear by it. It’s top of the line, comfortable, great quality, and has a suspended back system which takes the weight off your shoulders. PLUS it has pockets. So. Many. Pockets.
You’ll also want to have easy and clean access to water. You’ll need a hydration pack – I use the 2L Hydrapak – and a filtration system. For this you can either use a water filter or aqua tabs and cheese cloth.
What To Wear Backpacking
Choosing what to wear on your backpacking trip is also so important… and confusing. What layers are best? Is the extra weight worth carrying extra clothes? Do I really need rain gear? Yes, the answer is always yes to rain gear.
I’ve been on backpacking trips all over Canada and I’ve learned exactly what layers work best for the backcountry. A few pieces I’ve found to be invaluable are:
A waterproof jacket traps your body heat and protects against wind and water. This is exactly the layer you want in the cold, rain, or when you’re tired at the end of the night. I use the Eco Precip (men’s version). It’s economical, lightweight, and folds into its own pocket. Don’t forget to always pack rain pants (men’s version) too.
You need a warm layer for backpacking. I always bring my puffer jacket (men’s version). This puffer jacket is lightweight, compact, and throws a ton of heat. If I know temperatures will be cold I also bring my zip fleece (men’s version) which is great for sleeping in as well.
A warm pair of socks is the nicest luxury at the end of a long hiking day. They are also super important for keeping your feet warm when the nightly temperatures drop. I find these ones work great for keeping your toes toasty – and this is coming from someone with Raynaud’s disease.
Additionally I always bring gloves (men’s version) and a hat. I wear actual hiking pants (men’s version) rather than leggings and I’ve always got a good quality, Gore-tex pair of hiking boots; my fav are the Scarpa Kailesh (men’s version).
You also want to make sure you bring separate clothes for sleeping – whatever you do DO NOT wear your sleeping clothes outside of sleeping and ensure they don’t get wet; you might even want to keep them in a dry bag.
More: Backpacking Gear Guide
Tips for a Successful Trip
- The Saskatchewan River Crossing (located right by the trailhead) has food, clothes, (expensive) gas, and other amenities
- There are no toilets at the trailhead
- Don’t expect any cell service – this applies for the majority of the drive to the trailhead as well
- Insect repellent is a must if you hike this during bug season (alternatively, bring a bug suit)
- Bring extra layers – the campsite faces the Lyell Glacier which means if it’s windy you’re getting katabatic winds coming directly at your tent
- Wake up early to catch the incredible glass reflection on the lake – make sure to check sunrise & sunset times before leaving for your hike. If you’re lucky you’ll get some alpenglow too!
- Know what to pack
Where to Stay in Banff
More: Plan Your Trip to Banff: A Step by Step Guide
The “best” place to stay in Banff depends on your price range and what you’re looking for. There are a few ways to go about finding accommodations in Banff according to each price range:
- Find all accommodations in Banff here.
- Iconic Banff hotels: Fairmont Banff Springs, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, The Rimrock Resort hotel, and Sunshine Mountain Lodge (ski in/ski out at Sunshine Village).
- Popular hotels in Banff: Mount Royal, Elk & Avenue, Juniper Hotel & Bistro, Banff Park Lodge, and The Banff Caribou.
- Budget accommodations in Banff: there are numerous hostels in Banff, The Dorothy Motel, Blue Mountain Lodge Bed & Breakfast, Banff Rocky Mountain Resort.
- Iconic hotels near Banff: Emerald Lake Lodge (Yoho), Prince of Wales (Waterton), Mount Engadine Lodge(Kananaskis Country), Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (Jasper).
Tips for Saving Money on Accommodations
I won’t lie, Banff can be a pretty expensive place to travel (but worth every penny). So, to help you offset some of the costs of your trip, here are tips for saving on accommodations in Banff:
- Camp in town. If you don’t have camping equipment you can rent tents, cooking sets, sleeping bags, and just about everything else from Bactrax.
- Stay at one of Banff’s hostels: the Banff International Hostel, Samesun Banff, HI Banff Alpine Centre, or the HI Lake Louise.
- Utilize Booking.com to compare hotel prices and amenities to ensure the hotel you book suits your needs. Some of the benefits of using Booking.com are their price match guarantee, free cancellation on almost all bookings, and clear pricing with no hidden fees.
- Check out hotels in Canmore. Canmore often offers cheaper rates and is located only 20 minutes from Banff.
More: Plan Your Trip to Banff: A Step by Step Guide
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About The Author
Hey! I’m Taylor – the voice behind The Holistic Backpacker.
After moving to Banff National Park in 2020 I became an outdoor adventure enthusiast and vowed to never stop exploring.
I’m now focused on travelling the world and seeing everything our beautiful home has to offer.
I created The Holistic Backpacker so I could share my adventures and help connect people like you with the same amazing experiences.
I am also an advocate for the environment and do as much as I can to take care of our planet.
Get to know me and my story more here 🙂
I can’t wait to share my adventures with you!