Backpacking Banff: A Fall Trip On The Skoki Loop
- Aug 23, 2019
Anyone who has spent significant time backpacking in Banff National Park will inevitably develop a little list of special places.
A short waterfall just out of sight. A mountain pass that reveals a quiet valley. These little slices of familiarity quickly become the sources of my daydreams back at my desk.
It’s fall. Fellow hikers are few, loon calls echo across the open meadow and larch trees paint the surrounding slopes deep gold.
As I make the hike over Boulder Pass again, suddenly I feel at home.
First, the distant peaks of the Sawback Range come into view. A few more steps reveal Fossil Mountain. And then, as I reach the shores of Ptarmigan Lake - The Skoki Valley reveals itself.
This sub-alpine wonderland is exactly why The Skoki Loop has become one of the most beloved three-day backpacking trips in Banff and Lake Louise.
I love coming here in autumn for the crisp evenings and the kaleidoscope of colours, but mostly for the isolation. The calm, the quiet.
Dipping overnight temperatures and the prospect of snow will often keep many adventurers in their beds, but with a little planning and a sense of adventure you can open up an entire world of possibility.
Here's how you can do it, too:
Day 1 - Baker Lake
The first section of the Skoki Loop will put your legs to the test. A gruelling 3.9 km up the Lake Louise Ski Resort access road will have you breathing heavily, but it’s easy enough to make quick work of this part of the hike. After knocking out the first 7 km, stop for a snack and a look around The Halfway Hut - a historic stopping place for ski tourers on their way to Skoki Lodge in the early 1930’s.
The shores of Ptarmigan Lake offer another excellent lunch spot before continuing on your journey.
The trail continues another 1.9 km from Boulder Pass, along Ptarmigan Lake, finally dropping down an additional 1.5 km to the shores of Baker Lake. A quick 1.1 km along the lake brings you to a cozy campsite with 10 tent pads located on a little knoll at the east edge of Baker Lake.
Arrive early to grab one of three tent pads with splendid lake views.
Day 2 - Merlin Meadows
Rise and shine! Get that JetBoil rolling and watch the sun slowly creep up over the surrounding peaks. You’ll likely catch the first glimpse of it across Redoubt Mountain and Ptarmigan Peak. Before you know it the whole valley will come to life.
The journey to Merlin Meadows campsite itself is a fairly easy day on the trail, but if you’d also like to bag Merlin Lake, you’d better not stay in your sleeping bag too long.
Start your day by peeling north over Cotton Grass pass through the valley. (All of the passes on your map today are pretty easy going and are not what you’d expect out of a typical mountain pass.)
At the junction with Jones Pass or Red Deer lakes you have two options:
- Detour down to the Red Deer lakes for lunch, adding an additional 4.6 km to your day.
- Stick to the plan and head through Jones Pass to Merlin Meadows.
Leave the expansive views of the large sub-alpine meadow and head briefly up and into the trees. Soon you’ll be greeted by trickling stream and stunning views of the surrounding peaks. After 2.9 km you’ll come to another junction. Heading south will bring you to Deception Pass, heading north will take you past Skoki Lodge towards Merlin Meadows.
(A note about Skoki Lodge: Built in 1931, Skoki Lodge has been a must-visit location for generations of backcountry explores. Open for the better part of the year, you can visit Skoki on foot in the summer or by ski/snowshoe in the winter. Enjoy toasty evenings by the fireplace after refuelling on incredible food prepared each day at this remote mountain lodge. For those passing through, you can also enjoy an afternoon high tea between 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.)
After snapping a few photos or sampling some backcountry charcuterie, finish the final 1.2 km on the slightly downhill trail to Merlin Meadows campground. With 10 tent pads and two fire circles, Merlin Meadows is a great place to spend the night.
If you’re still interested in heading up to Merlin Lake, pitch your tent, hang your food and take a super slimmed down day pack back up to the lake. To do this, head back up the trail to Skoki Lodge and follow signage across a wooden bridge and up to the lake.
The trip is a stunning a day-hike (6.2 km return) that will bring you through the trees, across a high-alpine boulder field and through a final scramble to the lake. You will have gained some elevation, but it’s totally worth a visit.
Day 3 - Packers Pass
Departing from Merlin Meadows gives you two possible routes back to the trailhead.
- Via Deception Pass - a straightforward journey up and over the obvious pass back into the Skoki Valley
- Via Packers Pass - A slightly more adventurous take on the traditional Skoki Loop, involving some light scrambling but rewards you with stunning lakeside views.
To explore the wonderland that is Packer’s Pass, first head back to Skoki Lodge and across the bridge you took to Merlin Lake. When you get to the fork in the trail (there’s an actual giant wooden fork here!) head left and follow the signage to Packer’s Pass.
After sauntering through a stunning, larch filled meadow for a short distance, you’ll emerge onto a boulder field with a small cliff band in the distance. Rock-hop across the river, walk to the bottom of the cliff band and to the right of the obvious waterfall. Look for cairns, which you can follow up and into the cliff. From here you’ll tuck into a short, but secure chimney in the rock that allows you to gain the top of the cliff. Watch your step.
Congrats! You are now on the shore of Myosotis Lake, named for the striking blue wildflower. If you’re feeling hungry, there’s a great lunch spot at the edge of the lake or you can keep heading towards the next lake. Don’t fret - you’ll have no shortage of beautiful places to snack!
A short walk along the edge of the lake will bring you to the back corner. Follow the obvious trail through broken rock, up to Zigadenus Lake. Remember the “special places” we talked about earlier? Well here’s another one for your list. From the top of the cliff, you’ll have jaw-dropping views Fossil Mountain, Skoki Mountain and the stunning turquoise waters below. Turn around and soak in the equally beautiful Zigadenus Lake, capped with a glacier hanging below Ptarmigan Peak.
After you’ve spent some time filling your memory card with postcard-worthy shots, complete the final ascent up and over packers pass. From here you’ll descend back down to the edge of Ptarmigan Lake where you can pick up the trail headed south-west, back over Boulder Pass and back home.
Pat yourself on the back. You’ve just travelled just under 40 km over three days through some of the most stunning country in Banff National Park.
Where are some of your special places in Banff National Park? Share them with us on social media using #MyBanff!
Is this your first time in the backcountry or just looking for a little support? Consider hiring a guide for your trip. We hiked with Alison of Yamnuska Mountain Adventures and couldn’t have been happier!
Skoki Loop Itinerary:
Day 1 - Hike into Baker Lake Campsite via Boulder Pass (13.1km)
Day 2 - Hike to Merlin Meadows Campsite via Jones Pass. Day hike to Merlin Lake. (8.1km)
Day 3 - Hike out via Packer’s Pass. (15.6km)
Skill Level: Medium
Banff National Park is a special place and comes with special responsibilities. Please be sure to obey all signage and posted notices while traveling in the backcountry. Always stay on designated trails and camp in designated campsites. Permits must be obtained by all backcountry visitors and no random camping is permitted. Please inform yourself about safe travel in bear country, hang all food and travel with bear spray at all times. For more information about booking backcountry campsites and backcountry safety, please visit Parks Canada.