Accessible by hiking trails from Lake Louise are two historic tea houses, each with their own unique history and charm. Relaxing on their covered porches, admiring the mountain scenery over a freshly brewed coffee and homemade cookies will make for a truly memorable Banff National Park experience.
The history of the tea houses dates to early last century when the Canadian Pacific Railway began building huts and tea houses in the backcountry of Banff National Park. The first of these was The Lake Agnes Tea House, a small log cabin with a distinctive red roof on the eastern shoreline of Lake Agnes that opened in 1904. By the 1920s, a second tea house had opened overlooking the Victoria Glacier - The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House.
Today, both tea houses, open daily throughout the summer season, are owned and operated by local families, adding a friendly touch to their already historic charm. Can’t decide which one to visit? Then plan on a full-day outing by visiting both on a 14.5 km loop trail beginning from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Please check trail conditions with Parks Canada before setting out on any hikes in Banff National Park.
Lake Agnes Tea House Trail
The delightful Lake Agnes Tea House is hidden in a hanging valley high above Lake Louise. In addition to its own charms, the lake and the nearby Big Beehive provide breathtaking views of Lake Louise and a broad stretch of the Bow Valley.
Length: 7 km (4.4 miles) return
Elevation gain: 405 metres (1,325 feet)
Allow: 2 hours return
Map: Gem Trek Best of Lake Louise
For the first half hour from the shore of Lake Louise, the Lake Agnes trail follows a broad, moderately graded trail through the dense subalpine forest. At 1.7 km the first switchback marks a break in the trees where you have a clear view down to the pale turquoise waters of Lake Louise.
Another 800 metres brings you to Mirror Lake - a tiny sink lake that takes its name from its round looking-glass appearance. The dark, layered cliffs of Big Beehive loom above, and, in the gap to the right, the roof of Lake Agnes Tea House is barely visible.
By taking the Plain of the Six Glaciers highline trail to the left at the Mirror Lake junction, you can make a direct ascent to Lake Agnes via a steep trail that traverses the rockslide beneath Big Beehive (this short cut branches right from the highline trail 150 metres beyond this junction). But if this steep trail is wet, icy or snowy, avoid it and follow the traditional route that branches right at Mirror Lake (it’s only 200 metres longer).
Regardless of which option you choose, the journey to Lake Agnes is completed on one of two steep, wooden staircases that surmount a cliff band beside the waterfall created by the lake’s outlet stream.
Arriving at the narrow opening where Lake Agnes tumbles from its basin, the entire length of the lake suddenly appears, stretching westward to a jagged backdrop created by Mounts Whyte (2,983 metres) and Niblock (2,976 metres). The tea house sits atop the cliff on the north side of the outlet stream, just a few metres from the lake.
The original Lake Agnes Tea House was constructed shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The present-day version was built in 1981. It serves refreshments and light snacks from mid-June to early October, daily 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., and is one of the attractions for many who do this hike.
Many hikers end their day with a stroll along the shore of Lake Agnes to its boulder-strewn western end, only 800 metres beyond the tea house.
ADDITIONAL SIDE TRIPS
The most popular short hike beyond Lake Agnes is to the Little Beehive. Though not as high as the nearby Big Beehive, it provides better views of both Lake Louise and the Bow Valley, and you won’t work as hard to get there. The 900 metre trail branches uphill from the Lake Agnes shoreline trail just beyond the tea house. It climbs steadily to the northeast through alpine fir and larch and across avalanche slopes. Stands of larch become thicker as you climb, making this a very rewarding trip in the last two weeks of September when their needles turn to gold.
Another option is the 1.6 km trail from the tea house to the Big Beehive. The Lake Agnes trail continues around the far end of the lake and climbs a steep series of switchbacks to a junction on the Big Beehive summit ridge. Traverse eastward along the rocky, lightly forested ridge to a gazebo-style shelter on the northeast edge of the 2,255-metre-high promontory. Though somewhat obscured by trees, there are views over the Bow Valley and down to Lake Louise, over 500 metres below.
Tip: Do not attempt to shortcut down from the gazebo viewpoint in any direction; there are dangerous cliffs on all sides. Return back along the ridge the way you came.
Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House Trail
The Plain of Six Glaciers trail leads into the Canadian Rockies’ most famous postcard view beneath the glacier-capped summits of Mounts Victoria and Lefroy, where you can stop for refreshments at one of the Rockies’ oldest backcountry tea houses.
Length: 11 km (6.8 miles) return
Elevation gain: 360 metres (1,180 feet)
Allow: 3-4 hours return
Map: Gem Trek Best of Lake Louise
The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House trail begins from the trail in front of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a 50-minute drive northwest of the town of Banff. The first section of the trail follows the busy lakeshore trail to the far end of Lake Louise. Beyond the lake’s silty inlet, the crowds thin as the trail climbs steadily through subalpine forest and across the occasional avalanche path. Eventually, it emerges into a landscape scoured by the Victoria Glacier, where views open to Mounts Victoria and Lefroy.
After passing the intersection with the highline trail from Mirror Lake and the Big Beehive, you ascend along the edge of old glacial moraines. A final series of steep switchbacks lead up through a band of alpine fir and larch to the tea house.
The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House was constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the mid-1920s. Refreshments and light snacks are served throughout the summer season daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. (cash only), and its verandah is an ideal vantage point for the frequent avalanches thundering off Mounts Lefroy and Victoria in the early summer. If the tea house is overflowing with visitors, as it often is, you can relax in the clearing below the tea house and scan the nearby boulder-field for hoary marmots and pikas.
ADDITIONAL SIDE TRIPS
The trail continues up-valley beyond the tea house for another 1.3 km to the Abbot Pass Viewpoint (allow 20 minutes each way). Along the way it traverses the crest of a lateral moraine—a steep ridge of debris formed during the last advance of the Victoria Glacier, which reached its zenith during the mid-1800s. Today it provides an excellent viewpoint for the rock and boulder-covered ice of the Victoria Glacier below.
Beyond the moraine, the trail fizzles out on a steep talus slope. While this slope is a rather precarious resting spot, it is the best viewpoint for Abbot Pass (2,922 metres) between the towering summits of Mount Victoria and Mount Lefroy and the Abbot Pass Hut—a substantial stone structure constructed by CPR Swiss guides in 1922 as an overnight shelter for mountaineers.