Walk on the wild side in the Canadian Rockies

Lake Louise, Canada.
Photo of Gemma Nisbet

The reward for an early morning on the Lakeshore Trail is great views of beautiful Lake Louise in Banff National Park.

“Lake Louise is grizzly bear country,” reads the sign at the beginning of the trail. It’s around sunrise, and we’re standing in the shadow of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, in the midst of Banff National Park. 

Other tourists mill around, clad in beanies and scarves to guard against the breath-misting chill of the autumn early morning.

Eager photographers have set up their tripods by the water’s edge, and every second person seems to be using an expensive-looking camera or a smartphone or both.

To be honest, it’s difficult to imagine a great big grizzly wandering into such a tame, comfortable scene. 

Still, I take careful note of the sign’s safety tips — “Never approach or feed a bear,” it warns, as if I would — before we continue onwards, following the easy, flat 4km Lakeshore Trail.

Known as Lake of the Little Fishes by the Stoney Nakoda First Nations people, Lake Louise was named Emerald Lake by an early European visitor and renamed in 1884 in honour of Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, who was married to Canada’s Governor General. 

Behind the lake stands the Queen’s namesake peak, Mt Victoria, which straddles both the Alberta-British Columbia border and the Continental Divide.

The Chateau has a fascinating history of its own, dating back to 1890, when the Canadian Pacific Railway founded a one-storey log cabin named the Chalet Lake Louise to accommodate passengers. 

It burnt down only a few years later, but was rebuilt and later expanded significantly during the early 20th century. 

Another fire and a series of architects later, the Chateau today comprises a 552-room hotel with an 800sqm ballroom, half a dozen restaurants and sections dating from the 1910s to the early 2000s.

Over the years, everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Superman’s Christopher Reeve has visited, although I wouldn’t be the first to observe that the distinctive exterior is a little reminiscent of another big name in the American entertainment industry — the Disney castle. Activities range from yoga and meditation retreats to photography lessons, dog sledding and a wintertime ice bar. 

The hotel also has a tradition of mountain guiding, and guests can join guided summer and winter hikes as well as canoeing, daylight or night time snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing trips.

To a certain extent, though, all of this is just the icing on the cake. The landscape is the real star here, and in particular that big pool of reflective turquoise blue at the end of the hotel’s lawn. 

That’s why we’re all out here in the cold this morning, instead of being tucked up warm in bed.

As we follow the trail around the lake, the other visitors quickly thin out. 

With only a few other people on the trail, the feeling of being in the wilderness grows in concert with the gentle noises of the forest. 

We spot birds and squirrels in the trees and at the end of the path, on the rocky shore by the clear, cold water, we stop and look back across the lake to the grand hotel. 

As the rising sun creeps up over the horizon, fingers of pinkish-orange light reach across the lake, through the tops of the trees to the rocks and the mountains and snow at their peaks.

It’s time for us to turn back, but a sign nearby indicates onward routes along other trails. 

They — and the grizzlies — will have to wait. 

Fact File

Top picture: Mountains, a glacier and a reflective Lake Louise. Picture: Gemma Nisbet


Gemma Nisbet was a guest of Rocky Mountaineer and Fairmont.


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