Make backpacking Banff National Park your new goal. Just trust me, it’s a good goal.
The dogs and I catapulted into camping and hiking with a trip to Banff National Park, Canada. I was instantly obsessed and knew I couldn’t stay away.
I prefer the company of my dogs over humans. However, dogs are not encouraged to accompany backpackers into the Banff backcountry. But my desire to explore more of Banff still prompted me to plan a group backpacking trip.
I started reading about this hike and that hike and those other hikes. There are so many options. And yet, I kept coming back to Egypt Lake. I felt like I had to include that area in our wanderings.
Backpacking to Egypt Lake
After reviewing a few route variations, I went with a point-to-point option from Sunshine Village to the Vista Lake Trailhead:
- Park Car A at Vista Lake Trailhead.
- Drive Car B and the crew to Sunshine Village.
- Hike up Healy Pass to Egypt Lake Campground (E13) for Night 1.
- Take Whistling Pass to Shadow Lake Campground (Re14) for Night 2.
- Hike Gibson Pass to Twin Lakes Campground (Tw7) for Night 3.
- Trek out to Car A the following day and pick up Car B.
Backcountry Camping Permits and Campsites
Backcountry permits and campsite reservations are mandatory for overnights in the Banff National Park backcountry. Sites are available for reservation up to three months in advance.
A backcountry site in Banff is enough room for one 3- or 4-person backpacking tent. I don’t know the exact dimensions, but one site can perfectly fit a 2-person Big Agnes backpacking tent and a 1-person Big Agnes backpacking tent.
At the end of June, I called the listed number. I left a message with our requested sites, dates, and quantity of people. Then they called back to confirm details and collect the fees within a day. Easy-peasy!
Packing and Prep for Backpacking Banff National Park
My spare bedroom soon became a disaster zone as I laid out gear to assess options and gaps. No matter how much gear I have, I always seem to need (want) something new for each trip. Anyone else like that?
I made a list and checked it twice. I went online to order a few items and got sucked into the black hole that is the internet. Aside from purchasing more than I needed, I saw that the Verdant Creek Wildfire spread. It had caused restrictions and closures in the Egypt Lake area. Eek!
The weekend before our trip, I called the backcountry reservation office Saturday morning to alter our plans. Of course, they called back while I was in the shower. I left another message that afternoon and waited for the callback Sunday morning.
Then Sunday morning arrived, and suddenly Egypt Lake was back open! Ten minutes after I saw the announcement, Banff Backcountry Reservations called me back. They confirmed we were safe to proceed with our plans. Whew!
Healy Pass: Sunshine Village to Egypt Lake
We rolled up to Sunshine Village, and I was filled with antsy enthusiasm. The type that makes you continually feel like you’re about to pee your pants. Even after you just peed twice to make sure you really didn’t have to pee. Am I nervous? Am I excited? Do I really just need to pee??
All of the other hikers pulling up seemed to be taking the shuttle bus up to the top of the gondola. I started to second guess our plans to begin our hike directly from the parking lot.
Two of us wandered up to the ticket desk for a local opinion of our plans.
Them: “We highly recommend taking the shuttle up.”
I felt like I had to pee again.
Us: “Okay, we’ll hike up.”
Of course we chose to start our hike directly from the parking lot. Because that’s the type of group we were becoming. Go big or go home. And none of us had decided to stay home.
Healy Pass, Banff National Park
The hike was challenging for us, not going to lie. Not difficult like it was tricky footing or scrambling across rockslides. But some folks were new to backpacking, and some were new to the elevation (not even counting the elevation we were gaining during the hike). We started later than planned, and no matter how close we seemed to be getting to the top, it always seemed to be just over the next crest, just out of reach. It felt like a long day.
We were beat by the time we rolled into the Egypt Lake Campground.
But we had made it.
We roamed through the campsites looking for three positioned near each other for our little caravan and dropped our packs as fast as we could shake them off.
As we sat by the river, refilling our hydration packs before dinner, we finally had a chance to sit back to take it all in — the calm but epic beauty surrounding us.
After a quick pack-up of campsites, we meandered along the short hike to Egypt Lake for breakfast with a view. The water was pristinely calm, showcasing a flawless reflection of the mountains surrounding the lake. And what glorious mountains they were! The peace and calm offered a meditation of sorts, a chance to shake off the prior day and start anew.
Whistling Pass: Egypt Lake to Shadow Lake
It was going to be a 10-mile day. After leaving Egypt Lake, the trail almost immediately started going uphill. The ascent of Day 2 was more of a stair climb compared to the gradual ramp up of Day 1. I was partial to the stairs, the definite motion of going up. It gave me a straightforward sense of accomplishment.
Creeping down the rockpile, however, felt like an eternity! Testing the larger rocks for stability and trying to not slide on smaller crumbles and sand – it was a slow and steady journey to the base. After focusing so intently on my small steps down, I didn’t take in the magnitude of this rockpile. Not until I reached the base and turned around. Eyes went wide; mouth opened in awe. This is what I was out here to see.
Leaving the rocks, the trail took us back down into the the trees toward Haiduk Lake. Two-thirds of the way in we saw our first sign of bears: several piles of bear scat along the trail. I tried to reassure myself by noting that none of the piles was ultra fresh, but I still caught myself looking behind me more than I care to admit.
Bears were instantly forgotten though the moment the view opened up to the glacial waterfalls filling Haiduk.
In our awe-induced stupor, we lost track of the trail and opted to follow the lakeshore until we were back on track. Two steps into the chest-high brush was the exact moment we remembered the bear scat. Singing and overly vocalized chatter immediately commenced.
As we tumbled out onto the trail our singing abruptly ended at the sight of seemingly fresh bear tracks in the mud. Excitement. Awe. Wariness.
“Wow, fresh tracks!” “Whoa, look at the size of that print!” “It may be heading away from us, but we should probably still skedaddle on out of here…”
From Haiduk, the trail took us into a mossy floored pine forest and eventually followed along the river leading to Shadow Lake. Along the way we passed the Ball Pass Junction Campsite, which was still closed due to the fires. It had a bit of an eerie feel to it, and whether that was due to the knowledge of it being closed, or because it was seeming out in the middle of nowhere, I’m not sure. I just know I was quite pleased to leave it behind us and I made a mental note to skip that site if I return to this trail again.
Shadow Lake Campground
Shadow Lake almost felt like a false summit to me. Only in that I was exhausted, hungry, and ready to ditch my pack for the evening. As much as I wanted to sit on the bridge admiring the view for more than a short break, I was definitely antsy to reach camp. One more mile to go…
By the time we arrived at the Shadow Lake campsites, I was hungry and tired. Add in lacking signage for tent sites and bear hangs (which we later realized was due to the direction we arrived from) and water that required boiling for consumption, I was grumpy as heck.
Thankfully for my adventure companions, I just needed a little food to calm me down. But that didn’t solve our minor annoyance with having to boil water. There is no easy access to the lake or streams from the campsites. The spigot available for backpackers has a sign indicating you must boil the water before consumption. Rough lives we lead out in the woods (insert overly exaggerated eye roll).
The guys went exploring around the Shadow Lake cabins nearby. We couldn’t imagine they boiled all of the water needed for guests. There had to be another way to access drinking water. Luckily a friendly employee clued the guys in on a drinking water spigot along the side of one of the cabins. A nice bonus to help us set out on the right foot in the morning.
This was a nice campground, but my least favorite of our trip backpacking Banff National Park.
Gibson Pass: Shadow Lake to Lower Twin Lake
We set out as a group on Day 3, climbing up and out of the woods. A solid hike pleasantly rewarded by stunning views (as if there is any other sort of view out there). At 7,500 feet, we reached Gibson Pass.
Three groups hiking up (two on foot and one on horseback) dotted the downward trek from Gibson Pass. We connected with the horse crew right as we came upon a large fallen tree blocking the path. It would have been quite tricky but doable for us to shimmy over. On the other hand, the horses seemed stuck. That is until one of the men hopped off his horse and appeared at the tree with a saw. Ha! Perfectly prepared!
Another highlight from the passing groups was receiving a suggestion for stopping at Upper Twin Lake. “Right before you cross the bridge, take a small path to the left along the shoreline. You’ll wind up in a perfect location for lunch.”
And perfect it was. We settled in for a couple of hours of relaxation. Sam decided he would finish his hike out to the road that afternoon. He’d gotten a somewhat severe cut on his hand, and he was ready for a real shower. Understandable. We said our goodbyes, and then we set out for camp shortly after.
Lower Twin Lake Campground
As it turned out, Lower Twin Lake was equally as perfect as Upper. It had just one slight advantage: it was our campsite for our final night!
TW7 was easily THE best camp of our trip backpacking Banff National Park. Tent sites set back in the trees. A dining area snuggled up to the shoreline. And this view. Oh, what a place of wonder!
We soaked up every last ounce of sun and wild we could experience.
Lower Twin Lake to Vista Lake Trailhead
Our last day was the easiest. Just a handful of miles to hike from Lower Twin Lake Campground up to Vista Lake Trailhead. We encountered a fair amount of day hikers along the way. As well as more fantastic views. There will never be a shortage of great view when backpacking Banff National Park.
Once we reached the car and picked up the other car, we headed into town. Banff is a cute, mountain tourist town with a lot of shops and restaurants. We grabbed lunch and a beer and then started our trek home.