Bow Lake in Banff – The Ultimate Guide to Visiting
Bow Lake is nestled along the beautiful Icefield Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, 38 kilometres north of Lake Louise. Majestic mountains and glaciers surround it. When the water is still in the mornings, you can see a reflection of Crowford Mountain inside the lake.
The Bow Lake is situated on the Bow River at an altitude of 1920 m (6,300 ft). It is fed by the Bow Glacier, which is part of the mighty Wapta Icefield. Both Banff and Yoho National Parks share the Wapta Icefield.
Numerous outlet glaciers extend from the icefield, including the Vulture, Bow, Peyto and Yoho Glaciers. If you like backcountry skiing, you can take the famous 40-kilometre Wapta Traverse hut-to-hut ski tour.
Bow Lake is a perfect place to stop for a picnic. The picnic benches are along the shoreline. You can marvel at the spectacular mountain scenery while you enjoy your meal.
You can make a short stop at Bow Lake while exploring the Icefield Parkway or spend an entire day at the lake. Some of the best activities are photography, kayaking or canoeing and hiking.
If you have enough time, you can combine your visit with the nearby Peyto Lake, located only 8km north of Bow Lake. The Peyto Lake is a stunning turquoise glacier-fed lake and is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in Banff National Park.
Things to Know About Bow Lake
As with all of the lakes lining the Icefields Parkway in Banff and Jasper, Bow Lake boasts spectacularly coloured water. It is surrounded by magnificent mountains and is just breathtaking.
Best Time to Visit Bow Lake
The best time to visit Bow Lake is from June to September. During this time, you can witness the lake’s stunning turquoise water and enjoy hundreds of wildflowers in the area.
During the day, the lake gets more crowded, and it can be challenging to find a parking spot. If you want to avoid crowds and get the perfect lighting for photography, try to come early or mid-morning. Evening time is magical; you can see spectacular sunsets and experience peace and tranquillity.
Bow Lake is a fantastic place to go snowshoeing or backcountry skiing during wintertime. The lake will be covered in snow, so you cannot observe the vivid blue colour. But you can still enjoy the impressive mountain scenery around the lake.
Bow Lake Lodge
Next to the lake, you will find the Bow Lake Lodge, formerly Simpson’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. It was built by one of Banff’s early mountain guides, Jimmy Simpson (1877 – 1972), during the construction of the Icefield Parkway.
One day in 1898, Simpson was camping by Bow Lake, and he loved the beauty of the place so much that he vowed to build a ‘hut’ here one day.
In 1940, Simpson opened the lodge when the highway between Lake Louise and Jasper was completed. At the time, it had only six guest rooms. Over the years, Simpson extended the lodge to its current size. The property now has 25 rooms and is the only place to stay on the lake.
At the Bow Lake Lodge, you will also find a coffee shop and a gallery. The gallery offers art from local Indigenous and other artists, books, note cards and maps. The Café serves light snacks and fresh baked goods every day.
Directions to Bow Lake
Bow Lake is located off the Icefields Parkway (93N), 38 kilometres north of Lake Louise. Head north on the Trans-Canada Highway #1. After about 2.4 kilometres, keep right onto Highway 93 toward Jasper.
Follow the highway for about 33 kilometres and turn left at the Bow Lake Lodge and Bow Glacier Falls sign. A short gravel road will take you close to Bow Lake Lodge, where public parking is available. You can view a Google map of Bow Lake here.
Parking at Bow Lake
There are a couple of viewpoints along the Icefield Parkway where you can stop if you want to take a quick photo.
The main parking lot is located near the Bow Lake Lodge and is not very large, but it is free. The lot fills up fast in the summertime, so it is better to come early in the morning or evening.
If the main parking lot is full, try the overflow parking area close to the turnoff from the highway. You can also park on the side of the road between the main parking lot and the overflow area.
If you are staying at the Bow Lake Lodge, there is a parking lot behind the lodge that is reserved for lodge guests only.
Things to Do at Bow Lake
Bow Lake is one of our favourite lakes in Banff National Park. You can walk along the shore or go for a longer hike. There are many trails around the lake with stunning views.
Although the lake attracts the most visitors in summer, the area is open for snowshoeing and ski touring in winter.
Bow Lake is one of Banff’s most popular places for photography, owing to the spectacular mountain scenery, mighty glaciers and the lake’s stunning blue colour.
The best time of the day to see Bow Lake is morning when its water is calm and becomes like a mirror. The lake reflects the towering Crowford Mountain and other snow-covered peaks of the continental divide.
Bow Lake is also impressive in the early evening and during sunset. The most popular spot is near the small footbridge at the water’s edge, not far from the parking lot.
In the summertime, purple wildflowers along the lake’s edge make an excellent foreground for photography.
If you like exploring, Bow Lake is a hiker’s paradise. The most popular trail is Bow Glacier Falls. The waterfall can be seen in the distance from the lake’s shoreline.
There are so many hikes and scrambles around Bow Lake with breathtaking views; I will provide further information in the post. We hiked only some of the trails; the rest of them are on our ‘to-do list.’
Canoeing and Kayaking
Bow Lake is a fantastic place for paddling. You can enjoy the lake’s beautiful hues of blue and spectacular mountain scenery as you glide over the water’s surface.
The lake is one of the hardest to tackle by SUP because it often gets windy. If it is a calm day, consider it your lucky day!
There are no rental facilities at Bow Lake, so you will need to bring your watercraft or rent one in the town of Banff. The Bow Lake parking lot is a short distance from the lake; you do not have to walk too far with your canoe or kayak.
Note: To prevent the spread of Aquatic invasive species, you must fill out a Self Certification Permit for any non-motorized watercraft and water-related gear (canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, fishing gear etc.). The permit can be found online, at visitor centres, and at the lake’s self-serve kiosks.
Fishing is a tranquil way to experience the pristine landscape surrounding Bow Lake. Fish species present in Bow Lake include rainbow trout, yellow perch, brown trout, northern pike and whitefish.
Fishing on Bow Lake is open from July 1st to October 31st. You will need a fishing permit, which you can purchase at national park visitor centres. A fishing license is also required. For more information on fishing in the national park and permits, visit Parks Canada.
Snowshoeing is one of the best ways to experience the beautiful mountain scenery around Bow Lake during winter. You can start at the parking lot, just before the Bow Lake Lodge, which is unfortunately closed in winter.
You can snowshoe along the edge of Bow Lake and explore the lakeshore, or if the lake is frozen, you can walk across. As with any ice, ensure it is well frozen before venturing on it.
Sometimes backcountry skiers head up to the Bow Hut and make a path across the lake. Make sure not to approach steep slopes and turn around before seeing avalanche paths above you.
The best time to come backcountry skiing in Banff is from January to April. However, guides offer trips ranging from November all the way until May.
One of the most scenic and popular backcountry skiing destinations in the Canadian Rockies is the Wapta Traverse which includes the large icefield that sits above Bow Lake.
The Wapta Traverse is a Canadian classic that takes five days (40 km) with a 5,400 ft elevation gain. It combines four huts, Peyto Hut, the Bow Hut, the Balfour Hut and the Scott Duncan Hut.
The traverse has built a reputation as heaven-on-earth for ski touring and mountaineering. You will cross vast expanses of glaciers while surrounded by incredible mountain scenery.
Dolomite Peak Circuit is a popular one-day (16 km) ski traverse starting six kilometres south of Bow Lake on the Icefield Parkway. It is a relatively easy backcountry ski tour in stunning surroundings. Always check the avalanche forecast for Banff before heading out.
Hikes Around Bow Lake
Bow Lake has plenty of options for hiking, scrambling and mountaineering. The easiest hike will take you around the lakeshore to the Bow River, where you can enjoy more mountain views.
The Bow Glacier Falls is a moderate 8.9-kilometre trail and is one of the most popular hikes in the area. It takes about 2.5 hours to complete.
If you like something more challenging, you can hike up one of the peaks surrounding Bow Lake. You will be rewarded with epic vistas and breathtaking scenery.
The Bow Lakeshore is an easy, family-friendly hike with minimal elevation gain. From the main parking lot, walk towards the Bow Lake Lodge. Then continue hiking along the lake.
- Distance: 3.4 km
- Estimated Time: 0.5 – 1 hour
- Elevation Gain: 2 m
Enjoy the stunning scenery. Stretching on your left across the lake, you will see Crowfoot Mountain. On the right is Mount Jimmy Simpson, named after the founder of the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge.
Bow Glacier Falls
The Bow Glacier Falls trail runs along the shoreline to the southwest corner of Bow Lake. A long rustic staircase will take you up into a beautiful valley, from where you can venture to the base of the Bow Glacier Falls.
- Distance: 8.9 km
- Estimated Time: 2.5 – 3 hours
- Elevation Gain: 298 m
The views along the way are spectacular. The waterfall is fed by the Bow Glacier and is the birthplace of the Bow River. You can hike to Iceberg Lake, located above Glacier Falls, or scramble up Mount Jimmy Simpson for extra adventure.
Helen Lake is one of the most popular hikes along the Icefield Parkway. First, you will walk through a beautiful forest, where you can enjoy the smell of fir and spruce trees. Past the treeline, you will get amazing alpine views of Crowfoot Mountain and the Crowfoot Glacier.
- Distance: 11.6 km
- Estimated Time: 4 hours
- Elevation Gain: 540 m
For more stunning vistas, you can scramble up Cirque Peak. The Helen Lake parking lot is located along the Icefield Parkway, across from the Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint.
Cirque Peak is a challenging hike and easy scramble. The summit offers breathtaking views of Bow Lake, Iceberg Lake and the Wapta Icefield.
- Distance: 16.1 km
- Estimated Time: 6 – 7 hours
- Elevation Gain: 1131 m
Follow the Helen Lake trail as it climbs through beautiful meadows. Hike up the switchbacks to the ridge and scramble up a few short rock bands. The final stretch is a steep grind through loose scree.
The Bow Hut is one of the four huts used as a stop during the famous 40-kilometre-long Wapta Icefield ski traverse. To the north, it gives access to the Peyto Hut and to the south to Balfour and Scott Duncan huts.
- Distance: 15.8 km
- Estimated Time: 5 – 6 hours
- Elevation Gain: 714 m
The Bow Hut is a popular hiking destination in the summertime. If you like exploring, you can also visit an ice cave or hike to the top of a nearby summit called the Onion.
The scramble-up Bow Peak is a good choice if you want an adventure. It starts with a river crossing and will take you through a lovely forest to an alpine pass. Some cheeky marmots might greet you along the way.
- Distance: 12.1 km
- Estimated Time: 5.5 – 6.5 hours
- Elevation Gain: 1055 m
The Crowfoot Pass is stunning, and even if you have no intention of scrambling Bow Peak, the hike to the pass is worth it. Bow Peak offers spectacular views of Bow Lake, surrounding mountains and glaciers.
Mount Jimmy Simpson
Mount Jimmy Simpson rises sharply above Bow Lake and the Bow Lake Lodge (Num Ti Jah Lodge). It was named in honour of Jimmy Simpson. He was a mountain guide who built the Num Ti Jah Lodge to support his outfitting business.
- Distance: 17.4 km
- Estimated Time: 7 – 8 hours
- Elevation Gain: 1275 m
Mount Jimmy Simpson is a moderate scramble with mild exposure. It is a perfect hike if you are looking for some challenge. The views from the summit are just breathtaking.
The first 4.5-kilometres are easy, with a slight elevation gain. You will walk along the lakeshore up to Bow Glacier Falls. From that point, the trail becomes steep. Mount Jimmy Simpson offers stunning views of Bow Lake and the Icefield Parkway, Iceberg Lake, Caldron Lake, and Bow and Peyto glaciers.
The Onion is an easy scramble with spectacular views of Bow Lake, Iceberg Lake, glaciers and snow-covered peaks.
- Distance: 17.4 km
- Estimated Time: 6 – 7 hours
- Elevation Gain: 924 m
First, follow the trail along Bow Lake, then hike up to Bow Hut. You will need to cross over creeks (depending on the season), so bring some waterproof shoes.
It is an 800-meter hike up to Onion Peak from the Bow Hut. You can spend some time at the summit, wander around the plateau and see glaciers, lakes and valleys.
Iceberg Lake is located above the Bow Glacier Falls and below the Bow Glacier. It is a moderate scramble that involves some exposure.
- Distance: 12.1 km
- Estimated Time: 4 – 4.5 hours
- Elevation Gain: 576 m
Like the other lakes lining the Icefields Parkway, Iceberg Lake has a stunning blue colour. You can see the spectacular Bow Glacier feeding the lake from the shore.
Jimmy Simpson Junior
Jimmy Simpson Junior Peak is a moderate scramble with grand views over Bow Lake, Iceberg Lake, Icefield Parkway and surrounding mountains.
- Distance: 6.3 km
- Estimated Time: 4 – 4.5 hours
- Elevation Gain: 841 m
The trail is much shorter compared to many other peaks in the area, and it does not see as many visitors. It is also used in the winter for backcountry skiing.
Accommodation Near Bow Lake
The Bow Lake Lodge is the only place to stay on the lake. If you like camping, two nice campgrounds are located nearby along the Icefield Parkway. You can find the best hotels in the area at Lake Louise.
Bow Lake Lodge
You can stay at the historic Bow Lake Lodge for a one-of-a-kind experience focused on the natural, beautiful surroundings. Spend the night or a few in a lovely room overlooking the dazzling Bow Lake. >>See prices and availability for Bow Lake Lodge
Mosquito Creek Hostel
The Mosquito Creek Hostel is located in a quiet setting, 11kilometres south of Bow Lake. There is a shared kitchen and a wood-heated sauna. The accommodation is basic; there are no showers and running hot water. >>See prices and availability for Mosquito Creek Hostel
Mosquito Creek Campground
The Mosquito Creek Campground is the closest campsite, located 11 kilometres south of Bow Lake. Don’t be put off by the name; the mosquitoes at this campground are no worse than in any other part of the park. The campground has 38 sites, all available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Waterfowl Lake Campground
The Waterfowl Lake Campground is situated off the highway inside a forest 24 kilometres north of Bow Lake. It is an excellent base if you plan to explore the Icefield Parkway.
The campground sits between Upper and Lower Waterfowl lakes on the Mistaya River. Both of the lakes are glacier-fed and are awesome for paddling. The Waterfowl Lake Campground has 116 sites, all available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Frequently Asked Questions
Bow Lake is one of the largest lakes in Banff National Park, with a surface area of 3.21 km2. It is 3.2 km long, 1.2 km wide, 51 m deep and sits at an altitude of 1920 m (6,300 ft).
How Does Bow Lake Get That Gorgeous Blue Colour?
Like all glacial lakes in Banff National Park, the water in Bow Lake has a stunning blue colour. Glacial lakes are formed by melted glaciers. The Bow Lake is fed by the meltwater of the Bow Glacier.
The melted glaciers grind away rocks as they travel through valleys. The process produces a fine-grained powder of silt and clay called glacial flour. Since the particles are so fine, they slowly sink to the bottom and remain suspended in the water column instead.
The spectacular blue colour is formed when sunlight reflects on the rock flour. Lakes with the smallest rock flour particles display a more brilliant blue colour than lakes with larger rock flour particles because of the amount of light reflecting off the rock flour.
What Is the Name of the Mountain That Looms Over Bow Lake?
The name of the mountain that towers over Bow Lake is Crowfoot Mountain; you can see its reflection inside the lake when the water is still. The majestic Crowfoot Glacier sits on the northeastern side of the mountain.
Crowfoot Mountain was named in 1959 after the Crowfoot Glacier, which used to be shaped like a crow’s foot. However, since the glacier and the mountain got their names, the glacier has receded, and only a small portion of the crow’s foot remains.
Can You Swim in Bow Lake?
Yes, you can swim in Bow Lake, but the water is icy cold. It feels amazing, though, to take a dip inside the lake after a hot, sunny day hike.
We love swimming in glacier lakes; cold showers are part of our morning routine at home. There is no better place to take a dip in icy cold water than when surrounded by stunning scenery, majestic mountains, and glaciers.
What Are the Facilities at the Bow Lake?
There are not many facilities around Bow Lake. The Bow Lake Lodge Café serves light snacks and freshly baked goods daily.
You can bring your food and picnic around the lake; there are some wonderful picnic tables. The restrooms are located in the parking area.
Plan Your Trip to Bow Lake
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