It was just before sunrise when we rugged up and climbed into the car in Banff to drive out towards Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. We only had a couple of days left Banff and the Lake Agnes Tea House hike had been at the top of our list for the entire trip. We soon discovered it was well worth the wait as we spent a chilly morning, ice crunching underfoot climbing the mountain beyond the tea house to Little Beehive. This is considered one of the best hikes in the Canadian Rockies, not to be missed when staying in Banff or Lake Louise.
Banff to Moraine Lake
We had tried to drive from Banff to Moraine Lake several times during our stay, each time getting to the turn off a little earlier but finding the road closed as it was at visitor capacity. Knowing this was our last shot, we made our way out to Moraine Lake to arrive at sunrise. Despite a carpark filling up fast, we found a spot. Walking down to the stunning aqua water’s edge, the scene drew us in. We walked towards a collection of logs at its edge and snapped half a dozen photos, before finally turning up towards the rock pile to our left. It was covered with people, cameras in hand or tripods hard at work.
The drive from Banff to Moraine Lake takes about an hour. Drive carefully down the Moraine Lake access road is it is winding and very narrow. Make sure you get to the lake very early in the morning as the car park fills up well before 9am. If you aren’t an early riser prepare to wait until the car park empties in the afternoon. There are often people manning the road, filtering traffic in and out.
Take breakfast, including coffee with you. We walked over to Moraine Lake Lodge hoping for a coffee and somewhere to warm up after being near the lake and they only offered a full sit down breakfast menu, no take away coffees.
Related: Two Days in Chicago: A Local’s Guide
Lake Agnes Tea House Hike
Lake Louise is double the size of Moraine Lake and you can expect the crowds to reflect that too; Lake Louise is one very busy tourist sight. Make your way direct from Banff to Lake Louise (about an hour’s drive) or as we did from Moraine Lake, following the signs to Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Related: Banff Travel Guide
Having visited Lake Louise several days earlier to find the snow falling and a low haze hanging around its edges, we were glad to see the weather had cleared in time for our hike, albeit the snow was incredibly beautiful. It was spitting slightly which we hoped would keep the crowds away for a little longer as we left from out the front of the iconic (and very busy) Fairmont hotel.
The trail up to the Lake Agnes Tea House is lovely and wide and easy to negotiate. As you weave the bends, through the trees climbing to 385 metres above sea level along the Lake Agnes trail to the famous Agnes Tea House, you’ll find the air becomes thinner, the temperature drops noticeably and the ground more slippery and covered in ice and snow in patches, so tread carefully.
We moved at a good pace up the switch backs, only to be overtaken by a super fit local who made us appear to stand still. He was one of the only people we saw on the journey up the mountain though, passing only a few other groups given the early hour of the morning. We took a short stop at the very pretty Mirror Lake which marked a few kilometres since we left Lake Louise and a shorter climb to go before we reached the tea house.
Lake Agnes Tea House
The Lake Agnes Tea House hike is a 7-kilometre return hike from Lake Louise to the Agnes Tea House and while it is a moderate trail, the scenery alone will carry you to the top. If that fails, think of the tea and cake waiting at the tea house too. We were the first of a handful of people to arrive at Lake Agnes and while it was tempting to grab a spot on the cosy verandah, we couldn’t resist the climb up to Little Beehive.
Related: Banff to Columbia Icefields Day Trip
Little Beehive Trail
The Little Beehive trail offers a stunning panorama over the valley below, including the iconic Lake Louise and it was the part of the hike that we most enjoyed; the views from the tea house all the way up the Little Beehive trail were breathtaking the entire way up (less than a kilometre further), the trail from Lake Agnes up the mountain was narrower and frosted with snow, the trees hugging you tighter on each bend. We rarely saw another soul. We found ourselves alone, taking in the view and trying to capture those incredible colours on camera when the snow began to fall.
Big Beehive Hike
For us, the snow signalled that it was time to wander back down to the tea house for morning tea. For those who want a bit more of a challenge or another viewpoint, you can continue the climb with the Big Beehive hike from Lake Agnes. The Big Beehive trail is often referred to as one of the best hikes in Canadian Rockies, for the views over Lake Louise alone.
The Big Beehive hike takes you up to an epic viewing at the iconic Big Beehive hut and information board. Be aware, that if you are taking this extended route check on conditions before you start as the Big Beehive trail crosses an active avalanche path, so there are risks involved. Also, make sure you are wearing some proper hiking boots and even cleats as these switchbacks are steep and can be icy. This section isn’t for the beginner hiker. There is a great Big Beehive hike map here.
Related: Must-do Whistler Winter Activities
By the time we reached the tea house again, there were people bursting from its doors and others waiting for tables undercover of the verandah. We managed to find a cosy table and sipped on hot chocolate as the rain came down. Thankfully, it didn’t last for too long, giving us time to begin the hike down again.
We took a different route back to Lake Louise, this time finding the trails near the tea house very slippery. The difference was marked between Andrew’s shoes and my own; he took the smarter option of wearing proper hiking shoes while I slid and squealed on patches of ice for the first couple of kilometres on the way back down. We passed more and more people the closer we got to the lake, thankful we made the effort to get up early and hit the trail.
For those who are accustomed to hiking, you may find the inclines challenging in parts. However, if you are fit and walk regularly just take your time and sit at a pace you are comfortable with and you will find it a really enjoyable and of course stunningly scenic hike.
What You Need for the Lake Agnes Tea House Hike
- Ensure you wear a few layers on the hike as the weather can change quickly in this part of the world. Below will help you shop a similar outfit to what I wore and felt very comfortable in on the hike, removing layers as needed.
- I wore two pairs of tights and found I needed the extra warmth.
- I wish I had worn a pair of hiking boots as it would have made the decline much more comfortable when crosses those icy patches. If you are doing the Little Beehive trail or the Big Beehive hike, cleats or proper hiking boots are essential.
- Taking a waterproof backpack like the one below is a clever idea as it will protect your valuables and camera if you are caught in the rain or snow as we were.
- Don’t forget to take cash for the tea house and carry a bottle of water. It isn’t a long hike but you may need it.
Skye is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Fit Traveller. She is a journalist, writer, photographer, intrepid traveller and a former personal trainer with a passion for helping others reach optimal health. As a TV journalist and producer, Skye has worked for household names such as 60 Minutes, Sunrise, TODAY and Nine News. She has also written for Women’s Health, Fodor’s Travel and Yahoo7 Travel, among many others.
Skye created The Fit Traveller as a beautiful online space and community where people feel inspired to escape the desk to move and explore more.
Equally comfortable in a 5-star resort or hiking a far-off mountain, Skye loves the unexpected and enriching life experiences that each trip brings and can often be found in a backstreet chatting to locals with her camera in hand.
Skye is based in Sydney, working to master the balance between motherhood and her insatiable appetite for adventure.