Moraine Lake

A Canadian Icon In The Heart Of The Rockies.


Moraine Lake is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque and beautiful lakes in the world. This natural wonder, found in Banff National Park in Canada, features shimmering turquoise water amidst the breathtaking backdrop of the Valley of the Ten Peaks. At an elevation of 1885 metres (6,183 feet), the crisp mountain air and alpine scenery are almost surreal, like something from a fairy tale.

Spruce trees and rocks stand over the blue water of Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Canada with jagged mountain peaks in the background.
Refine your home with a Limited Edition fine art print of 'True Blue', the iconic view of Moraine Lake, available as a gallery quality metal or acrylic print. Limited Edition of 100.

As one of the most photographed places in Canada, Moraine Lake has no shortage of tourists during the busy season from June to October each year. Visitors from around the globe flock to its shores for a variety of activities like photography, hiking, and canoeing, or a simple desire to experience its beauty in person.

A gift store and café are open to the public, while Moraine Lake Lodge offers luxurious accommodation for a special getaway with unique rooms and cabins, all with handcrafted log furnishings and views of the lake. Private parking and fine dining complete the package for an unforgettable Rocky Mountain experience.



History and Development

It is important to acknowledge that before Banff National Park was established in 1885, it was the homeland of Indigenous peoples who had already lived in the Rocky Mountains for millennia. After first contact with Europeans in the 17th century, Indigenous people began to trade with settlers and explorers, and were invaluable as guides with their intimate knowledge of the land.

Panoramic view of an Indigenous totem pole in foreground with snowcapped mountain peaks in the background.

When Banff was established with a focus on tourism, a shameful policy was developed that moved the Indigenous people out of the parks while simultaneously prohibiting their traditions of hunting and gathering. Thankfully in the past 50 years, Parks Canada reversed this policy and "has sought to build stronger relationships with Indigenous Peoples to ensure more holistic stewardship of the land and celebrate traditional indigenous values." [1]

A stereographic image of settlers standing on the Rockpile with Moraine Lake in the background, circa 1903.
A stereograph of explorers atop the Rockpile, circa 1903.

Walter Wilcox was an American scholar who was enthralled by mountaineering, and was the first white man to summit a number of peaks in the Rockies including Mount Aberdeen, Mount Temple, Observation Peak, and Mount Niblock. Wilcox Pass near the Icefields Parkway was named after him, as he was the first white man to reach Fortress Lake through the route.

A stereograph of the lakeshore at Moraine Lake, circa 1904.
A stereograph of a log jam on the lakeshore of Moraine, circa 1904.

Wilcox arrived in Lake Louise in 1893, and was hired by explorer Tom Wilson to explore and map the area. He first spotted Moraine from a distance after his summit of Mount Temple in 1894, although he did not return until 1899. In August of that year, he named the lake 'Moraine' for the pile of rocks that he stood on, and later wrote that the time spent contemplating the view was the "happiest half-hour of his life."

A stereograph image of Mount Babel from Moraine Lake, circa 1904.
A stereograph of Mount Babel taken from the west shore of the lake, circa 1904. The southeast end of the rockpile is in the lower midground.

Tom Wilson built a trail to Moraine from Lake Louise the next year, followed by a new road in 1902 by the Canadian Pacific Railway. A teahouse occupied the site as early as 1908, with a newer one built by the CPR in 1912. The following decades saw continued development with sleeping cabins and a lodge, the eventual sale by the CPR to Brewster Transportation in 1959, and other owners up to the present day facilities whose history can be found here.



Getting There

Moraine Lake Road begins near the village of Lake Louise, another world famous alpine lake and tourist destination. Because Moraine's location is within an avalanche risk area, the fourteen kilometre road is closed during the winter from October to May. Therefore, the popularity of Moraine in summer and fall can make access somewhat challenging.

Lake Louise road sign on the Trans Canada highway.
Approaching the Lake Louise exit while travelling on the Trans Canada highway.

A visit usually requires some careful planning, as the parking lot is very small with only about 150 parking stalls, which usually fill up before sunrise. Parks Canada then closes the road at the Lake Louise access point, only allowing sporadic entry throughout the day as other vehicles leave.

Due to the congestion, Parks Canada now offers shuttle services to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, with a connector in between if you wish to visit both lakes in the same day. The Park and Ride shuttle starts at the Lake Louise Ski Area and requires a reservation, but is a great alternative to the risk of being unable to find a parking spot.

Although Moraine can still be accessed by bike, ski, or snowshoe in the winter months when the road is closed, the long out-and-back trek is usually reserved for experienced backcountry enthusiasts with avalanche training.



The Rockpile

No visit to Moraine Lake is complete without a climb to the top of the famous 'Rockpile', the vantage point where most of the classic photographs of the lake have been taken. This natural moraine (from which the lake derives its name) is an ancient accumulation of rock and debris of unknown origin, although it was most likely carried and deposited by a glacier.

The rockpile on the north end of Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Canada.
The 'Rockpile' on the north end of Moraine Lake, where most visitors will climb to see the classic view of the lake and surrounding mountains.

The rockpile is the natural feature that holds the waters of the glacial runoff and creates the lake itself. The lake drains slowly throughout the summer and fall through a narrow outlet creek on the west end of the rockpile before freezing in the winter.

Because of the high elevation, Moraine stays frozen until May or early June when the glaciers begin to melt and refill the lake, usually reaching its peak volume by late June.

Stone steps on the 'Rockpile Trail' at Moraine Lake which lead to the top of the rockpile.
Stone steps on the Rockpile Trail lead to a variety of spots to take in the classic view of Moraine lake.

The Rockpile Trail is a short 350 metre walk directly from the parking lot requiring a minimum level of fitness. After crossing the walking bridge over the outlet creek, follow the trail along the north side of the rockpile where signs at a junction will lead you up the trail.

A number of stone and wooden steps and switchbacks will lead you to the top, about 80 feet above the lake where there are many areas to stand or sit and take in the amazing view.



The Money Shot

The view of Moraine Lake from the Rockpile is so magnificent, that the Bank of Canada featured it on the back of the twenty dollar bill issued in 1969 and 1979.

The backside of a Canadian twenty dollar bill from 1979 shows a picture of Moraine Lake, Alberta.
A panoramic view of Moraine Lake was featured on the back of the Canadian twenty dollar bill in 1969 and 1979. It was part of the 'Scenes of Canada' series of bank notes.

Although the bank note evolved with an interesting history, the final image used was actually a painting based on a photograph taken from the collection of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The classic vantage point from atop the Rockpile has since been nicknamed the 'Twenty Dollar View'.



True Blue

Although there are other lakes in the Canadian Rockies and around the world that possess the amazing blue color that Moraine is known for, the striking turquoise hue always shares a common source; the ancient glaciers.

Glacial erosion among mountain peaks high above results in grinding of the bedrock, which produces 'rock flour', or silt-sized particles of rock which are washed into the lake when the glaciers melt in the spring and summer.

Tourists atop the rockpile take in the classic view of Moraine lake.
Tourists atop the Rockpile admire the spectacular blue waters and snowcapped mountains of Moraine Lake.

This rock flour remains suspended in the water, where the refraction of light on the particles causes the water to appear its distinctive shade of blue. Depending on the volume of the melting snowpack and rainfall, the color will also change in intensity throughout the season.

As the lake is fed by melting glaciers, the one thing that does remain constant in summer is the water temperature; not for the faint-hearted at a chilly 4-5 degrees Celsius.



Activities

Although camping is not permitted, there are a number of hiking trails that can be accessed from Moraine Lake for all levels of fitness. Starting at the canoe launch, the Lakeshore Trail is a flat, out-and-back stroll that meanders in and out of the forest for approximately 2.9 kilometres (return) along the west shoreline. A boardwalk greets you at the far end, where the waters from melting glaciers stream in to the lake.

Wooden benches and interpretive signs on the lakeshore trail alongside Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Canada.
The Lakeshore Trail near the canoe launch at Moraine. The trail follows the west bank to the southern end of the lake for a leisurely stroll with spectacular views.

The Rockpile Trail near the parking lot is by far the most popular hike which most visitors will complete. This trail also shares a junction with the Consolation Lakes Trail, a fairly easy 7.6 kilometre out-and-back that takes you around the east side of Mount Babel to view the small lower and upper Consolation Lakes, with some minor rock scrambling.

For a short window of about two weeks in late September, Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass is an extremely popular hike where visitors come from around the globe to witness the alpine larch trees that change color from green to spectacular hues of golden yellow and orange in the fall.

Larch Valley above Moraine Lake in September with golden trees and snowcapped Ten Peaks in the background.
Larch Valley on a sunny morning in late September. The golden trees glow in the sun with the spectacular snowcapped Ten Peaks as a backdrop. © Dean McLeod Photography.

The trailhead is rated as moderate and is a fairly steep and consistent switchback that starts near the canoe launch. In 45 minutes to an hour, it climbs for three kilometres, with an elevation gain of 380 metres to reach the start of the valley where the trail levels out to a more manageable incline.

Golden larch trees in Larch Valley with mountain backdrop
A view from behind Lower Minnestima Lake in late September after an early snowfall. © Dean McLeod Photography.

This junction point is also the signed trailhead for an optional hike to Eiffel Lake, which is a fairly flat trail that veers left for three kilometres.

Continuing to the right at this junction leads you into Larch Valley, where you can take in the views of the trees and surrounding backdrop of the Ten Peaks, which adds another 1.6 kilometres and 164 metres of slow and easy elevation gain.

View from the top of Sentinel Pass in Banff National Park, looking south at Larch Valley and the Ten Peaks.
View from the top of Sentinel Pass, looking south. The trail passes Upper Minnestima Lake (the larger tarn on the right) then curves left into Larch Valley. Lower Minnestima Lake is the smaller tarn on the left.

Finally, hiking even further along this same trail will take you past lower and upper Minnestima Lakes (which are essentially small tarns) to Sentinel Pass. The top of the pass is an additional 1.5 kilometres past the end of the Larch Valley trail, with a steep switchback elevation gain of 180 metres.

A small grizzly bear searches for food in Banff National Park.
In 2014, I was photographing from atop the Rockpile at sunset. The last one to leave, I returned to my lone vehicle in the parking lot to load my camera gear. After I hopped in and turned the wheel to back out, this small grizzly bear stood right in front of my Jeep. I had been oblivious to the fact that the bear had been there the whole time.

It should be noted that there are a number of other hikes and scrambles in the area, many of which stem from the Larch Valley trail area found on this map. And depending on the time of year, Parks Canada may require that you hike in groups with a minimum of four people as a safeguard against possible bear encounters. The area is home to a variety of wildlife, including grizzly bears which love to feed on the wildflowers in the summer.

If hiking is not for you, you may enjoy gliding around the lake in a canoe which are available for rent straight from the lakeshore on a first come, first served basis.

A woman in a canoe floats on Moraine Lake, taking in the view.
Renting a canoe is a popular way to take in the spectacular views from a new angle.

The Moraine Lake Lodge hosts the rentals which are usually open from mid June to mid September, depending on water levels. A one-hour rental includes life jackets, paddles, and basic instructions for one to three people. Unfortunately, pets are not allowed in the canoes.

Canoes tied to a dock float in the calm blue water of Moraine Lake in Banff National Park.
Canoes are returned and tied to the dock after a busy day of activity.

The canoes are a unique experience, offering a different vantage point to enjoy the views as you paddle the length of the lake on your self-guided tour of the shorelines and surrounding peaks.



A Worthy Destination

If arriving before sunrise by 5am to get a parking stall is not for you, be sure to plan ahead and book a reservation on the Park and Ride at the Lake Louise Ski Area so you will be guaranteed to see this stunning vista for yourself, which will include a free lake connector shuttle to visit Lake Louise in the same day.

As tourist activity peaks during the mornings until late afternoon, you may have a chance to drive in if you arrive in the evening instead. If you plan on hiking, it is always wise to check ahead with Parks Canada for current trail conditions, as trail restrictions and closures do happen on occasion due to bear activity.

A framed photograph of Moraine Lake hangs on the wall in a contemporary den with a single chair.
'True Blue' as a Lumachrome® TruLife® acrylic print, framed with a custom Roma Ramino silver wood moulding and white linen liner combination.

The Canadian Rockies are home to breathtaking National Parks, with Banff alone receiving over four million visitors per year. With endless opportunities to explore its spectacular scenery, there is no shortage of activities for everyone, young and old.

And the trip is not complete without a visit to Moraine Lake, one of the most beautiful alpine gems in the world.



Bibliography

1. Banff and Lake Louise Tourism. "History and Heritage." www.banfflakelouise.com