Waking up at 3:30 AM in Calgary, we had big plans to catch a sunrise overlooking Lake Minnestimma. The drive from Calgary took us about two hours. We found ourselves parked in the dark at Lake Moraine just before six – giving us roughly two hours before sunrise. Stepping into the -15C (5F) air we threw on our packs and quickly headed past the Lake to begin the 4.3 km or 2.6 mi (one-way) hike up towards Larch Valley and Lake Minnestimma.
About Lake Minnestimma
Lake Minnestimma is an alpine lake located above Lake Moraine, a popular tourist attraction in the Lake Louise area of Alberta, Canada. Situated within the Valley of Larches, towering mountains surround you – including the prominent peak of Mount Temple at 3,544 meters (11,627 ft).
The hike to Lake Minnestimma covers roughly 8.5 kilometers (5.2 mi) of ground and gains 535m (1755 ft) of elevation. You’ll travel from the Lake Moraine parking lot through relatively mild switchbacks. Then, the trail opens up into the Valley of Larches and much easier snowshoeing.
Planning For Your Arrival
Arriving at the Lake Moraine parking lot early in the day is critical. This area is an incredibly popular destination, and parking is quite limited. In peak tourist season during the summer months, it is not uncommon for the road to the trailhead to be closed off by Parks Canada staff by 8:00 am.
Luckily for fans of snowy conditions, the main hump of the tourist season has passed. Thus, one does not have to arrive quite so early. If parking has filled up, though, you can still catch a ride in on one of the various buses. They go back and forth between overflow parking lots in the area and the lake itself.
For those who are not a fan of crowds, the initial sight at the parking lot may shock you. The area directly around Lake Moraine is often crawling with people. However, walking five minutes towards any of the available hiking trails will quickly leave much of the crowd behind.
Alpine peaks surround the area, so avalanche risk closes the road off to motorized traffic in mid-October. This closure means that those who wish to snowshoe the various hikes in the area must hope for snow by the end of September (not uncommon here in the Canadian Rockies). Or, as an alternative, you must hike or ski the road into Lake Moraine, roughly 15km (9.3 mi) one way. It should go without saying that anyone choosing to enter the alpine during the snowfall season should be aware of potential avalanche risk as well.
The Hike To Lake Minnestimma
The hike towards the Larch Valley and Lake Minnestimma moves up quickly. The trek makes use of rolling switchbacks but is never too steep to make the climb difficult. However, the snow can quickly turn to ice from the cold alpine air, and the slopes can be extremely slippery. Thus, it’s necessary to have snowshoes with crampons.
Moving Up The Mountain
Moving up through the forested mountainside, we were given glimpses of Lake Moraine below, and the popular Tower of Babel shrouded in the pre-dawn glow. The light of a lone headlamp appeared on the trail below us, signifying at least one other who was brazen enough to be here so early. Finding a comfortable pace is essential when hiking steep ground. The cold air and strong winds typically found in the alpine can turn a sweaty snowshoer into an icicle quite quickly.
After gaining the majority of elevation early into the hike, we reached the end of the switchbacks. Then, we were rewarded with flatter ground and 360-degree views of the surrounding peaks. Moving through the valley, the golden larches showing their fall colors and deep snow on either side of the freshly packed trail surrounded us.
Alone On The Top
Despite evidence that the trail is a popular one, we were the only people around. The fellow snowshoer from earlier had disappeared from sight sometime earlier. As we hiked through the ever-thinning trees, the sun crested the mountains behind us and had begun to envelop the tower peaks. We took a seat just in time to watch the sunrise at some conveniently placed benches at the end of the trail.
We spent an hour taking in the experience until finally, the entire valley was bright and sunny before we headed back down the trail. Heading downhill, the crampons on our snowshoes came in handy even more than the climb up. They stopped us numerous times from taking a long and potentially dangerous slide on the steeper terrain. As we passed several parties heading up in the sunshine, we were increasingly happy we had woken up and arrived so early to have an entire alpine valley to ourselves.
Gear Recommendations For The Hike
We wore Atlas Montanes on the trek. However, the hike was popular since the last snowfall. Thus, conceivably, a set of microspikes on hiking or winter boots could also have been worn. Hikers will have to determine the best equipment based on recent weather.
Despite being located in an alpine setting, you will not require avalanche gear while the road to Lake Moraine is still officially open. After the road closes (usually October 14th), the hiker may determine considerations based on experience and recent weather.
One other item to consider would be the use of hiking poles with snow baskets attached. Poles may come in handy particularly after recent snowfalls to give snowshoers some extra points of contact on the steep switchbacks.
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