Can you hike to Peyto Lake, a fox-shaped alpine lake in Banff National Park, in winter? We had to try it at least.
Almost Skipping the Hike to Peyto Lake on a Snowy Winter Day
It was snowing hard. Our plan for today was to explore a few places along the Icefields Parkway, north of Lake Louise, before heading to Jasper National Park. Just a few cars passed by, apparently sharing similar itineraries. But unlike us, these drivers exuded far more confidence in navigating now slightly slippery roads.
Somewhere about 10 kilometers north of Bow Lake, Roshan hesitated. The snow didn’t show any intentions of slowing down. A snow removal truck was yet to clean this lesser-driven road.
We already agreed on skipping Peyto Lake earlier that morning. Two other destinations on our day itinerary were nestled about 1 hour 30 minutes farther north. At least one of them would require a short hike. With the weather like this would we need snowshoes for our little winter excursion?
We were not sure. But the sky that cleared one moment and put on a foggy veil the next one and piles of snow that grew bigger with every passing hour suggested that we should’ve come to this isolated section of Banff National Park with more winter appropriate gear.
After stopping a few times along the road and bringing tons of snow back to the car, reluctantly we decided to head back to Banff. Our travel itinerary was non-existent at this point. With no further plans for the day, we resolved to at least try to hike to Peyto Lake that, now a part of Banff’s winter wonderland, set less than 5 kilometers south.
The Legacy of Bill Peyto
Peyto Lake is a glacier-fed lake located along the Icefields Parkway, roughly 45 kilometers north of Lake Louise in Banff National Park. Famous for its turquoise color, Peyto Lake is one of the most photographed places in Canada. Hordes of visitors flock to its shores and a viewpoint above it in summer. During the winter months, guarded by the snowy mountains, Peyto Lake exudes peace and tranquility.
The pristine lake was named after the legendary mountain guide Bill Peyto who crossed Bow Summit and explored the Mistaya Valley in the late 19th century. “Wild Bill”, as he quickly became known, later served as a park warden. Peyto retired in 1937 and lived in Banff until 1943 when he passed away at the age of 74.
How to Get to Peyto Lake in Winter
As you drive from the town of Banff to Jasper National Park along the Icefields Parkway, keep a vigilant eye on any side roads to your left. The one that you are most interested in at this point sits about 6 kilometers north of Bow Lake.
Generously dusted with snow as early as late October, Peyto Lake Road terminates at the large Peyto Lake Lookout parking lot. More than 130 spots fill up quickly during the peak season, June through September.
On a cold winter day, only a few cars lingered closer to the far end of the parking lot near the Peyto Lake Trailhead. The front “stage”, closest to renovated washrooms (the Canadian word for restrooms) was ignored by everybody and everything but fresh flakes of snow.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Peyto Lake?
Not as widely popular as Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, Peyto Lake still gets its fair share of attention during the warmer seasons. July and August are the busiest months to hike to the alpine lake, now proudly boasting its iconic color, a by-product of the dissolved glacial rock flour.
Arriving early in the morning or later in the evening is not just a recommendation, but a rule that locals follow diligently during this time of the year. The unofficial law, however, is two-sided. While a sunrise or sunset visit ensures stunning views of the lake, unobscured behind broad shoulders of those who’ve arrived first, the vibrancy of the water is not as striking as during the day.
None of these was relevant to us during the first days of the winter season when we hiked to Peyto Lake. Strolling along a snowy trail to the viewing platform perched above the fox-shaped lake with now dimmed blue colors was a comfortably challenging and often solitary experience.
Peyto Lake Viewpoint Trail
- Distance: approximately 0.5 kilometer (one way)
- Trailhead: the far end of the parking lot
- Elevation gain: roughly 70-80 meters
- Difficulty: moderate
- Time: 20-30 minutes the entire hike (may be longer in the winter)
Alpine Lake Trail
The Peyto Lake Trail is relatively easy. The paved path is stroller and wheelchair accessible in the summer. In the winter and during the shoulder seasons, buried under a fluffy white blanket, the trail conceals any hint on the asphalt surface under your feet.
Despite the spectacular vistas, the Peyto Lake Trail can be a bit tricky to hike along in the winter. The uphill path unrolls a few slightly challenging sections on the way to the lake and may feel somewhat slippery on the way down as you walk back to the parking lot.
Yet the hike is nowhere as slippery as the Johnston Canyon Trail, which itself is one of the easiest and most favorite experiences in Banff National Park.
Somewhere along the way, the Peyto Lake Trail forks. A new, left path is said to be flatter and easier to walk along. We stuck to the original route and within a few minutes stepped on the expanded observation deck that opened dramatic views of the lake below.
Peyto Lake in Winter
Laying at the foot of the majestic Canadian Rocky Mountains, Peyto Lake looked wintry festive. The white dust covered the sides and tops of the peaks, penetrated inside the boreal forest, and secreted the once-green valley below. Only the dim turquoise color of the lake contrasted with the dominant white and black hues.
The views, however, were spectacular. The moody mist would disturb them at one point or another. Yet it never dared to mantle the lake completely or keep it out of sight for too long.
Is Hiking to Peyto Lake in Winter Possible?
Hiking to Peyto Lake in the winter is not only possible, but, I must say, necessary. The entire area looks bedecked like a set from a classic Christmas movie – wintry festive, delightful, and refreshing.
Winter hikers, however, must accept some sacrifices. These come, first of all, in the form of the dimmer colors of the water and gloomier skies, more often than you dare to dream of. But it’s a small price to pay in exchange for admiring the resplendent Peyto Lake without hordes of travelers that congregate at its shores and on the upper observation deck all summer long.
Ending Our Hike and Repeating It Right Away
The hike back to the Peyto Lake parking lot was a lot easier. The trail descended steadily. I hardly ever had anything close to a slippery episode in my, as it turned out, completely not resistant to slip boots.
As we were making our way back to the car, Roshan strongly felt that my mom who had stayed with Dylan at the parking lot also had to witness this magical winter opulence that surrounded Peyto Lake.
I volunteered to look after the boy this time around. Dylan, like most kids his age, was enchanted more by the snow and everything he could make with it rather than the scenic views.
Left at the parking lot, we engaged in a round of snowball fight followed by multiple failed attempts (the snow was dry) to make decent-size snowmen. The almost empty lot provided plenty of room to roam until our gloves were soaking wet and it was time to retreat inside the car.