Hidden Lakes and Skoki Valley Scrambling Trip
This area is a little gem in the Canadian Rockies, close to the famous Lake Louise and Valley of the Ten Peaks. It is an area of abundant wildlife and exceptional views. It is in this area of the now very famous Skoki Lodge. During Prince Williams visit to Canada a few years ago, him and his newlywed wife Kate stayed at the lodge overnight. It’s a backcountry lodge and they were helicoptered in. It was top secret, and out in the middle of the mountains they had lots of privacy.
There are lots of mountains here to hike or scramble, so plenty of options if you want to bag some mountains quickly without having to worry about bringing technical gear.
Hidden Lakes Campsite
The hidden lakes campsite is a fast walk-in from Lake Louise. It is only 9 km, and takes around 2 hours. It makes it an easy place to get to if you can’t go in the morning, you can easily hike in here in the afternoon and still have lots of time to hang out and have dinner, and you can get up early and be ready to explore.
Lots of Mountains to climb
There are many scrambling objectives in the area. Mount Richardson (3,086 m, 10,125 ft) is just beyond Hidden Lake, as well as Pika Peak (3,053 m, 10,016 ft) and nearby Mount Partmigan (3,035 m or 9,957 ft), can all easily be done in a day from Hidden Lake. In fact, it’s possible to hike in to Hidden Lake, set up your tent and leave you gear, and go climb these mountains all in a row. At the least you could do Richardson and Pika, climbing all three would warrant a longer day due to the descent you have to do to access Ptarmigan, likely taking in excess of 9 hours return from the lake if not longer. Years ago we hiked into Hidden Lakes, set up camp and climbed Richardson and Pika, the climbs taking us 7 hours return from hidden lake. To tack on Ptarmigan would likely have been an extra 2-4 hours.
All the peaks in the area make up part of the Slate Range, and all have a characteristic steep slab character, and are very dramatic and jagged. The rock is mostly typical crumbly Rockies limestone.
We had a late start and arrived at the campground at around 6pm. There is plenty of daylight this time of year so we had lots of time to relax and enjoy the surroundings. Our first task was to find out how bad the mosquitoes were! It is July after all, and Hidden Lakes are not high enough in elevation (about 2300 meters, or 7500 feet) so they were rumored to be a problem most years. Unfortunately, those rumours were true and they were quite bad at the campground. Hiking around, however, they didn’t pose much of a problem because the wind is strong everywhere else and they get blown away.
The next day we woke up early, planning to go up Richardson and Pika. We were gearing up and just about ready to hike to the Lake when we looked up to see precarious dark clouds coming over Richardson! The loud rumble of thunder proved to me that climbing up the exposed ridge might not be very safe. I’ve been in the alpine in a thunderstorm before, and it is not an experience that I ever want to repeat. I elected not to drag my friends up there and we decided to go hiking around and see if the storm passes or weather improves. Unfortunately, I was expecting nasty weather as we didn’t have the greatest forecast for this trip. I wasn’t too surprised to see this thunderstorm coming on. In the mountains, thunderstorms area huge part of summer and need to be managed cautiously. This means early starts and retreating when they sky gets dark.
We hiked up again to Boulder Pass and felt the wind blowing steady at over 45 km/hr, with gusts of 60 km/hr. This was a part of the storm that was rolling through. Again, another confirmation for me that going on an exposed ridge is a bad idea. I wondered what we could try climbing in this weather. It would have to be sheltered from the wind and not too high, so Mount Redoubt (2,902 m, 9,521 ft) was out, with it’s tricky and loose ridge and long hiking distance over scree.
But behind (to the north) of Ptarmigan peak there was Fossil mountain, which looked like a giant rubble and scree pile above Deception Pass. It is fairly low compared to other mountains around it (2946m, 9666 feet) but still almost 10,000 feet high! The winds were blowing from the south west so it was perfectly sheltered from the wind. Of course we didn’t know that until we got up there, but even if we did have high winds up there, we wouldn’t be in any danger. It would just be annoying at most.
So we hiked over Boulder Pass and along the shore of the gorgeous and amazingly blue-coloured Ptarmigan Lake. It’s a lovely valley, and the lake sits perfectly nestled in between Redoubt, Boulder pass and Ptarmigan Peak. The trail along the shore is very easy and well graded, and then you take the turnoff and climb up to Deception pass (towards Skoki Lodge). The route up Fossil begins at the summit from Deception, just turn right off the trail and pick up some faint animal trails along the pass, then you will find a trail on the scree that you follow all the way up.
At the bottom the trail is nicely graded, but then steepens and becomes loose. Pick your steps wisely to avoid sliding around. It’s not the greatest fun, but the good news is it is very short up to the ridge, and nearer the summit you can get on some snow slopes and bootpack up the snow if you grow tired of the scree. It is much easier to kick steps in the snow than to slog up the scree, but you do have these two options. The ascent is easy and non technical, and before you know it you pop out on the ridge and are almost at the summit!
I was surprised how fast you get to the summit. I was expecting a wide summit ridge that you hike for awhile before reaching the highest point, but it’s not like that at all. You end up from slogging up scree to almost being at the top. From the summit the views are amazing. You can see Baker lake and Oyster peak, and the north ridge of fossil is quite a bit different from the south end; it’s steep and exposed. The ridge would be interesting to follow to the western summit; it looks like there may be a few spots that you will want to rope up, and it might be too loose to be enjoyable. It was hard to tell.
Marmots and Wildflowers
The way down was fast, though my friends who were not accustomed to scree walking didn’t like it so much. It can take awhile to master running down scree slopes, mainly figuring out how to keep your balance and footing. We still had lots of time when we got down to Deception and decided to check out Skoki lodge, 5 km down the trail, as my friends have never been and I’ve only seen it in winter. The lower we got we were greeted with more and more mosquitoes until we became swarmed at the lodge. It was a nice hike up and down with views of the impressive glaciated north side of Ptarmigan and Pika.
The wildflowers were in bloom so there was lots of cliché flower-with-mountain-backdrop photography. We couldn’t help ourselves. The wildflower season is so short in the mountains. That, and we were greeted by a photogenic and very curious marmot on our way. There are lots of marmots and pikas in this area, and you will find if you run into a marmot, they are just as curious about you as you are about them.
We returned to the campsite and made ourselves a delicious dinner, trying not to eat the bugs that kept swarming. After a few sips of honey liquor, we decided that we couldn’t handle the bugs anymore and retired to our tents to read and escape the bugs. At that time of year it is very difficult to go to bed early, as it stays light until 11 pm.
The weather forecast that night was for lows down to 2 degrees Celsius, so I hoped that would take care of the bugs. Unfortunately, it only slowed them down. When we got up the next morning they slowly came back out. We packed up and were on our way, planning to bag Mt. Richardson and Pika Peak, and then hike out. It was easy going up to Hidden Lake itself (the campground is less than a kilometer away from the actual lake). The trail is well graded and in good condition, and arriving at the actual lake itself is a special moment. It’s a beautiful spot. The glacial lake sits wedged in between the rock rampart from mounts Richardson, Pika and Ptarmigan. It looks perfectly tucked into it’s location, resting at the feet of those big mountains.
Two ways up Richardson
From the lake, we headed southwest to gain the ridge of Richardson. I briefly considered scrambling through the rock bands between Pika and Richardson to gain the col between the two mountains since we wanted to climb Pika more than Richardson (Pika is a much more interesting climb). However, the route goes through lots of loose scree and there is lots of rotten rock up above you, and we didn’t have our helmets. I decided to save my friend, who is new to scrambling, the experience of hiking through crappy scree with overhead exposure to rockfall.
Gaining the ridge of Richardson is a bit of a grunt, but it is very scenic. Find the lowest angle scree you can, and traverse across. Once you pop up on the ridge you will be glad you made the effort. A huge yawning cirque that forms Richardsons south side is amazing, and you can view the whitehorn chutes on Lake Louise ski area, and much of the giants from the Valley of the Ten Peaks – this valley is a chain of peaks that surround Moraine lake and each are over 10,000 feet high. The higher you get on Richardson, the more impressive the views become. Richardson itself is quite high.
You stay on this ridge for a while then make your way up a steep talus slope, always taking the lowest angle line. There are faint trails all over the place, so just pick one that is the most comfortable. From the shoulder to the summit it takes less than an hour. Once you get to the summit plateau, you will see a big snowfield in front of you, so turn left (south) to get to the summit. The rest of the scramble is an easy ridgewalk. Views of Mt. Hector, the bath glacier, Mount Balfour and the Wapta Icefield are all visible.
To get to the Pika-Richardson col, walk to the snow slope and you will see that it rolls over a bit, (convex roll) walk down this roll and the angle lessens. A bit of glissading on the snow will lead to another convex roll, go down it, and then slide the rest of the way to the end of the snow, and walk to the col.
We checked the time and it was getting late in the day, and my friends had a long drive home that night, and didn’t want to be out much later. Going to climb Pika would add another 3-4 hours to our trip, so we decided to head back down the same way to expedite the descent. Going through the Pika-Richardson col is also an option, however it requires a bit of route finding so it takes longer, plus the rockfall exposure I mentioned earlier. Going back down Richardson the way we went is the fastest way off the mountain if you are not climbing Pika.
On our way back down the hiking trail to the campground, we encountered a Parks Canada warden carrying a massive rifle and radar antenna. Immediately I knew that there must be a grizzly bear in the area. He asked us if we saw any bear signs, or noticed any smells, (such as a carcass that the bear might be protecting) which we didn’t, and then told us a group of people who took a morning swim at hidden lake were bluff charged by a grizzly bear! Eventually the bear left and they rushed back to the site and contacted Banff Park dispatch, and they sent up a Park Warden, who is a grizzly bear specialist, to track the bear and see what it is getting up to. I’m very glad that we didn’t run into this bear considering we were at the lake only a few hours after the party had the bear incident.
We were back at the campsite 6 hours after we left, and packed up quickly, waving the mosquitoes off in frustration! The hike back was quick and easy, the rest of it going slowly as we trudged down the dirt road that leads down from the ski resort to the parking lot. But not before long, less than three hours, we were back in the truck and soon enjoying beer and food in Lake Louise.
This is one of my favorite areas, it’s very scenic, the campgrounds are gorgeous, there is lots of hiking and scrambling, and a great place to take beginner backpackers/hikers or people that don’t want to hike too far to get into the backcountry. There are activities here for everyone, from short day hikes to lakes and mountain passes to short scrambles, to long, technical scrambles. There is lots of exploring to do out here.
The only disadvantage is hidden lakes can get quite busy on weekends, so if you would like more solitude stay at hidden lakes during the week, and on the weekend check out some of the quieter campsites such as Baker lake or Merlin Meadows.
Parks Canada maps are available here:
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