Canada (Alberta)
Moraine Lake

Not quite so many people as visit Lake Louise make the thirteen-kilometre road journey to Moraine Lake, which is smaller than its neighbour although in many ways its scenic superior. If you're without your own transport, you'll have to rely on a bike or taxi ($35) to get here or the new park-run "Vista" bus shuttle (daily every 30min from outside the hostel and Lake Louise campsite; free on production of park pass). The last has been introduced because of the sheer number of visitors in cars and RVs trying to cram into the tiny car park and clogging the approach road. No wonder they come, for this is one of the great landscapes of the region and has some cracking trails into the bargain. It also holds one of the most enticing and magnificently executed hotels in the entire Rockies: if you're on honeymoon, or just want to push the boat out once, splash out on a night or two in the Moraine Lake Lodge (tel 522-3733, www.morainelake.com; $240 and up; May–Oct), a nicely landscaped collection of high-quality cabins plus eight lodge rooms and six other units designed by eminent architect Arthur Erickson (also responsible for Vancouver's UBC Museum of Anthropology and the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC): cabins are probably best, if only for their open fires. It boasts a friendly staff and great privacy, for prices on a par with decidedly more lacklustre hotels in the village and near Lake Louise.

Bar the Lodge, with its good little café and top-notch restaurant, nothing disturbs the lake and its matchless surroundings. Until comparatively recently the scene graced the back of Canadian $20 bills, though the illustration did little justice to the shimmering water and the jagged, snow-covered peaks on the eastern shore that inspired the nickname "Valley of the Ten Peaks". The peaks are now officially christened the Wenkchemna, after the Stoney native word for "ten".

 

The lake itself, half the size of Lake Louise, is the most vivid turquoise imaginable. Like Lake Louise and other big Rockies lakes (notably Peyto on the Icefields Parkway), the peacock blue is caused by fine particles of glacial silt, or till, known as rock flour. Meltwater in June and July washes this powdered rock into the lake, the minute but uniform particles of flour absorbing all colours of incoming light except those in the blue–green spectrum. When the lakes have just melted in May and June – and are still empty of silt – their colour is a more normal sky blue. You can admire the lake by walking along the east shore, from above by clambering over the great glacial moraine dam near the lodge (though the lake was probably created by a rock fall rather than glaciation), or from one of the canoes for rent on the right just beyond the Lodge and car park. For the best overall perspective, tackle the switchback trail through the forest on the east shore, but check with the visitor centre at Lake Louise for the latest on bear activity – a young grizzly has made the Moraine Lake region its home, and areas are sometimes closed to avoid its coming in contact with humans.

Walks

Each of the four basic routes in the Moraine Lake area is easily accomplished in a day or less, two with sting-in-the-tail additions if you want added exertion; all start from the lake, which lies at the end of thirteen-kilometre Moraine Lake Road from just outside Lake Louise Village. Before hiking, check with the visitor centre in Lake Louise on the latest restrictions imposed to protect both the bears known to have made the area part of their territory as well as the tourists who hope to catch a glimpse of them. At the time of writing, walks in the Larch Valley and around were restricted. You must walk in groups of at least six people (there are often people waiting to join a group, so you should have no trouble making up the numbers).

The easiest walk is the one-kilometre amble along the lakeshore – hardly a walk at all – followed by the three-kilometre stroll to Consolation Lake, an hour's trip that may be busy but can provide some respite from the frenzy at Moraine Lake itself. This almost level walk ends with lovely views of a small mountain-circled lake, its name coined by an early explorer who thought it a reward and "consolation" for the desolation of the valley which led up to it. If you're tenting, fairly fit, or can arrange a pick-up, the highline Panorama Ridge Trail (2255m) branches off the trail (signed "Taylor Lake") to run 22km to the Banff–Radium highway 7km west of Castle Junction.

The most popular walk (start as early as possible) is the Moraine Lake–Larch Valley–Sentinel Pass Trail, one of the Rockies' premier hikes, which sets off from the lake's north shore 100m beyond the lodge. A stiffish hairpin climb through forest on a broad track, with breathtaking views of the lake through the trees, brings you to a trail junction after 2.4km and some 300m of ascent. Most hikers branch right, where the track levels off to emerge into Larch Valley, broad alpine upland with stands of larch (glorious in late summer and autumn) and majestic views of the encircling peaks. If you have the energy, push on to Sentinel Pass ahead, in all some two-hours' walk and 720m above Moraine Lake. At 2605m, this, along with the Wenkchemna Pass, is the highest point reached by a major trail in the Canadian Rockies. You can see what you're in for from the meadows – but not the airy views down into Paradise Valley from the crest of the pass itself. You could even continue down into Paradise Valley, a tough, scree-filled descent, and complete an exceptional day's walk by picking up the valley loop back to the Moraine Lake Road. Otherwise return to the 2.4-kilometre junction and, if legs are still willing – you'll have done most of the hard climbing work already – think about tagging on the last part of the third Moraine Lake option.

This third option, the less-walked Moraine Lake–Eiffel Lake–Wenkchemna Pass Trail, follows the climb from the lake as for the Larch Valley path before branching off left instead of right at the 2.4-kilometre junction. It's equally sound, virtually level and if anything has the better scenery (if only because less barren than Sentinel Pass) in the stark, glaciated grandeur to be found at the head of the Valley of the Ten Peaks. It's also much quieter once you're beyond the trail junction. At 2255m, Eiffel Lake is a 5.6-kilometre hike and 370-metre climb in total (allow 2–3hr) from Moraine Lake, and you don't need to go much further than the rock pile and clump of trees beyond the lake to get the best out of the walk. Ahead of you, however, a slightly rougher track continues through bleak terrain to Wenkchemna Pass (2605m), clearly visible 4km beyond. Having got this far, it's tempting to push on; the extra 350-metre climb is just about worth it, if lungs and weather are holding out, for the still broader views back down the Valley of the Ten Peaks. The views beyond the pass itself, however, over the Great Divide into Yoho and Kootenay parks, are relatively disappointing.