The hike to Cirque Peak and Helen Lake is hands-down one of the best hikes in Banff National Park! With unimpeded 360-degree views of the Canadian Rockies at the summit, the trail passes through the most picturesque alpine meadows and the perfect resting spot at Helen Lake. Hiking to Cirque Peak was easily one of the highlights of our time in Banff. That being said, the trail up to the summit of Cirque Peak is no joke and you definitely need to be adequately prepared. Keep on reading to learn everything you need to tackle Cirque Peak!

Cirque Peak towers over Helen Lake below

Article Contents

Incredible 360 degree views from the summit of Cirque Peak

Cirque Peak in Banff National Park

Quick Stats

  • Hiking distance | 10.0 miles
  • Elevation gain |3,710 feet
  • Epic-ness rating | 9
  • Difficulty | Hard
  • Dogs allowed? | Yes, although the final summit push involves a healthy dose of loose scree and some scrambling that we wouldn’t recommend for canines. The hike to Helen Lake is perfectly fine though!

Find this hike on AllTrails: Cirque Peak via Helen Lake Trail

Note: If you plan to hike just to Helen Lake and back, the hike totals 7.2 miles and about 1800 feet of elevation gain. You can find the AllTrails for Helen Lake Trail here.

The hike to Cirque Peak and Helen Lake is one of the most popular day hikes in Banff National Park and for good reason! With sweeping views of the Canadian Rockies, a beautiful trail that passes through one of the most picturesque alpine valleys we’ve ever seen, and the perfect lunch spot at Helen Lake, the hike to Cirque Peak has it all!

All that being said, the final mile or so from Helen Lake up to the summit is quite the challenge. The trail is extremely steep and turns into loose scree that will definitely be unnerving for some. Even more so, there is some scrambling involved at the very top that will get your heart racing.

But the 360-degree views from the summit are more than worth the effort. Even if you only make it to Helen Lake, the hike is one of Banff’s best!

Highlights

  • Some of the best views in Banff National Park from the summit
  • Helen Lake is a picturesque destination itself
  • The alpine meadow leading up to Helen Lake is one of the prettiest we’ve ever seen
  • For those looking for something a bit more challenging than a typical hike, the trail up to Cirque Peak is perfect

Lowlights

  • The trail to the summit after Helen Lake is very challenging and will be scary for some
  • One of the most popular hikes in Banff so you’ll definitely see some crowds

About Banff National Park

Established in 1885, Banff National Park is Canada’s first national park and remains the most visited to this day. Banff National Park is located in Alberta, Canada, about 2 hours from Calgary and just minutes from Canmore.

Spanning over 6,600 square kilometers, Banff National Park is home to some of the most stunning sections of the Canadian Rockies. Beautiful alpine lakes, teal rivers, snow-capped mountains, and expansive glaciers punctuate the scenery in Banff and make for jaw-dropping views and an impressive list of incredible hikes.

Banff National Park Entrance Fees

Entrance to Banff National Park costs about $7.80 USD per person per day. Unlike in the United States, entrance fees are paid per person, rather than per vehicle. Alternatively, you can purchase a Parks Canada Discovery Pass for $50 USD per person, which grants you access to all Canadian National Parks for one year.

Always remember to leave no trace!

Please do your part to help preserve the beautiful landscapes and fragile ecosystems found in Idaho for generations to come. A few key things to remember include:

  • Always stay on the trail. Going off-trail damages the plants and accelerates erosion.
  • Store your food properly – this is bear country! Never leave food unattended and avoid leaving behind crumbs or food waste.
  • Additionally, never feed the animals, no matter how cute… this includes squirrels, marmots, pikas, chipmunks etc. You may think you’re doing them a favor, but human food is dangerous for wild animals and can shorten their lifespan.
  • Pack out all trash and waste. Be respectful of the area and others. Don’t leave behind your food or trash.
  • Be considerate of others. That means keeping your dog on leash and your noise levels low.
  • Be prepared and do your research. Some of the hikes on this list are quite challenging. Know what you’re getting into and don’t attempt a hike you aren’t prepared. Remember that most areas don’t have cell service, so you are responsible for your own safety.

Remember to Leave No Trace. Pack out what you pack in, stay on trail, be well-prepared, leave nothing behind, take only photos and memories with you, treat the area with respect and help preserve this beautiful spot for generations to come.

Cirque Peak & Helen Lake hike packing list

In addition to your typical day hike essentials, we’d recommend making sure you pack the following items for the Cirque Peak hike:

  • Bear Spray (Counter Assault) | Banff National Park is home to both black and grizzly bears, so be sure to carry bear spray.
  • GPS Device (Garmin InReach Mini) | There is no service on the trail up to Cirque Peak so we’d recommend carrying a GPS device for peace of mind just in case of an emergency.
  • Camera | I always carry my Nikon Z6 while hiking, and while it’s certainly not light, it’s totally worth the extra weight for amazing photos.
  • Hiking poles | Very helpful for the steep climb up to Cirque Peak.
  • Hiking boots | We’d highly recommend wearing hiking boots for better traction and foot support on this long hike.
  • Sunscreen, sun shirt and sunglasses | The summit push up to Cirque Peak is very exposed! Don’t forget to pack appropriate sun protection
  • Water filter | There are plenty of water sources along the trail. Since this hike is on the longer side, we love to carry a water filter to refill along the way so that we don’t have to carry so much water.
  • Microspikes | If hiking earlier in the season, there will be patches of snow remaining and microspikes will be useful for better traction.
View looking over Helen Lake from the ridge beyond the lake

How difficult is the Cirque Peak & Helen Lake hike?

The hike to the summit of Cirque Peak is difficult and should only be attempted by physically fit, experienced hikers. That being said, the first 3.5 miles up to Helen Lake are much more gradual and suitable even for casual hikers.

To give you a better sense, the 3.5 miles to Helen Lake include roughly 1,500 feet of elevation gain. Compare that to the last 1.5 miles from Helen Lake to the summit of Cirque Peak, which covers more than 2,200 feet of elevation gain. Add in the fact that the trail up to the summit is loose scree and you’re in for quite the challenge!

A hiker approaching Helen Lake with Cirqu Peak in the distance

How long does it take to hike to Cirque Peak?

We started hiking around 7:00 AM and returned to our car a little after 2:00 PM, totaling just over 7 hours. It took us about an hour and 45 minutes to reach Lake Helen (3.5 miles), where we took our first break (30 minutes). To get from Lake Helen to the summit (1.5 miles), it took us about 2 hours, including the time spent at the summit enjoying the epic views. Our return hike took just about 3 hours.

We consider ourselves to be fairly fit and probably hike at a moderate-to-fast pace, compared to the average hiker. That being said, Sarah wasn’t a huge fan of the climb up to the summit and we took a number of breaks, so we were probably a bit longer than usual on that section of the hike.

Overall, we’d plan for a 7-hour day for the hike to Cirque Peak. Of course, the exact timing will vary depending on your pace, so it’s always best to get an early start.

When is the best time to hike to Cirque Peak in Banff?

The best time of year to hike to Cirque Peak is from late June until early October. Banff is known for its brutal winters and heavy snow. If you try to hike outside of this timeframe, you run the risk of snow blocking the trail. We hiked to Cirque Peak at the end of July and the weather and trail conditions were perfect.

Always check the weather before you begin your hike. Do not attempt the hike to Cirque Peak if there are storms in the forecast. The climb up to the summit is very exposed and not a place you want to be stuck in a thunderstorm.

Is Helen Lake on its own worth the hike?

Helen Lake is located on the way to Cirque Peak, and is worth a visit on its own for those less inclined to tackle the steep route to Cirque Peak. The lake features a view of Cirque Peak behind it and is surrounded by beautiful lush alpine meadows.

Hike early in the morning when the water is perfectly still and you may even catch a stunning reflection of Cirque Peak onto Helen Lake!

A hiker stands on the shores of Helen Lake below Cirque Peak

Hike Details | Cirque Peak & Helen Lake in Banff

In the following sections, we’ll detail what to expect from each part of the hike to Cirque Peak, including the option to turn back at Helen Lake.

Parking and getting to the trailhead

The trailhead for Cirque Peak is just off the Icefields Parkway, a scenic highway that connects Banff National Park with Jasper. The parking lot is across from Bow Lake and the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint. The parking area is called “Helen Lake parking area” and is located about 1 hour and 20 minutes (70 miles) from the town of Banff and about 30 minutes (23 miles) from the Lake Louise area. “

The parking lot itself is fairly small so we’d recommend getting an early start to your hike. We arrived to the parking lot a little before 7:00 AM when we hiked in July and didn’t have trouble getting a parking spot. By the time we were back to our car, around 2:00 PM, the parking lot was completely full and people were starting to get creative with their parking location.

There is a bathroom at the trailhead but no other services.

Starting the Cirque Peak hike

The first 1.7 miles of the hike to Cirque Peak cut through dense forest with some occasional views popping through the trees. You can even catch a glimpse of Bow Lake in the distance through the trees.

The trail is definitely an incline at this point, but it’s nothing compared to the push up to the summit. The trail up to Helen Lake is very well-maintained and well-marked.

view over Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway from the trail to Helen Lake

Meadow before Helen Lake

After about 1.7 miles, the forest begins to thin out and soon you’ll find yourself strolling through the most beautiful alpine meadow. Enjoy the views of snow-capped peaks, wildflowers, rushing mountain streams, and lush grass rippling in the breeze, as you approach Helen Lake.

While the first 1.7 miles are a bit of a slog, the next 1.5 miles out of the forest, through the meadow up to Helen Lake will go by in a flash. It really is one of the most beautiful meadows we’ve ever seen!

An open meadow and flowing stream on the trail to Helen Lake in Banff

Helen Lake

After 3.5 miles, you’ll reach the picturesque Helen Lake, a perfect spot to rest, enjoy the views, and get mentally prepared for the climb up to Cirque Peak. In fact, as you sit on the banks of the lake, Cirque Peak towers behind, just waiting to be conquered!

There is a small outcropping of rocks that provide a great rest spot, but be warned – the marmots here are very much habituated to humans and have absolutely no fear of people. The little dudes were coming right up to us trying to get our food! Please do not feed any wildlife!

Hiking towards Helen

Helen Lake to Headwall

From the southern side of Helen Lake, the trail travels to the right, around the eastern side of the lake. You’ll then leave the shore and start making your way up the headwall to a flat ridge. There’s one big switchback on this section of the trail and things start to get steep.

Even if you don’t think you can make it all the way up to the summit, we definitely think you should at least get to the top of the headwall or ridge behind the lake. It’s only about half a mile from the southern edge of the lake to the top of the ridge and the views back down over the lake are magnificent.

views from the trail from Helen Lake to Cirque Peak

Headwall to Summit Push

For some, you’ll likely reach the top of the headwall, see the sweeping views behind you, the towering Cirque Peak summit up ahead, and decide that you’ve reached the turn back point. And honestly, we wouldn’t blame you!

The final .75 mile is extremely steep, very exposed, and traverses loose scree and gravel. The trail becomes faint and difficult to follow. With the loose ground and steep incline, every step feels especially difficult. And there are no trees around so you’ll be completely exposed to the elements.

Maybe a hundred yards below the summit, you’ll reach the end of the steep, loose scree, and reach an even steeper section of more solid rock. You’ll need to get on all fours to scramble up this last bit – truly the cherry on top of the hike!

We enjoy a good scramble and didn’t think this was anything too scary or challenging. Honestly, the hike up the scree was way harder in our opinion. But, the scramble is legit. You definitely don’t need to rope up but make sure you take your time and be careful – you’re pretty high up there!

In general, this section of the hike needs to be taken seriously. While the trail up to Helen Lake and the headwall is a challenge, the last section is a completely different ballgame. Do not underestimate the challenge of the summit push!

resting to enjoy the view on the hike up to Cirque Peak

Cirque Peak Summit

Of all the mountains we’ve summited, the view from the top of Cirque Peak is undoubtedly one of the best we’ve ever seen. We’re talking about unimpeded 360-degree views of glacier-capped peaks, verdant valleys, Bow Lake, and you can eve see little Helen Lake down in the distance.

After a crushing climb up to the summit, you’ll definitely want to take a long break and soak up all the views. But be warned – when we were on the peak, there was one marmot in particular who was especially brave. The guy was seriously trying to get into my backpack while I was standing not even 5 feet away.

An alpine lake nestled high in the mountains from the Cirque Peak summit
Alpine lakes and snowy peaks from the summit of Cirque Peak in Banff

Return hike

After you’ve enjoyed the views and taken a well-deserved rest, it’s time to head back down Cirque Peak. You’ll return the exact same way you came.

Your legs will probably feel like jello and you’ll want to cruise down the loose scree near the summit, but remember to be careful and take your time. Not only do you obviously not want to put yourself in danger, but there will be people coming up the mountain the same time you’re going down and if you trigger even a small rockslide, you could put fellow hikers at risk.

Tips for a great hike

  • Start early: Not only does the parking lot fill up later in the day, but also the final climb up to Cirque Peak is fully exposed and not a place you want to be if a storm rolls in.
  • Keep an eye on weather: Again, this is not a place you want to be when a storm is brewing. Do not attempt the hike to Cirque Peak if there are storms in the forecast.
  • Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, bear spray, and sun protection.
  • Dogs are allowed on the trail to Cirque Peak but we wouldn’t recommend bringing them all the way to the summit. They should be perfectly fine all the way to Helen Lake and the top of the headwall just past the lake, but we don’t think they’d do well on the final summit push.
  • Do not underestimate the fitness level required to make it to the top of Cirque Peak! Not only is the final stretch steep, but the loose scree and rock scrambling definitely make it a physical and mental challenge. Make sure you are fully prepared for difficult day!
A perfect reflection over glassy waters of Helen Lake in Banff

Other things to do in Banff

Looking for more amazing hikes and things to do in Banff? You may also like the following resources:

Questions about the Cirque Peak and Helen Lake hike in Banff? Drop us a note in the comments section below!

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