Wow! How come it took us so long to visit this area? Despite the smoky conditions, which led to a more muted experience, the grandeur and beauty of the Skoki Valley and surroundings was captivating and left us wanting more. I mean, there were huge mountains in all directions and half-a-dozen or so gorgeous lakes to admire – classic Canadian Rockies scenery. With the exception of the first 5 or 6 km of tedious road/trail walking, the hiking was exceptional and I highly recommend taking the side-trails to visit Lake Merlin and the Skoki Lakes. The camping at Merlin Meadows wasn’t set up as well as we expected after our Egypt Lake trip in July but was still decent.
Parking was plentiful at the Fish Creek trailhead. Surprisingly, there were no Parks Canada signs indicating where the trail went, just a few ski resort signs pointing where hikers should go (plus some stern signs warning of where they shouldn’t go!). Signage along the trail was poor with inconsistent labelling and almost no distance estimates.
The trail started off on a fire road deep in the forest. Although it was gated, we encountered some traffic from the Skoki shuttle bus and Lake Louise resort vehicles. Most drivers were courteous and slowed down, but not all. I recommend moving to the edge of the road when traffic approaches. Beyond the shuttle bus turnaround, the trail followed a ski run for a short distance before ducking into the trees at the first Parks Canada sign. This trail, too, was broad and somewhat road-like (used as a snowmobile route in winter judging by the signs) until reaching the subalpine after about 5.5 km.
The trails were dry and dusty with very few muddy sections. The popularity of this area was evident by the significant braiding along several sections, in some cases a foot-deep trench had been carved over the decades. All creeks had bridges (sometimes just simple planks) for hikers – horses are expected to ford the creeks. Most creeks were running low (or even dry) so were easy to cross without a bridge.
An alternative and unsigned trail allows the hike in to Merlin Meadows to be made into a loop (or at least a lollipop) via Packer’s Pass and the turquoise Skoki Lakes (Myosotis and Zigadenus Lakes). This is a delightful single-track route that’s much less well-travelled. Be aware of a short scramble up through a chimney that passes under a huge chockstone (mind your head!) near Myosotis Lake. Though not exposed, it does require the use of hands to climb up or down and may be tricky with an overnight pack.
The trail to Lake Merlin was signposted at Skoki Lodge. This trail was created by the architect of the Lake O’Hara trails and was an excellent fun route traversing steep slopes over boulders and dirt to a steep final climb up through a series of ledges to reach the lake. This climb could be tricky for some and it was easy to end up off route – follow the low rock walls. Beyond here the route faded and several routes were marked with cairns – try and stick to bare rock where possible as trails have been worn into the heather and other delicate ground cover.
Skoki Lodge runs a hiker happy hour from 2 – 4:30 pm. Prices were what you might expect from a backcountry lodge: $8 for a regular can of beer, $10 for a tall one. The beer selection was surprisingly good with a nice variety. They accepted cash and card payments.
Merlin Meadows campground had about a dozen places to pitch a tent. There were no numbers to indicate specific sites and the sites were informal, mostly on bare ground among the trees. For some reason there were two fire rings close to each other and close to the tenting area. We avoided them as you can be sure that people will have dined there and instead chose a site at the edge of the meadows – these seem to be the most popular choice based on past usage and where other groups preferred to set up. Food storage was a cable system, and there were four small tables in a dining area only about 30-50 m from the camping area. The water source was the creek draining the various lakes in the valley, about 100 m north of the dining area.
The campground had 2 outhouses wrapped in wire as protection against porcupines. Neither had a window and were very dark. The newer one didn’t have a lock. Alas, it seems that the backcountry hygiene of past visitors was questionable as there were multiple white “flowers” dotted around behind trees at the edge of the meadow. Ugh. And that’s with an outhouse not 20 m away! Remarkably, the campground was not even half full on either night.
Flora: Most of the summer’s flowers had faded from their fantastic July peak. The main hangers-on were harebells and purple asters. With the exception of a number of patches of red fireweed, there was remarkably little fall colour, with many of the willows having simply lost their leaves. The larches were still mostly green with just a few branches here and there turning gold. Fungi were plentiful, especially on the trail to Lake Merlin.
Fauna: so many pikas! It was a delight to watch them foraging for their winter food and we were surprised that they weren’t too bothered by our presence. We also saw several marmots, a pine marten near Deception Pass, a curious weasel near the campground dining area, a couple of deer (or maybe the same deer twice), one of which hung out at the edge of the campground one evening. Birds were common and we had two very close encounters with spruce grouse – a lone male on one occasion and a male attempting to court a female (and her brood!) on another. We almost saw a grizzly and a black bear: on two occasions, approaching hikers warned of a bear near the trail ahead but both times they’d moved on by the time we showed up.
Going from Vancouver to Banff/Lake Louise resulted in a slight shift in daylight hours, with sunrise and sunset being about 45 minutes later than in Vancouver, making for a little more daylight in the evenings compared with the Lower Mainland of BC. The downside was that the days suddenly felt much shorter on the return to Vancouver.
Distance: 47.5 km
Elevation gain: 1740 m
Time: 3 days
- 😀 Watching a male spruce grouse strut and fan his feathers courting a female
- 😀 Sitting at the edge of a perfectly still Lake Merlin with reflections of Mount Richardson and the Wall of Jericho
- 😀 Seeing pikas dart back and forth with mouthfuls of greenery for their dens, seemingly unbothered by our presence
- 😀 Eating lunch below Deception Pass with a grand view of mountains and turquoise lakes in front of us
- 😀 Cresting Packer’s Pass to see Ptarmigan, Baker, and Redoubt Lakes laid out before us
- 😀 Being eye-to-eye with a deer feeding within a few metres of our tent
- 😀 Sitting back with a cold beer on the grass outside Skoki Lodge near the end of a long hike
- 🙁 The wildfire smoke caught up with us and muted all the views
- 🙁 Hiking the first/last four kilometres on the access road was tedious
Our original plan was a three-night trip but as soon as we booked Lake O’Hara we revised it to only two. Both nights were at the Merlin Meadows campground. Our itinerary went something like this:.
- Hike to Merlin Meadows campground (15.5 km, 745 m, 6 h 5 m)
- Lake Merlin, Skoki Lakes, and Packer’s Pass (16.5 km, 605 m, 8 h 40 m)
- Return to trailhead (15.5 km, 390 m, 4 h 55 m)
We initially had designs on a scramble up to one of the peaks in the area but the weather conditions meant that it wasn’t worth it.
The Lake Louise campground was our base before and after the trip, which had (hot) showers as well as washing-up facilities and plenty of (small) washroom blocks at regular intervals across the campground. Pick your site carefully as the shower block is at the south end of the campground – we ended up about as far away as it’s possible to get and it’s nearly a kilometre to walk. (We walked one time and drove the other.)
As usual, I’ll write up each day in a separate post, but for now I’ll finish with a quick overview of the first day’s drive through to Lake Louise.
Prologue: driving to Lake Louise
It’s an 850-km, 12-ish hour drive from Vancouver to Banff, and I always dream of making a really early start to avoid getting caught out by losing an hour from the time zone change. Speaking of dreams, my comfortable night of pleasant dreams was rudely interrupted by my alarm buzzing beside me, prompting me to crawl out and begin the task of getting ready to leave. We drove out of the parking garage of our apartment building at 7:15 am to be greeted by a beautiful sunny morning.
The cheer of the sunshine and blue sky was somewhat dampened by the fact we seemed to get caught by every set of traffic lights between our apartment and the entrance to Highway 1, but all that was forgotten once we were under way. The road was quite busy, not unsurprising for a sunny Saturday morning, and thankfully there were no major holdups as we drove east into the Fraser Valley. The blue sky gradually gave way to hazier and hazier skies, Mount Baker completely invisible through the murk, and by the time we reached Chilliwack after an hour, we could easily smell the smoke from the fires across the border. By now the sky was a pale orange, and, as we neared Hope, we drove beneath a towering plume of smoke from the fire near Flood Falls, a dark red sun shining momentarily through the thick, billowing clouds. As we passed, I caught sight of burning trees in my door mirror, a flash of bright orange against the dark green, and we sent our best wishes to the fire crews tackling this blaze.
We were surprised that the smoke cleared in an instant as soon as we were past the fire, and as we drove onto the Coquihalla Highway we were once again beneath azure skies. We passed through construction zones repairing the damage from last winter’s storms, waved at Yak and Needle Peaks as we drove by, and over the huge Juliet Creek destruction zone where a new bridge was under way. As we headed further inland we encountered the areas scorched by the Juliet Creek fire from last year, the slopes covered in charred toothpick trees with the first signs of new green growth on the forest floor beginning the cycle anew.
Merritt passed by, followed by the long haul up to Surrey Lake summit before descending to Kamloops where we stopped for refreshments and to stretch our legs. Driving alongside the calm South Thompson River, we admired the sagebrush chaparral and golden grasslands against the blue sky. As we approached Salmon Arm, someone had updated a sign with an ‘s’ and an excellent illustration of a salmon with arms that made us laugh out loud. We drove on through Sicamous (no ice cream stop today), then Three Valley Gap, and down into Revelstoke for lunch. Plans for a hearty burrito were scrapped when we found the restaurant closed until the evening so we grabbed a very tasty BLT from Dose followed by a quick trip into Valhalla Pure Outfitters to pick up some more supplies. While we were in town we walked the handful of blocks in the hot sun to La Baguette to buy two of their amazing veggie burgers for dinner, then grabbed an ice cream before getting back on the road.
Smoky skies closed in again as we neared Glacier National Park, a small fire on steep slopes not far from the Illicillewaet campground producing clouds of smoke that drift up over the peaks. We crested Rogers Pass and began the long boring descent to Golden, entering the mountain time zone and the relic sign suggesting we move our watches forward an hour. Normally this stretch of road seems to drag, undoubtedly because we’ve usually been on the road for 8-10 hours by now, but somehow today we were in Golden before we knew it. The light traffic undoubtedly helped. Now we were getting close and we perked up again as we drove up into the Kicking Horse Canyon, through the new bridge construction, and passing a bighorn ewe and lamb grazing a small grassy slope next to the highway. Now for our favourite section, entering Yoho National Park to follow the turquoise Kicking Horse river and getting our first glimpses of the giant peaks of the Rockies, the sheer grey summit of Mount Vaux towering above the road. We were soon driving alongside the meandering gravel flats as we approached Field, Mount Stephen looming over the valley and lit up by warm afternoon sunshine.
One final climb up to Wapta Pass, where we noted the turnoff to Lake O’Hara for our visit in a few days’ time, before cresting the pass and descending slightly to Lake Louise. We scanned the upper mountain slopes for signs of yellow but, unlike previous years, we saw nothing. No matter – any golden larches would be a bonus. Mount Temple looked stunning with evening light catching its gigantic summit glacier as we drove into the campground. We found our site – which was nowhere near as nice looking as on the park website – pulled in, and turned off the engine. That’s always such a nice moment when the engine stops for the last time of the day. The quiet descended on us, and we pushed back the seats in the car to relax for a moment before setting up the tent. It was just after 7:30 pm, 11 hours after leaving our apartment.
The air was cool, much cooler than in Vancouver or Revelstoke, which prompted us to change into our jeans and pull on a jacket. Then we just inhaled lungfuls of the forest air – it smelled so good! With our home for the night established, we returned to the car to enjoy our dinner to the sound of the nearby creek. After, we explored the campground to get our bearings and find the various amenities. After relaxing some more in the car, we eventually headed into the tent to settle down to sleep, watching the moonlight shadows change on the tent and hoping the trains wouldn’t keep us awake.