I was very excited for the next couple days of our trip because this part of our journey was part of a very, very belated birthday gift for Victoria. I gifted her a stay in an Alpine Hut a couple years back, but last year, our reservation at Abbot Hut was cancelled when the mountain was literally eroding underneath the building, making it a huge safety issue for anyone to stay in the hut until the foundation could be repaired (a project still in the works btw…). So, our stay at Bow Hut was our “make-up” for last year, and Victoria’s very first stay in an alpine hut!
For those of you from non-mountainous countries, alpine huts are THE BOMB. Seriously, I love an alpine hut. Is anything more charming than an unfussy, rustic cabin, miles away from civilization, perched precariously high on the side of a mountain with views through lush valleys and snowy peaks as far as the eye can see?
There have been shelters and refuges built in the mountains since the ancient Roman times, usually along trade routes. Modern hut systems as a base for mountaineers started in the late 1800s in Switzerland, and there are hundreds of backcountry huts throughout the Alps. North America has a younger and smaller system of huts, but they are special places. Canada’s backcountry huts are run by the Alpine Club of Canada, which was founded in 1906. Abbot Pass Hut was the first permanent hut built by the club in 1922, and its stone walls have housed some of the greatest mountaineering legends in history. Bow Hut on the other hand is one of the club’s “state-of-the-art” huts, as it was built much later in 1989.
Approach to Bow Hut
After a quick cup of coffee and some oatmeal at Lake Louise Campground, we packed up camp and drove North on highway 93 (the Icefields Parkway) to Bow Lake where we snagged a primo parking spot right beside the outhouses! Bow Lake is a pristine glacial fed lake that is an extremely popular spot for tourists and locals alike to stop off at while driving along the Icefields Parkway, and the lakeshore has tons of room to set up for a lovely picnic or launch off for a relaxing canoe or paddleboard.
The hike to the hut is clearly signed and starts near the lakeshore just behind Num-Ti-Jah Lodge (the giant red-roofed building) and follows the same trail to Bow Glacier Falls for the first few kms. After following the flat lakeshore trail around the right-hand side of Bow Lake, you reach a set of large wooden steps that take you above some impressive canyon walls. From here, the trail forks – you either continue straight to reach the waterfalls or take a left to the hut. The right-hand trail is inviting and straightforward, while to your left, there is a GIANT BOULDER IN YOUR WAY. Not only that, but the giant boulder is not on solid ground, but wedged snugly right in between the canyon walls, with rushing water a few dozen feet below empty space. Don’t worry though, the boulder is tucked in quite securely, and provides a necessary and stable bridge to cross the gorge. Smaller folks (ahem, children) may need a boost up, or help with moving their packs across the boulder first.
After crossing the boulder, the trail follows the creek through the valley, some through forest, other parts across some large boulder fields you must pick your way through, hopping from rock to rock. Finally, you reach a beautiful moraine basin under the shadow of Mount Columbia with several creeks and streams running through it. Across the basin, Bow Hut finally comes into sight above steep rocky slopes – it is almost camouflaged, as it’s beige walls are almost the exact same colour as the rock that provides the foundation.
The trail picks its way over several of the streams and the final grind up to the hut is ahead. There are faint trails throughout that zig zag up the slope and eventually lead to the front door of the hut. The entire hike is around 8km one way and 400m in elevation gain and took us just under 3 hours, though the Alpine Club’s official report states that the one way hike is between 3-5 hours long. Lots of people do this as just a day hike without staying at the hut, as it is a really beautiful trail! But to actually stay at the hut requires a reservation through the Alpine Club in advance.
Since we arrived at the hut mid-afternoon, it was completely empty and we got to check out the space all by ourselves! There were a few scattered showers during our hike, but by now, the sun was streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the sleeping area of the hut. It was the perfect spot to lay back, put our feet up, and relax before going out to explore outdoors.
Most of the objectives and summits from Bow Hut are mountaineering objectives, which means that they involve glacier travel. While I do have mountaineering experience including crevasse rescue, our plan for our stay at Bow Hut was to take it easy and we didn’t bring any of the necessary equipment required such as crampons, ice axe or a rope. However, there is a short and sweet scramble you can do directly from the hut to a small “summit” called “The Onion”, so that was our plan for the late afternoon.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what the total distance, elevation, or time to reach the summit of The Onion is from the hut, since we found our own trail up, and spent a lot of time exploring an ice cave and alpine tarns and waterfalls along the way. But if I had to hazard an educated guess (by looking at a topo map), it likely wouldn’t take much longer than an hour from the hut to reach the summit, and probably 2.5 km in distance and 350m of elevation.
We followed faint trails that lead you from the hut to the toe of Bow Glacier, which is an entryway onto the majestic Wapta Icefield. We stayed low because at the very base of the glacier, there is a large ice cave that we got to check out and explore. I was super excited that we stumbled upon this ice cave, because the last time I was at Bow Hut 4 years ago, I have NO CLUE there was an ice cave that you could actually walk into a little bit! The glacial ice is shockingly blue (which is hard to capture via iphone camera haha) – this short detour is well worth the stop!
From here, we simply chose the path of least resistance through the glacial-scoured rocks that hug the right-hand side of the glacier that leads up to the summit plateau. The summit is really broad and flat, and so it kind of snuck up on us when suddenly we saw a giant summit cairn marking that we had reached our destination.
The views from the top of the Onion are breathtaking! To the east, you can see Bow Lake and across the highway 93 and see other popular peaks like Cirque Peak (which Victoria and I scrambled up together on our first camping trip together!). To the west is the expansive and seemingly endless Wapta Icefield. Every peak is covered with pristine white snow, all connected by a continuous glacier. I spotted a couple of the peaks that I had done last time I was at Bow Hut on a mountaineering course, including Mount Olive and Rhondda.
We soaked in the views for quite some time, ate a snack, did some handstands, and finally headed back to our hut for a relaxing evening to cook dinner, drink hot chocolate, and watch the sun drop behind the toe of the glacier.
The next morning, we slept in, packed up our things, and enjoyed our morning coffee out on the patio attached to Bow Hut. It was a beautiful day, and the rain and clouds that had lingered over past couple days had completely cleared away.
We followed pretty much the same route back for the hike out, expect we decided to take a short detour to visit Bow Glacier Falls. We didn’t want to walk all the way back to the junction where the big boulder was, so instead, found a spot where we could cut across the creek once the falls were in view. Our socks and boots were stripped off and we waded through calf-deep icy water toward the falls, and from there, it was just several hundred meters to reach the base of the cascading waterfall. Since it was such a warm summer day (finally), Victoria and I decided to wash our faces and rinse our hair in the waterfall which was incredibly refreshing after a couple days of sweaty hiking!
Feeling rejuvenated, we followed the Bow Glacier Falls trail back to Bow Lake and our vehicle, and ate an amazing tailgate lunch of guacamole and chips, cut veggies, and cookies in the parking lot. Bellies full, it was time to set off for the next adventure in David Thompson County!