Friend-venture Backpacking in Skoki Valley (the Redemption trip!)

When I reminisce on the four days that Victoria and I spent at the end of July in Skoki Valley, I still feel like I’m trying to remember a wonderful dream. So many times during our backpacking trip we looked at each other in awe and commented on how it was hard to really believe we were somewhere so breathtakingly beautiful that it didn’t even feel like real life. We had four sunny, blue sky days surrounded by glistening alpine lakes, a rainbow mosaic of wildflowers, and towering castle-like mountain peaks in every direction. At the end of this post, there is a link to a short video compliation I made of our trip – I love watching it whenever I need a little pick-me-up, it never fails to put a smile on my face 🙂

Amazing Wildflowers with Mounts Pika and Ptarmigan in the background

Two years ago, Victoria and I had planned and attempted a similar trip to Skoki Valley for our annual friend-venture on July long weekend (check out last year’s friend-venture blog posts here, here and here!). We had high hopes for scrambling numerous peaks in the area, and the first day did get up Ptarmigan Peak which was a lovely summit. However, on our second night we were pounded with heavy rain, and in the morning, woke up to a foot of snow! All our gear and clothing was soaked, we were cold and wet, and decided to pack it out early. So this year when we were planning our friend-venture trip, and saw that Skoki Valley would have perfect weather, we thought it would be an amazing opportunity to have a redemption trip to Skoki Valley.

This past summer, we had much better success with the weather! We had 4 days and 3 nights perfectly clear blue skies and hot summer sun. I don’t want to complain about it being too hot (especially when I was just complaining about snow!), but let’s just say, many cold lake dips and waterfall showers were a much needed refreshment!

Trip Summary and Quick Facts

Skoki Valley is a popular loop for backpackers, located in Banff National Park. The trailhead starts at the Fish Creek parking just below the Lake Louise ski resort. Victoria and I had planned this to be more of a “summits and scrambles” trip than a backpacking loop, so we picked our campsites based on the mountains we wanted to scramble.

Our Itinerary at a Glance: Day 1 we hiked into Hidden Lake and summited Mount Richardson. Day 2 we scrambled up Mount Redoubt and slept at Hidden Lake again. Day 3 we hiked from Hidden Lake to Merlin Meadows, scrambling up Fossil Mountain from Deception Pass, and hiked the Merlin Lake loop at sunset. Day 4 we packed up camp, summited Skoki Mountain and hiked back to our car!

Total Trip Distance: I am hazarding a guess of ~50-60 km over the course of the four days!

Mountains Scrambled: Mount Richardson, Redoubt Mountain, Fossil Mountain and Skoki Mountain

Important things to know: You need a national park pass (for your vehicle) and you also need to book your campgrounds in advance through Parks Canada Reservations.

There are bears in this area! So always be bear aware, bring bear spray, and always hang/store your food and toiletries at the designated bear hang or locker area at your campground.

Want to just do the Classic Backpacking Loop? Spend your first night at Hidden Lake, then make your way over Boulder Pass and Deception Pass to Merlin Meadows, then hike around Fossil Mountain through Cotton Pass to camp at Baker Lake for your final night before heading back to the Fish Creek Trailhead.

Day 1: Hidden Lake and Mount Richardson

Victoria greeted me excitedly the morning of our trip at my front door, vehicle packed up and ready to go, and after loading my gear and bike up, we drove to Lake Louise and parked at the trailhead at Fish Creek parking lot just below the ski resort. We decided to bike up the 4 km ski area road (a more difficult task than we thought it would be with our heavy packs and steep uphill sections!) and stashed our bicycles behind one of the ski lodges before continuing on the straightforward ~4km trail up Corral Creek to Hidden Lake campground. After setting up camp, we walked the 1 km trail from the campground to the lake itself, which is set in a stunning alpine bowl surrounded by Mount Richardson, Pika Peak and Ptarmigan Peak (which we had scrambled up on our previous trip). There was no one around, so we decided to take a quick and oh so very refreshing skinny dip in the lake – after all, it’s not a backpacking trip with Christina if there isn’t at least one naked lake swim ;)!

Feeling rejuvinated from our dip, and with still a few hours before sunset, we wanted to squeeze in a scramble up Mount Richardson before settling in for the night. We weren’t able to make it up this peak on our previous trip as the ridge was still snowbound. The scramble up from the lake was straightforward, we picked our way up the bowl of talus until reaching the long ridge, which we were able to follow all the way to the large, flat, still snow-covered summit. We peered over the east edge to see if we could find a way to connect our route to Pika peak as well, but that side of the ridge was still completley snowbound, and there is a glacier off the north side of the col, so after taking a few pictures, we scrambled back down the way we came and enjoyed a well-deserved dinner before falling fast asleep in our cozy tent.

Gorgeous evening light on the ridge returning back to camp

Mount Richardson Stats: 3,086m; the highest peak in the Skoki Valley area; 1,379m of elevation gain from the Fish Creek Trailhead; rated an “easy” scramble in the Kane book.

Day 2: Redoubt Mountain

We planned two nights at Hidden Lake so that we would have the opportunity to tackle Redoubt Mountain which was also on our to-do list. This was a much larger, more complicated summit to tackle compared to Mount Richardson. From the campground, there isn’t an obvious scramble route up – the large mountain looks like a giant Noah’s Ark! There appear to be several different routes up the mountain, but we mostly followed Bob Spirko’s description which ascends through the large west facing scree bowl. Route finding was tough – there were no visible trails or paths anywhere and we mostly bushwhacked and scrambled our way up! It was also a blistering hot day, and thankfully there were some small waterfalls in the cliffs of the scree bowl where we were able to splash our faces (and take a naked waterfall shower too haha).

The scramble from the scree bowl up the cliffs to the ridge looked more daunting than it actually was – lots of large blocky rocks made for fun hands on scrambling. But after we crested the top of the ridge, we were faced with a huge summit block that looked completley impassible! Fortunately we found a section around the front of the summit block where scrambling up didn’t look as terrifying, and soon were on top of the mountain! We were treated with stunning views across the valley of Hidden Lake and the peaks surrounding it, as well as the Lake Louise and the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Hot and exhausted, we had some snacks then lay down in some shade under the summit cairn and enjoyed a pleasant mountain top nap before heading back down to camp to relax for the evening.

Mount Redoubt Stats: 2,902 m; ~777 m of elevation gain from Hidden Lake; rated a “moderate” scramble in the Kane book.

Day 3: Deception Pass, Fossil Mountain and Merlin Lake

Today our plan was to move camp to Merlin Meadows, which is only an 8-9 km hike from Hidden Lake that goes over Boulder Pass and the utterly breathtaking Deception Pass. Wanting to get an early start on the day, we packed up and set off bright and early, and hung out on top of Deception Pass to cook up some delicious vanilla cinnamon rice pudding for breakfast. Enjoying a decadent breakfast with your best friend on a beautiful pass in the mountains is HIGHLY recommended and was easily one of the most memorable mornings of my summer!

Fossil Mountain sits right above deception pass, and is a easy and straightforward scramble up the west slopes to the summit. We left our heavy packs at the base of the slopes, and made our way up to the summit in less than an hour. Despite the easy ascent, the views from the top are some of the best in the entire valley! Also, as one would expect due to its name, Fossil Mountain is covered in fossils! Pick up any rock and likely you’ll find some fossilized coral or shell. At the top of the mountain there is a lovely memorandum in honor of two cousins who died in an avalanche on the slopes of the mountain in 1988. Victoria and I definitely cried a bit after reading it – the mountains are so full of beauty and wonder, but we need to be reminded to always respect that nature is so much more powerful than we are and there is always risk when one ventures out into in these great landscapes.

Fossil Mountain Stats: 2,946 m; ~ 670 m of elevation gain from Hidden Lake; rated an “easy” scramble in the Kane book.

We had one last stop before setting up camp at Merlin Meadows, and that was a visit to the historic Skoki Lodge, a beautiful log cabin that was opened in 1931 for the burgeoning ski tourism industry. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be one of those first tourists visiting this lodge and having to get to this remote site on a pair of old school wooden skis! It is definitely on my winter bucket list to visit this lodge and get in some backcountry skiing in the valley!

Although the inside of the lodge was closed due to COVID and they had no guests, the staff were still serving thru-hikers tea time, so we bought some Blue Buck beers and enjoyed a refreshing beverage on their patio before setting up our camp at the campground about 1 km further away.

Victoria and I were pretty beat, but knowing that this would be our last night in Skoki Valley, decided that we would have to take full advantage of our time here. After all, this was our redemption trip! One of the lodge workers recommended that we hike the Merlin Lake loop, a ~7km loop that was built by the legendary trail builder Lawrence Grassi. It is marked by some of his signature trail building styles including paths “paved” with naturally large flat rocks and trails cut into the side of steep mountain slopes.

We reached Merlin Lake around 8 PM, and make some pasta with tuna for dinner. We were just about ready to turn back when the sun began to set and we couldn’t help but sit and admire the sun cast a warm glow on the north slopes of Richardson and Pika above the lake. We made it back to our campground by the light of the full moon, and slept soundly until sunrise.

Day 4: Skoki Mountain and Homeward Bound

Although we were tempted to pack up camp and head straight home, completely wiped from our extremely long days behind us, there was still one last summit that we wanted to tackle. Skoki Mountain is a minor peak whose signed trailhead sits behind Skoki Lodge in the forest. After a short but steep grind, we broke through the trees to the scree slopes that we easily scrambled up to the summit in about an hour. Fortunately we left early enough in the morning that we got to ascend mostly in the shade, but by the time we reached the summit it was hot and sunny. We enjoyed the views and also blew the large conch shell stashed at the summit cairn which echoed through the valley below (one of the cooler things I’ve come across at a summit!).

Skoki Mountain Stats: 2,697 m; ~550 m of elevation gain from Merlin Meadows; rated an “easy” scramble in the Kane book.

We trekked back down to the lodge, and purchased an incredibly decadent bar that the staff had baked up that morning (condensed milk, chocolate chips, coconut, oatmeal, and other mystery deliciousness) which fueled us up for the hike all the way back to the Lake Louise Ski resort where had kept our bikes stashed. Once we got to our bikes, it was a super fast ride back to the car and we thanked our earlier selves for thinking ahead for giving our feet a break!

What an incredible adventure! We spent four blissful days in what I honestly think is one of the most breathtaking valleys in the world with hardly a cloud in the sky the entire time. I am so grateful that we decided to head back to this region despite our fairly miserable first attempt three years ago and will definitely plan to head back in the future (maybe with the hubby and baby in tow next time!).

Video Highlight Reel of our Friendventure!

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