If sweeping vistas and the majesty of nature are on your Banff travel bucket list, you don’t have to look any further than a brisk hike along the Iceline Trail in Canada’s Yoho National Park. Less than an hour away from Banff, visitors can find Yoho National Park nestled along the western slopes of the Canadian Rockies in eastern British Columbia.
With views of spectacular waterfalls and breathtaking sights from the overlook trains, it’s not hard to see why the Cree people called it yoho, a name meaning “wonder and awe.” You can experience your own wonder and awe as you take one of Yoho’s best hikes—the Iceline Trail.
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What Is the Iceline Trail?
The Iceline Trail is a moderate hike located in Canada’s Yoho National Park. The trail lies in the lands historically familiar to the Cree, Blackfoot, and Ktunaxa people. Now, the area is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. From start to finish, the Iceline Trail stretches and winds for 20km—just over 12 miles—and offers an exhilarating hike and breathtaking views.
Make the Loop
You have several different options when tackling this trail. You can, of course, hike the full loop in a single day. The average hiker can complete the hike somewhere between 5-8 hours. This means in the summer season hikers can start at a reasonable hour and still complete the trail before daylight dwindles.
Double Your Fun
Another option is to split the trek into two days, camping out overnight at the halfway point and completing the trail the following day. If you prefer something a little sturdier than a tent, another overnight option is the Stanley Mitchell Hut, a backcountry hiking hut named for one of the founding members of the Alpine Club of Canada.
The log hut sleeps twenty-two people with mattress pads provided. Do be sure to bring your own sleeping bag, though. Propane lighting and cooking is available. A wood-burning fireplace offers heating in the chillier winter months. Reservations are available exclusively or on a per night basis if you don’t mind sharing. Check the Alpine Club site for pricing. The hut is accessible from several different points with varying degrees of difficulty but do be prepared for ski access if snow is on the ground.
Explore the Trail—Front to Back
Some visitors opt to extend their visit even longer, choosing to camp at various locations along the trail over a course of several days. There are plenty of front and back country camping options, such as Little Yoho Campground, Laughing Falls Campground, the Stanley Mitchell Hut, and more. Any of these options afford incredible, up-close views of the glaciers, crystal blue alpine lakes, and stunning, snow-capped ridgelines.
Getting There: How to Find and Follow the Iceline Trail
There is no yellow brick road to the Emerald City along the Iceline Trail, but there is an Emerald Glacier, and it is a must-see stop along the Iceline Trail. The slow-moving glaciers deposit a fine, rock flour into Emerald Lake causing the refraction that gives the lake its dazzling color best viewed in July and August. But fans of snowshoeing and backcountry skiing will find the area just as beautiful in the winter months—a magical, fairytale snow globe.
No matter in which season you choose to visit Yoho National Park and the Iceline Trail, the easiest way to find the trailhead is to park at the Takakkaw Falls car park. Avoid parking along the road, though, as you run the risk of being towed.
If you’re tackling the hike in just one day, it is advisable to start the trail loop in a clockwise direction. This ensures you’ll have the necessary stamina to tackle the steep portions of the trail and make it to the glacier without the need for any flying monkeys. From there, you’ll follow the trail along to a gradual descent through forest.
While hiking poles can make portions of the rocky climb a little easier, a good, sturdy pair of hiking boots is really all that is necessary for hikes in summer and fall. Exercise prudent caution if you encounter inclement weather. The trail is uneven with steep drop-offs at certain points. Ice, wind, and rain can make the path quite treacherous.
Fall-ing for Yoho’s Natural Beauty
Yoho National Park and the Iceline Trail offer a plethora of beautiful photo ops. Perhaps some of the most stunning come from the various natural waterfalls scattered throughout the park. In fact, you can even start your hike with a fantastic view of the second tallest waterfall in Canada—Takakkaw Falls.
After you safely park your car, follow the river to the bridge toward the Whiskey Jack Hostel. The hostel is temporarily unavailable for bookings but, when in operation, it provides clean, spartan sleeping quarters that afford guests the unique opportunity to be lulled to sleep by the thundering roar of the falls. Meanwhile, look for the red Adirondack chairs positioned near the stone wall. Take a moment to sit a spell and be dazzled as the water tumbles over the craggy peaks. After you’ve been duly inspired, you’re ready to tackle the trail.
Just before you reach the hostel, watch for the trailhead sign directing you to the start of the Iceline Trail. Here you’ll follow a series of steep, wooded switchbacks. You might even be able to sneak the occasional peek of the falls between the trees. These brief vistas will also let you know how quickly you are gaining elevation. You’ll spy other trails that break away from the main path, but if you follow the clearly marked signage on your right, you’ll have no trouble navigating the Iceline Trail. Be prepared to get a little winded as this is the most challenging portion of the trek, but if you press forward for about sixty minutes or so, the trail breaks past the tree line and opens onto a rocky plain with some incredible mountain vistas.
Ice Is Nice!
As you continue your way along the Iceline Trail, it doesn’t take a Real Genius to realize Val Kilmer was spot on with his 1985 movie quote: “Ice is nice!” In fact, when you encounter some of the astounding sights along the trail, such the jaw-dropping Emerald Glacier, you’ll see ice can be pretty darn spectacular.
As the grade of climb becomes more gradual, you’ll only have a little over a mile over rocky terrain before you get up close and personal with the Emerald Glacier. This glacier is responsible for moving some of the sedimentary “rock flour” that causes the stunning colors is Yoho’s beautiful lakes. Follow along the glacier’s edge for another flat mile or so where you’ll be treated to gorgeous views of glacial lakes. There’s even a small peak that offers a fantastic photo op for just a few minutes climb.
It’s All Downhill from Here
Once you’re back on the trail, you’ll find the path gets markedly easier and takes you toward the Celeste Lake Trail. The Celeste Lake Trail is the second half of the full Iceline Trail loop. The junction here makes a great stopping point for hikers choosing to include an overnight on their journey as this is where the Stanley Mitchell Hut is located. If you plan on stopping, don’t forget to plan ahead, and make a reservation!
For those wanting to press on, the remaining path is pretty much all downhill through more wooded switchbacks. Don’t be discouraged by the limited views on this portion of the trail. If you’re patient, you’ll soon be rewarded with more views of sensational waterfalls—Laughing Falls.
A Photo Finish!
As you break past the switchbacks, you’ll come to a splashing waterfall framed by rocks and trees. This picturesque spot is great for you Insta reel and perfect for camping with provided outhouses. Be sure to pack toilet paper, though!
After leaving Laughing Falls, hikers have just under 2.5 miles to complete the loop. Follow the trail along the river, rounding off your trip through one last stretch of woods before breaking out onto the path leading back to Takakkaw Falls. Fortunate hikers can spy a rainbow as the setting sun catches the misty spray from the falls.
How hard is the Iceline Trail?
Overall, the Iceline Trail is a moderate hike. Hikers in reasonable physical condition can easily handle the trail. Once beyond the initial elevation gain of the switchbacks, the hike becomes more of an extended walk with flat, rocky expanses and gently graded downhill paths.
How long is the Iceline Trail?
For hikers opting to complete the full loop, the Iceline Trail is approximately 20km, or 12 miles. The full loop takes approximately 5-8 hours. You can make the hike shorter by choosing the out-and-back option. This option shaves approximately 6km off the trail. While this option is a great choice for hikers wanting to keep their visit to a simple day trip, be advised you’ll miss out on the stunning Laughing Falls.
How much does it cost to do the Iceline Trail?
While there is no permit fee required to hike the Iceline Trail, visitors do need to procure a National Park Pass. Individual day passes are available for $9.80 CAD, or group passes cost $19.60 CAD. Keep in mind, if you plan on visiting multiple parks throughout the year, consider an annual pass for only $136.40 CAD.
Can children and pets handle the Iceline Trail?
If visiting the Iceline Trail with younger family members, you may want to consider the out-and-back option. While the Iceline Trail hike is not considerably challenging, even the out-and-back option is lengthy, so keep in mind that children may tire out.
While four-legged family members are quite welcome if on a leash, there are multiple unshaded sections of the trail which may make it challenging for pets to stay cool.
What equipment is needed to do the Iceline Trail?
Of course, a good pair of hiking shoes is highly recommended when tackling the Iceline Trail. Hiking poles aren’t necessary but can make sections of the trail easier to traverse. Be sure to bring water—staying hydrated is critically important on any hike. And the trail can get chilly at times. Consider bringing a lightweight down jacket to keep warm if needed.
What time of year is best to hike the Iceline Trail?
It depends on the experience you are seeking. If you are an avid back country skier or a fan of snowshoeing, the winter months are an excellent time to visit the trail. Winter visitors should plan on overnighting at the Stanley Mitchell Hut. Be advised that some access roads and even parts of the trail can be snowed over, so be sure to check the Parks Canada website for seasonal closures. That being said, parts of the trail become a magical winter wonderland during the snowy seasons and make for a completely different experience.
For standard hiking, hikers should plan their visit between June and September. The sparkling beauty of the alpine lakes and thundering waterfalls are most enjoyed in the summer months.