Vermilion Lakes, located immediately west of Banff, are three stunning lakes surrounded by the beauty of the Canadian Rockies. Many refer to the lakes as a ‘nature lover’s paradise’ and it is easy to see why.
The three lakes are in the Bow River Valley and below Mount Norquay. The area around the lakes are considered wetlands and spanning 440 hectares (1087 acres). The still and calm waters of the lakes reflect the iconic Mount Rundle on their surface. The lakes lie just 2.4 kilometres (1.5 miles) from Banff town (between the Trans-Canada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railway) making them incredibly easy to visit.
History of Vermilion Lakes
For more than 10,800 years, humans have lived around or visited Vermilion Lakes. Daryl Fedje, a Parks Canada archeologist, excavated the area. Remains of ancient campsites and obsidian tools were found close to the lakes. Discovered in the area are some of Canada’s earliest known human remains. When the Pacific Railroad expanded into the Banff region more people moved to the area for work.
10 Reasons to Visit Vermilion Lakes
Some of the best sunsets in the Canadian Rockies
For incredible sunrises, or indeed sunsets, head to the shores of Vermilion Lakes. Locals often pack picnics or snacks, blankets and warm clothing and make the most of the sight above them in the skies. The lakes do have several small docks stretching out into the water. Those who get a space on the docks have some of the best views of mountains and trees as the sun rises or sets.
When the wind is low and the waters are still on an evening, the surface of the lakes become a mirror, reflecting Mount Rundle. At sunset this sight is even more spectacular as the water becomes bathed in a warm orange glow.
Inspiring natural beauty
A network of marshland surrounds Vermilion Lakes. The marshland channels lead up to the clear and still waters of the lake. From the shores of the lakes the views of Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain are spectacular. Every season brings a change to the surroundings, from crisp autumn leaves and snow capped peaks to blooming wildflowers and warm breezes. In winter a unique natural phenomena occurs in the water. Frozen methane bubbles form in the water when microbes consume dead organic matter from the silt at the bottom of the lake. These frozen bubbles create a unique and beautiful bubble pattern on the frozen waters.
Get out on the water
As with many lakes in the Canadian Rockies, getting out on the water is a must when exploring Vermilion Lakes. The Banff Canoe Club rents equipment such as canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards to those wanting to explore the waters. The rental docks are open to the pubic and are municipal recreation facilities.
If you hire your equipment in Banff it is possible to paddle down Echo Creek and Forty Mile Creek directly to Vermilion Lakes. The waterways here are slow making them perfect for an explore. The best way to explore the marshlands is by canoe or kayak. This series of channels connects the three lakes together, and out into the wider Bow River creating plenty of spaces to explore. Reeds and trees back the channels close to the edge of the water, creating a natural calming effect on the water.
When visiting Vermilion Lakes during the winter months the lakes freeze over. Make the most of the frozen surface and ice skate, or even play curling or ice hockey.
Hike the trails
There are two trails around Vermilion Lakes that are both short, accessible and easy. The most popular hikes around Vermilion Lakes is the Fenland Trail. This leisurely hike takes 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) through the marshlands close to the lakes. The trail is accessible and is on boardwalks and gravel making it suitable for all levels of hikers. The trail runs through the white spruce forest and the marshlands. An additional trail connects the Fenland Trail to Vermilion Lakes Drive. This trail opens up one of many docks on the lakes creating a perfect place for a rest and a picnic with an awe-inspiring view.
The Fenland Trail connects to the Bow River Trail opening up a longer hike that goes back into Banff along easy and accessible ground.
Echo Creek Heritage Trail is a longer hike around the lakes. This 3.5 kilometre (2.16 mile) trail takes around 1 hour to complete. The trial is at an elevation of 137m (449ft). Like Fenland Trail, Echo Creek Heritage Trail has boardwalks and gravel paths making it accessible for all.
Aim to get to the Vermilion Lakes during the golden hours for perfect photographic lighting of this spectacular natural area. Between the hours of 6am and 9am, or 6pm and 9pm, the lighting over the lake is ideal for some truly fantastic photographs. If you are heading out to make the most of this perfect timeframe, you may run into several photographers capitalizing on the warm orange glow that bathes the mountains.
As the waters are so clear and still, the mountains, forests and clouds reflect on to the surface creating spectacular images every time.
The first lake offers photographers the best views over the mountains, creating some of the most inspiring photographs from its dock.
Vermilion Lakes is one of the first areas with Banff National Park to start to transition from winter to spring, with green shoots and leaves, and small delicate wildflowers blooming. Expect to see many nature photographers exploring the area at the beginning of May as they make the most of this seasonal change.
Witness the Northern Lights
During the winter months the Northern Lights are visible in the skies above Vermilion Lakes. September to April are the best times to see the lights. The days are shorter and the skies are darker. Even if you are unable to see the Northern Lights, the stars and even the milky way can be seen here. Pack a good camera to capture the memory or simply wrap up warm and enjoy the spectacle.
Take a Dip in a Hot Spring
The third lake of the Vermilion Lakes has a hot spring. The warm waters are the perfect way to relax and ease your muscles following a hike. Whilst the waters in the hot spring are relaxing, the waters of the lakes themselves are often freezing so swimming is not advised.
Snowshoeing is the perfect Canadian winter activity to try when visiting Vermilion Lakes during winter. Snowshoeing allows you to walk over thick snow during the coldest times of the year with relative ease. The Fenland Trail and Echo Creek Heritage Trail are accessible when wearing snowshoes.
Learn about the local area
The trails around Vermilion Lakes have interpretive panels which inform visitors about the natural wonders in the area. The panels include facts about the geology, wetland ecology, human presence and local wildlife of the area. A self-guided tour around the lakes is available through the panels.
Explore even during poor weather
Even when the weather is terrible, or you are simply journeying from one part of Banff National Park to another, Vermilion Lakes will take your breath away. The highway runs close to the lakes, and they are clearly visible from the roads. There are plenty of spaces to pull over in for photographs, or to simply take in the views.
The marshlands surrounding the lakes provide habitats for a wide range of animals and birds. The lakes tend to be quiet and do not get as busy as other lakes, making it the ideal spot to observe some of Canada’s most incredible animals in their natural environment. The most commonly sighted animals in Vermilion Lakes are elk and mule deer. Elusive bears and moose also roam the area. There have been reports of wolf sightings in the area too, but again this is rare.
Birds on the other hand are seen more frequently than any other form of wildlife. Eagles, osprey, loons and buffleheads often fly over the waters or heading into the trees to nest. There are also some rarer species that are not seen anywhere else in the National Park.
Smaller animals such as muskrats and beavers are often seen. Beavers are frequently found in the wetlands making their dams.
How to get there
From Banff town or the Trans-Canada Highway, head along Mount Norquay Road, and onto Vermilion Lakes Road. From here the road winds along the edges of the three lakes. As Vermilion Lakes are so close to the town of Banff, accessing them by foot or by cycling is a great way to see more of the area. Rent a bike in the town if you have not brought your own. There are numerous trails leading to Vermilion Lakes for hiking.
FAQ’s about Vermilion Lakes
Do I need a Parks Pass to visit Vermilion Lakes?
Vermilion Lakes is in Banff National Park. A Parks Pass is required to visit anywhere within the National Park. They can be purchased online or at many local outlets for $10.50 per day per person. Year passes are also available which offer access to all Parks Canada destinations. These longer passes cost $145.25 for a family pass.
What facilities are at Vermilion Lakes?
There are no facilities at Vermilion Lakes so packing snacks and plenty to drink is a must. Vermilion Lakes have no restroom facilities, however Banff is only a short drive away.
There are plenty off benches and picnic tables.
Is there parking at Vermilion Lakes?
Parking is limited at Vermilion Lakes. Many visitors who are simply stopping for a few photographs pull up along the main road. This is limited during the summer months when visitors to the National Park increase. There is a carpark at Fenland Trailhead, which connects directly to Vermilion Lakes if you are planning to spend more than a few minutes there.
When is the best time to visit Vermilion Lakes?
Vermilion Lakes are open year round with no restrictions. During the winter the roads are still widely accessible. Each month brings something new and exciting to the lakes.
From June to September the waters are clear and temperatures are warmer. This is also the ideal time to photograph the mountains reflected in the lakes, or to watch the sunrise or sunset.
If you are visit in winter the lake is the perfect place for some winter sports like ice hockey, ice skating or curling. Frozen bubbles area also visible on the surface of the ice which create unusual photographs. When the snowfall comes the forests surrounding Vermilion Lakes become even more manageable, and the photographic opportunities continue.
Can I fish in Vermilion Lakes?
You can fish at Vermilion Lakes, however a National Park Permit for fishing is necessary. Buy these online before you travel or from a sporting goods store in Banff. The visitor centre also sells permits. This permit is in addition to the National Park Pass. If fishing with family under 16, they do not need a permit but do need to be accompanied by someone with a National Park Pass.
Return all caught fish back to the lake they were caught in. Natural bait is not allowed within the Banff National Park.
Vermilion Lakes may not have the enchanting turquoise waters of other lakes in Banff, however they should not be missed during your trip. The lakes offer peace and quiet that others in the area cannot, combined with spectacular surroundings. The natural beauty of the area is reflective of the Alps and is the perfect place to seek quiet and relaxation. As the Vermilion Lakes are so close to the town of Banff, they are easily accessible making them the ideal location to explore in an afternoon. For a romantic evening away from the town, take a gentle 20 minute stroll to the lakes to watch the sun set. There are plenty of sporting activities to do on the waters too; canoeing, kayaking and paddle boarding are all popular at Vermilion Lakes.