Helen Lake and Cirque Peak: Terrifying Bear Encounter

Cirque Peak in Banff National Park offers some of the most diverse and spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. This challenging hike involved 16 kms (10 miles) of steady and steep climbing with a total of 1045 meters (3430 feet) elevation gain. We’ll never recall this hike without reliving our closest and most terrifying grizzly bear encounter to date.

Helen Lake reflecting lofty Cirque Peak. Just an hour before we reached the lake we encountered a mother grizzly bear less than 5 meters (16 feet) away after turning a blind corner. Thankfully her cub ran up the hill away from us so she didn’t attack. We learned a lot from the experience which you can read about in Keeping Safe While Taking Mountain Photos (coming soon).

Looking down the valley towards Helen Lake. After this point the trail really begins to climb. 

This is not where we were supposed to be. The trail is not well marked in the transition from Helen Lake to the slope leading up to Cirque Peak. At this point we realized our error after the trail we took became very narrow and sketchy.

A beautiful unnamed emerald lake in the rocky plain before Dolomite Pass. 

From this angle Cirque Peak is reminiscent of a lunar landscape. The quickly changing clouds created some fascinating light effects on the peak.

Hayley slogging up the slope on shifting shale. Photographs like these rarely capture the true severity of the slope but this trail was extremely steep and slow to climb. 

It doesn’t take much elevation before the views of Bow Lake really start to open up. From this height you can see water from Iceberg Lake flowing over Bow Glacier Falls and into Bow Lake. Above Iceberg Lake is Bow Glacier and the Wapta Icefield.    

The very distinctive mountain to the left is Dolomite Peak with long, skinny Katherine Lake nestled beside it. The beautiful emerald lake in the middle is unnamed with Helen Lake to the right.

This is how severe the trail looks as you are hiking. The grey rock at the top is the final obstacle we climbed to reach the peak.

When you reach the grey rocks, there is no flat transition area between them and the steep shale slope, requiring great care.

Neither Hayley nor I are rock climbers but we watched another hiker who was and followed his approach to reach the first summit. 

Hayley looking out on Dolomite Peak, Katherine Lake and Helen Lake from the first summit of Cirque Peak. 

Hayley looking out on beautiful Bow Lake, Iceberg Lake and Bow Glacier from the first summit of Cirque Peak. 

The highest point and true summit of Cirque Peak is just a short distance away. This isn’t a trail to be careless on as there is a severe drop beside the narrow trail as you dip into the hollow to get to the other side.

The view from the highest point of Cirque Peak. Peyto Lake is the sliver of teal colored water to the left and Isabella Lake is the barely discernible lake in the valley to the right.  

A different view from the highest point of Cirque Peak. Endless, dry, rocky mountains and equally endless clouds. 

Looking out towards Bow Lake, Iceberg Lake and Bow Glacier. A perfect ending to a wonderful day.

For additional information about this hike, contact the Lake Louise Visitor Centre.

Photo Credit: Hayley Mead and Jolene Rempel

This post is part of the Banff National Park series.

About Jolene

I’m an avid gardener whose mission is to bring more beauty into the world. I believe that with the right information anyone can create their own beautiful, small garden paradise. 

When I’m not gardening you can find me exploring the Canadian Rockies. Learn more…


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