Why a guided day hike?I know that most of you will never choose to day hike with a guided group, at least in your home country or current situation so I thought I would write about how I ended up doing this last summer and my evaluation of the overall experience. Some of you may recall my fall on the Skyline Trail, Mt. Rainier in 2009, which although the hiking was definitely the highlight of my Washington state experience; broken ankle and all, it scared the dickens out of my husband. So, not wanting me to hike alone on unfamiliar turf at higher altitude he insisted that I look into hiking with a guide when we ventured to Banff and Lake Louise.
Before leaving home, I researched the options available online and pre-selected the # 2 or smaller operator in size and offerings rather than the huge, one-size-fits all group which is so well known in the Banff area with its name plastered on every placard, bus and hotel brochure rack it seemed. But I actually waited until I arrived in the Banff area to walk-in to their main booking office to talk with someone about the tour I wanted. Since it was mid-September and my days within the week were flexible, not the height of the tourist season, this worked out fine. I would not advise this approach for booking in many situations though! And if my first choice had been fully booked, I could have discussed other possible hikes and booked one right there as well.
+++ Positives of Guided Day HikingSo, for a 6+ hour guided hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House what did I get for my $75?
Guided hiking tours like this in Banff have a central meeting place or will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel in the immediate area, provide a “huge” packed lunch of your choosing from a menu, water bottles, spare poncho, trained guide who also takes photos (no Splattski’s necessary!), entertains, jokes and teaches as you ask questions, prods gently and never moves the group ahead JUST as you catch up! He also probably drives your bus from the central location to the trailhead and learns your name, where you are from and judges if you are adequately dressed for the hike. He can point out and identify all the wildlife you might miss as you’re hiking. There’s a first aid kit and extra snacks, maps, guidebooks and planning already done. And about the lunch, I chose the prime rib sandwich which was humongous and it came with fruit, cookies, cheese and a juice box. We weren’t eating lunches this nice at our condo!
I learned about the “Deathtrap” and the Abbot Hut and geology of the area and when we heard the rumblings of avalanches we were reassured and thrilled as our guide pointed out a recent massive one! And let’s not forget, my husband wasn’t worrying about me while I was hiking this year! Another positive sign for me was the fact that this tour group had us complete an evaluation of the hike, guide and experience as a whole, on the ride back to the drop-off location. We could also comment online as well.
--- Negatives of Guided Day HikingAnd, what are the downsides for day hiking with a guided group besides the cost?
I’ve hiked with small and large groups for most of my life and anytime you put more than a couple people together on a trail for more than few minutes you can run into problems. Groups can start to stretch out, people get way behind, someone really can’t keep up or becomes frustrated because they really want to ‘run’ ahead and wait for the group and so on. Any leader or guide who can appease everyone and set a pace that works well for the group and gets everyone to the goal on time is successful!
Well for me, I knew that as someone who is not a typical hiker in the situation I was in (over 60, female and slightly out-of-shape), I was going to have to work to keep up with the group and I did. The make-up of my group ranged from about age 22 to 63 with mostly young females and 2 males. Our guide did a great job of waiting for everyone to catch up at each stopping point on the way up the trail to the Tea House and not just zooming on before I had a chance to catch my breath.
But a downside to this is that I was usually last and I hate to be last and I couldn’t really set my own pace! I also like to carry on a conversation with people as I hike, especially with interesting new ones such as the French, Swiss and English hikers in our group and it wasn’t really possible for me to do this except on the flat stretches and the descent.
Another negative for traveling like this is not being able to stop just anywhere I wanted, especially to take photos on the hike up. I really hated spending only one hour at the top and not venturing beyond the Tea House although some people said that the trail was closed from that point on. If I had been hiking on my own I would have spent at least one more hour after lunch at the top wandering around taking pictures.
As for route-finding, the trail to the Tea House is a no-brainer and not at a high enough altitude to cause me worry but I could see where if I hadn’t already spent 4 days in the Banff area and if I had any major health issues this could have been a problem. There were only a couple short, steep drop-offs but the uphill gradient is demanding and this trail did challenge me!
Trip Report – Hiking the Trail of Six Glaciers and to the Tea HouseThis hike had been on my ‘life list’ for many years and was worth every grinding step upward! In fact, I had a poster made of this shot showing me on the trail with Lake Louise and the hotel in the background and it sits on the wall in my office at work reminding me of this beautiful place every day. I was very lucky and got see mountain goats, pica, ground squirrels and an avalanche. And I was happy to be there, happy to be hiking! I totally agree with Bob Sihler who says on his Plain of Six Glacier’s Route page:
“This outing is also nice for those whose serious mountaineering days are behind them but who aren't quite ready to let go of that rarefied world of rock and ice, or for hikers who want to get into these spectacular mountains a bit but whose interests tend toward half-day trips and the safety of the trail.”
Yes, there were crowds in the parking lot but arriving and leaving on a bus helped with that. And once you walk past the end of the lake you do leave the crowds behind. Our guide quoted the stats but it’s something like less than 5% of all Lake Louise visitors step off the paved trail around the lake. My husband and I drove up to Lake Louise the prior Saturday just to walk around and found it crowded yet we still easily snagged a small table in the hotel deli and gazed out the large picture window watching tourists, a wedding, hikers and blooming flowers in the gardens. Do not pass up this most photographed lake area in the world (some say) just because it is popular and a bit hard to find parking. You will not regret your decision.