Backpacking the Skoki Loop Trail – Day 2

Having returned to our campsite from our morning day hike to Lake Merlin we went about preparing lunch and tolerating yet another meal in the mosquito-laden bog with bug nets on. You have to take the good with the bad when backpacking the Skoki Loop Trail but it is tough to eat when so many things are trying to eat you. After our eat-and-be-eaten lunch, we packed up the site and hit the trail under mostly clear skies to continue our journey on the Skoki Loop. We were heading out in the early afternoon, which is not a great time to be backpacking over mountain passes. The weather forecast when we had left had called for overcast skies with no chance of rain… they were wrong.

Lake Merlin with Mount Richardson
Lake Merlin is a gorgeous spot that should not be missed when backpacking the Skoki Loop.

The Journey Thus Far

This is a continuation of our journey on the Skoki Loop Trail. If you missed out on the first day get caught up here before continuing.

Stats for Day 2 of Backpacking the Skoki Loop

Baker Lake Waterfall and Brachiopod Mountain
Brachiopod Mountain rising over the Baker Lake Waterfall.
  • Starting Point: Merlin Meadows Campground (6,860′)
  • Destination: Baker Lake Campground (7,340′)
  • Distance: 5 miles
  • Rating: Moderately Difficult
  • Trail Elevations:
    • Skoki Lodge: 7,100′
    • Jones Pass Elevation: 7,370′
    • Cotton Grass Pass: 7,250′
Backpacking the Skoki Loop Trail - Day 2 Elevation Profile
Our elevation profile for the second day of backpacking the Skoki Loop Trail.

Backpacking the Skoki Loop

We first took the path back south to the Skoki Lodge. Then we continued past the lodge on the main trail towards Deception Pass. This is the path most people arrive by in the Skoki area, but since we came over Packer Pass this was new terrain for us.

Jones Pass

Jones Pass
A small shallow tarn reflects the Wall of Jericho near Jones Pass.

Before long we came to a well-signed junction with a path that ventured left, away from the main trail headed towards Deception Pass. We took the left which leads over Jones Pass and is listed on the sign as the Baker Lake Cutoff. The trail was extremely muddy. Also steep, but not overly so. As mountain passes go this one is fairly easy topping out at about 7,370’ which is only a few hundred feet higher than the lodge. The trail is covered in trees and never has sweeping alpine vistas like most mountain passes. There is a small, shallow tarn near the top of the pass which is the only real indicator of having reached the pinnacle.

Red Deer Lake Junction

The trail quickly descends 100’ from Jones Pass into another saturated meadow. This meadow is located about 1.5-miles from the Merlin Meadows campground and this is also where the first junction to Red Deer Lakes is found. This is another side journey and the location of one of Banff’s backcountry campsites. Most backpackers do not recommend the area unless Merlin Meadows or Baker Lake are booked out. We took the right turn and continued towards Baker Lake.

Surprise Storm

Skoki Storm
A storm cloud rolls over the mountains on the Skoki Trail in Banff National Park.

It was in this small and nearly treeless meadow that we got our first good glimpse of the dark storm clouds that had gathered overhead. We saw a flash of lightning followed by the thunderclap about two seconds later. We both rushed towards the tree-line without a word. Arriving at the first cluster of trees we threw off our bags and pulled out our rain gear. It was too late through as the rain, and hail, pelted us profusely. We were both nearly soaked through by the time our bags were covered and rain jackets were on. A nice summer day had turned frigid and the rest of this journey was going to be a cold one. Storms roll in fast in the Rocky Mountains.

Ptarmigan Encounter

We waited in the dense trees until the storm passed. It was still raining when we once again saddled our heavy packs and set back out on the trail, but at least the lighting and thunder had passed. Almost immediately we were greeted by a Ptarmigan. It was more interested in eating a caterpillar that was on the path than any perceived danger we posed. This was a nice encounter as we now stood shivering on the trail. 

The Backside of Fossil Mountain

Cotton Grass Pass
Looking down into the valley leading towards Cotton Grass Pass.

We pushed on to the top of the trail along the backside of Fossil Mountain. Its odd that this trail is known as the Skoki Loop as it actually encircles Fossil Mountain. The lodge is in Skoki Valley and is the historical draw to the trail which is most likely the reason for the name. The trail tops out at about 7,340’ in a new growth forest with good views of Oyster peak and the valley below. We started our descent into the valley as the rain drizzled from the dark sky.

The Second Red Deer Lake Junction

We arrived at the floor of the valley between Oyster Peak and Fossil Mountain. There is a creek running through the valley on its way towards the Red Deer Lakes. It is here, at just over 3 miles from Merlin Meadows Campsite, that we came across the second intersection leading back towards the Red Deer Lakes.

Cotton Grass Pass

Backpacking the Skoki Loop
Jennifer looks across the Banff National Park wilderness near Cotton Grass Pass.

The next mile was a jaunt through the valley. While the rain had subsided the path was now saturated and extremely muddy. Its a mostly flat traverse with only a slight incline towards Cotton Grass Pass. Even in the less than ideal conditions this nearly treeless traverse had some very beautiful mountain vistas. The mountain walls rise up on either side of the long valley with snow-capped peaks towering in the distance on either end. The valley has a subtle arc as it crosses over Cotton Gras Pass (7,250’) and the flow of the water shifts in the opposite direction. The pass is located about 4 miles on the trail from Merlin Meadows.

Final push to Baker

At 4.5-miles the trail turns slightly towards the west and we started up a small hillside. We once again entered into a dense mosquito-infested forest. The climb up through the trees is a moderate one but when soaking wet it can be a slog. We topped the ridge and saw the small sign indicating the campground, located on the other side of a small ridge rising to the left of the path. 

Baker Lake Campground

The Baker Lake Campground feels crowded as all the tent pads are laid out relatively close together in a small opening in the trees. There is no privacy here. The eating area is in an adjacent open area, complete with four or five tables and the drop pit toilet. The hanging poles for the food bags are a further walk down the hill towards another clearing near the lake. The mosquitos permeate the entire area and I found that there were actually fewer the closer to the lake I ventured.

Baker Lake

Baker Lake Waterfall Overlook
Overlooking the valley below Baker Lake from atop the lake’s second waterfall.

Baker Lake is a magical place. This is an amazing spot to camp even without any privacy. The mountains rise on either side of the lake with a hill on the western edge and a small waterfall on the eastern. Most visitors don’t seem to adventure out far enough from the lake to even discover the 12’ waterfall much less the larger one below. The first waterfall is gorgeous and I was able to walk right up to it. The second waterfall is harder to catch a good glimpse of. The creek careens over a ledge and I was able to stand on top of the 100’ drop. There is a short trail beyond the top of the waterfall but it only reveals broken glimpses of the larger waterfall.

Rocky Mountain Weather

Baker Lake Skoki Loop
The beauty of Baker Lake is one of the highlights of the Skoki Loop and one of the best backcountry campgrounds in Canada.

After setting up camp, we cooked dinner and shivered while we ate as the rain had returned. We were about to climb into the tent and escape the cold when blue skies started to appear on the horizon. Fifteen minutes later we were basking in the warmth of the sun with very few clouds remaining in the sky. So, I explored the area more as the sun started to set. The weather really can change in an instant in the Canadian Rockies.

Camping at Baker Lake

Backpacking the Skoki Loop Trail - Day 2
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While the beauty of the Baker Lake sunset was a dream, the night was more akin to a nightmare. We crashed into the tent as the glow from the sun faded and the tent became dark. We both fell asleep quickly after a long day of hiking. Unfortunately, this peace wouldn’t last.

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