Any trip into the Canadian Rockies is going to be full of wild animals, rugged terrain, and surreal mountain beauty. Glaciers are still abundant here. There are places that if it were not for the nearly 90-year-old well-beaten pathways cutting through the terrain, they would feel extremely remote, as if no one else had ever stepped foot into them. The Skoki area of Banff National Park at times feels that way, especially when hiking the Skoki Loop via Packer Pass. Taking Packer Pass rather than the more commonly used Deception Pass is a gorgeous alternative although a slightly more challenging route than the wide and well-traveled Deception Pass. If you’ve come looking for a Skoki Loop Guide via Packer Pass you’ve found it.
Skoki Loop Guide Stats
Trailhead: Fish Creek Parking Lot (5,563’)
Type: Loop (Lollypop)
Rating: Difficult (Paker Pass has brief areas of Strenuous Terrain)
The Skoki Ski Lodge opened in 1931 and boasts being the first commercial ski lodge in Canada and perhaps North America according to their website skoki.com. This is an equally popular destination in summer or winter. Bring some cash to partake of tea time as the lodge.
Another less monumental but equally interesting piece of history can be found on the Skoki Trail at the Halfway Hut. Here the story is more sinister as it is supposedly haunted by the ghosts of four drunken skiers who died after taking refuge in the hut during a 1930s snowstorm. No camping is allowed at the hut but it does make a nice shelter during a cold summer rain.
Location of the Skoki Loop Trail
A journey on the Skoki Loop begins at the Fish Creek parking lot not far from the Lake Louise Ski Resort in the northern area of Banff National Park. While the path through the Skoki Valley eventually has extremely beautiful mountain vistas and a remote feeling, it definitely doesn’t start off that way. Google Maps will lead you to the Fish Creek parking lot at the end of a short dirt road that is maintained well. Keep in mind that cell service in this part of the Canadian Rockies is spotty and unreliable. The Lake Lousie area has service but the tower is often overloaded and unusable. Banff is the closest town we found with reliable cell service.
We recommend a 3 day and 2 nights journey in this Skoki Loop Guide as the minimum to get the most out of the trip. This gives you ample time to enjoy what the area has to offer with a side trip on the second day to Lake Merlin. You could take this journey in either direction but counter-clockwise will allow for a better hiking itinerary by spreading the elevation out more evenly between the days. We backpacked the Skoki Loop counter-clockwise ourselves which makes for a much harder first day.
Day 1: Fish Creek Trailhead to Baker Lake Campground (8.5 miles)
The first day is almost entirely ascent climbing from 5,563’ at the Fish Creek Trailhead to 7,735′ at Boulder Pass and then onward to the high point of 7,856′ above Ptarmigan Lake. The path then drops down to Baker Lake for the final mile and a half. Baker Lake is gorgeous but beware the porcupines that like to chew the salty sweat off your gear during the night.
Day 2: Baker Lake to Merlin Meadows Campground (5 miles + 4 miles)
Get an early start on the day to leave enough time for the hike to Lake Merlin. Backpacking 5 miles over Cotton Wood Pass (7,250′) and Jones Pass (7,370′) is very easy by Canadian Rockies standards. Cotton Wood Pass is so subtle that it is hard to know when you cross over it. After crossing Jones Pass you will descend to an intersection that you will take a slight right on towards the historic Skoki Lodge. The lodge is a great alternative for accommodation should you prefer it to your tent. The Merlin Meadows Campground is about half a mile to the northwest of the lodge.
Once you set up camp and have lunch, put together a day pack and head for Lake Merlin. The 2 mile climb up to the lake isn’t easy but it is our favorite lake in the Skoki area. The hike is made easier by the fact that you can do it without your backpack.
Day 3: Merlin Meadows to Fish Creek Trailhead via Packer Pass (10.5 miles)
On the final day, you will leave Merlin Meadows and return to the Skoki Lodge where you will find a small trail crossing over the creek and heading towards Lake Merlin. A short distance from the lodge you will come to a literal fork (we promise, literal) in the path where you will take a left to head over Packer Pass. Should you prefer Deception Pass stay straight on the trail passing back by Skoki Lodge. The trail will climb up and over the 8,119′ Packer Pass passing by two beautiful lakes collectively known as the Skoki Lakes. Read our trip report (day 1 as we did the trip clockwise) for details on what to expect.
On the other side of Packer Pass, the trail will descend back to the shores of Ptarmigan Lake where you will rejoin the main Skoki Loop and retrace your first day’s journey as the trial descends back to the Fish Creek Trailhead.
Alternative Day Hike:
If you are looking to pack more miles into your adventure, we suggest taking a day hike and summiting the loop’s namesake Skoki Mountain. The trailhead is found at the Skoki Lodge. The mountain is exposed with lots of scree but the skill level isn’t supposed to be overly difficult. The views from the top look amazing.
Camping Logistics for the Skoki Loop Trail
Backcountry camping in Banff National Park is only allowed in designated campgrounds and requires a permit. This is true of much of the Canadian Rockies. It is best to secure your permit when they typically become available for reservation in January (April 16th, 2021). Setup a login on Parks Canada ahead of time and be ready the moment (8:00 AM MST) they become available.
The Skoki Loop has ample streams and lakes from which to filter water. We suggest carrying enough for each day’s journey and then filtering at your campsite. Both Baker Lake and Merlin Meadows Creek have steady flows that make collecting water easy.
One of the great things about Banff National Park’s backcountry campsites is that they separate the camping areas from the cooking areas. This allows cooking odors to not permeate the camping area, which would attract creatures like bears and raccoons to the area where you sleep. The Skoki Loop campground cooking areas come equipped with several tables with very uncomfortable (usually lopsided) benches and a graywater pit. The pits are designed for dumping scented water into a catch basin below ground level. This includes brushing your teeth. We love having these in the backcountry and wish every park in North America would start implementing them.
All established Banff Backcountry Campsites come equipped with full-sized outhouses. This is luxurious privacy compared to some areas. You do need to carry your own toilet paper. The outhouses are wrapped in chicken wire to keep the local porcupines from chewing on them. (More on them in a moment.)
Bear Boxes/Hanging Poles
Another great feature of the established sites inside Banff National Park is that all of them have been supplied with either a backcountry Bear Box or a Hanging Pole. The hanging poles can be in bad shape with missing carabineers so bring a few along with your hanging food bag. Banff is replacing all the old hanging poles with modern bear boxes. Either way, it is nice to not need a heavy bear canister while in the park.
The Skoki Loop is high-altitude, mountainous terrain that can be backpacked (or cross country skied) nearly year-round. If you stick to the summer season (July to September) our three-season gear list has you covered. Beyond the summer season, you should make sure you have a winter tent and warmer clothing.
The porcupines at Baker Lake have been habituated to humans. Like the mountain goats of The Enchantments they seek out our salts. The porcupines will eat your gear to get to the salts deposited by your sweat while hiking. Make sure your gear is inside your tent, not the vestibule area but inside your zippered tent. You’ve been warned!
After the Skoki Loop
If you are looking to spend more time in Banff National Park then you’ll want to set up a front-country campsite reservation months in advance at either the Lake Louise Campground or the Tunnel Mountain Campground in the Banff township. Both are good options for camping with hot showers. Banff and Lake Louise are about 35-miles apart so make sure you take this into account. We’ve done an entire post on front-country camping in the Canadian Rockies so you know what to expect.
If you prefer a hotel room to a tent after a few days in the backcountry might we suggest going all out and staying at the gorgeous Fairmont Chateau on the shore of Lake Louise. If you are looking for a more budget-friendly option we suggest either the Lake Louise Inn or Banff’s Irwin’s Mountain Inn. Both are beautiful, clean hotels in very good locations for further exploration of Banff National Park.
Hot Showers and good food are always at the top of our list when we come off a backpacking trip. The Lake Louise Railway Station & Restaurant serves the best food in the town and it is located in a very cool setting. If you are headed towards Banff we highly recommend the Eddie Burger Bar. The Rocky Mountain Burger is the one Jennifer now compares all other burgers to. Order the sweet potato fries! You won’t regret it.
The Skoki Loop Guide
Regardless of whether you hike over Packer Pass or Deception Pass, you should definitely backpack the Skoki loop when visiting Banff National Park. The beautiful mountains are accented with five turquoise-colored lakes and the snow lingers on the peaks well into the summer. It is a magical place and one of our favorite backpacking trips in the Canadian Rockies. Hopefully, you find this Skoki Loop Guide helpful for planning your adventure.