The night before our journey, Jennifer and I stayed at the Lake Louise campground. This way we could arrive at the Fish Creek parking lot early the next morning to start our backpacking journey of the Skoki Loop via Packer Pass. The first day is our longest and most challenging day with 10.5 miles ahead of us. We would also undertake the most elevation gain in one day, climbing over the 8,119′ Packer Pass. This journey on the Skoki Loop would cross over four passes in three days, but none would be as difficult or as beautiful as Packer Pass.
Which Way Should I Go?
Most backpackers who travel the Skoki Loop go over the slightly easier Deception Pass. But, if you are looking to make the Skoki Loop even better, we suggest hiking the Skoki Loop via Packer Pass. It’s more challenging but it isn’t overly difficult and the Skoki Lakes are worth the extra effort. We hiked the loop clockwise. However, to balance the distance and elevation gain better, we recommend a counter-clockwise route to those looking to backpack the Skoki Loop via Packer Pass or Deception. We hope you find this Skoki Loop guide full of helpful tips for planning your own journey.
Stats for Day 1 on the Skoki Loop via Packer Pass
Trailhead: Fish Creek Trailhead (5,563′)
Destination: Merlin Meadows Campground (6,898′)
Rating: Difficult (Some brief strenuous sections)
Distance: 10.5 miles
Boulder Pass: 7,735′
Packer Pass Elevation: 8,119’
Skoki Lodge: 7,100′
Hiking the Road Towards Skoki Loop
Once in the small dirt parking lot, we stretched, collected our packs, and headed up the trail. The road behind the gate is the path for the first 2.3 miles. While the road doesn’t any visitors traveling it, as we started out at 8:00 AM there were plenty of Lake Louise Ski workers in trucks and vans zooming past. The road is steep, lined with thick pine, and the views are behind you when looking back down the road towards Lake Louise. Lake Louise area’s iconic, glaciated mountains can be seen across the valley.
Corral Creek Crossing
At 1.5 miles in, the road crosses over Corral Creek via a wooden bridge. This is the first glimpse of the water rushing down from the Hidden Lake high above. Corral Creek is a tributary of the Bow River which runs alongside the Trans-Canada Highway 1 through much of Banff National Park.
Lake Louise Ski Resort
After 2.3 miles and over 1,000’ of elevation gain the dirt road passes over several ski runs and under the remote Lake Louise ski lifts. This dirt road is used as a “green” winter run for the ski resort. At this time, the road becomes rougher and follows a ski run up a hill to the east. Finally, the trail departs from the road and heads to the left (northeast). A sign indicates the junction but the trail was easy to spot.
Onward and Upward
For the next 1.5 miles the path climbs through the trees and slowly distances itself from the ski runs. The beauty of the terrain increases with small glimpses of the mountain peaks through the trees.
Corral Creek Part 2
Four miles underfoot, the tree cover thins and the path crosses over Corral Creek again. The flow isn’t nearly as large, but the view is substantially better. The views of the landscape with the small bridge are the best so far. A glimpse of the beauty to come on the Skoki Trail via Packer Pass. This is also where we got our first good view of two of the highest peaks in the Skoki region—10,016’ Pika Peak and 10,125’ Mount Richardson—our constant companions for the next 24-hours. Both mountains rise to the north of the path and in this moment were almost straight across the bridge.
Halfway Hut on the Skoki Trail
At 4.5 miles in and at 7,151’ in elevation, we arrived at the supposedly haunted Halfway Hut. This hut, aptly named, marks the halfway point to the Skoki Lodge. The story goes that four cross country skiers, heavy laden with backpacks and filled with rum, died here in a snowstorm in the 1930s. The drunken skiers’ ghosts take shelter nightly in the Halfway Hut. We poked our heads into the small shelter but found no ghosts and decided to move on. There’s an outhouse located adjacent to the hut for those who need it. Just make sure you bring your own toilet paper. This area is also the intersection for the Hidden Lake trail for those who have the energy or time to make the extra mile-long ascent.
Jennifer and I continue up the path towards Ptarmigan Lake. The first mile starts with a brief and moderate incline, but quickly turns into a steep slog. Skirting a large boulder field we then cross over the aptly named Boulder Pass at 7,735’. With the water draining to the east, this pass only sits about 12’ higher than Ptarmigan Lake making it a nearly unnoticeable pass. The higher Packer Pass (8,119’) and Deception Pass (8,050′) can both be seen to the north (left) from the shore of Ptarmigan Lake.
Finally, we arrive at Ptarmigan Lake (7,723’), one of the high alpine lakes to discover while hiking the Skoki Loop via Paker Pass. This beautiful lake is well worth the effort put in thus far. Birds frequent Ptarmigan Lake. Although we didn’t spot the lake’s namesake, we did hear a few calls that sounded like they were Ptarmigans nearby. Their camouflage must have been working well. Even in early July, wildflowers are abundant. We also heard an elk bugle in the distance while we were enjoying a brief snack.
Moving along, we continue along the path skirting the west and north end of the lake. About a third of the way down the lake the trail once again starts a moderate ascent.
Locating Packer Pass Trail
At 6.2 miles on the trail and at an elevation of 7,827’ we find the “path” to the lesser-traveled Packer Pass. The trail can be hard to spot as it pales in comparison to the much wider and well-established trail over Deception Pass. We use the Maps.me app, one of our favorite outdoor apps, for navigation and while it’s normally accurate, it had the trail junction about 15’ past where we located it. It was trying to lead us up a creek which later in the year might have been a dry path. There are no signs indicating Packer Pass anywhere along the trail. In fact, most park rangers seem to be oblivious to its existence. I asked several rangers and very few knew where it was located. None of them could tell us the conditions of the trail.
How Packer Pass Got Its Name
Supplies are now transported to Skoki Lodge via pack horses and mules, but in the early days humans transported 70Lbs packs back to the remote lodge. The main trail was still Deception Pass, however, some of the “packers” preferred this other route, slightly to the west, that would soon become known as “Packer Pass.” Thus, this less-traveled scenic route was born.
Packer Pass Trail Conditions
Having tentatively located the path Jennifer and I began the steep ascent up to the top of the 8,119’ Packer Pass. The trail condition varies from a narrow, well-worn dirt trench to a rocky creek bed. The entire way up we could see the path ahead and assumed that we were going in the right direction. With no signs and no fellow travelers, we had to wait until we reached the top to see if our intuition was correct.
Snow on Packer Pass Trail
As luck would have it, we reached the saddle and found a fellow set of travelers hiking in the opposite direction. They confirmed our direction and said that this was indeed Packer Pass and that this path would eventually lead us to the Skoki Lodge. Along with the intrepid travelers, we also found a huge patch of snow still covering the trail. This is to be expected on high elevation routes in the Canadian Rockies until late-July. The other hikers said there was more snow ahead but assured us it was well-packed and easy to cross. We had left our micro-spikes in the truck so this was welcoming news.
Packer Pass Scenic View
The view is beautiful from the top of the pass towards the small, green alpine lake known as Zigadenus (7,480’). But always turn around. The view looking back over the terrain behind us was even more stunning. The full length of Ptarmigan Lake was visible with numerous snow-spotted peaks stretching out across the horizon. This is one of the best views in Banff National Park and can only be seen by hiking the Skoki Loop via Paker Pass. Add to the beauty of this place the realization that, after 6.6 miles and 2,556’ of elevation gain, we had reached the highest point on the loop. This was a spot to relish.
Descent to Zigadenus
The nearly 640’ descent down to Zigadenus Lake was steep and still mostly covered in snow in early-July. If you do not have a good GPS or GPS app, it could be easy to lose the trail under the snowpack. We made quick work of it and found a nice spot on the granite slab protruding from the lake’s eastern shore to have lunch.
Zigadenus Lake on the Skoki Loop via Packer Pass
Looking across Zigadenus Lake is an epic landscape. A whisper of a waterfall was plunging several hundred feet from the rugged cliffs of Ptarmigan Peak. Another larger waterfall cascaded down in a torrent from the snow-covered terrain in the saddle between Pika Peak and the Wall of Jericho to the north. This is one of the best landscapes we found on our first day hiking the Skoki Loop via Packer Pass. A perfect spot to stop for lunch.
After lunch, I explored the rest of the eastern shoreline to find the waterfall careening from Zigadenus towards the Myosotis. There are several very nice areas to overlook Myosotis Lake (good luck pronouncing that one). These two lakes are adjacent to one another and are often collectively referred to as the Skoki Lakes.
Myosotis Lake (7,448’) sits less than 35’ below Zigadenus and a granite ledge separates the two. Getting down this ledge is a scramble through loose, rocky terrain. Once down the ledge, the path ahead is shrouded by a boulder field along the eastern edge of the lake. We followed the well-placed cairns to determine the path ahead. The best views to be found at Myosotis are on the northern end of the lake looking back towards Pika Peak. Of the two gorgeous Skoki Lakes, Zigadenus is easily the winner.
The Boulder Crevice
Arriving at the northern end of Myosotis Lake, for a brief moment we thought we had lost the trail. We stood on the edge of a rugged cliff with a 75’ straight drop below. The cairns had led us here but the path ahead was uncertain. I looked at our Maps.me app and realized the path took a sharp left. It descended through a crevice in the cliff face and passed underneath a boulder that was wedged into that crevice. Images of the movie 127 Hours flashed through my mind as we tentatively lowered our bodies into the crevice and slid underneath the boulder.
On the other side of the boulder, we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the waterfall crashing down from the bouldery cliffside. Serval marmots chirped out, alarming others to our presence in their village. A Water Ouzel darted about the top of the waterfall looking for a meal in the torrent. It was truly a natural scene.
Descent Into the Skoki Forest
Leaving the waterfall behind we enter a valley with low tree cover that soon crosses over the creek and passes through another boulder field. Only cairns show us the way forward. On the other side of the boulder field, the path enters into dense shrubbery before turning into a dense forest. This entire section is a moderate descent and screams, “bears live here.” We made sure to make plenty of noise as it would be easy to surprise one in the dense undergrowth.
A Fork in the Path
If you’re still with us, we’re still on Day 1. At 9.7-miles on the Skoki Loop via Paker Pass trail and at an elevation of 7,136’, we come to a literal fork in the path. There is a 6’ tall fork carved out of a tree. It is as weird and unique as it sounds to see in the backcountry of the Skoki Valley. To the left is a trail that leads to Lake Merlin which is an amazing side trip best saved for the second day on the Skoki Loop. For now, we continue to the right and head for Skoki Lodge, a short quarter of a mile down the trail.
At nearly 10 miles on the Skoki Loop via Packer Pass trail, we arrive at the Skoki Ski Lodge (7,100′). It holds a claim to being the first commercial building in Canada built for the sole purpose of serving skiers. The quaint two-story lodge was originally constructed in 1930 according to a plaque posted near the lodge. Today the lodge has a cooking house, outhouses, and several smaller huts surrounding it. The location isn’t overly picturesque and we found the area to be covered in mosquitos. After poking our heads into the historic lodge, we quickly moved on to our campsite at Merlin Meadows.
On to Merlin Meadows
The last half mile of our first day’s adventure on the Skoki Loop via Packer Pass was a quick and moderate descent down a very muddy trail through the trees to the Merlin Meadows Campground (6,898’). At nearly 10.5 miles on the trail, the sight of the campground was a welcomed one.
Merlin Meadows Campground
The Merlin Meadows Campground sits in a forested area. Although our fellow campers were visible, the campground does allow for some separation via the various trees. It is a short walk to the stream below the campground to access water for filtration. The campground is complete with two pit toilets, a cooking area with four tables, a greywater dumpsite, and food hanging polls that are showing their age but are still very nice to have. All the old hanging poles are being replaced with bear boxes throughout Banff National Park. Whether box or poll, I am just thankful that I didn’t have to carry a bear canister like in most U.S. National Parks. Those things are heavy! The only downside to the Merlin Meadows Campground is the number of mosquitos that overwhelm the site. We ate dinner with our bug nets on.
The End of Day 1 – Skoki Loop via Packer Pass
Weary from our first fantastic day on the Skoki Loop Trail via Packers Pass we quickly set up our site, ate dinner, and called it an early night. We were in our tents by 7:00 PM and quickly falling asleep as the buzzing swarms of mosquitos lulled us to sleep. Happy to be safely tucked into our tent away from the bloodsuckers.