Sunday, October 18, 2015

Backcountry Banff with Kids - Egypt Lake

We always save our biggest backcountry trips for fall because we like to hike into backcountry Banff to see the golden larch trees. This year was no exception and we took a spectacular trip into Egypt Lake with our son and and another family. Together we had three kids ages 4-6 and the kids hiked 30 Kilometres over the course of a three day weekend.

The kids walked through rain, they pushed through blisters, and they marched on with sore feet that were perhaps a wee bit small to hike for 7.5 hours on the first day. They survived challenging cross country terrain with multiple ups and downs, crossed two passes just to reach our destination, and one survived near head trauma.

2023 edit: The Egypt Lake Shelter has been removed by Parks Canada. There is still a backcountry campground at Egypt Lake, but no shelter.  

My opening paragraph makes our recent backpacking trip to Egypt Lake sound positively grueling and torturous but consider the following:

If you were to have met us on the trail to Egypt Lake, you would have seen three happy kids running and screaming down the trail with glee, playing games of roller coaster (a game where you run down every dip in the trail screaming with volume to scare away every bear in a 20 km radius,) and generally having the time of their life.

The boys were running so fast here, we couldn't keep up
The kids rarely complained, hardly even noticed their small blisters, and only truly conked out once we had reached the 12 km mark on the hike in/out. Up to that point, it felt like they could have hiked forever.

The kids were HAPPY
The kids were beyond excited to reach the cabin that they'd be sleeping in for the night. And ask every one of them if they'd like to go back, and the answer would be a deafening YES!

Home Sweet Home at Egypt Lake

The only injury sustained happened when my child (of course it had to be mine) fell off one of the top bunks in the cabin and nearly cracked his head open. One can hardly fault a backpacking trip though for this injury that could have happened in the city at a sleepover at a friend's house.

We all hiked out in high spirits and nobody had to be rescued

Each child trained for the trip and the youngest at 4 years old proved she had the chops to come along by hiking up 700 metres to the top of Prairie Mountain in Kananaskis (a hike that would defeat many adults.) 

Our mighty 4 year old!

The kids carried very small day packs and were fully supported by four adults on the trip

Backpacking with kids looks a lot like this

We chose to stay at the Egypt Lake shelter rather than camp in tents so that we'd have an escape from rain, possible snow (this is the Rockies after all,) and freezing temperatures overnight. So while everybody in the campground was walking around in down jackets freezing their butts off, we were toasty warm in front of our fireplace enjoying our private cabin that we'd fully reserved months ago.

Toasty warm in our shelter at Egypt Lake

 Now the trip doesn't sound so bad, right? Now who's coming next year?

Morning at Egypt Lake


The Hike to Egypt Lake

Disclaimer: Note that for the 2019 season you can no longer hike at Sunshine Village past September 8th so if you want to reach Egypt Lake, you'll have to hike the Healy Creek Trail from the Sunshine Village parking lot (rather than starting from the top of the gondola as we did on this trip.) 

There are multiple ways to reach Egypt Lake but we chose what we thought would be the most scenic and fun for the kids which meant taking a bus up to Sunshine Village and hiking over Simpson Pass to reach Healy Pass. From Healy Pass, it was a short hike down a bunch of switch backs to reach the shelter.

We caught a bus from White Mountain Adventures up to the base area of the Sunshine Village Ski Resort because the gondola does not run in summer. Thanks to the bus we saved ourselves a few hours of walking up the ski-out road and the kids liked the bus ride. Note - make sure you buy tickets in advance or make a reservation because it was a very full bus and we would not have gotten on without our reservation.

Cross country hiking from Sunshine Village (with plenty of ups and downs)

From Sunshine Village, we had a 5.6 km walk ahead of us to reach Simpson Pass. We started by hiking up a ski run to take us to the top of the Wawa Chair and the junction with the Twin Cairns - Meadow Park Trail. It was fairly steep hiking until we reached this junction but the kids were in high spirits.

From the Wawa Ridge summit at 1.9 km it was mostly flat and downhill to Simpson Pass. It was raining lightly (as it would be the whole hike in) but we were dressed for the weather and nobody was cold.

Backcountry hiking in Banff

It's always easier when you hold hands

We reached Simpson Pass and the kids enjoyed the marker that said they were in both Alberta and British Columbia - at the same time!!

Marker near Simspon Pass - Standing in two provinces at the same time

From Simpson pass, we had a lot of uphill climbing to do to reach Healy Pass at 9.1 km. By the time we reached the second pass, we would have climbed 160 m to reach the top of Wawa Ridge, descended 225 m to reach Simpson Pass, and then gained another 226 m to reach Healy Pass.

Hiking across meadows filled with golden larch trees

Healy Pass was gorgeous (even in the rain) and we were excited to see it again on our hike out (when we hoped it would be sunny.) From the top of the pass we could see Egypt Lake below us and we just had to hike down the final 361 m to reach the shelter.

Healy Pass on the hike out

Egypt Lake Hike by the Numbers

To summarize the above paragraph:

Total distance hiked on the way in: Approximately 13 kilometres from the Sunshine Village base area (after the bus ride) to Egypt Lake

Total elevation gained:  386 metres

Total elevation lost:  586 metres

Descending to Simpson Pass in Backcountry Banff

On the way out, we climbed back up to Healy Pass (gaining back the 361 metres we'd lost on the first day) and then we hiked out via the Healy Creek Trail to the Sunshine Village parking area (skipping the bus ride down from the village.)

Total Distance hiked on the way out: Approximately 12 kilometres from Egypt Lake to the Sunshine Village parking area

Total elevation gained: 361 metres

 Total elevation lost along Healy Creek:  689 metres

Healy Pass on the way out

Staying at the Egypt Lake Shelter

As the Banff National Park website phrases well, "The Key Word is Shelter."

Staying at the Egypt Lake shelter is one small step above camping and you'll still be packing everything in with you that you would require were you to camp at the campground next door. The only thing you can leave out of your pack is the tent.

The main room of our simple shelter at Egypt Lake

What you'll find at the Egypt Lake Shelter: The shelter provides two wooden tables, two bedrooms with wooden platforms to sleep on (no mattresses provided,) and a wood stove with firewood. That's it. Water comes from the creek nearby (and must be filtered or boiled) and pit toilets are outside. There is no kitchen, stove, or cooking supplies so you must bring your own stove, fuel, dishes, and pots. There are no lights or propane lanterns so bring head lamps and LED lights for evening. And finally, don't expect much privacy in the shelter. There are no doors separating the sleeping areas from the main cooking area so you'll have to be quiet once the kids go to bed. (Reserving the whole shelter with kids is likely best.)

Simple bedrooms in the Egypt Lake Shelter

Beds and Cost: The shelter sleeps 12 people and we originally had 11 people coming on our trip. We therefore reserved all 12 beds so that we could ensure the shelter would be quiet for our kids at night. The cost is $9.80 per adult per night for the backcountry wilderness permit (which you'd need to stay at the campground as well.) On top of that, you must pay an additional $6.80 per adult per night for use of the shelter. The kids didn't have to pay anything.

The Kids LOVED the Shelter at Egypt Lake

Reservations Required: The shelter must be reserved in advance and you can not just drop in and make sure of it if you are at the campground and it gets cold or wet.

More information on the shelter can be found on the Parks Canada website here: Egypt Lake Shelter.

Home sweet home at Egypt Lake

Day Trips from Egypt Lake 


Egypt Lake

From the shelter, the easiest day trip is to Egypt Lake itself. It is a short 20 minute walk (0.8 km) to the lake and a pretty spot to explore once you arrive at the shelter or campground.

Egypt Lake

Scarab Lake

From Egypt Lake, you can hike up to Scarab Lake which is the upper lake you'll see from Healy Pass. We expected a short little hike but it was surprisingly long and very up hill! The trail was quite rough and scrambly too. It was 2.5 km to Scarab Lake with approximately 300 metres of height gain but we had to lose a bit of height to get to the lake shore so we didn't quite make it that far with the kids. (Remember, they had already hiked 13 km the day before!)

Hiking through larch trees en route to Scarab Lake
Larch Meadows above Egypt Lake
At 5 km round trip, the hike to Scarab Lake is a pleasant outing from the shelter and with kids, makes for a good day hike. Scramblers and families with older kids can continue past Scarab Lake to Mummy Lake which is set in a basin above Scarab.

I love the old trail signs

Whistling Pass

This was the hike I most wanted to do from Egypt Lake but the kids just weren't quite up for it. I went alone with the other mom on our trip and it was gorgeous!!! Highly recommend this hike in fall with all the golden larch trees.

Views from the Whistling Pass Trail
Whistling Pass looking down at Haiduk Lake

The total distance to Whistling Pass from Egypt Lake is 6.6 km round trip and there's only perhaps an extra 100 metres of height to gain (at most) from the junction with Scarab Lake. When I look at the numbers, it seems so easy to reach Whistling Pass, but the trail to the junction with Scarab was relentlessly uphill and very steep. It tired the kids out and they just didn't have it in them to go any further after the big adventure getting to the shelter the day before.

Whistling Pass with Mount Ball in the background
Looking back towards Scarab Lake from Whistling Pass

Other Backcountry Trips along the Bow Valley Highline Trail in Banff

The Bow Valley Highline Trail runs through wild and beautiful backcountry Banff from Sunshine Village to Egypt Lake (the portion we did on this trip), and then climbs up and over Whistling Pass to reach Shadow Lake. From there, it climbs over Gibbon Pass and down to Twin Lakes, Arnica, and Vista Lakes where you end up on Highway 93. It is a distance of 40+ kilometres and some day we'll do the entire thing in one trip. Until then, we are breaking the trail down into manageable sections for our family.

Healy Pass on the Bow Valley Highline Trail

Last year we spent two nights at Shadow Lake Lodge, staying in the fabulous backcountry Shadow Lake Lodge, and we climbed up to Gibbon Pass to see the larch trees. That story can be read here at Magical Autumn Hiking on the Bow Valley Highline Trail and at Family Backpacking in Banff National Park - No Tent Required.

The Bow Valley Highline Trail as seen from Copper Mountain above Shadow Lake

In closing, I want to give a big thank You to some very helpful people in Parks Canada for their assistance with this trip and the writing of this story. We didn't ask for any financial help with the trip, but we did get assistance in making our booking so that we could reserve the full shelter for our group that was originally going to consist of 11 people until sickness hit a couple families.

Group shot at Healy Pass above Egypt Lake


  1. Wow what an amazing trip! I can't wait until my kids are a bit older and we can go on longer hikes. I would love to know what you packed for the kids clothing wise for warmth but that was light?

    1. We love North Face for warm light clothing. My son has a light North Face puffy (not down) that's super warm, light, and compressible. We also packed his light weight rain jacket from North Face too. Both jackets are seen in all photos of my son in the story. The puffy is the light green jacket and the rain jacket is the orange one. Between the two, he just had a cotton hoodie I believe. And then the kids all had rain pants and long underwear. I like the rain pants from MEC and same with long underwear.

  2. Wow! What a great adventure. I made it to Egypt Lake this year and can't wait to go back.

  3. What time of year did you do this trip and when do the Larch usually change color?

    1. we did this at the end of September. The larch trees turn around the third week of September. By second week of October the needles have all fallen off.