Friday, August 07, 2020

First Summits - Devil's Thumb, Lake Louise

This trip starts with an easy hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House at Lake Louise followed by a steep hike up to the Big Beehive lookout. From there the scrambling and fun begins en route to the summit of the Devil's Thumb, an amazing viewpoint over both Lake Louise and Lake Agnes.

The incredible view of Lake Agnes and Lake Louise from the Devil's Thumb summit

Introduction to the Devil's Thumb Hike

This is a premier hike in the Lake Louise area for experienced hikers who can handle some easy scrambling with mild exposure, steep hiking up a loose dirt and scree slope, and a few hands-on moments. 

If you like to stick to official trails, skip this outing. Route finding skills are required and you'll appreciate having a 1-1 ratio of parents to children. Otherwise, I suggest hiking in a group with experienced hikers to help you and your family.

We guided a gaggle of kids up the Devil's Thumb with good team work and patience

Stats for the Devil's Thumb 

Height Gain: Approximately 900 metres according to the All Trails app. (Our own tracking devices however recorded 1100 metres of height gain.)

Distance: 12-14 km total depending on which return route you take.

Time that it took us: It took us nearly 8 hours for this one! (5 hours moving time.) A faster group could easily do it in 6 to 7 hours. We stopped a lot, took many breaks, and waited often to regroup when we got spread out on the trail.

Age of kids we hiked with: Our two youngest hikers were 9 years old. From there the kids ranged in age from 10-14 years old.

Recommended age for this hike: It really depends on experience! My son could have done done this hike by age 7 or 8. Many teenagers could not do this hike. (Heck, many adults would be freaked out on the ledges.)

Prerequisite hikes should include Ha Ling Peak, Lady Macdonald to the platform, East End of Rundle to the summit, along with other beginner scrambles. 

This is NOT a beginner hike.

All Trails Link: Follow this link to see the route on the All Trails website. I downloaded the map before our trip so that I'd have a route to follow without cell coverage. (Note you have to pay for a premium subscription to download maps.) 

The Devil's Thumb is a rewarding but challenging hike at Lake Louise

Hiking to the Big Beehive Junction

Your hike starts at Lake Louise and the crux of the whole trip might be finding parking. I recommend going mid-week, avoiding weekends, and arriving early. We were in the parking lot by 8:30am and had no problems getting spots.

Note that as of 2021 there are parking fees in effect for Lake Louise. Follow this link to the Banff National Park website for more information. You can also take a shuttle bus to Lake Louise or use Roam public transit from the Town of Banff. Information is in the previous link.

From Lake Louise hike up to the Lake Agnes Tea House on the official trail, a distance of 3.8 km. Here you'll gain your first 400 metres of height on the well switchbacked gradual trail. Consider this your gentle warm up if you're not quite awake yet.

You'll pass by Mirror Lake on your way, where we stopped for rest break number one. When you reach Mirror Lake, make sure you look up and you'll see your first objective: The Big Beehive! 

Mirror Lake en route to Lake Agnes with the Big Beehive in the background

We stopped for rest break number two at the tea house. This will be your last chance for bathrooms if you want them. After this, it's ducking behind trees until you hit the ledges.

Lake Agnes with the Devil's Thumb summit above (flat top at the left)

From the tea house, proceed around the right hand shoreline following the trail towards the Big Beehive lookout. It's a scenic hike around the lake and there are fun boulders to play on at the back of the lake. (The kids wanted another rest/play break here.)

Walking around Lake Agnes to the start of the climb up to the Big Beehive

From the back of the lake, climb a series of steep switchbacks up to the junction of the Big Beehive (to your left) and the Devil's Thumb (to your right.)

Rest stop at the back of Lake Agnes

Recommended tip here: Visit the Big Beehive before going up the Devil's Thumb trail. We did it in reverse and the view was rather anticlimactic after being on top of the Devil's Thumb. We would have appreciated the views from the Big Beehive more at the beginning. (And the kids would have had more energy for the quick jaunt too.)

So far you have hiked 5 km total to reach the Big Beehive and you have gained 650 metres of height! From here, the climbing comes in traverses, short spurts, quick grunts, and a final push. You've done most of the hard work.

Gazebo at the top of the Big Beehive looking over Lake Louise

Scrambling and Route finding to the Summit of the Devil's Thumb 

From the junction with the Big Beehive you'll go right (stepping over a log on the ground meant to discourage the casual hiker from accidentally taking this path.)

From here there are three distinct sections that you'll have to conquer as you climb to the top of the Devil's Thumb.

Short hands-on scramble section to gain the ledges 

1. Traversing the Ledges 

Almost immediately you'll be faced with a short hands-on scramble up a small cliff band as you gain access to a system of ledges that you'll follow. For me, this was the highlight. There was no climbing, the walking was generally flat with gradual height gain, and the views were spectacular. I wasn't particularly worried on this section and I found it easy enough to pass other hikers going the opposite direction.

The beginning of the ledges starts here

While I loved the ledges, others in my group found them to be mildly scary and said that they had to pay very close attention to their footing. This is a place where you'll want to make sure your children are walking slowly (not running,) paying attention to their surroundings, and not talking to their friends. The goal is to look at your feet and to stop if you want to look around.

The ledges were a scenic way to traverse to the Devil's Thumb
The ledges were never overly exposed, but you had to pay attention (T. Keller)

I would recommend that when passing people, insist that your children always hug the cliff and that other hikers take the outside to pass.

The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is far below us here to the left (T. Keller)

This photo captures the narrow nature of the ledges

2.  Clawing our way up to the Saddle below the Devil's Thumb

Sadly, the ledges end and you're left with a short but nasty section where you have to crawl, claw, and grovel you way up a loose section of dirt and scree (fine rock.)

None of us liked this part but it was relatively quick and painless (and shockingly, nobody fell on the way down - though some of the kids did slide down on their butts.)

Recommended Tips: You'll probably be using both hands here to haul yourself up the steep slope. Make sure you stick to the far left beside the trees, and do not go straight up the scree gully!!

Please also make sure that you do not knock rocks down on people below you! Be careful of your footing. And if you do dislodge a rock, scream "ROCK" loudly!!

I recommend wearing helmets for this part. We did not bring helmets and I was regretting it on descent when rocks were coming down towards us from above. (A good reason to do this hike mid-week when it's less busy!!)

And when you descend, again, stay out of the gully please! If you choose to come down the middle of the gully you'd better be able to confidently say that there is nobody below you! You will knock rocks down.

Clawing our way up a loose section to the saddle below the Devil's Thumb

3. Scrambling up boulders to the Summit

Once you reach the saddle, it's a short fun scramble through giant boulders up to the summit, a flat plateau where you can have your lunch, rest, and take photos down over Lake Agnes and Lake Louise.

There's a rough trail through the boulders so look carefully and pick your way up. You should not be doing any real climbing, so if the going gets too rough, it means you're likely not on the trail.

The final climb up to the saddle below the summit

Finally at the summit cairn of Devil's Thumb
Some of our mighty youth hikers

Descending back to Lake Louise

We made our way back down to the saddle and then butt scooted or slowly inched our way down the steep dirt/scree slope to reach the ledges. As mentioned above, rock fall was a hazard here from hikers above and I was never so happy to see the ledges where I felt safe again.

Hiking down to the saddle below the Devil's Thumb
Scrambling down the boulders from the summit (K.Anderson)
A final look at the ledges on our way down

We carefully made our way down the ledges and back to the junction with the Big Beehive. And this is where you have two options for your descent back to Mirror Lake.

From the Big Beehive junction you can either return the way you came (which I strongly recommend) or you can descend down the other side to the Highline Trail (immediately opposite the way you came up.)

We took the Highline Trail and it added both distance and height!! The descent trail should never add height! Sadly, you drop down below the height of Mirror Lake and have to climb back up a ways to reach it. I will never take this way back from the Devil's Thumb again.

So, lesson here: always return the way you came!

Regardless of which way you choose to descend, you'll end up at Mirror Lake and then make your way down to Lake Louise.

Looking down on the Big Beehive from the top of the Devil's Thumb

Please send me a message if you have additional questions.

Recommended Reading 

First Summits for Families in the Canadian Rockies - a complete guide from easy lookouts and viewpoints to intermediate challenging scrambles. I update this guide annually.