Arnica Lake Trail in Banff National Park

Author: Dan Brewer

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The Arnica Lake trail is an underrated hike in Banff National Park. Located on the Banff Windermere Parkway near the border of Kootenay National Park, the Arnica Lake hike packs in a ton of scenery in under 10km. You’ll see two beautiful Banff lakes on the Arnica Lake hike, with the option to see up to two more lakes by adding on the Twin Lakes Trail.

The first lake is a downhill hike to Vista Lake making it one of the best easy hikes in Banff. From Vista Lake you snake your way up the lower slopes on the north side of Storm Mountain to Arnica Lake. The ever-present vistas along the way up are breathtaking, making it one of the best hikes in Banff National Park.

If you are lucky enough to hike Arnica Lake in fall, it is also one of the best larch hikes in Banff. The golden larch forest around Arnica Lake may not be as extensive as it’s more famous cousin, the Larch Valley hike, but Arnica Lake is still a very impressive larch hike in Banff without the overwhelming crowds you get around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

Arnica Lake in Banff National Park - Banff Hikes

Arnica Lake Trail – Quick Details

Trailhead: Arnica Lake Trailhead

Distance: 9.3 km out and back

Elevation: 758 m elevation gain

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Arnica Lake Hike Highlights

The trailhead for the Arnica Lake hike leaves from the Vista Lakes parking lot. The trail immediately starts to descend into the Altrude Creek Valley.

The single file hiking trail is well groomed through a mixed deciduous and conifer forest. For this segment of the Arnica Lake trail, you’ll be on a side slope on a valley wall, resulting in excellent vistas through the trees on the downslope side. The views of the evergreen forest in the valley below coupled with the views of Storm Mountain up above are particularly nice.

hiking trail to Vista Lake Banff

You’ll get your first glimpse of Vista Lake after 400m of hiking. On a bright sunny day, the colours of Vista Lake from above are spectacular. You’ll also have an excellent view of Boom Mountain (2,760m) across Highway 93. (If you enjoy hiking in this part of Banff National Park, be sure to check out the beautiful Boom Lake hike too!)

Vista Lake in Banff National Park

You’ll get an even better aerial view of Vista Lake resting at the foot of Storm Mountain (3,100m) at the 800m mark. In fall, you’ll enjoy excellent views of large stands of larch trees near the Storm Mountain tree line from here.

Vista Lake remains in view for the duration of this leg of the Arnica Lake hike. You’ll pass through the rubble of an old rock slide in the way down, but the footing is pretty good along the hiking trail. The remainder of the hiking trail to Vista Lake is especially nice in fall with many golden aspen trees and bright red bushes.

The easy downhill portion of the Arnica Lake hike ends after 1.2km when you reach the beautiful shores of Vista Lake. On a sunny day, looking at the submerged rocks and tree trunks through the crystal-clear emerald green water is breathtaking.

Vista Lake in Banff National Park

You may notice a creek flowing into the southeast corner of Vista Lake – the water from this creek originates upstream at Arnica Lake.

You’ll enjoy a beautiful, flat walk along the shores of Vista Lake for around 200m until you reach a bridge crossing over Altrude Creek as it flows towards the Bow River. Take a moment to look both up and downstream and admire the beauty of the different views. If you are wearing many layers, you may wish to start shedding some as the Arnica Lake hike is about to become more difficult.

After crossing the Altrude Creek bridge, the Arnica Lake trail begins it’s slow and steady ascent up the northern shoulder of Storm Mountain. As you climb, you’ll enjoy views of Vista Lake from the opposite side.

As the Arnica Lake trail starts to ascend Storm Mountain, the trail becomes rockier with trees roots protruding from the ground. The forest becomes more lush with a thick carpet of moss on the ground, and a wide variety of cool mushrooms growing in the dark patches. In the fall, the shrubs lining the Arnica Lake hiking trail will display beautiful yellow and red leaves.

roots along Arnica Lake Trail - Banff National Park

You’ll start crossing little mountain streams over small wooden bridges after 1.8km of hiking the Arnica Lake trail. Through the trees, you’ll see one of the pyramid-shaped sub-peaks of Storm Mountain looming large through the trees ahead.

From this vantage point, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking this is the summit of Storm Mountain, but it’s not. This gives you an idea of the enormity of the majestic Storm Mountain.

Bridge crossing stream on Arnica Lake hike

There’s a long and curved bridge over a beautiful series of streams and waterfalls at the 2km mark of the Arnica Lake hike. This is another good spot to stop and remove layers of clothing if you are starting to overheat.

Man walking over bridge on Arnica Lake hiking trail in Banff

When you are done admiring the natural beauty of the streams, take a moment to soak in the vistas of the Bow Valley to your left. The closest mountain to you is Boom Mountain (the northern half is in Alberta, while the southern half is in British Columbia).

The next kilometer of the Arnica Lake hike continues uphill through a deep evergreen forest. You’ll be rewarded at the end with a clearing with great views of Storm Mountain and Boom Mountain. This is a great place to stop, take a drink of water off your Camelbak and take a few pictures.

views from Arnica Lake hike in Banff

If you are enjoying the Arnica Lake hike in larch season, you’ll be greeted by your first golden larch tree after 3.2km of hiking. You’ll be approximately 1,850m above sea level at this stage, which makes sense given larch trees in Alberta grow between 1,800 to 2,400m above sea level.

The Arnica Lake larch trees are sporadic at this stage of the hike, but the views of the larches on the shoulder of Storm Mountain above you are amazing.

Golden larches on hike in Banff National Park

You’ll be hiking along a ridgeline here, offering you outstanding views on both sides of the trail. Looking north, you’ll have a great view of Castle Mountain (2,766m) which, in our opinion, is one of the most beautiful mountains in Banff National Park. (The Castle Mountain Lookout trail is another excellent Banff hike with outstanding views of the Bow Valley).

There’s another excellent lookout point at the 3.4km mark of the Arnica Lake trail where you’ll marvel at views of Storm Mountain, Boom Mountain and Mt. Whymper (2,845m) – just across the border into BC.

At this lookout you’ll now be at 1,950m above sea level and the larch trees start to become more prominent. The benefits of reaching this altitude are that you are nearing the tree line, meaning the trees get smaller and the views get better. The one downside of smaller trees are that it starts to get noticeably windier.

incredible views from Arnica Lake in Banff

After 4km of hiking along the Arnica Lake trail, you’ll start to hear a stream. If you look towards the sound through the trees on your right, you’ll see a massive rock slide. Stop and listen for the distinctive “eeeeeep” sound of a pika, who love living in giant rock piles. You’re too far to see one, but pikas are the cutest little animals in Banff – they look like tiny bunny rabbits with small, round ears.

The Arnica Lake hike gets rockier and rootier the higher up Storm Mountain you go. You’ll be able to do the hike in normal hiking shoes, but you’ll likely prefer to hike in proper hiking boots with good traction and ankle support.

Just 100m later you’ll reach a small, open meadow in front of a large stand of larch trees. With the rocky alpine layer of Storm Mountain towering above the larch trees, it’s very scenic.

open meadow along Arnica Lake hike in Banff National Park

Beyond the meadow, the Arnica Lake trail suddenly becomes much darker. The forest gets much thicker here, with some truly massive trees (similar to what you’ll see near the lake on the Boom Lake hike across highway 93).

woman walking through forest near Arnica Lake in Banff National Park

You’ll start to enter the cirque on Storm Mountain where Arnica Lake resides after 4.6km of hiking. The rocky layers of Storm Mountain rise 500m above you, with larch trees clinging to the steep lower slopes.

Your uphill climb ends after 4.7km of the Arnica Lake hike. At 2,140m above sea level, the larch trees are much more prominent.

A short 200m later, you’ll reach the shores of Arnica Lake. The setting for this alpine Banff lake is stunning, with the towering rocky cliffs of Storm Mountain looming high overhead behind the lake. If you look way up, you’ll finally see the actual summit of Storm Mountain, peeking its head above the lower sub-peaks.

Arnica Lake in Banff National Park - Banff Hikes

If you hike Arnica Lake in larch season, the Banff scenery just gets that much better. The sight of golden larch trees wrapping nearly all the way Arnica Lake is truly breathtaking. If you are looking for a great larch hike in Alberta without the crowds, the Arnica Lake larch tree hike is a great choice.

Arnica Lake with golden larches - best Banff Larch hikes

The hiking trail follows the shore of Arnica Lake for around 200m, so be sure to continue along to enjoy the various viewpoints of this amazing Banff lake.

If you have the time and energy and want to see even more beautiful Banff lakes below Storm Mountain, you have the option to continue hiking from Arnica Lake to the Twin Lakes. To see both the Upper Twin Lake and the Lower Twin Lake, it’s another 3.4km (one way) up and over a ridge.

If you hike Arnica Lake during larch season, we recommend hiking an additional 700m on the Twin Lakes trail to the top of the ridge. You’ll continue walking through a larch forest on your way to the top, but the real payoff comes at the top of the ridge when you’ll be treated to a meadow filled with larches plus an incredible view of a large larch forest in the distance.

It’s a wonderful opportunity to enjoy more of the beautiful Banff larch scenery which only comes for a few short weeks, once every year.

meadow full of golden larches near Arnica Lake trail in Banff

Arnica Lake Trailhead

The Arnica Lake trailhead is found in the Vista Lake Day Use Area along Highway 93 South. The Vista Lake Day Use is under 30 minutes from Banff and an hour and 50 minutes from Calgary.

To reach the Vista Lake Day Use, take the TransCanada Highway 1 West to the Highway 93 exit. Turn left at the exit and continue up Highway 93 South for 8 km then turn right into the Vista Lake parking lot at the sign. It’s just a minute or so past the Boom Lake day use area.

hiking to Vista Lake from Vista Lake parking lot

Arnica Lake Hike Stats

How Long is the Arnica Lake Hike?

The round-trip distance of the Arnica Lake trail is 9.3 km (one-way distance of 4.65 km) from the Arnica Lake trailhead, past Vista Lake, through the Storm Mountain forest until you reach the shores of the lake.

How Hard is the Hike to Arnica Lake?

Primarily due to the amount of elevation gain, we rate the Arnica Lake hike as “moderate”.

Rating a hike is difficult, as everyone has different physical abilities. A hike can even feel different from one day to the next. When we start reaching distances of 10 km with a decent amount of elevation gain, it may be too difficult for some Banff hikers, but it may be more of a moderate hike for many.

golden larch - Banff larch hikes

Although the popular AllTrails hiking app rates this as a “hard” hike, we agree with Parks Canada’s rating of the Arnica Lake hike as “moderate”. After beginning the hike downhill, you’ll gain approximately 560 m of elevation between Vista Lake and Arnica Lake. Over a distance of 3.3km, this equates to an average 17% slope (gaining 17 meters of elevation per 100 m walked). This is a pretty manageable slope for most regular hikers.

Yes, the Arnica Lake trail will be a hard hike for many, but we feel that most regular Banff hikers will manage the Arnica Lake hike without much issue.

How Long Does the Arnica Lake Hike Take?

It should take a typical adult around 3 hours to hike to Arnica Lake. We recently did the Arnica Lake hike during larch season and it only took us 2 hours and 40 minutes – including time to admire Vista Lake and take tons of pictures of the larch trees.

Arnica Lake Trail Map

The Arnica Lake trail is easy to follow and is well marked. If you are feeling uncertain, you can use the AllTrails app while hiking to Arnica Lake, but the hiking trail is easy enough to follow and there’s really only one way to go.

To find the Arnica Lake trail map in AllTrails, simply click here for the “Arnica Lake Trail”. Be sure to download your hiking maps prior to leaving as you can’t count on having a cell signal in this remote corner of Banff National Park.

A recent App of the Year winner, AllTrails is also one of the best apps for visiting Banff! Enjoy map downloads and many more premium features with a 7-day free trial of AllTrails+!

hike to Arnica Lake - Banff Hikes

Hiking Arnica Lake Trail with Kids

If you are visiting Banff with kids, the Arnica Lake trail will be a fun hike for families who hike regularly. It may be a challenging hike for some kids, with the consistent climb and rocky sections, but it’s well worth it to make it to the top. Even kids can appreciate a view like the one you get at Arnica Lake.

If you hike to Arnica Lake with kids, we recommend taking some time at Vista Lake for a pre-ascent rest and snack.

We have not yet hiked the Arnica Lake with our kids, who are 8 and 6 years old, but based on hikes of comparable difficulty (like the Taylor Lake trail or the Wind Ridge hike) we know that they could do it.

Read More

Don’t miss these other best Banff hikes with kids.

Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break

The obvious place to stop for lunch is at Arnica Lake. With the majestic rocky cliffs of Storm Mountain providing the backdrop, Arnica Lake is a place where you’ll want to stop and take it all in. After a long and steady climb to the lake, don’t rush your break at the lake, it’s an incredibly scenic place. You’ve earned this incredible Banff scenery!

gold larches around Arnica Lake Banff

Arnica Lake Hiking Safety

There are relatively few hiking hazards along the Arnica Lake hiking trail. The trail is well maintained and easy to follow from the trailhead to Vista Lake, while the trail to Arnica Lake has a moderate amount of rocks and roots.

Wildlife Safety

When hiking in Banff National Park, you are responsible for your own safety. Before hitting the hiking trails we highly recommend you read our 10 Essential Banff Hiking Tips for information about bear safety, trail conditions, wildlife warnings and possible closures.

Arnica Lake Trail Logistics

On-leash dogs are allowed on the Arnica Lake hike.

Mountain biking is not allowed on the Arnica Lake trail.

There are toilets no toilets in the Vista Lake parking lot. If you’d like to go prior to beginning your hike, stop at the Boom Lake trailhead on the way. It’s only a 1 minute drive from Boom Lake to the Vista Lake parking lot.

Plan to pack plenty of water and high energy snacks for this hike. Fill your hydration packs before you leave.

You might get 1 bar of cell service on the higher elevations of the Arnica Lake hike, but 1 bar cannot be counted upon for anything useful. Don’t count on having a cell signal for your safety.

hiking Arnica Lake Trail in Banff

What to Bring for Hiking the Arnica Lake Trail

As the Arnica Lake hiking Trail is a moderate Banff hike, you need to be properly prepared for a day of safe hiking in the mountains. Before hitting the trail, please take the time to review our recommended Banff hiking gear and our guide on how to dress for hiking in Banff.

Looking up at Storm Mountain From Arnica Lake trail - Banff Hiking Trails

The Arnica Lake hike offers outstanding views of Storm Mountain and the Bow Valley, with a beautiful Banff lake at the end. There’s even golden larch trees around Arnica Lake in fall!

Other Banff Hikes

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Hiking to Arnica Lake in Banff National Park offers hikers incredible views any time of year. The Arnica Lake hike is also an incredible larch hike in Banff in the fall. Don't miss this wonderful Banff hike!
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Dan Brewer, a life-long Alberta resident, calls Canmore home along with his wife and two kids. He is the co-owner of Travel Banff Canada, where he gets to share his passion for the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Dan, along with his family, love being outdoors doing one of the many activities they enjoy in the mountains: hiking, mountain biking, paddleboarding, skiing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

When he's not in Canmore enjoying one of his favourite local hikes, you can find him hoping on a plane to explore a new country with his family or working on one of their other two travel sites: Family Can Travel and Baby Can Travel.