Medicine and Maligne Lake

Both well known, both beautiful both less travelled than the lakes in Banff National Park.

Maligne and Medicine Lake were some of my favourite spots in all of Canada, I don’t know if it was the time of year we visited but Alex and I pretty much had both to ourselves.

Seeing as we stumbled upon Medicine Lake first, this is where I will start…

Until recently, Medicine Lake was one clouded in mystery… the lake seemed to drain, and no one knew where to. The lake is technically not a lake, but a rather where the Maligne River backs up before flowing into the Athabasca River. The river is frozen during winter, but during summer as the ice melts, the body of water becomes like a bathtub, filling up too fast for it to drain, so becomes a lake. Underneath Medicine Lake is an extensive drainage system, one of the biggest in the world and can cause all the water to just disappear.

If you arrive in autumn, you might just find this place completely empty… but don’t be disappointed, this geological phenomenon is extremely fascinating, so take a seat on the shores of where the lake once was, and read up on it.

So why have I grouped Medicine Lake with Maligne Lake? Pretty simple, you will pass this lake on the way to Maligne, for reasons unknown, not everyone stops, but I would highly advise setting an hour aside to have a walk up and down its shores before heading off to its big brother lake.

Maligne Lake, a short distance further up into the mountains, is the longest in the Canadian Rockies at 22.5km long. In fact, the lake is so long you can even take a boat trip on it, this will take you up to Spirit Island and you will see before you a scene you might have seen many times before. Sadly, I can’t show you what I am talking about as we arrived a few days before the summer season kicked off, so the boats weren’t running and I wasn’t about to start walking 14km.

The native first nations originally called this lake ‘Chaba Imne’ (Beaver Lake) and was first explored by Mary Schaffer in 1907. One of the reasons this lake is so famed is due to the beautiful mountainous backdrop and crystal clear blue waters.

Visitors who travel during peak season can enjoy canoeing or kayaking up the lake, if you are a confident canoeist you can take yourself up to Spirit Island, canoes and kayaks can be hired closeby to the entrance of Maligne Lake at Curly Phillips Boathouse.

There are many beautiful trails that will take you around the lake, if you have a full day I would recommend heading off on one of the longer trails. There is lots of wildlife to be seen, such as the grizzly bear, deer, elk, coyote and even wolves, some of the trails will take you up a fairly steep gradient so please check before you embark on one!

The Mary Schaffer loop is one of the easiest and most popular, at 3.2km you can enjoy panoramic shots of the lake and the mountain range that frames it, as well as the opportunity to learn more about Ms Schaffer herself.

Oh and just to finish, it’s not only the two lakes that will take your breath away, to reach them you will take one of the most beautiful drives in Canada, winding your way higher up into the mountain range. Take a picnic, park up, and enjoy the view!

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