Two must-visit treasures in the Canadian Rockies are the rustic and remote teahouses of Banff National Park. After a strenuous hike uphill, treat yourself to a hot chocolate on a cold morning as you sit on the veranda overlooking some of the world’s most stunning scenery.
Lake Agnes Teahouse
Lake Agnes is the shorter and steeper teahouse hike. It’s 3.6km (2.2 miles) each way however you gain 1312ft (400m) of elevation. The trail is a wide, well-maintained, packed dirt trail, mostly shaded by the trees. Your heart will get pumping pretty quickly as its uphill from the beginning, but glimpses of Lake Louise peeking through the trees are nice places to pause and catch your breath.
Eventually you reach Mirror Lake before the final push to the top. Just as you think you have made it, an impressive waterfall greets you along with 70 steps to climb up before you finally reach the destination.
As you arrive, the beauty and stillness of Lake Agnes is breathtaking. The traditional Swiss-style teahouse on the shore of the lake is also idyllic. There is no electricity or running water here and definitely no wifi. All the supplies are flown in by helicopter at the start of the season with fresh food packed in by the staff who hike the same trail. Water is collected from the lake and boiled on a propane gas stove with all the bread and cakes made from scratch each day. The menu features delicious sandwiches, a selection of sweet treats, a soup of the day as well as more than two dozen teas.
Make sure you take plenty of cash as they cannot accept any form of card. Some people say it’s expensive, but considering the location, it’s certainly justified and definitely worth the little splurge to reward yourself for completing the trek. Also make sure you have some warm clothing to throw on as the higher elevation combined with a sit-down means you’ll quickly feel the cold once you stop hiking.
As there is very limited seating, be prepared to share a table with other hikers. Or if the lines for the teahouse look too long (and you were savvy enough to bring your own snacks) then there is plenty of room to sit on the shores of the lake and enjoy a picnic.
After re-fuelling on caffeine and cake, you can either journey back down or hike an extra 1.4 km onto Big Beehive. This trail goes around the shores of Lake Agnes, followed by a series of switchbacks, before walking across the ridge to a gazebo where you get a spectacular view down onto Lake Louise and the Bow Valley.
The Plain of the Six Glaciers Teahouse
The Plain of the Six Glaciers trail is the less-travelled-to teahouse. It’s 5.3 km (3.4 miles) each way and gains a similar amount of elevation as the Lake Agnes hike (1,215ft or 370m). The first two kilometers are a flat, easy walk around the shore of Lake Louise with a gradual elevation gain over the remainder of the trail. After you reach the end of Lake Louise, you walk below impressive geology before hiking over the old path of the glaciers that carved the area. For the last half of the hike, you are treated to wonderful views of Mount Lefroy, Mount Victoria and Abbot Pass, but be aware that the wide, open views mean there is little to no shelter from the sun.
Although there are a few steep parts at times, this is a less strenuous hike compared to Lake Agnes - its just longer. The hardest part of the hike is the final set of switchbacks on the last 600m. As you approach the teahouse its slightly secluded as its set 100m off the trail, before a charming, Tibetan style teahouse is right in front of you. The menu here offers three different afternoon tea options or you can order items individually. The slices of apple and chocolate cake were both delicious and generous portions!
After your energy-boost, you can hike an extra 1.3km to the Abbot Pass viewpoint for even better views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers before hiking back.
So which teahouse is better?
Well, you may not necessarily have to choose. If you want to visit both teahouses while in Lake Louise, the Highline Trail connects the two making a 14.6 km loop. From Lake Agnes, you need to walk towards Big Beehive to find the junction to get you on the trail to the Plain of the Six Glaciers teahouse. If you’re hiking in the opposite direction, the trail from the Plain of the Six Glaciers onto Lake Agnes is well signposted.
Some people may say “I would love to hike both teahouses in one day, but do not have the time or energy, so which one should I pick?” Well…
Lake Agnes is a shorter, but steeper hike, with the Plain of the Six Glaciers hike longer, but less challenging. The Lake Agnes trail is mostly through the alpine, whereas the Six Glaciers hike is more exposed with more dramatic views on offer throughout the journey as well as at the destination.
The location of the Lake Agnes teahouse is more idyllic as it’s right on the shore of the lake, however it is also much busier and therefore the crowds can ruin how picturesque the place is. The Plain of the Six Glaciers teahouse is more secluded and quaint, however both are now designed to serve hungry tourists and hikers so of course neither are as authentic as they were almost a century ago.
At the Six Glaciers teahouse they have a take-away gazebo; a great idea that means the crowds of people who cannot get a table are not queuing around you. Whereas the queue for take-away items at Agnes weaves through the tables on the veranda and inside the teahouse, and therefore it doesn’t feel quite as relaxed with people’s backpacks knocking into you as they queue.
In terms of food the quality and variety of food at the Plain of the Six Glaciers teahouse was better. However, I may be biased. I hiked the Plain of the Glaciers on a beautiful, sunny summers day, whereas my trip to Lake Agnes was on an unseasonably cold, cloudy day that may have dampened my spirits and memory of the visit.
Other tips for your teahouse hike
Starting early is key for several reasons.
1. The parking lot at Lake Louise fills very quickly.
2. There are a lot more people on the trail later in the morning, as well as lots of visitors at the destination which can spoil how picturesque the place is.
3. After making the effort to get there, you’ll likely be craving that slice of cake and won’t want to wait 20 minutes, so the earlier you arrive, the shorter the queue for either a table or a take away cup of tea!
Taking all of that into account, I would say ensure you are at the Lake Louise parking lot no later than 8:30am. Both trails start from Lake Louise at the Chateau. As you approach the shore of the lake, bare right with signposts then guiding you to both trailheads.