Location: Banff National Park, 150 km west of Calgary via Hwy 1
Directions: Follow Hwy 1 west from Calgary for approximately 150 km, then turn right (N) at Castle Junction (Hwy 93 exit), turn right on Hwy 1A and travel 0.2 km to parking area on left.
Trail Length (one way): 8.4 km
Elevation Gain: 760 m (2463 feet)
Travel Time (return trip): 5 to 7 hours (depending on how many photos you stop to take)
Why it’s Worth It: amazing views, western larch, elephant head lousewort, butterwort, hoary marmots, and once above the lakes, hardly another human soul around.

elephant head lousewort

The elephant-head lousewort is appropriately named, with the individual flowers bearing an uncanny resemblance to an elephant’s head and trunk.

This hike takes you in behind Castle Mountain, which is a looming and prominent rock feature visible on the north side of Hwy 1 just before Castle Junction. Most of the elevation gain occurs in the first part of the hike, which is through a shaded forest. It is 7.7 km to Tower Lake, which offers spectacular views of Eisenhower Tower and the valley below, making the climb well worth the effort. From there it is a short walk to Rockbound Lake, which is appropriately named as you enjoy views of vertical rock walls that bound the lake from the exposed bedrock south shore ringed by western larch. For those with energy to spare, you can ascend a steep switchback trail that will take you along the east side of the lake up to an expansive bedrock plateau above the lake. From there the trail disappears but since you are now above treeline, you can continue on up to Stuart Knob or access the Castle Mountain or Helena Peak ridges on either side for even more spectacular views.

Like sundews, the butterwort traps insects on the sticky upper surface of its leaves where enzymes break them down and the nutrients are absorbed.

Like sundews, the butterwort traps insects on the sticky upper surface of its leaves where enzymes break them down and the nutrients are absorbed.

On the way up through the forest, there are relatively few wildflowers and most are common forest species, however our attention was caught by a small colony of butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) tucked into the seepy moss banks along the boardwalk. The areas around the lakes include open meadows and abundant collection of wildflowers such as bog laurel (Kalmia microphylla), paintbrush (Castilleja spp.), fragrant white bog-orchid (Platanthera dilatata), elephant-head lousewort (Pedicularis groenlandica), snowbank anemone (Anenome parviflora), yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens), mountain heliotrope (Valeriana sitchensis), yellow hedysarum (Hedysarum sulphurescens), and bright forget-me-not (Myosotis sp.). Around and above Rockbound Lake you can find moss campion (Silene acaulis), prickly saxifrage (Saxifraga bronchialis), lyall’s saxifrage (S. lyalii), purple saxifrage (S. oppositifolia), yellow mountain saxifrage (S. aizoides), mountain arnica (Arnica latifolia), snow buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis), golden fleabane (Erigeron aureus), western mountain heather (Cassiope mertensiana), white mountain-avens (Dryas octopetala), and rock jasmine (Androsace chamaejasme).

Curious hoary marmots may pose and entertain you in the coarse rock talus slopes near Tower Lake. Pika live there too, just didn’t see any that day. Elk are sometimes seen along the lower trail. Whiskey jack’s may stalk you looking for a handout but as always, the food you give them will likely be lower in nutrition than their natural foods or otherwise hard to digest, which are reasons you should not feed wildlife.

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