Gorgeous glacial lakes are a hallmark of the Canadian Rockies, with canoeing being the perfect way to fully appreciate the beauty and tranquility of them.
The following three lakes are the most popular to canoe:
- Lake Louise in Banff National Park
- Moraine Lake in Banff National Park
- Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park
Each of these lakes feature incredibly bright turquoise water, a result of silt-like rock flour flowing from the surrounding glaciers. The colours are usually most intense in the middle of summer (July, August).
Read on to discover all the details you need to know to go canoeing on Lake Louise, Moraine Lake and Emerald Lake. I also share which is my absolute favourite lake to paddle and how to paddle each of these beautiful lakes!
Published September 2020. This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.
The high elevation location of these lakes means that they are often frozen until late May or early June. If you want to go canoeing, it is therefore crucial to organise your trip for a time when the lakes have thawed enough to do so.
The seasonal opening and closing dates of the canoe rental companies on each lake varies according to the conditions. I have noted the regular season dates below.
Quick paddling tips
Being glacier-fed lakes and at relative elevation, the water temperature of all three lakes is freezing cold. As in, around 5c (41f). The temperature warms slightly in late summer and on sunny days but is still pretty frigid.
Need to say, you definitely do not want to fall in! Thankfully, this is a pretty rare occurrence (canoes are surprisingly stable!) but there are a few things you can do to ensure you have the most magical canoeing experience on Lake Louise, Moraine Lake or Emerald Lake.
- Always wear your life jacket (also known as a Personal Flotation Device or PFD)
- When entering and exiting the canoe, stay low and close to the middle of the boat
- Paddle on opposite sides of the canoe – this moves the boat forward in a straight (ish!) line and also helps to keep it stable
- Once ready to start paddling, be sure to sit up straight, place the blade in the water at a vertical angle and pull it towards you
- The paddler at the back of the canoe has more power and influence over steering – choice the strongest and heaviest person to sit at the back
- Try to keep in sync with other paddlers
- Remain sitting while in the canoe – don’t stand up or sit on the side of the boat
- Don’t make sudden movements or rock from side to side
- Remember that weather can change quickly in the mountains. Wind, rain, snow, hail and fog are always possible, even if the weather looks perfect when you set out
- High winds can cause dangerous conditions on lakes. Be prepared to return to shore quickly if the wind picks up
- Unless you are experienced with canoeing, it is a good idea to stay close to the shore
Essential items to bring canoeing
- Wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a sun hat – the reflections on the lake can be strong even on cloudy days
- Dress in layers so you can adapt to changing weather and temperatures. With the water temperature being so low, it can feel lot cooler on the lake itself
- When not in use, protect your phone from splashes with a waterproof pouch
- If using your own canoe, remember to bring all of the required safety equipment (PFDs, bailer, rope)
- We found it more comfortable to wear neoprene boots when launching/landing our canoe. This isn’t a problem if you rent a canoe since there is an elevated dock to launch from – your feet won’t get wet
Rental canoes vs. bringing your own boat
Renting a canoe to paddle on Lake Louise, Moraine Lake or Emerald Lake is convenient but is also pretty expensive. It can also be time consuming since there may be a queue at busy times. Flexibility is an issue too since rentals are only available during a certain timeframe.
If you don’t already have a kayak or canoe of your own, one option is to purchase an inexpensive inflatable kayak. While I would never recommend these for extended paddling trips, they’re perfect for short lake adventures in calm conditions. They may not be as pretty as a rental canoe but are an affordable alternative.
Tempted? If you get one, keep the following in mind:
- Read the Transport Canada safety requirements for kayaks first
- Buy the kayak with consideration for future use – don’t just use it once or twice!
- Test your boat out on a warmer lake before heading to Lake Louise, Moraine Lake or Emerald Lake. These lakes are a VERY cold place to try new equipment for the first time!
- Follow the paddling tips above
- Always, always, always wear a PFD (life jacket)!
Canoeing Lake Louise
Lake Louise is easily the most popular place to go canoeing in the Canadian Rockies. The iridescent surface of the lake is circled by impossibly high peaks and the imposing Victoria Glacier. Up close and from a canoe, the milky blue-green colours look almost surreal.
How to get to Lake Louise
Lake Louise is located an easy 45 minute drive from Banff, Alberta. The village of Lake Louise is located just off Highway 1, while the lake itself is another 7.5km (about 12 minutes drive) further.
There are a number of large parking lots very close to the shore of Lake Louise. There are more parking spots available at Lake Louise than Moraine Lake, but they still fill up quickly. For the best chance to secure a spot, it is a good bet to arrive before 8.30am on weekdays and 7.30am on weekends.
To relieve some of the parking issues, Parks Canada started a shuttle bus service (additional fee) to Lake Louise in 2019. This was unfortunately cancelled for the 2020 season, though not before Parks implemented a reservation system (which is likely to be in place for the 2021 season, if the shuttle is running)
Renting a canoe at Lake Louise
Canoe rentals are available at the boathouse located on the western side of Lake Louise. It is operated by the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (the big hotel on the shore of the lake).
- The boathouse is usually open at 10am on weekdays, with the last boat rental going out at 6pm. On weekends, the boathouse opens at 9.30am and the last rental is at 7pm (all times subject to change).
- The canoe rental service typically runs from mid June to the end of September or early October (weather dependent)
- Each canoe can accommodate three adults or two adults and two small (less than 55lb/25kg) children. Paddles and safety gear are provided
- The Lake Louise canoe rental price for hotel guests is $45 + tax for 1 hour or $35 + tax for 30 minutes. The cost for non-hotel guests is $125 + tax for 1 hour or $115 for 30 minutes. Again, these prices are subject to change
- Hotel guests receive preferential service, with a guest priority line operating
- As mentioned above, canoeing Lake Louise is a very popular activity. For this reason, canoe rentals are much in demand and long lines are pretty common. I’d recommend going early, before the boathouse opens (and even then, expect a queue)
- If there is inclement weather, the Lake Louise canoe rental boathouse may shut down without notice
Using your own canoe at Lake Louise
A great way to skip the canoe rental line at Lake Louise is to bring your own paddleboat. Whether you have a canoe, kayak or SUP, Lake Louise is a stunning place to get on the water.
It is critical to arrive early to secure a parking spot if you want to paddle your own boat on Lake Louise. There are more parking spots available at Lake Louise than Moraine Lake, but they still fill up quickly. It is a good bet to arrive before 8.30am on weekdays and 7.30am on weekends.
The shoreline of Lake Louise is very open, which makes it easy to find a spot to launch. With the parking lots being so large, however, the walk from your vehicle can feel far (up to 400m one way). There are lots of rocks on the shoreline so a little balance may be needed to get in.
The biggest issue with launching a canoe or kayak at Lake Louise is the crowds. A lot of people gather around the lakeshore closest to the parking lot. This isn’t a problem in the early morning but it can be a bit awkward when leaving!
June 2021 update – It is now mandatory to obtain a self-registration permit for non-motorised boats in Banff National Park.
Kayaking Lake Louise
Yes, it is possible to go kayaking on Lake Louise. There are no rental kayaks available from the lakeshore boathouse, however. If you want to kayak Lake Louise, you’ll need to bring your own or rent one in Banff.
Other things to do around Lake Louise
Hiking is the name of the game here, with more than dozen trails starting at Lake Louise’s shoreline. Lake Agnes is an ever popular destination (6.8km round trip), also featuring a teahouse, waterfall and beautiful views of the tranquil lake itself.
The Plain of Six Glaciers hike (10.6km one way) starts with an easy stroll along the Lake Louise Lakeshore trail before ascending through a narrow valley to reach a meadow with a teahouse and astounding views of multiple hanging glaciers and mountains.
Hikers looking for a bigger challenge should consider climbing to the summit of the Big Beehive (additional 3.2km from Lake Agnes) or Mount St Piran via the Little Beehive (additional 6km from Lake Agnes). The views from the latter take in Lake Louise and beyond, including the start of the Icefields Parkway.
For a treat, head to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise for afternoon tea. Served between 12 and 3.30pm, reservations are strongly recommended.
Where to stay near Lake Louise
The landmark Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is located right on Lake Louise, facing the Victoria Glacier. The main part of the building you see today dates from 1912. Many of the renovated rooms have beautiful lake views. Some hotel packages include complimentary canoe rentals.
Just around the corner from Lake Louise is Deer Lodge. Originally built in 1939 and used as a teahouse for visitors, this upscale yet rustic property has plenty of character.
Family owned operated for over 50 years (!), Paradise Lodge is situated less than 1.5km from Lake Louise. As well as lodge rooms, Paradise Lodge has a collection of log constructed cabins, each named after influential historical people from the area.
Occupying a gorgeous location on the peaceful Bow Valley Parkway (15 minutes from Lake Louise), Baker Creek Mountain Resort offers a choice between comfortable cabins and cosy lodge rooms. The on-site restaurant serves elevated local favourites with style.
Canoeing Moraine Lake
The vibrant turquoise water of Moraine Lake is surrounded by ten dramatic snow-capped peaks. It is one of the most beautiful (and photographed) places anywhere in Canada. The elevated view from the Rockpile at the southern end of the lake once graced the back of Canada’s $20 note.
Moraine Lake is a spectacular place to go canoeing. In fact, it’s our top pick of the three beautiful lakes mentioned in this post. If you can only paddle one, Moraine Lake is an excellent choice.
How to get to Moraine Lake
The access road to Moraine Lake is located between Lake Louise and the village of Lake Louise. The drive is 11km one-way. The road is open from mid May to late October (weather dependent).
With such huge popularity, Moraine Lake is increasingly difficult to visit. The small parking lot fills up exceptionally early, often before 5am in non-Covid years. After this, luck is needed to time it right. The crowds usually die down after 5pm.
Starting in 2019, there was a Parks Canada shuttle service to Moraine Lake from the highway ($10/adult). A reservation system was established for the 2020 season but the entire service was cancelled for obvious reasons. Roam Transit is currently offering a limited shuttle service (Sept/Oct 2020).
Renting a canoe at Moraine Lake
Canoe rentals are available at the boathouse on the northeastern shore of Moraine Lake. The rental service is operated by Moraine Lake Lodge – guests of the lodge receive complimentary canoe rentals.
- The canoe rental boathouse is usually open 9.30am-5pm from mid June to mid September (subject to change)
- Moraine Lake canoe rental is $80/hour + tax (2020 prices)
- Each canoe can accommodate two to three people. Paddles and safety gear are provided
- Canoe rentals at Moraine Lake run on a first-come, first-serve system
- During busy times, there is usually a queue. I’d recommend approaching the boathouse early (prior to opening time) to ensure a shorter wait
- If there is inclement weather, the Moraine Lake canoe rental boathouse may shut down without notice
Using your own canoe at Moraine Lake
If you have your own canoe, kayak or other paddleboat, I’d recommend bringing it to explore Moraine Lake.
Not only does this allow you to paddle as long as you want, but you can also explore the lake before/after the canoe rentals open and have the lake all to yourself.
Securing a spot in the parking lot is crucial if you plan to bring your own canoe or kayak to Moraine Lake.
The catch is, you’ll need to arrive early to secure a spot in the parking lot. After this, luck is needed to time it right. The parking lots become more accessible again after 5pm or so.
Launching your own canoe on Moraine Lake is not straightforward as it is at Lake Louise or Emerald Lake.
The first shoreline access is located just after the café (80m from the end of the parking lot), but is restricted by driftwood, trees, fences and rocks. The most convenient spots are usually busy with people, mostly taking photos and sitting on the rocks.
I would recommend taking a quick walk to the lake before bringing your kayak or canoe, to get an idea of the options. This is especially true if you plan to portage your canoe the traditional way, on your head.
June 2021 update – It is now mandatory to obtain a self-registration permit for non-motorised boats in Banff National Park.
Kayaking Moraine Lake
Yes, it is totally possible to go kayaking on Moraine Lake. We have done so before and I really enjoyed being able to take photos of each other in front of that incredible view!
There are no rental kayaks available from the lakeshore boathouse so if you want to kayak Moraine Lake, you’ll need to rent one in Banff or bring your own.
Other things to do around Moraine Lake
In addition to canoeing Moraine Lake, I’d recommend walking to the top of the Rockpile. This very short trail (less than 1km return) provide access to an incredible elevated view of the lake.
If you’re looking for a longer hike, consider the Consolation Lakes trail. Starting just past the Rockpile, this 5.8km return hike features views of high alpine meadows, mountain peaks and the Quadra Glacier as well as plenty of pretty wildflowers and the two namesake lakes.
Although it is a well-travelled hike, I’d still recommend carrying bear spray on the Consolation Lakes trail (and any other trail away from the main Moraine Lake area) as it is a popular wildlife corridor.
Where to stay near Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake Lodge (closed temporarily in 2020) is the ultimate place to stay when visiting Moraine Lake. Located just behind the shoreline, all of the luxury lodge rooms and cabins have stunning views. Breakfast is included with every stay and canoe rentals are complimentary.
For alternatives, check out our other recommendations closer to Lake Louise.
Canoeing Emerald Lake
The largest lake in Yoho National Park, Emerald Lake is as beautiful and distinctively blue-green hued as its name implies. Emerald Lake is set in a secluded location, surrounded by a number of rugged mountains, as well as a glacier of the same name.
Not as well known as Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, Emerald Lake is an unexpected discovery for many visitors to the Canadian Rockies.
How to get to Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake is located at the end of Emerald Lake Road, an easy 9km drive from Highway 1. The turnoff for Emerald Lake Road less than 2km west of the small village of Field.
Though situated across the provincial border in British Columbia, Emerald Lake is still only a 30 minute drive from Lake Louise village (or 70 minutes from Banff).
Emerald Lake is still a very popular destination but it is usually a little less busy than Lake Louise or Moraine Lake. The parking lot is small and fills up quickly during busy periods, usually 10am – 3pm. The approach to Emerald Lake is fairly flat and straight, so there is usually road parking available.
Renting a canoe at Emerald Lake
The Boathouse Trading Co. rents canoes on the shore of Emerald Lake, just by the bridge to Emerald Lake Lodge.
- Canoe rentals are available 11am to 3.30pm on weekdays and 10am to 4.30pm on weekends from late May to mid October
- Emerald Lake canoe rental is $70/hour + tax (2020 prices). Paddles and safety gear are provided
- Each canoe can accommodate three adults or two adults with two small children (both children less than 60lbs/27kg). Dogs are allowed but may count as one person
- Canoe rentals at Emerald Lake run on a first-come, first-serve system. There may be a short wait at busy times
- If there is inclement weather, the Emerald Lake canoe rental boathouse may shut down without notice
Using your own canoe at Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake is a wonderful place to explore with your own canoe. We recently spent three hours on the lake, admiring the views from many different angles.
It was a hot, sunny day so decided to have a quick swim and then floated around soaking up the sun afterwards.
Launching your own canoe or kayak into Emerald Lake is very easy. There is a beach about 80m past the Boathouse, providing plenty of space to access the water.
Please note that it is mandatory to complete a self registration permit before paddling your own vessel on Emerald Lake.
Kayaking Emerald Lake
Yes, you can go kayaking on Emerald Lake. There are no rental kayaks available from the lakeshore boathouse, however. If you want to kayak Emerald Lake, you’ll need to bring your own or rent one in Banff or Golden.
Other things to do around Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake is the only one of the three mentioned here that has a hiking trail all the way around the lake. The 5.2km route is pretty level all the way around and has many beautiful viewpoints. It can be muddy and slippery on the eastern side.
The Natural Bridge is a must see, if you didn’t already stop on the way to Emerald Lake. This unique rock formation spans the flow of the powerful Kicking Horse river. Takakkaw Falls is another breathtaking sight in Yoho National Park and is only 30 minutes dive from Emerald Lake.
If you have another day in Yoho National Park (and have reasonable hiking fitness), I’d highly recommend joining a Parks Canada guided hike to see the Burgess Shale at Walcott Quarry.
Where to stay near Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake Lodge features 24 cabins dotted around a 13 acre peninsula and is the only property located on the shores of Emerald Lake. With no TVs or wi-fi in the rooms and suites, it is a wonderfully peaceful place to switch off and enjoy real solitude in the Rockies. Note – lodge guests do not get complimentary canoe rentals or discounts
The tiny town of Field is 15 minutes drive from Emerald Lake and has a number of small, independently run B&Bs. Canadian Rockies Inn is an adults-only option with highly rated, comfortable rooms.
The best lake to canoe – Lake Louise, Moraine Lake or Emerald Lake?
While there is no absolute right answer to the question of which lake is the best to canoe, our personal preference is:
- Moraine Lake (best)
- Emerald Lake (second best)
- Lake Louise (third best)
All three lakes are absolutely spectacular but it is Moraine Lake that has the edge for us. Crowned by ten peaks, the view from the southern end of the lake is one of the most impressive panoramas you can find anywhere in the Canadian Rockies.
In terms of beauty, Moraine Lake is the definite winner. The vibrant water remains impressive close up, as does the mountains and glaciers located behind the lake. There is a pretty waterfall at the southern end to see as well.
Emerald Lake is a close second favourite for the overall canoeing experience. There is a lot to see see around the lake – glaciers, mountains, shoreline, lodge cabins etc. We also found Emerald Lake to be a little warmer than the other two, so much so that we even went for a swim!
How to canoe Lake Louise, Moraine Lake and Emerald Lake in one day
Yes, it IS possible to canoe Lake Louise, Moraine Lake and Emerald Lake all in one day. But it is MUCH easier (not to mention cheaper) if you have your own canoe and kayak to paddle on one of the lakes.
This is due to the limited hours and availability of canoe rentals. With your own canoe or kayak, there’s no need to wait in a rental queue and you can paddle as early or as late as you like. And, of course, you can paddle for as long as you want as well.
Please note: the new self certification system has made paddling all three lakes in one day more difficult since boats must be dried for 48 hours between water bodies. Since 2021, it is no longer possible to paddle Moraine Lake in your own boat and then paddle Lake Louise the same day in that same boat (for example).
So I would suggest:
- Canoe Moraine Lake first, arriving before sunrise (6am or earlier). I’d recommend using your own boat here
- Head to Emerald Lake next (rental boat)
- Canoe Lake Louise last (rental boat)
For this plan to have the best chance to work*, you must arrive at the Moraine Lake turnoff before 5am. The parking lot generally fills up by 5.30am in the summer, even earlier on weekends.
Next is Emerald Lake. It’s still popular but generally less busy than Lake Louise or Moraine Lake. There’s a little more flexibility on parking too, since there is space along the road to use after parking lot becomes full.
The main tourist crowd starts leaving Lake Louise around 5pm. The boathouse at Lake Louise is usually open until 7pm (but do check first), so this provides a chance to snag an early evening parking spot and canoe rental.
*And there are, by no means, any guarantees as it entirely depends on the day. There are so many factors that can impact crowd levels – time of year, day of the week, weather, temperature, stat holidays, tour buses etc.
These posts may help with your Banff trip planning:
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada