The Complete Guide to Peyto Lake in Banff National Park
Peyto Lake (pronounced Pea-Toh) is one of the most stunning glacial fed lakes in the Canadian Rockies, and is an absolute must see attraction for anyone visiting Banff. Whether you’re visiting during the summer or the winter, it’s always a breathtaking experience.
This blog post will tell you absolutely everything you need to know about planning your visit to Peyto Lake at any time of year!
The New Viewing Platform
Fortunately, if you’re reading this, you’re planning to visit after the long 2 year Peyto Lake hiatus, where it was closed during the summer months for the construction of a new viewing platform.
The new platform is even bigger and better than ever, and ready to take on even more busloads of tourists! But seriously, it does get BUSY here, so this extra viewing space was absolutely needed.
When is the best time to Visit Peyto Lake
If you’re wondering when the best time to visit Peyto Lake is, it really depends on what you’re looking for! Do you just want to see it or do you want to see that incredible bright blue colour!
But seriously, it’s probably at it’s most beautiful (in my opinion) in the summer, and in the early winter after a fresh dump of snow. The lake seemingly changes colour throughout the year, and if you’re looking for the brightest bluest lake colour, you should visit in the height of summer when the glacial runoff is at its peak.
When is the best time to see the blue colour in Peyto Lake?
Generally speaking, the best time to see the bright blue colours of Peyto Lake is any time between July-September.
If you want to see Peyto with the most stunning bright blue turquoise colour, then it’s also important to visit at the right time of day.
That generally means visiting when there is direct sunlight on the lake. When the light hits the water, the colours in the lake truly pop. If you get there when the lake is in the shade, it’s not nearly as vibrant.
The other time of year that I absolutely love to see Moraine Lake is in the early winter, when the lake is still open water (or freshly frozen), and everything else is covered in a blanket of snow.
Of course, Peyto is still beautiful when the lake has frozen and it’s covered in snow, but there’s something about the deep royal blue that you get just before the lake freezing that I absolutely love.
Oh, and we can also add another time of year to the list this year, and that’s right after the lake freezes. This year we actually skated on Peyto, and it might just be one of my best ever skating experiences in Banff.
What is the weather like at Peyto Lake?
I used to run photography tours to Peyto Lake, and have visited Peyto in every month of the year. What I have learned is that you can really get any kind of weather at any time of year.
I have seen two inches of snow in July overnight, I’ve seen fog, I’ve seen rain and I’ve seen forest fire smoke! The only thing you can guarantee at Peyto Lake is that the weather is unpredictable!
Is the weather forecast in Banff always accurate?
Short answer, no. The great thing about the weather in Banff National Park is that it is extremely location dependent. Sometimes weather and low lying clouds get trapped between mountains an in different valleys, so often the weather in one place is very different to somewhere very closeby.
Weather forecast apps tend to be very broad. For example, if you’re looking for weather at Moraine Lake, you’ll probably have to look at the Lake Louise weather forecast. I can tell you there have been so many times when the forecast has said rain at Lake Louise (and it was actually raining at Lake Louise), but Moraine Lake was clear.
So in my experience, Peyto Lake tends to have very different weather from other parts of the Icefields Parkway. If it’s raining in Lake Louise, there’s a good chance that the rain has already passed through or missed Peyto entirely.
The same goes for forest fire smoke. There are times when you can’t see your hand in front of your face in Banff, and just as you reach Peyto, the clouds part and the views suddenly open up ahead of you.
So basically, go for a drive, and if the weather is terrible, just keep driving until you find good weather! Doesn’t work 100% of the time, but it often does.
I honestly have learned to not trust the weather unless I’m literally staring at it.
Different seasons at Peyto Lake
Having said that, while the weather at Peyto might chance on a dime, the seasons are far more predictable. to predict. Here is what you can expect (broadly speaking):
From November to May, Peyto Lake is likely to be completely frozen These photos are representative of most years.
This past year, Peyto froze around November 16 (some years it freezes earlier, but other years it freezes completely at the end of November), and we were fortunate enough to be able to skate on it before it was covered in snow. Usually Peyto Lake is frozen in May and sometimes into early June as well.
If you want to see the blue waters of Peyto Lake, the best time to come would be late June to September.
I have dug through my archives to find examples of Peyto in as many months as I can find, and although I’m missing a couple of months, the gallery above is a pretty reasonble representation of the seasons.
Peyto Lake throughout the year
December to February is deep winter at Peyto Lake. It’s extremely cold and there is always deep snow on the ground (I’m talking a couple of feet of deep powder, if you’re thinking of doing the trails).
By April and May, the snow is beginning to melt and the weather is beginning to improve significantly. Temperatures are still in the negatives, but it’s far sunnier and the walking will be easier.
June tends to be sunny with interspersed showers, but the lake is generally thawed by the middle of the month and the bright blues in the lake have appeared.
July and August are always risky for forest fires and smoke but the weather is usually hot and sunny. These are the best times to see the lake in all its brilliant blue glory. Generally the peaks will have lost all their snow by August.
In September and October, the weather starts to cool off and we’ll see snow on the peaks again (usually!). Last chance to see a blue (not frozen) lake is usually mid-late October.
By November, it’s full winter here again and Peyto will start to freeze again!
Peyto Lake Peak Tourist Season vs. Off-Season
Peyto Lake is naturally extremely busy during the summer months. It has an easily accessible drop off point for buses that requires barely any walking, so hordes of tourists generally swarm the lookout points. There are also a few hikes in the area, so the parking lot can get quite busy.
Major holidays generally get extra busy, and we generally try to leave town during that time. For example, Canada Day long weekend will be absolute chaos. Avoid coming here at that time at all costs.
Generally speaking, any time the lake is blue will be busy, but the busy season in Banff is generally considered to be from the May long weekend (around May 20) to the September long weekend (first weekend of September). Outside of these times, it is significantly quieter.
The winter months are particularly quiet at the viewpoints, but the Bow Summit area is particularly busy in the winter as well because it is a popular backcountry skiing spot. The parking lot will be busy on weekends, but generally not during the week.
Typically the parking area is not readied for winter until a little later in the winter season (once the skiing is better).
What to Expect at Peyto Lake
Does Peyto Lake live up to the hype? Absolutely. It’s an absolutely stunning lake, and it’s one of the few that has an easily reachable viewpoint that doesn’t require hours of hiking first.
I love visiting it every time, and it never fails to amaze me, regardless of how many times I see it.
The only downside is the crowds. The new viewpoint will go some way towards alleviating this issue, but it does tend to get ridiculously busy here if you time it badly.
On the plus side, if you happen to stop here when a tour bus is there, they generally only have a few minutes to enjoy the view. If you just hold on for ten minutes, it will clear out again.
There are also some other sneaky viewpoints that allow you to escape the crowds if you’re willing to walk a bit further.
Viewpoints at Peyto Lake
Peyto Lake Viewing Platform
The main scenic overlook was recently renovated and is now much bigger and allows for a lot more breathing room on the platform. The idea is that most people trample the boardwalk and not the wildlife beyond.
There are not restrictions on where you can walk (unless the area has been closed by parks for a seasonal closure), so you can venture beyond, but the viewing platform is the best place to enjoy the view if you’re not as sure footed.
The viewpoint is beautiful, but honestly, it’s not the best viewpoint, because your veiw to the left of the Peyto Glacier is obscured by forest. Also the crowds are a factor for me.
Walking to the Peyto Lake Viewing Platform
The Peyto Lake viewing platform is reachable with a short (roughly 15-20 minute) walk from the parking lot.
If you park in the Peyto/Bow Summit parking lot, walk to the far end of the parking lot where you’ll find a trail sign with some information on it. Take the paved path uphill and follow it all the way until you reach the viewpoint. Once you’re on the trail you can’t get lost (as long as you don’t stray from it).
It’s paved, but it’s steep at times, and I’ve passed several people that have really struggled to walk all the way there. Mostly it’s not too bad, but the elevation and gradient can be challenging for people. I’m usually a bit breathless by the time I get there as well.
I have seen people pushing strollers up this route and imagine it would not be pleasant!
Disabled access to the Peyto Lake Viewing platform
The is a separate disabled access to the Peyto Lake viewpoint. When you arrive, you will turn off the main 93N highway into the Bow Summit turnoff. On your right, you will see the main parking area.
If you have a disabled badge, or need to drop someone off closer, continue straight and drive up the hill for another 20-30 seconds.
At the top of the hill, you will find a number of disabled parking spots and a small drop off area.
From here, it is a short walk down to the viewpoint. The route to the viewpoint is paved, so follow that trail. If you find youself going down to the right and into the forest, stop, because that’s the trail down to the parking lot. To reach the viewpoint you should be able to see clearly through the trees and out the other side. It should also be signposted.
Although the trail is paved and technically wheelchair accessible, it’s quite steep, so it might be quite hard work to get back to your car once you’re at the viewing platform.
Reaching the Peyto Lake viewing platform in the winter
I’ve done this trail dozens of times in the winter, and although it’s a bit more work, it’s still very much doable at all times of the year.
To reach Peyto Lake in the winter, the easiest way is to park in the main parking lot, which is generally cleared. You can then walk up the main access road (the route to the disabled parking and bus drop off) on foot. This generally takes about 15-20 minutes depending on your pace.
9 times out of 10, this trail is compacted by previous hikers, and it’s quite easy to walk up to the viewpoint on the hard snow. However if you happen to go right after a big dump of snow, you may have to forge a trail yourself. This is a lot more work and would be made much easier with snowshoes.
We’ve done it before, forcing out way through thigh deep snow, and it takes a lot of time and effort. Again, it’s hard work but totally do able.
If you’re not sure what the conditions will be like, you may want to bring your snowshoes just in case, but most of the time you would not need them.
Disabled parking is not accessible in the winter
It’s important to note that the disabled parking and access road is not reachable by vehicle in the winter. The only route is to walk up, so Peyto Lake is not accessible for those with mobility issues in the winter.
The Secret Peyto Lake viewpoint
There is actually a second viewpoint at Peyto Lake requires a little bit of exploring to find. To me it’s a much nicer natural plateau with nice big rocks to sit and stand on and enjoy the view from.
For the most part, this is a better viewpoint because most of the crowds don’t venture this far, so it’s generally a nice place to escape.
Any time I do a photoshoot out here, I come to this spot for some peace and quiet.
As for how to reach this point, the easiest way is to stand at the viewing platform and follow the edge of it up the hill to the left (if you’re facing the lake). The trail will take you uphill, which you will follow until you see a sign post with some trail descriptions on it.
Generally speaking if you head right shortly after this point, you will eventually reach the viewpoint. If you miss the correct turn, you will eventually make it to the right place anyway. Just don’t follow the sign downhill to Peyto Lake on the right (unless you actually want to visit Peyto Lake)
Hiking down to Peyto Lake
The hike from the Peyto Lake viewing platform to Peyto Lake
If you actually want to hike to Peyto Lake, then take this trail down the hill to the lake. I’ve done it once before, and if you’re wondering if the views down by the lake are better than the viewpoint, they are not.
It’s a stunning lake that’s lovely to dip your toes in, but once you’re at the shore it really does look like any other lake. What makes Peyto Lake is the spectacular elevated viewpoint.
The hike down to the lake is easy, but the hike back to the top again is a grind with many switchbacks. Unless you really want to just check it off and have nothing better to do, I’d probably recommend any one of these easy hikes instead!
I wouldn’t recommend hiking down this route in winter as the route is steep and looks like it crosses avalanche terrain.
The easier hike down to Peyto Lake
There is also a second way to reach Peyto Lake that’s much easier. This is the way I would recommend in winter and it’s the way you would go to reach the lake if you’re planning to skate on it.
It’s a bit longer and takes you through the forest, but it’s far, far easier and probably takes 30 minutes max.
If you’re heading to Peyto Lake/Bow Summit from Bow Lake, pass the turnoff, crest the hill and continue down the far side.
On the way down the hill, you will see a tiny parking area on the left with space for about 5 or 6 cars. Park here and follow the trail down to the shore.
It’s way easier and most people don’t know about it!
Other Hiking Trails from Peyto Lake
Bow Summit Lookout
This hike is around 6km from the Peyto Lake parking lot and takes you first up to the wooden platform and then upwards to a much higher viewpoint. From the top you can look back and see Bow Lake in one direction and Peyto in the other. Very few people ever do this hike, so you’ll be sure to escape the crowds here.
From the viewing platform, turn around and walk up the hill on the paved path. Continue on the path, walking steadily upwards until you reach the Bow Summit!
Peyto Glacier Hike via Cauldron Lake
This is a much harder and very long hike to get a completely different view of Peyto Lake
Distance: 11.7km out and back trail out
The trail takes you around the back of Peyto Lake and high up for another viewpoint. To reach your destination, you’ll have to tackle a stream that’s had the bridge washed away and 738m elevation!
Probably not the first hike I’d recommend if you have limited time here, but you may want to check it off if you’ve done everything else!
Hikes near Peyto Lake
There are honestly a lifetime of hikes to check off near Peyto Lake, but there are some truly fantastic hikes that you absolutely aim to check off if you have some time.
- Helen Lake and Cirque Peak.
- The Onion
- Bow Glacier Falls
- Mt. Jimmy Simpson
- Mt. Jimmy Simpson Jr.
- Observation Peak
- Wapta Peak
- Caldron Peak Trail
- Hilda Ridge Trail
- Parker Ridge
- Mistaya Canyon Trail
I will update this with links to individual trail descriptions when I have a moment!
Winter Activities at Peyto Lake
Hiking or snowshoeing at Peyto Lake
I’ve already mentioned this already, but you can definitely still hike and/or snowshoe at Peyto Lake in the winter. The main trail to the viewpoint is the easiest one to check out, and you can also hike to the secret viewpoint too.
This year we also hiked to the lake via the lower entrance. This was a nice forest walk that wasn’t too difficult or strenuous. Definitely worth doing if you’re looking for a winter adventure
Ice Skating at Peyto Lake
As I mentioned, this year was the first time we’ve ever skated on Peyto Lake. It’s one of those lakes that’s not only tricky to reach in winter, but it’s also only generally ice covered but snow free for a very short window.
The lake is relatively protected from the wind, so although it’s an awesome place to skate (when the ice is uncovered), once it snows, the snow doesn’t move. Places like Lake Minnewanka are far windier, so a lot of the snow gets blown away after it snows and the window is a lot longer.
Owing to the fact that you have to skate relatively early in the season, right after it freezes, the ice is likely to be much thinner here than other places you might want to skate. Therefore the risks of falling through the ice here are significantly higher.
Help is also a long way away if you get into trouble.
If you are going to skate here, please make sure you test the ice thickness before venturing out.
Bow Summit in Winter
Bow summit is actually a really popular winter backcountry skiing location. If you’re into that kind of thing, it’s a relatively safe and easy place to give it a go! Park at the Peyto Lake parking area and head up from there!
Peyto Lake FAQ’s
How to get to Peyto Lake
Peyto Lake is one of the most straightforward places to reach in Banff National Park. If you’re visiting from Banff, there is literally one right turn and one left turn in the entire drive to get there.
Follow the Trans Canada Highway from Banff, pass the Lake Louise turnoff and shortly afterwards, take a right turn down the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 North).
Pass through the Park’s Canada gate and drive for roughly another 25 minutes until you reach a sign for Bow Summit. Now Turn left and you’re there! Easy peasy!
If you’re visiting from Jasper, it’s even easier… this time there’s only one right turn!
Leave the town of Jasper and continue straight down the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93N). Continue until you reach the sign for Bow Summit… Turn right.
It’s that easy!
There’s a long standing joke that Canada only has one road, and honestly sometimes it feels that way living in the Bow Valley. If you want to go to Calgary from Banff, you turn right. If you want to go to Lake Louise, you turn left! It definitely makes things easy when you’re a tourist because most things are all located along the same few roads!
Why is Peyto Lake so blue?
The extraordinary blue colour of Banff’s lakes is something that you can only find in glacial lakes (i.e. lake water that comes from a melting glacier).
The reason for the blue colour is due to something called ‘rock flour’. Rock flour is basically ground up rocks and sediment that’s created as a glacier carves out a path through a mountain. This ground up rock flour is trapped in the glacier ice, and is then transported from the glacier to the glacial lake when the ice melts.
The rock flour then floats in the glacial lake (creating a suspension). When the light hits the lake, all colours are absorbed, but the rock flour reflects blue light. This is what enters your eyes and gives it that bright blue colour. This is also why it glows bright blue in direct sunlight!
What you’ll notice, is that the lake is bluest during the mid summer, when glacier melt is at its absolute peak. If you visit at the start of the summer or the end of the summer, the lakes will be a much darker blue colour, or will even resemble a normal lake. This is because no new rock flour is entering the lake (the glaciers are still frozen and not melting), and the old rock flour has settled at the bottom of the lake!
Often when we visit Lake Louise in the spring, the lake is perfectly clear and not the bright blue everyone knows it for. This is why!
What kind of wildlife can you see at Peyto Lake?
Peyto Lake/Bow Lake area is actually a very common place to find grizzly bears, so if you’re hiking there, make sure you bring bear spray.
More often than not, there are two main animals I see when I go to Peyto Lake; Chipmunks and Hoary Marmots.
The chipmunks at Peyto Lake are overly brave because they are used to being fed by tourists. This is highly illegal. Do not feed the wildlife. Also, they may appear friendly, but they’re looking for food, and if you get too close you could get a nasty bite.
The marmots are a lot more scared of people, and you’ll typically find them sunbathing on the rocks below the viewpoints. You’ll know one is nearby if you hear a very loud human-like whistle.
What kind of facilities are there at Peyto Lake?
Peyto Lake is relatively basic, and there are not too many facilities there. You’ll find a few toilets (of the stinky outhouse variety), general car parking and RV parking.
If you’re desperate and the toilets here have a lineup, you can go to Bow Lake parking area down the road, which has a lot more stalls. There’s also Num-Ti-Jah Lodge at Bow Lake which sometimes gives access to their washrooms (usually it’s hotel guests only – not open in winter also).
Do I need a Banff park pass to visit Peyto Lake
Yes, 100%. If you are driving the Icefields Parkway, you’ll need to buy a National Park pass. It is probably worth buying an annual pass if you’re here for more than a few days. If you buy a day pass and later upgrade to an annual pass, they will take off the cost of the day pass from the annual price, so keep your receipts!
Is Peyto Lake a good place to see the Northern Lights?
Yes, Peyto Lake is an incredible place to see the Northern lights, as the viewing platform is pointed in a general northerly direction.
Having said that, Northern lights are generally viewable in the winter, when temperatures plummet and the trails are harder to navigate without appropriate gear.
Typically most people stay in Banff so this is a long way to go to try and see the aurora, but if you go and they’re on, it will absolutely blow your mind. The lack of lights and the huge opening in the valley up the Icefields Parkway makes it the perfect place to see them.
But honestly you really need the stars to align (excuse the pun) to be able to see them there.
Where should you Stay Near Peyto Lake?
Hotels in Banff and Lake Louise
The best place to stay if you’re planning to visit Peyto is Lake Louise, as it’s roughly 25 minutes away and is the closest area with hotels. Alternatively, you can stay in Banff which is just over an hour away. Here is a guide to all the hotels in Banff and Lake Louise!
You can also stay in the absolutely epic Glacier View Lodge at the Columbia Icefields. You can wake up here to an incredible view of the Athabasca Glacier. It’s really a bucketlist hotel that gets completely booked up if you don’t book early!
Campgrounds near Peyto Lake
Peyto Lake has plenty of campgrounds along the way, so you’ll have plenty of options along the way. Some take reservations, others are first come first served.
The best option is to stay at Mosquito Creek campground, which has sites for tents and small RV’s.
Mosquito Creek has 32 campsites which have firepits and picnic tables. There is also a food shelter, food lockers and a couple of washrooms (just pit toilets again). Check out the Parks website for more information about campsite reservtions.
What are some other attractions near Peyto Lake?
For the full guide to the Icefields Parkway, you have to read our ultimate guide! It has the comprehensive guide to everything you’ll find along the way so it’s definitely worth a read.
If you’re looking for things really closeby, there are a few other awesome stops to check out.
- Bow Lake
- Waterfowl Lakes
- Herbert Lake
- Hector Lake
General Tips for Visiting Peyto Lake
Here are some general tips for making your visit to Peyto Lake as enjoyable as possible!
- Avoid busy long weekends to avoid crowds
- Carpool because parking can be tricky
- Bring warm clothes to protect yourself from the elements
- Bring your camera!
- Explore some of the other trails nearby and not just the viewing platform
Photography Tips at Peyto Lake?
Peyto Lake is both challenging and easy to take photos of. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful view that’s almost impossible to make look bad. On the other hand, sometimes the conditions can make photos challenging. It can also be tricky to take photos that fit the entire thing in, or that look good with people in them.
My best recommendations are the following:
- Try to visit a bit later in the day when the light is a bit softer
- Don’t visit later than about 2 hours before sunset if you want bright blue photos. The sun tends to disappear behind the mountains long before sunset.
- Bring a wide lens to capture more of the lake
- If you want to capture the entire lake, walk to the secret viewpoint and then walk down the hill a little to the left. You can get an unobstructed panoramic photo of the lake there.
- If you want good photos with people in them, I would recommend the secret Peyto viewpoint because you can actually step back from your subject here.
Trail Etiquette and Safety Tips at Peyto Lake
- Wear decent hiking boots with ankle support; a lot of the trails here are uneven with exposed roots and rock hazards
- Generally speaking, those coming uphill have right of way. If you’re on a narrow trail, step to the side to allow the uphill group pass. Try not to squish any wildlife and step on a rock if possible.
- Bring bear spray. Bear bells do nothing and will not protect you
- Respect other hikers and nature and don’t play loud music on the trail
- No drones are allowed in Banff National Park
- Plan your route before you visit, and bring a trail map or GPS tracking map to stay safe. No cell service, so make sure you put the location in your maps before you set off.
- Always tell someone where you’re going. Peyto Lake has no cell service.
Safety Tips for Winter Activities
The main risks in winter are getting too cold and avalanche. If you’re just hiking to the main viewpoint, the avalanche risks are very low, but getting cold is definitely a major risk. The walk to the viewpoint and the viewing platform itself can get very windy, and on cold days, the wind chill can freeze you in minutes.
If you’re coming during the winter months, make sure you pack the following items:
- Decent winter gloves – I love Hestras
- A thick winter jacket with a windproof layer (usually a skiing shell can work well)
- Cold rated boots (usually to -30C is a good idea)
- Long pants that cover the tops of your boots and stop snow getting in
- A face covering to protect from the wind/cold
- A thick hat
- Garmin GPS (this is great for keeping in touch with your emergency contact)
Remember, you can never bring too many layers, but you really can’t fix it if you don’t bring enough. I usually bring a backpack and take off layers when I get too hot. If you’re sweating, you’re wearing too many layers and you need to remove a layer before you sweat too much. Sweat freezes and makes you even colder!
Peyto Lake is one of my favourite places in the world, and if you visit you will absolutely love it! But be prepared for the crowds so you’re not disappointed! Or try visiting in the off season for a more calm experience.
Either way, you absolutely have to make time to visit Peyto Lake!