There can be few better inducements to go on a 5.5km hike climbing 365m in inclement weather than the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House in Banff National Park. Serving home-made soup, sandwiches, fruit pie and hot beverages, it is a welcome sight when you climb the last switch-back and turn the corner to see the Tea House looming through a curtain of unseasonable snow.
The Tea House, originally owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), was built by Swiss Alpine guides between 1924 and 1927 as a rest stop for guests hiking to the Abbot Pass Hut, the second highest permanently habitable structure in Canada. It was bought from the CPR in 1959 by Joy Kimball whose daughter still runs it today.
At an elevation of 2,100m above sea-level, the two-storey stone building with wooden verandas has no electricity – propane stoves are used for cooking - and dry goods are delivered by helicopter once a season, while fresh groceries are brought up by horse or by staff who hike up once a week and stay in the chalets nearby.
The veranda at the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House, Banff National Park
Despite these challenges, the Tea House menu includes some hot items, such as vegetarian chilli of the day with homemade gluten-free cornmeal muffin for CN$12.50 and soup of the day with homemade bread for CN$6.75, as well as hummus, cheese and tuna salad sandwiches, quinoa salad, chocolate cake and fruit pies. You can wash these down with your choice of Banff Tea Company teas, hot chocolate, coffee or lemonade. Cash is the preferred method of payment although they will accept Visa and Mastercard with a CN$2 service charge (using a manually-operated machine).
When we hiked to the Tea House in September, with rain and then snow falling, we could only see the nearby snow-covered landscape from the veranda where we sat to enjoy our refreshments. On a clear day, we were told, there are some terrific mountain views. The Plain of Six Glaciers name refers to the glaciers of Mount Aberdeen, Lefroy and Victoria, as well as Lower Victoria and Lefroy glaciers and that of Popes Peak, some of which can still be seen today.
There is seating inside the building, always popular on a cold day, and plenty outside on the balconies. One bonus of sitting outside is that you might get to meet Raymond the raven, a regular at the Tea House, who is always on the lookout for scraps.
Inside the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House, Banff National Park
The trail to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House starts in front of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel on Lake Louise, which is sign-posted off Highway 1. Follow the Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail on the west side of the lake and then continue into the narrow valley, from where the trail is signposted and you start to ascend. There is a cliff ledge in one section with a steel rope attached that you can hold on to if the conditions are wet or icy. The steepest ascent occurs in the final 600m or so after which you pass through an alpine grove and then a meadow opens up and the Tea House comes into view.
The Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse opens in May/June, depending on the weather, and closes in mid-October.
If the weather is fine you can continue a further 1.3km up another trail to the Abbot Pass viewpoint, a further 50m elevation, from where you can look down across the crevasses of the Lower Victoria Glacier.