There are few hidden gems in the Canadian Rockies yet to be discovered by many. Michelle Lakes is one of those gems. Upper Michelle lakes is only 11 or so km from the trailhead on the David Thompson highway in Clearwater County. The Michelle Lakes trail via Owen Creek is also part of the Great Divide Trail (GDT) which is a 1,130 km trail that essentially runs the length of the Canadian Rockies north to south, following roughly the continental divide.
Welcome to Michelle Lakes in Clearwater County
Michelle Lakes boats one of the most magnificent backcountry venues I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting. Our small group of five were the only hikers there that night. We climbed over the unnamed pass the next morning and headed into the next valley before ascending and descending the next pass leading to Pinto Lake.
The hiking from Michelle Lakes to Pinto lake is all world class. Climbing up unnamed passes and in the shadow of some of the biggest mountains in the Canadian Rockies. We set camp at Pinto Lake for the night before eventually making our way out towards the Icefields Parkway where we had arranged a pickup.
There is another way to approach Michelle Lakes. The alternative route is a more gradual climb and apparently just as scenic. I’ll definitely be returning to Michelle Lakes again next summer and when I do, I’ll try it from the other valley over.
The 50 km section of trail we tackled on this trip began at the Owen Creak trail head through Michelle Lakes, Pinto Lake, and ending at Norman creek Trailhead along the Icefields Parkway (highway 93n).
A Little Bit About Michelle Lakes
There are two lakes at Michelle Lakes, simply upper and lower Michelle Lakes. The upper lake is only about 500 meters off the main GDT. There is wild camping right beside the lake. Lower Michelle lake can be accessed by traverse the left or north side of upper Michelle lake.
Both lakes eventually drain into waterfalls creak or waterfall valley. This is the valley you can enter or leave by. Our group hiked up Owen creak directly from the David Thompson Highway. You can also make this trip a loop if you enter through Owen creak and leave by waterfall creak. You’ll just have to walk along the highway to return to your vehicle for a couple of kilometers.
Getting to Michelle Lakes Trailhead
As mentioned above there are to main access points. I would recommend going up Owen creak. It’s beautiful and the incline was consistent and mostly gradual. The hike out from waterfall creak is a very slow decline and would make for really nice hiking on the way out. You can also do what our group did which is to continue on to Pinto lake and then head towards the Icefields Parkway.
It’s almost exactly the same amount of time to take either Highway 1 to the Icefields Parkways North then turn right at the Saskatchewan Crossing onto the David Thompson as it is to take the 2 north from Calgary and go through Rocky Mountain House. Obviously the Icefields route is much prettier. Both will take you around 4 hours to the trailhead. The trail head is at Owen creak and there is a clear trail leading up along Owen creak to the north.
Photography Tips For at Michelle Lakes
Best Time of Day for Photography
Because the view looks north over the lakes, sunrise and sunset offer an equal amount of potential. I got skunked on good light the entire time we were there. I managed to grab a few photos in mid morning when the sun finally broke through the clouds.
The lakes looks best in direct sunlight so shooting mid morning or late afternoon is a great time to shoot for those vibrant blues.
Next time I go there I hope to have clearer skies to create some astrophotography as well.
What Camera Gear to Bring
- Bring a tripod if you’re happy to carry the extra weight. Long exposure shots here would be really cool, or astrophotography shots at night
- Bring a polarizer so you can shoot mid morning to see the vibrant blue lakes but cut down on the sun’s harsh reflections in the lake
What Outdoor Equipment to Bring
- Michelle Lakes is full on backcountry wilderness so bring your safety gear and emergency comms
- This is the highest point of the entire GDT and it gets seriously cold up there even compared to other alpine areas in the Canadian Rockies, so be sure to bring tons of warm clothing
Technical Photography Tips
Try shooting to panoramic shots to capture the entire scene without pushing out the background too much. Wide-angle lenses tend to push away the background in such an exaggerated way. Shooting panoramic shots is one way to avoid lens distortion from wide angles.
The view point is a quick 10 minute walk from where you can set up camp. It’s about a 150m climb but if you leave your gear by your tent, you can go up and down the hillside to create photos whenever the light inspires you to do so.
Rocky Mountain House, Lake Louse, and Jasper are the only amenities “nearby”. They’re all at least a couple hours away from the trailhead so plan accordingly.
Where to stay
You can camp right beside the trailhead at Owen creak beside the David Thompson highway. There is also Free camping all along Lake Abraham about 20 minutes up the highway. I’ve stayed at Preachers Point close by which is a scenic alternative to sleeping in the creak.
Michelle Lakes is complete wilderness and there is no fee for backcountry camping at Upper Michelle Lake.
Where to eat
Cafe’ Le’backpack. There’s nowhere to get any food so pack smart and bring some bargaining chips to trade with friends.
Leave no trace. Don’t geo tag your photos. Keep this place a hidden gem.