Blossoms of Beauty: A Field Guide to Lake Louise’s Spectacular Wildflowers

lake louise wildflowers
The most popular wildflower questions we get and would like to answer here are:

  1. What species can be found and where?
  2. When do they arrive?
  3. Why do they grow here?
  4. How can I learn more?

What wildflowers grow in Lake Louise and where can I find them?

That’s a BIG question!  There are more than 160 species of flowering plants on the slopes and in the forests of our resort, each in its own favored spots.  Some, like Fireweed, grow all the way from the base area to the treeline.  Others like Rocky Mountain Rhododendron have much narrower elevation limits and are seen mostly around mid-station, near the top of the Summer Gondola.  Still, others, superbly adapted to harsh conditions like White Mountain Avens, are found only at or very close to the treeline. So, here’s a selection of locations accessible from the top of the Grizzly Gondola.  In some places, I’ll use ski run names so you can use the ski area trail map to locate them.

Almost everywhere:

  • Fireweed
  • Smooth Blue Aster

On the trail down from the top of the sightseeing gondola to Whitehorn Bistro and Wildlife Interpretive Centre:

  • Heart-Leaf Arnica
  • Red Paintbrush
  • White Globe Flower (early spring)
  • Red Heather
  • Red Elderberry
  • Labrador Tea

Trail of the Great Bear:

  • Bracted Honeysuckle
  • Canadian Buffalo Berry
  • Evergreen Yellow Violet
  • Northern Bedstraw
  • Canada Dogwood
  • White Rein-Orchid

Kicking Horse Lookout Trail:

Upper Wiwaxy (for the skiers reading this):

  • Contorted Lousewort (yes that’s its real name!)
  • Pink Pussytoes
  • Yellow and orange False Dandelion
  • Fireweed (tall purple) carpets this meadow area in early-mid august
  • Common Harebell
  • Tall purple Fleabane
  • Rocky Mountain Goldenrod
  • Valerian
  • Rocky Mountain White Heather

Upper Wiwaxy Cat Track:

  • Silky Scorpion Weed
  • Golden Fleabane
  • Common Stonecrop

Top of Old Olympic Lift:

  • Paintbrush - yellow, white, pink, beige

Pika Trail:

Spring crossing on the hiking trail: this small wet area contains a wonderful little ecosystem of plants that like it very moist.

  • Grass-of-Parnassus
  • Marsh Willow-Herb
  • Triangular Leaved Ragwort
  • Rocky Mountain Rhododendron

In the woods above Deer Run:

  • Pink Fruited Grouse-berry
  • One-flowered Wintergreen

Eagle Meadows Cat Track:

  • Spotted Saxifrage
  • Raspberry

Meadowlark Lake:

  • Mountain Marsh Marigold
  • Paintbrush – yellow, white, pink, beige

Upper Eagle Meadows to Winter Gondola top:

  • Lyall’s Iron-Plant
  • White Mountain Avens

High on the mountain, from the tree line up:

Summit flats:

  • White Pasque Flower
  • Mountain Meadow Cinquefoil
  • White Mountain Avens

Top of Paradise Lift:

  • Alpine Forget-me-not

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When do the Lake Louise wildflowers show up?

Lake Louise Wildflowers

As spring and summer move steadily from south to north in North America, the seasons move steadily upward and westward from the Banff townsite to the Lake Louise Ski Resort & Summer Gondola base, and on up to the top of the mountain.  Another thing to remember about wild plants: in our climate most plants flower and set seeds in about 3 weeks.  So, starting in late June and starting to wind down in mid-August, our mountain resort is an ever-unfolding, changing feast of flowers.  Surveys done in the summers of 1997-1999 suggest that a somewhat informed amateur can identify more than 160 species of flowering plants on the slopes of our resort.

Spring: As the snow melts from the hill, the spring season and wildflowers in bloom spread upwards. Early to mid-July is the best time for spring flowers.

Summer: The last week of July and the first week of August is the “sweet spot” time for the largest number of our flower species.  It culminates in early August with a blast of beautiful purple colour from the Fireweed that dominates our ski runs, from the base to the tree line.

Why so early?  It may surprise you, but snow can fall every month of the year here.  By the third week of August, there’s a serious possibility of frost, particularly at mid-station and above.  That begins the autumn process of reducing the insect population, the chief source of pollination for all of our plants.  So, the plants that grow here are adapted to get the job done before it snows.

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Why do they grow here?

Lake Louise Wildflowers

In many ways, our mountain is like a store where you buy garden plants. There are lots of varieties and each one prefers a slightly different set of conditions.  Of course, in the store, each plant comes with a little label telling you how to care for it: temperature, light, water, fertilizer.  In the wild, a plant species either likes the soil and weather conditions where it is, or it just doesn’t grow there.

Our mountain consists of many mini-habitats and each has its own special population of really interesting plants. There are six main ways to split those communities:

Elevation: Higher is colder and as you go up the plants that grow there are increasingly adapted to cold temperatures and winds. Close to and above the tree line, there’s less or no shade and wind protection that the trees provide, exposing the plants that grow there to more weather extremes.  Everything gets smaller; closer to the ground.

Slope: Steeper slopes tend to be dry, while more level areas hold soil moisture better. Some plants are adapted to not too much moisture in the soil and others like “wet feet”.

Disturbance:  Some of our most interesting plants really like disturbance – erosion, rock slides, wind blowdowns, etc.  Others are very fragile and can’t live in places where the soil (what there is of it) has been moved in any way. You may have noticed our signage that asks you to remain on the trail only – and this is to ensure the delicate plant life can continue to grow.

Tree Cover:  Some plants like the shady forest and others the wide sunny open areas. There are some that thrive in the margin between the two that occur along the edges of our ski runs.

Soil chemistry: The basic soil chemistry is determined by the rock the mountains are made of.  Here in the Central Rockies most of it is some form of sedimentary limestone (calcium carbonate), but there are local variations caused by other trace components (for instance iron) whose presence either promotes certain plants or discourages them.  Soil?  Not much of it anywhere here! The pioneering plants high on the mountain tend to grow low to the ground with long roots to collect water and stabilize the plant in loose rock and gravel.  Their low, tufted nature is ideal as wind velocities very close to the ground are lower.  The plants themselves slow down the air movement. Airborne materials like dust, needles, dead leaves of other plants, etc. are trapped by the plant and start the process of creating their own soil.  Contrary to popular understanding, Evergreen trees still drop about 1/3 of their needles each year, which contributes to soil building as they decompose in thick layers on the ground.

Lower Mountain: The slopes traversed by the Grizzly Gondola are a series of beautiful flower-filled meadows. We keep that area closed to us humans so the grizzly bears can have their freedom.  Many of the plants on the hill are bear food (yep, grizzlies are largely vegetarians.)

The south-facing aspect and several natural springs make this area especially attractive for a wide variety of plants. I can spot several species from the lift, but that may be a challenge for many.  So, enjoy the ride and the rainbow of colours.  Perhaps take a few pictures to show our Interpreters so they can help you identify what you’ve seen.

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Want to see the best at the time of your visit?

Hiking among Lake Louise Wildflowers

Drop into our Wildlife Interpretive Centre inside the mid-mountain lodge, Whitehorn Bistro, and ask our staff of experienced interpreters. Better yet, take a hike with them You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate our wildflowers!

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Doug MacDonald,
July 9, 2022

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