The journey is half the pleasure of Alberta’s Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse

The journey is half the pleasure of Alberta’s Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse

In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, The Takeout is celebrating the nation’s culinary contributions all week long. We hope you enjoy Canada Week.


Lake Louise is a vibrant, borderline offensive shade of turquoise. Whatever your eyes think they know to be turquoise is wrong—you’ll only know once you stand at the shoreline, glancing up toward Fairview Mountain. Nestled into the mountains to the southwest of the shoreline is the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse. You can’t see it from the head of the trail, and why would you want to? The teahouse is the destination—knowing what’s out there on the way up the side of a mountain and into the woods is what makes the trek worth its while.

I hadn’t set out that morning with the intention of reaching the teahouse. I mean, I wanted to get there, but I was also uncertain if I could. I only knew it was out there somewhere—up there!—if I kept moving forward. The whole endeavor was a ramshackle plan, cobbled together over the course of the year. I knew I was headed to Alberta to attend the wedding of beloved pals in Calgary. I mentioned the trip to friends throughout the summer with no intention of venturing outside of the hotel during the wedding weekend.

“You’ll be close to Banff, though, won’t you?” asked a good buddy as we sat watching a baseball game. He pulled up photos of Lake Louise on his phone. “If you’re close…” he said, letting me come to the concrete realization that this was a big blue lake I had to see. Later in the summer, bored behind the counter at the ice cream shop I worked at, a gaggle of Canadian tourists—from Calgary, no less!—rattled off suggestion after suggestion, and that is when the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse was presented to me. Indeed, the plans to get there were spontaneous, unless you count a summer of small interactions building toward the inevitability of me scaling a mountain for a cup of tea.

Lake Louise framed by mountains
Photo: Fran Hoepfner

The Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse is nearly a century old; its 100th birthday will occur approximately seven years from now if North America is still standing. It was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway as a rest stop for tourists staying at Chateau Lake Louise at the shore of the lake. The Chateau is marvelous. I walked past it a little before five in the morning the day of my hike and muttered, “that’s marvelous.” I, however, stayed almost an hour away in the top bunk of a crowded youth hostel where I’d gone to sleep just before midnight and woken up a little before three.

The destination combines two oft-fantasized millennial aesthetics: running away to the woods and opening a restaurant. However, it long predates the Instagrammable nature of such a fantasy. In 1959, Joy Kimball bought the teahouse from CPR, and the café has been in her family since. There’s no electricity. No internet. Its remote location means that its employees stay up at the teahouse for a few days at a time. All of the food has to be airlifted or hiked up on the backs of its workers. There is effort. There is work. So it’s a fitting reward to tourists and sightseers who are eager to hike the trail up alongside Lake Louise.

For folks who grew up with even the slightest bit of natural elevation in their environment, the Lake Louise hike is not all that bad. When I began my morning, I wasn’t sure how much of it I wanted or would be able to do. I hadn’t hiked in about a decade, and the memories associated with that hike were full of spider bites, uneven rocky paths, gloopy mud, and an overstuffed pack. So, you know, a hike. I began the Lake Louise trek nervous but excited. I was riding on cheap gas station coffee and trail mix. My shoelaces were double-knotted. I packed light. The trail, at first, is paved and easy. Crowded, even, for just past sunrise.

The Teahouse Trail along Lake Louise
Photo: Fran Hoepfner

The Teahouse, being a teahouse, serves exactly what you’d think of as teahouse food. Buttery, warm biscuits, tart jam, fragrant and freshly brewed tea. These are the types of foodstuff taken for granted when they can be scooped up at a local coffee place, notable only for convenience. After a steady escalation up into the Canadian Rockies, however, the thought of eggs on bread, a warm cup of tea—these are luxury goods. The work it takes to get there feels familiar, the meal becomes earned. A few miles into the hike, I’d shed the idea of just slamming the rest of the trail mix (mostly Peanut M&M’s, if I’m being honest) when I got to whatever stopping point I deemed appropriate. I was going to the Teahouse, and I’d arrive with an appetite.

It stands, two stories, on the side of the mountain with only signposts and prayer flags announcing its entrance. Hikers—friends, families with little children, and solo trekkers—gathered around the outside, laughing and hydrating. It’s a bit of a schlep! The trail is about 5.5km, or nearly three and a half miles. Easy peasy were it all flat, but the walk took about two hours for me, a slow, thoughtful, not-in-entirely-great-shape-but-you-know-I-hang-in-there-okay type of person. I took photos. I hydrated. There was no rush. This was vacation, after all. But the warmth emanating from the cabin is undeniable, the lure of biscuits permeating the flora.

Sign: "Congrats, you've arrived t the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse!
Photo: Fran Hoepfner

I sat on my own out on the second floor balcony of the teahouse, pairs of hikers seated all around me. Many poured over maps, others scrolled through photos. There was a hum to the teahouse not often experienced in other little coffee shops and cafés. In an urban setting, those spots have been repurposed for productivity. Everyone typing away, earbuds nestled in ear canals. Here, however, everyone was united in a sense of relaxation. Of accomplishment. We’d made it—all of us!

The menu is limited, but after a hike up a mountain, that doesn’t matter so much. Any food becomes good food, but this food was especially good. I got biscuits and jam and butter and honey and a hot cup of coffee. I sat, I journaled, I eavesdropped. My phone didn’t get service, and all the better for it. It’s designed this way, and Susanne Kimball, who inherited the teahouse from her mother, Joy, keeps it as off-the-grid as possible. (So off-the-grid, in fact, that I was unable to get in touch with anyone for this story.) I felt both removed from the world and enmeshed inside it. I ate quickly, then slowly, savoring my breakfast before the journey back.

A log cabin behind the Teahouse—my best guess is that this is where the employees sleep during multi-day shifts.
A log cabin behind the Teahouse—my best guess is that this is where the employees sleep during multi-day shifts.
Photo: Fran Hoepfner

Though the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse is a destination, the wait times aren’t always too bad. The turnover is quick, because nature sets in: over the course of the few miles up the mountain, I’d shed layers of clothing to appease my sweating body, but in the half hour I spent at the teahouse, I found myself shivering. Right—it was cold on a mountain. I should know this. I paid, I tipped (generously, the folks do live up there!), then started my way back down the mountain. Only trekking back down did the full weight of the journey strike me, if only because I watched out-of-breath hikers and fussy families take water breaks on some of the hairpin turns. “How much further?” a father of three asked me. I shook my head, “Not too far.” He turned back to his family and promised one of his tear-stained, dusty kids that it’d be worth it up at the top. I shrugged onward, already sweating through my flannel, knowing they’d soon learn he was right.

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DISCUSSION

Yeah, Banff is good. Pretty touristy in the summer but you can’t expect otherwise. First time I was there was a solo road trip from Toronto. Sat in a mountain meadow halfway up Mt Rundle for an hour or more just doing nothing. Could’ve been eaten by a bear and wouldn’t have cared.