The mountains decide when the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse can open every spring.
Usually operating from June to October, the teahouse, nestled in the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the province of Alberta, can only open once the spring avalanches have fallen. “I know from experience there are six avalanche paths on the trail [to the teahouse],” explained owner Susanne Gillies-Smith, whose parents purchased the establishment in 1959. “I have to wait until the avalanches are down to break trail [for the season].”
Built in 1927 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the establishment served as both a teahouse and an inn for hikers visiting the remote six glaciers for which the teahouse is named. It is located in the mountains southwest of the world-renown Lake Louise in Banff National Park.
“The teahouse is the icing on the cake, but really, the hike and the surroundings are what’s important,” Gillies-Smith says.
With an elevation gain of around 1,200 feet, the 4-mile hike takes around two hours at a slow and steady pace, including time built in to enjoy the view of Lake Louise’s striking turquoise waters, as well as glimpses of mountain goats, jays, marmots, and the occasional grizzly bear amid the mountain switchbacks.
Sitting at 7,000 feet above sea level, the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse welcomes about 400 guests per day during the peak season. People of all fitness levels and abilities tackle the climb, with the promise of treats at the teahouse serving as motivation to keep going. The Swiss-style stone-and-wood building emerges through the conifers, and colorful Nepalese prayer flags hang from its wooden beams.
“(The prayer flags) celebrate peace and serenity and also serve as a congratulations, if you will, for making it up the mountain,” Gillies-Smith explains. “For some people, the teahouse is their Everest, and they should be very proud.”
A backcountry business of this kind, with no electricity or plumbing, requires special considerations. The teahouse is cash only, with menu prices kept affordable for a family. Twice per season, Gillies-Smith hires a helicopter to make around 30 trips to deliver 35,000 pounds of supplies—propane, flour, sugar, and napkins. Every day, employees hike up fresh ingredients—cheese, fruit and other perishables—and hike out garbage and recyclables. Water is sourced from a natural spring on the property.
Soups, sandwiches, pastries, and around 20 loaves of bread are made fresh every day, prepared on a propane stove. The menu features teas from the Banff Tea Company, a company Gillies-Smith founded and owned from 2006 to 2012, located in the nearby town of Banff. Using teas imported from around the world, the shop sells more than 40 blends, including a custom herbal tea developed for the teahouse—a fusion of mint, berries, and hibiscus.
In today’s non-stop, screen-dominated world, Gillies-Smith believes the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse can bring people back to earth and into the moment. She hopes a visit to the teahouse will provide an “aha” experience in nature, a meaningful moment that will prompt them to “appreciate and enjoy the space where they are.”
Signs on the tables encourage people to put away their phones (there’s spotty reception anyway), to congratulate the people around them on the hike, and to contemplate the beauty of the scenery.
“It doesn’t have to be a ‘take-out’ experience,” Gillies-Smith says. “Stay and enjoy.”
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