canadian rockies' trails

best day hikes and short backpacks

Mount Assiniboine from Lake Magog

Hiking trails in the Canadian Rockies

Each of the great mountain ranges in North America has claims to be an outstanding hiking destination. The Sierras have Yosemite and the best weather; Alaska the highest and wildest peaks; the North Cascades and Coast Mountains of British Columbia the most diverse climate (and some gruelling trails). I've enjoyed fantastic hiking in all of these, but the Canadian Rockies get my vote for the best hiking trails in America. The scenery is spectacular and the range of trails unmatched: from short easy day hikes to long backpacks. This page describes some of the best day hikes and short backpacking trips in the Rockies.

Mount Robson from Berg Lake

  Berg Lake trail, Mount Robson Provincial Park

Whether you hike, bike, or run the trail the Berg Lake hike in British Columbia's Mount Robson park should be atop your wish list of Canadian Rockies' adventures. It's my top hike in North America. Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rocky Mountains (3,954m or almost 13,000 feet) and, thanks to its isolated location at the northern extremity of the range, the most heavily glaciated. The sight of the Berg Glacier flowing some 2,000m down from the summit snowfields into its namesake lake is the single most spectacular vista in the Rockies.

Hiking to Berg Lake requires just enough effort to add value to the view. From the trailhead, 60 miles west of Jasper along Highway 16, it's 13 miles of hiking (one way) to the Berg Lake campground and shelter near the shore of the lake. Most people tackle this as a short backpacking trip, camping either at Berg Lake itself or at some of the other well-situated campgrounds (especially the Emperor Falls campground) en route. The trail is well maintained and, for the most part, only moderately difficult, though there's a stiff section of climbing through the Robson River gorge to attain the upper Robson River Valley containing Berg Lake. The hike is outstandingly scenic the whole way: landmarks such as Emperor Falls or the Valley of a Thousand Falls - which if you're making good time are here mere diversions to the goal of reaching Berg Lake - would be major destinations almost anywhere else.

Practicalities: I've hiked the Berg Lake trail twice, the first time as a day hike, which is not quite as crazy as it sounds because you can use mountain bikes for the first few miles. Most people though do this as a short backpack, in which case I'd recommend camping at the Emperor Falls or Berg Lake campgrounds. From the Berg Lake campground it's possible to take a day hike to Snowbird Pass, which yields a spectacular vista of the Robson glacier. Camping permits can be reserved by phone through Mount Robson Provincial Park, though you can also chance your luck for a walk-up (except on the busiest days, this is unlikely to pose a problem). The main hiking season starts in mid to late June, and runs through September.

Mount Assiniboine dawn

  Lake Magog, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park

Lake Magog lies at the heart of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, in the southern part of the Canadian Rockies. Options to see the stunningly beautiful region surrounding the mountain cater for pretty much every level of fitness (and levity of wallet): you can helicopter, ski or hike in along numerous trails, and thereafter enjoy either the considerable luxury of the Mount Assiniboine Lodge or the more basic charms of the backcountry campground. In 2009, we hiked to the lake out-and-back along the 18 mile trail that starts at the Sunshine Village ski area in Banff National Park (at high elevation) and proceeds to the lake via Citadel Pass. The hike in, although scenic from the start, does not compare to the beauty around Lake Magog (for this reason the hike does not quite match the heights of the Berg Lake trail). I'd recommend not dawdling and going at least as far as Lake Og (13 miles), and ideally all the way to Lake Magog, before camping. Be aware though that while Citadel Pass is a trifling obstable on the way in, it's much stiffer on the way back! You might consider either breaking the return into shorter pieces by camping at Lake Og or, with a shuttle, hiking out via a different route, such as the Wonder Pass trail which returns to the Mount Shark trailhead.

Whether reached by dint of muscle power, or with the aid of one of man's infernal machines, Lake Magog is a magical spot. The campground occupies a forested rise at the far end of the large lake, just above rocky beaches from where there are great views of the peak. Dawn saw the postcard reflection of a golden Mount Assiniboine seen in the photo above. Several day hikes are possible from Lake Magog, so it's worth basing yourself at the campground for at least a couple of days to explore some of the surrounding ridges and passes.

Practicalities: This is an easy trip to organize. Reservations are only needed if you plan to camp in Banff National Park near the start of the trail from Sunshine Village (not recommended in any case), otherwise permits are issued on a self-service basis at the Lake Og and Lake Magog campgrounds (if you arrive at Lake Magog to find the campground officially "full", which happened to us, you'll be directed to pitch your tent on whatever flat spot you can find in an adjoining meadow). The only booking to consider making in advance is for the Sunshine Meadows shuttle bus which goes from the parking lot at the base of the Sunshine Village ski area up to the meadows where the trail starts. Taking the bus saves 4 miles of tedious uphill road walking on the way out (if you hike out from Magog in a day, as we did, skipping the downhill at the end will seem like an even more blessed relief!). The nearest towns are Banff and Canmore in Alberta.

Wildlife: Watching an osprey fishing in Lake Magog was one of the highlights of our trip, but otherwise we didn't see much in the way of large wildlife. You should still go loaded for bear, though, not on account of bruins (though grizzlies call both Banff and Assiniboine home) but rather for bugs. Voracious members of the phylum Arthropoda were thick in the air when we visited Magog at the very end of July, and withough long sleeves, pants and headnets we wouldn't have enjoyed our Mount Assiniboine hike nearly as much.

  Iceline trail, Yoho National Park

Yoho National Park is home to both cerebal and visceral wonders. The cerebal highlight is the Burgess Shale, historically one of the world's most important fossil beds, whose Cambrian fauna play the starring role in Stephen Jay Gould's best book "Wonderful Life". As a professional scientist myself (though an astronomer, not a paleontologist), it's with some shame that I have to confess I haven't taken the guided hike that's the only way for visitors to see Walcott's Quarry. I have, on the other hand, seen the visceral highlight, the almost 400m (1260 foot) high Takakkaw Falls at the end of Yoho Valley Road. It ranks alongside California's Yosemite Falls (during the Spring runoff) as one of the most impressive waterfalls in North America.

Iceline trail in Yoho Yoho's Takakkaw Falls Laughing Falls Yoho National Park

Takakkaw Falls itself is not difficult to see. In fact, you can almost reverse your car into the falls from the parking lot at the end of the Yoho Valley road, which, although enormous, is not enormous enough to cater for tourist demand in high season. Once you've seen the falls, I'd recommend hiking the Iceline trail, which connects with other trails to allow several excellent loop hikes. From Takakkaw Falls the trail climbs steeply to ascend the opposite valley wall from where, above treeline amid a barren landscape of rock and vestigal glaciers, there are excellent views of the falls, the Daly glacier, and the distant peaks that ring Lake O'Hara. Among many hiking options, the simplest is an 8 mile out-and-back along the Iceline to the highpoint. The scenic rewards amply repay the effort required to gain some 2,000 feet. Alternatively, it's possible to make several loops, either by descending on the Highline trail via Lake Celeste or by taking the Iceline all the way into Little Yoho Valley. The loop options add 2 to 5 miles to the distance and pass some attractive meadows and (smaller) waterfalls, at the expense of adding a rather tedious final trudge through the forest to get back to the trailhead.

  Lake O'Hara hiking trails: the Lake O'Hara Alpine Circuit

The Lake O'Hara region of Yoho National Park is often cited as being the most beautiful single spot in the Canadian Rockies. Every element of the quintessential Rocky Mountain scene is present and accounted for here: emerald green glacial lakes, lush forest, barren cirques and snowy peaks. It is, genuinely, a wonder to behold, though I hesitate to say it's a great photographic location. Shame on you if you fail to take a picture postcard photo amid such scenery; deepest respect if you can make an original image from such stereotypical building blocks.

A wealth of mostly easy trails allow you to explore some of the other lakes and viewpoints above Lake O'Hara. For the keen hiker, the best single option is probably the 8 miles of the Lake O'Hara alpine circuit loop, which combines stretches of trail with marked routes along rocky ledges to visit Lake Oesa, Opabin Lake and Schaffer Lake. Along the way there are several impressive viewpoints of the lakes and valleys below, with the panoramic vista from All Souls Prospect (below) being my personal favorite. Overall though I'd rate the hike merely as very good rather than excellent, with my gripe being that the whole thing feels rather manufactured: the ledges and traverses of the alpine circuit, although scenic and adventurous, don't actually take you anywhere you can't also go to via shorter, more direct trails.

Panorama of Lake O'Hara from All Souls Prospect courtesy of Dave Armitage

Practicalities: Since you cannot drive the unpaved road that leads from the trans-Canada highway to the lake, there are only two easy ways to visit Lake O'Hara. The first is to book a room at the Lake O'Hara Lodge, thereby taking care of eating, sleeping and transportation in one fell swoop. Alas the lodge is both extremely pricey and absurdly overbooked. The second is to walk to the lake along the road from the parking area. Alas it's 7 rather tedious miles each way. If neither of these options appeal, you'll need to book a shuttle and / or reserve a campsite, which requires advance planning. Reservations for the Lake O'Hara bus are accepted, by phone only, up to three months in advance of the date of your trip, but to stand a chance in summer you'll need to reserve exactly three months ahead (and then pray for good weather on the day). Call the reservation line (250.343.6433 - in 2009 it seemed to be staffed by one charming, but surely harried, woman) at 8AM Mountain Standard Time, and be prepared to hit redial for an hour or more until you're accepted into the queue (in which case rejoice, as the phone queue itself is short). It's a moderate hassle.

 Pass, Jasper

  Wilcox Pass trail to Athabasca Glacier overlook

The Athabasca glacier, whose snout lies within walking distance of the Icefields Parkway, is one of the signature tourist sites in Jasper National Park. There's an interpretive center just off the highway, and you can take a tour on modified buses out onto the ice. For a slightly more wilderness experience, the Wilcox Pass trail climbs to a low pass on the opposite side of the road, from where there are spectacular views of the glacier and the surrounding peaks. From this elevated vantage, the scale of the glacier is much more impressive than from the highway. It's a pretty easy but highly recommended hike - about 6 miles out and back with a little over a thousand feet of elevation gain. It's possible to continue over the pass, away from the glacier, into a high and barren alpine valley, which is extremely scenic in its own right.

Saskatchewan Glacier, Icefields Parkway

  Parker Ridge trail to Saskatchewan Glacier viewpoint

Driving the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper is one of the highlights of a Canadian Rockies vacation. Among many possible Icefields Parkway hikes, most of which are mere leg-stretchers, the short but quite steep climb (about 3 miles round trip, with 900 feet of elevation gain) to the Parker Ridge may yield the greatest reward for the least effort. Although the view of Mount Athabasca from the highway is already impressive, there's no hint of either the Saskatchewan Glacier or of the epic panorama of peaks that unfolds once you crest the ridge. The trailhead is right on the highway about 3 miles south of the boundary between Banff and Jasper National parks at Sunwapta Pass. This popular hike is unmissable if you're driving the Icefields Parkway.

  Mount Fairview trail from Lake Louise, Banff National Park

The summit of Mount Fairview, above Lake Louise in Banff National Park, is the highest point you can reach on a maintained trail in the Canadian Rockies. Down south in Colorado the elevation of 2744m (9000 feet) would be considered derisory, but this far north both the plains and the peaks are a lot lower. The summit affords a great panorama that encompasses the glaciated peaks at the head of Lake Louise, snowcapped Mount Temple, and distant glaciers that lie to the north along the Icefields Parkway. Overall, this is a good moderately strenuous day hike that fully satisfies one's craving to make it to the top of something!

  Mount Temple in Banff Fairview Mountain summit, Banff

Practicalities: the trail leaves from the shore of Lake Louise. From there, it's just 3.3 miles to the summit of Fairview, but 1000m vertical meters (3300 feet). The last mile is especially stiff. Although Lake Louise is the most popular destination in the Canadian Rockies, the hike is long and difficult enough to be merely popular rather than intolerably crowded. Nonetheless, one should avoid Lake Louise like the plague on holiday weekends: when it might take an hour or more just to find a parking space.

Mount Edith Cavell, Jasper

  Mount Edith Cavell, Jasper National Park

Mount Edith Cavell and its hanging glacier, located less than an hour's drive south of Jasper at the end of the Cavell Road (normally open June through October), is one of the premier drive-up attractions of Jasper National Park. Two short hikes leave from the parking lot at the end of the road: the easy Path of Glacier loop (about one mile roundtrip) and the Cavell Meadows Loop, which is about 5 miles long with more than a thousand feet of elevation gain. Both trails offer great views of the mountain and the icy lake at the foot of the glacier. Since access is so easy, this is also a good location for photographing sunrise in Jasper National Park.

Longer hikes into the Tonquin Valley also depart from the Mount Edith Cavell Road, shortly before it dead ends at the Mount Edith Cavell parking area. Camping near the Ramparts and Amethyst Lakes is supposed to be exceptional, and there are also some backcountry lodges in the valley.

  Nearby hikes in the Purcell and Selkirk Mountains

East of the main peaks of the Rocky Mountains lies nothing but foothills (interesting perhaps for hiking in the off-season) and interminable plains. Just to the west of the Rockies in British Columbia, on the other hand, rise the Columbia Mountains. Although geologically distinct from the main body of the Canadian Rockies, the ranges are close enough together that it's easy to hike in both. Lying to the west, the Columbia Mountains are probably wetter than the Rockies, certainly less visited, and unfortunately much less well protected against logging and other commercical activities.

  Bugaboo glacier and Hounds tooth Glacier National Park, Canada

Of the small number of hikes I've done in this region, the standout is the day hike to the Conrad Kain hut in Bugaboo Provincial Park (part of the Purcell Mountains), which I rate as outstanding. The granite spires of the Bugaboos are well-known testpieces for climbers, and together with the Bugaboo glacier they provide a spectacular backdrop to a handful of marked hikes. This is a remote area accessed by lengthy approaches along (mostly excellent) logging roads, so a 4WD and / or brazen disregard for the provisions of a rental car contract are needed to get the most out of a Bugaboos adventure. But the effort is well worth it.

Another alternative is to hike in the Selkirk Mountains, part of which are protected as part of Canada's Glacier National Park (not to be confused with the US Glacier National Park in Montana!). The trans-Canada highway runs right through Glacier, which is a major plus (access is as easy as it gets) and a major drawback (you can see and sometimes hear the highway from some of the hikes). The hikes in this park are steep and not for the faint of heart, but they lead swiftly to some great overlooks of the mountains and of what remains of Glacier's glaciers. The picture above and to the right was taken from the Glacier Crest trail, which I'd rate as good to very good just for the barren and other-worldly vista at its culmination.


photography, text and design by Phil Armitage