hiking in the canadian rockies

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Mount Assiniboine from Lake Magog
Mount Assiniboine and Lake Magog at twilight, seen from near the Lake Magog campground
Ideas for hikes in the Canadian Rockies

The Rockies are North America's quintessential mountain range, and although the Sierras, Alaska, the Cascades and British Columbia's Coast Range all offer wonderous scenery, the Rockies are hard to beat for hiking. The range stretches from Colorado, where there are dozens of hikeable 14,000 foot-high peaks, into Canada, where ongoing glaciation provides some of the most dramatic and iconic landscapes. This page provides a few suggestions toward great hikes I've enjoyed in the Canadian Rockies.

Short backpacks: Mount Assiniboine and the Berg Lake trail
Lists of the best backpacking trips in the Canadian Rockies invariably feature hikes to Lake Magog (in Mount Assiniboine provincial park), the Skyline trail (in Jasper national park), and the Berg Lake trail (in Mount Robson provincial park) among the best of the best. I've done two of these trips, and they both lived up to their reputation as unmissable hiking experiences.

Mount Assiniboine dawn
Mount Assiniboine at dawn from Lake Magog
Mount Robson from Berg Lake
The view of Mount Robson's Emperor Face from Berg Lake

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 everyone: you can helicopter, ski or hike in along numerous trails, and enjoy either the luxury of the Mount Assiniboine Lodge or the more basic charms of the backcountry campground. In 2009, my brother and I 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. 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.

However you get there, 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. Do make sure you're well protected against bugs, which we found to be particularly dense!

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, a bus or gondola ride 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 road walking at either end of the trip. The nearest towns are Banff and Canmore in Alberta.

Berg Lake trail, Mount Robson Provincial Park: Whether you day hike, backpack, or run the trail, the Berg Lake hike in British Columbia's Mount Robson park is an amazing experience. 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 probably 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 side trips en route to Berg Lake - would be major destinations almost anywhere else. The video below shows some of the highlights of our trip.

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. The main hiking season starts in mid to late June, and runs through September.
Day hikes in the Canadian Rockies
There are far too many day hiking possibilities in the Canadian Rockies for me to make any pretense at completeness. Here, rather, are a selection of great day hikes in the Rockies that should not disappoint. Also included are a couple of hikes just to the west of the Rockies - in the adjoining Selkirk and Purcell mountains - that make for an interesting and generally less crowded alternative.

Iceline trail, Yoho National Park: Yoho is one of those national parks whose single most impressive sight - Takakkaw Falls - requires no effort to see. There's an enormous parking lot at the end of Yoho Valley Road right at the base of the falls. At almost 400m (1200 feet) high it ranks alongside California's Yosemite Falls during the Spring runoff as one of the best waterfalls in North America.

Iceline trail in Yoho
Distant glaciers in Yoho
Laughing Falls Yoho National Park
Laughing Falls, Yoho National Park

The falls are also the trailhead for the highly recommended Iceline trail, which connects with several others to allow 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.

Alpine Circuit, Lake O'Hara: The Lake O'Hara region of Yoho is a pocket-sized version of the Canadian Rockies. All the elements of the quintessential Rocky Mountain scene are here: emerald green glacial lakes, lush forest, barren cirques and snowy peaks. It's both beautiful and something of a hassle to see, since unless you plan to walk 7 miles each way along the (closed) road you need to book a shuttle and / or campsite typically many months in advance.

Lake O'Hara from All Souls Prospect
Panorama of Lake O'Hara from All Souls Prospect from my brother's West Canada gallery

Once at the lake a wealth of mostly easy trails allow you to explore some of the other lakes and viewpoints above Lake O'Hara. 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 (above) being my personal favorite. This makes for a very enjoyable day out, though 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.

Wilcox Pass and Parker Ridge trails: These are two short hikes that lead to overlooks of the Athabasca and Saskatchewan glaciers.

Wilcox Pass, Jasper
The view from Wilcox Pass across to Mount Athabasca
Saskatchewan Glacier, Icefields Parkway
The Saskatchewan Glacier from the Parker Ridge

The Athabasca glacier's snout lies within walking distance of the Icefields Parkway, and there's an interpretive center just off the highway. The Wilcox Pass trail leads to an overlook of the glacier from a low pass on the opposite side of the road. 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.

The Parker Ridge trail may yield the greatest reward for the least effort of any of the hikes off the Icefields Parkway. A short but steep climb (about 3 miles round trip, with 900 feet of elevation gain) leads to a spectacular reveal of the Saskatchewan Glacier and a panorama of surrounding peaks 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.

Mount Fairview trail: 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. 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. 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.
Fairview Mountain summit, Banff
Fairview Mountain summit, Banff

Mount Edith Cavell: 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. 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.
Mount Edith Cavell, Jasper
Last light on the face of Mount Edith Cavell, in Jasper National Park

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 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. For hiking access is often harder (requiring long drives on forest service roads) but there's some unique scenery and typically many few visitors.

Bugaboos wildflowers
Hiking to the Conrad Kain hut, Bugaboos
Glacier National Park, Canada
At the summit of the Glacier Crest trail

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. 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 allows very easy access but does mean that 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 leads to barren and other-worldly terrain high up.