Mount Assiniboine Backpacking Trip: Part I

At the tail end of June I went on a 6 day backpacking trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. It’s a trip I planned last year that ended up getting cancelled because of the pandemic. We made a second attempt at it this year and were partially successful in making it happen. I got permits for 3 nights at Magog Lake and we decided to extend the trip by a night on either end to hike in and out of the park.

There are lots of options for how to get to Mount Assiniboine and where to stay. There’s a swanky lodge with several hotel style rooms, about a dozen reservable huts, and a pretty standard backcountry campground with 40 sites. We opted to go the rustic route and stay at the campground, but me and Brandon had a running joke throughout the trip that the next time we return we will stay at the lodge!

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Likewise, there are a few options for getting into the park. You can take a helicopter ride from Canmore or the Mount Shark trailhead on Kananaskis Highway for $200 each way, or you can hike in through one of the many trailheads that run through the park. I thought a lot of people would be helicoptering in either one way or both ways to the park, but a surprising amount of people we met had actually decided to thru-hike in and out of the park. The park was only open to BC residents this year, so that might have had something to do with it.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that we decided to hike. There are 3 main trailheads, but the option in Kooteney National Park is not commonly followed. I only encountered one group who had come that way and they said it involved several long sections of bushwacking, so I wouldn’t recommend it. The other ways into the park are through the Sunshine Village Ski Resort (located between Lake Louise and Banff) and through Mount Shark (in Spray Lakes Provincial Park). Most people we met started at Sunshine Village and continued out through to Mount Shark. In retrospect, this is the itinerary I would recommend, but I made an error in judgement when planning the trip and booked the campsite on the Mount Shark side first, meaning we had the reverse itinerary of most other thru-hikers.

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The reason it’s preferred to go the other direction is because it’s a net downhill from Sunshine Village, although in past years everyone would take the gondola up to the top to avoid most of the elevation gain. The gondola is closed this year, so now there is a fair bit of climbing on either side. I realized my error before the trip and tried to reverse the itinerary, but the Mount Shark section requires booking a backcountry reservation in one of 3 Parks Canada backcountry sites and there were no reservations left when I tried to reverse my plans, so we committed to starting from Mount Shark.

We started the hike on June 27, which you may remember was the start of a brutal heat wave across the province. Temperatures reached over 40 degrees in Metro Vancouver throughout the week – it wasn’t that hot in the Rockies, with a high of 32 on our first two days, but still not ideal temperatures for hiking. We had a full day of driving across the province to reach our starting point, so we stayed in Golden overnight and arrived at the Mount Shark trailhead around noon the following day. Mount Shark is located off the Kananaskis Highway, which is a gravel road that runs from Canmore.

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We started the trek as a party of 4. We ate lunch in the shade at the trailhead before starting our first day, during which we’d hike 13km along flat terrain to the Marvel Lake Campsite. I was quite nervous about the heat going into the hike, though I was reassured that Mountain Forecast showed lower temperatures near Assiniboine. We focused on hydrating for several days leading up to the trip and drank 2-3L of water a day prior to the trip. We packed a ton of electrolyte powder with us and did the best we could to keep our pack weight down.

The first day was hot, but we made good time (about 3km an hour) and kept our spirits up. It was tough starting at noon because the sun is directly overhead, which means that even though a lot of the hike was in the trees, there was still no shade to be found. It’s not the most scenic first day, but I still really enjoyed hiking through the forest and liked that we had a flat day to ease into the trip rather than having to start with the 6km climb up the gondola road on the Sunshine Village side.

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The Mount Shark trailhead is located in Spray Lake Provincial Park, but the trail quickly transitions into Banff National Park. From the trailhead, it’s 26km to Magog Lake, so it was a no brainer for us to split the hike over 2 days. There are 3 backcountry campsites that can be booked on the Parks Canada website: Big Springs at 9km, Marvel Lake at 13km, and Bryant Creek at 14km. I never visited Bryant Creek, but I thought Big Springs was quite open and nice and Marvel Lake, though not much to write home about, had lots of a shade and a nice rushing river.

Marvel Lake Camp is located just off the trail junction. There are 2 options for how you get to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. You can either take the trail along the edge of Marvel Lake and up over Wonder Pass, which was our plan, or you can take the Assiniboine Pass, which exits behind the lodge. Wonder Pass is recognized as the more scenic route, but is much more challenging than Assiniboine Pass due to the elevation gain. We opted for the more scenic route, though in retrospect, with the heat we should have revised our itinerary to do Assiniboine Pass instead. That said, the pass was incredibly scenic and there is much less elevation gain coming from the other direction, so if you start at Sunshine Village, I would still recommend the Wonder Pass route. I only met one group doing the Assiniboine Pass trail and it was because they did the whole 26km in one day and opted for the easier route.

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We were looking forward to ending Day 1 with a swim in Marvel Lake, but we discovered water activities are not permitted in the lake because there is a parasite in it and they want to avoid people accidentally transporting it to other lakes or locations. Also, the entrance to the lake ended up being kind of gross with a lot of mosquitoes, so in the end we weren’t that tore up about it. Instead, we enjoyed Brandon’s infamous Thai curry chicken for dinner and went to bed early to get a head start the following day to try and beat the heat.

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Hiking the Plain of 6 Glaciers

Our second hike in Banff National Park in August was The Plain of 6 Glaciers (our first hike was Sentinel Pass). Both hikes are located in the Lake Louise area and I feel like maybe I should have branched out a little more, but they were both so incredibly scenic it’s hard to regret.

As I explained in my last post, with Lake Louise being so popular, it’s best to get there early if you want to be assured parking. I’ve heard the lot generally fills up by 8am, but I think that’s only on weekends because there was still lots of space when we got there at 8am on a Thursday. The Plain of 6 Glaciers starts right at the lake and hikes the length of the lake and up into the backcountry. I’d been to Lake Louise once before as a teenager with my parents and the lake was just as scenic as I remembered, but there were so many people so we didn’t want to linger.

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There are tons of trails from the lake; you can hike up immediately to the Big Agnes Teahouse and a ton of hiking options, or you can hike up the near side of the lake to some viewpoints, but of course, we opted to hike towards the back of the lake. Despite the early hour, there were still a lot of people on the lake trail, though the traffic thinned out considerably once we reached the back of the lake. I think a lot of tourists just hike to the back of the lake and then return to the chateau – also on the day we went, there were a lot of climbers, and they all quit at the back of the lake to climb the sheer cliff wall. So we felt much more at home once we left the lake, as beautiful as it was.

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The weather was really nice. It was chilly, but the sun was out, so we slowly started ditching layers after leaving the lake. From there the trail is mostly uphill and continues through the woods and then into what I like to call the barren alpine. The entire valley was once covered in glaciers, so there’s not a whole lot growing there and it’s mostly rock left behind from the glaciers. There are beautiful views looking back at the lake as you ascend, as well as equally beautiful views looking ahead at the glaciers. It’s hard to count them to confirm if there actually are 6 glaciers, but they’re each slowly revealed to you as you hike up the valley.

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My favourite part of the hike is that there’s a cute little tea house located about a kilometre before the viewpoint. There’s a flatish area and they’ve constructed the teahouse and put some picnic tables along the river. We hadn’t really planned ahead properly for the teahouse because I thought I’d read somewhere that it was closed because of Covid, but it was open and fortunately Seth had $20 cash on hand. So we each had a cup of tea and shared a delicious jammy scone. We were thrilled to discover all the teas are from Banff Tea Co, which we had visited the day before, so me and Emily both had the “Plain of 6 Glaciers” tea in honour of the occasion. It’s an herbal tea with a little bit of mint and it was very yummy!

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The weather started to change a bit while we were enjoying our teas. It had clouded in and while it wasn’t raining, the sky was starting to look a little foreboding, so we decided to continue on. It’s just 1 more kilometre, the last part of which goes along the ridgeline and reveals the final glacier right at the back of the valley. It’s not really obvious where the trail ends, eventually it comes to a scree slope and I think you can continue on a little further, but we opted to stop there for our lunch. It did start to drizzle a little as we were eating, but nothing too bad. It just made us glad we had left early again because the weather did get worse and the crowds got larger, but for the most part we had enjoyed a scenic and empty hike up to the top.

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The rain picked up on the way down, making it colder, and the clouds quickly moved in to obscure some of the glaciers. I always find it amazing how quickly the weather can change in the backcountry and its a good reminder to always be prepared. Fortunately we had our rain jackets and merino wool sweaters, but we saw a lot of hikers coming up looking pretty wet and ill-prepared.

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We beelined down the trail pretty fast because of the rain and made pretty good time coming down. It rained on and off for the rest of the hike, stopping for periods of time, but often starting up again. You can go back to Lake Louise via a different route that would take you to Agnes Lake and the other hiking trails, but similar to Sentinel Pass, Sadie was tired and we weren’t really interested in exploring too much more in the rain, so we opted to skip it. It was even more busy at the bottom of the lake as it was now mid afternoon, so we hightailed it out of there and back to our campsite to relax for the rest of the day. So overall, I didn’t like the hike as much as Sentinel Pass, but still very beautiful and I’d definitely go back and explore some of the many other hiking options in the area!

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Hiking Sentinel Pass

It’s been almost a year now since I visited the Rockies, but I never found time to post about the 2 hikes I did last August, so it’s time to feature them now! Hopefully it will be helpful if you’re planning to visit Banff this year. Sentinel Pass was my first hike in Banff National Park and I really feel like I started at the absolute best that Banff has to offer. Seriously, this hike was unreal! It’s not too challenging and it has the most amazing views – I loved every second of the day hike.

So first things first, let’s talk about how you get to the trailhead because it’s definitely worth talking about. Two of the most popular sights in Banff National Park are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Lake Louise tends to get most of the press attention, but for those in the know, Moraine Lake, located just up from Lake Louise, is the real shining jewel of the park. But if you want to experience it, you have to get there early. Lake Louise has a huge parking lot and on summer weekends it usually fills up by 8am. On week days you can probably get away with showing up by 10am, but likely it depends on the weather. I believe you can usually shuttle up to Lake Louise from the village or overflow parking lots, but the shuttles are currently not running because of Covid.

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Moraine Lake is located 14km away from Lake Louise on a direct access road up to the lake. The parking lot for Moraine Lake is much much smaller and once it’s full for the morning, park staff will block off the access road to limit traffic up there. So you can’t bank on showing up late and just circling the parking lot – you won’t even be able to get up there. Same as Lake Louise, there is a shuttle bus that runs to the lake, but it’s not running this year. So if you want to visit the lake, your best bet is to come really early or really late. I read online that you need to be at the road by 6am to get a parking spot, which is probably true on a weekend, but we got in around 8am on a weekday. They will periodically open the road up again later in the day, but lucky timing is really everything if you decide to wait.

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Once you make it to Moraine Lake, the world is your oyster! This is seriously one of the most beautiful alpine lakes that you can drive to. Canoeing is really popular on the lake – it’s first come first serve for bookings, but I suspect it’s probably not too difficult to rent this year with the limited traffic and shuttles not running. I would love to canoe up around the lake, but on our visit we had other priorities.

From the lake, there are tons of hikes to explore! The most popular trails seem to be the Rockpile Trail and the Moraine Lake Trail. Rockpile is located right at the parking lot and I regret not doing it because it’s pretty short and I imagine it gives you a great view of the lake. Moraine Lake Trail is about 3km long and goes up to the end of the lake. We had planned to do this trail at the end of our hike up Sentinel Pass, but ended up skipping it because Sadie was really tired. There’s several other trails leaving from the lake, but the other two main trails are Sentinel Pass and Eiffel Lake/Wenkchemna Pass. I’ve heard Wenkchemna Pass is also amazing because it hikes into the continental divide, but it’s a bit longer, so we opted for Sentinel, of which I have no regrets.

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Sentinel Pass starts off with a climb up the mountain to get into the alpine. It’s steep, but nothing too crazy and the trail just switchbacks up and away from the lake. The advantage of starting early was that the temperature was still chill, so it wasn’t too bad climbing up there. After about an hour, you pop out of the woods into the alpine meadows, and from there the rest of the hike is super scenic. There’s some more climbing through the meadows before you come to a large meadow with two lakes, known as the Minnestimma Lakes, and the most amazing view looking back at the ten peaks surrounding Moraine Lake. It was especially beautiful when we visited in early August because the meadows were filled with wildflowers! I have a real weakness for meadows and wildflowers, they’re pretty much my favourite alpine scenery, so I was in hiking heaven.

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From the meadow, you can see that the trail continues up the side of the mountain and then switchbacks through the pass between Pinnacle Mountain and Mount Temple. This is where the hike gets a little more challenging. If you’re afraid of heights you might find this part a little scary, but I never felt unsafe on the trail at any point. There was still a little bit of snow left in one section, but it was easy enough to pass across. Watch for wildlife as you make your way through the meadows and up the final climb because we saw so much wildlife on this trail! The first meadows earlier on are filled with ground squirrels, and the higher meadows have tons of marmots! We could also hear lots of pika, which are harder to spot than the marmots, but we did spot one later in the day thanks to Seth’s determination.

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The view from the top of the pass is incredible, but honestly, so was the view from the meadow. It is worth pushing to the top of the pass to see down the other side, but if it’s too much, don’t sweat it, the views from the lakes are honestly just as good. It was pretty hot when we hiked the pass, but it gets chilly and windy at the top, so be prepared. It is possible to seek shelter while you eat lunch at the top, but we opted to just brave the wind so we could enjoy the views.

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While we were on top, there were some other hikers coming up the pass from the other side. I could see a map for this trail on my GPS, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re experienced. It’s hard to discern any path from the other side and you mostly just create your own path up the boulder field. The trail officially ends at the top of the pass, but we decided to explore a little bit further. There is an unofficial path up Mount Temple, but again, it’s more of a climbing path – it’s misleading how long it is to get up to the top of Mount Temple and I wouldn’t recommend doing it without a helmet. We just went about 100-200m further, snapped some photos, and then started to make our way back down the pass.

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It was an early morning, but the trail was pretty empty, which made for a great hiking experience. There were definitely more people coming up when we were on our way down, but it never felt overly crowded. We took our time on the way down, enjoying all the beautiful views, taking pictures of the wildflowers, and looking for marmots. Sadie did well on the hike and had a great time, especially on the snow section, but after Banff we decided it was probably a bit too much for her, so we’ll probably wait a few more months before taking her on any more large hikes. Like I said, we wanted to do the Moraine Lake trail, but eventually abandoned the idea to give Sadie a rest.

So in conclusion, this was really an excellent hike. I would absolutely recommend taking the time to do it and know I’ll have to return again some day to do the Wenkchemna Pass hike and the rest of the trail around the lake!

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