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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Check out Part II to continue the saga.