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 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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Kayaking Twin Islands

Since we weren’t allowed to travel outside of our health region over the May Long weekend, options for camping were pretty slim in the lower mainland. We’ve been wanting to kayak up Indian Arm since before we bought our own kayaks, and we decided to do a short trip out to Twin Islands on Saturday night.

Carolyn and Steve have a sailboat that they dock at Lonsdale, so the plan was for them to spend the night in Bedford Bay, near Belcarra, we would camp on Twin Islands, and then we could explore around Indian Arm together on the sailboat.

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Me and Seth wanted to leave out of Belcarra, but there’s no overnight parking anywhere in Belcarra (they really need to do something about this, I’m fine to pay for it, but there’s literally no options), so we were forced to leave from Deep Cove instead. Usually we launch from Belcarra around 9am and have no problems with parking, so we figured that would be sufficient for Deep Cove as well. We offloaded the kayaks and all our gear at the main parking lot and then I went in search of street parking while Seth brought everything down to the beach.

I was not prepared for how busy Deep Cove was at 9am. It was completely crawling with other boaters and picnickers. I drove around for ages looking for street parking before finally giving up and parking way up in the bush and walking 15 minutes back to the beach. The boat loading zone has to be one of the worst designed loading zones I’ve ever seen. People were double parked all over the road and the beach in front of the kayak rental shop must have had about 2 dozen paddlers.

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We had offloaded further down the beach, so it was just us and a family of 4 who were loading up their canoe. It was a gorgeous hot, sunny day, so we put on sunscreen before launching into Deep Cove towards Twin Islands. Our plan was to go directly to the island to secure a campsite and then spend the rest of the day around Indian Arm. It was still really calm on the water when we left, so a lot of the paddlers charted a direct course across Indian Arm to Twin Islands. I don’t like paddling in the middle of a huge open body of water for extended periods of time, so we clung to the coast until we were parallel with Raccoon island before crossing Indian Arm.

As the name suggests, Twin Islands comprises two islands located very close together. When the tide is low, you can walk between the two, when the tide is high, you can paddle between them. The tide was pretty high when we arrived, so I paddled around to have a look at the two islands. The North Island has steep cliffs along the exterior and the only way to get on the island is from a dock on the north side. In contrast, there is a small beach on the South Island where you can land, so we decided to land there.

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Seth took a quick run around the island, it’s not very big and there were already several tents set up, but he found a nice spot looking north across the inlet. We dragged all our gear up to the site, but decided to relax and have lunch before setting up. Unfortunately, it was then that Carolyn called to tell us they weren’t going to be able to make it out for the day. They had loaded all their gear onto the sailboat and backed out of the marina, only to discover their throttle was broken. They could reverse, but they couldn’t get the boat to go forward! So they were going to have to commit the day to fixing the problem before they could do any sailing.

After we had lunch I heard some other paddlers talking to the people in the campsite next to us about how camping isn’t actually allowed on the south island and debating whether to camp there or not. This came as a surprise to me because I hadn’t read about it anywhere in my research and couldn’t see any signs. We did some quick research since we still had cell service and I was able to find one line on the parks webpage that says “south island is just for day use”. Then I did a walk around the entire island and did find a single sign in the middle with a no camping symbol. We didn’t notice it when we first came in because it’s not visible from the water and another group had literally set their tent up right in front of it.

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So we had a little bit of a dilemma. I hate breaking rules in the backcountry because they usually exist for a reason. In this case, I suspect it’s because there’s no outhouse on the south island. We had come prepared for this because I actually thought there was no outhouse on either island, but my conscience didn’t feel right to camp on the island once I knew you weren’t supposed to, even though clearly other people we’re doing it. To be frank, the entire island was a bit of a gong show. There were boats everywhere and tons of picnickers and campers.

We had wasted time on the south island offloading and eating our lunch and I knew sites were now going to be slim on the North Island as well. So we debated what to do for a while and eventually decided to pack everything back up and skip camping altogether. The day was mostly supposed to be about spending time with Steve and Carolyn and neither of us was excited about camping on a super crowded island. Instead, we decided to paddle around Indian Arm for the afternoon and then return to Deep Cove before dark. It was a little disappointing, but I know we made the right chose not to camp where it’s not permitted.

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At least we hadn’t set up any gear, so it didn’t take too long to repack the kayaks. A dozen people had abandoned their boats on the small beach and neglected to give any thought to the rising tide, so Seth rescued 2 kayaks and a canoe that had started to float away because they hadn’t been tied on. We were both incredulous at such a level of negligence that we weren’t sad to leave Twin Islands behind. I would have liked to check out the North Island at least, but the dock makes it very difficult because you have to carry your kayaks up the gangway and store them on the island, which neither of us wanted to do with fully loaded boats.

We had the current with us, so we decided to paddle up Indian Arm a little way to see the old Buntzen Lake powerhouse. It was a quick paddle along the coast to get to the powerhouse, but the water was getting pretty choppy so I was a little nervous. I read that Indian Arm is best paddled in the early morning or in the evening and that the wind tends to come up in the afternoon. This was our first time paddling in the afternoon and it definitely wasn’t the best conditions. There’s no where to land by the powerhouse so we decided to make our crossing and head over to Thwaytes Landing, a small section of beach that has been designated as a Regional Park.

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It was an uncomfortable paddle, especially when any motorized boats would pass us, throwing their wake up over the tops of our kayaks. Normally I don’t have a problem with power boats, but these were not being considerate of paddlers and would speed by very close to us. I know they have the right of way, but they’re a lot faster than me and if they decide to pass right next to me, there’s really nothing I can do about it. It was a choppy landing at Thwaytes, but we had the beach to ourselves. There’s no facilities and it’s one of the stranger regional parks I’ve visited, but it’s great that it exists because there aren’t many rest points for paddlers along the arm.

The waves did die down a little bit while we hung out on the beach, so we decided to re-launch while things were a bit calmer. We didn’t want to go any further up the arm, so we started back the same direction we’d come. The waves had gone down a little, but there was still a pretty strong headwind to paddle against. We definitely got a good work-out and took another break at Brighton Beach, which is across from Twin Islands. It’s not a public beach, but we figured we could break at the end because generally you can’t own the beach below the high tide line (although Seth did some research and there are homeowners that own the beach because they bought the land before this rule came into effect). Unlike the camping rules though, I don’t care so much about this one!

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We were interested in going back to Twin Islands to go for a swim, but we didn’t want to cross the arm again, so we decided to head back to Deep Cove instead. It was tiring and took longer than anticipated, but we managed okay and finally paddled into the cove around 5pm. The water was surprisingly warm, so I decided to go for a quick swim in Deep Cove. Pre-Covid I would always go on a May Long weekend camping trip with my friends and me and Carolyn would go swimming, so I always swim at the end of May and all I can say is the ocean is definitely warmer than the alpine lakes!

I hiked back up to the car and we re-loaded the kayaks and all our gear. I texted Carolyn to let her know we were back and she quickly gave me a call to see if we wanted to come join them for supper since we were still in North Van. So we ended up picking up take-away and eating our dinner on the sailboat sitting in the marina! Not quite the meal we’d planned for the day, but we laughed that at least we finally got to hang out on the boat! We’ll definitely try the trip again in the future, but next time we’ll try to paddle out Friday night instead of Saturday morning to hopefully beat some of the crowds. Or potentially even go on a weeknight because it’s just so busy on the weekends, it does take away from the experience.

So overall, not the trip we planned, but we made the best of it and had some lessons learned about paddling in Indian Arm. Fortunately, since we don’t have to rent kayaks, it’s relatively easy to try the trip again soon.

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