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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Banff National Park

Banff was our second stop on a weeklong holiday in August. Check out my post about our first stop in the Okanagan.

Compared to some of BC Parks campgrounds, I wasn’t overly impressed with the campgrounds in Banff. That said, Banff is really a tourist town and I think the campgrounds were more about quantity than quality. We stayed at Tunnel Mountain Village II, which has over 600 sites. Coupled with Tunnel Mountain Village I and the trailer park, that’s a lot of camping just outside Banff (and there’s still loads more campgrounds throughout the rest of the National Park). The benefit to Tunnel Mountain though is that is super close to Banff town and there’s even a shuttle bus that runs between the campground and the town.

We had 3 full days in Banff National Park, so we were planning to do two hikes, spend some time at the lake, and explore the town. Banff really has the look of a ski town, but I’ve only ever travelled there in summer – hopefully one day I’ll make it over there to go skiing as well. Fortunately, the weather in Banff was a lot more comfortable than the weather in the Okanagan. It was still hot in the day, but it properly cools off in the night, making it much easier to sleep. One of the cool things about the National Park is that they provide firewood! There’s a lot of education about not transporting firewood because you can introduce invasive bugs to new areas, so I suspect that’s one of the reasons why it’s provided. You can just drive to the wood lot, take as much as you want, and just make sure to leave behind whatever you don’t use.

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On our first day, we decided to go hiking. It’s unreal how many trail options there are in the Rockies. There are tons in Banff alone, without including all the trails in the neighbouring parks. The top two trails on my list were Plain of 6 Glaciers and Sentinel Pass. The problem is that both are super popular and involve getting up early. 6 Glaciers leaves from the Lake Louise parking lot, which I’d heard filled up my 8am, and Sentinel Pass leaves from the Moraine Lake parking lot, which is really small and I’d heard filled up by 6am! The drive from our campsite was about 45 minutes, so we weren’t willing to get up quite that early. We figured things might be a little less busy since it was a Tuesday, so our plan was to aim for Lake Louise for 8am, but to turn up to Lake Moraine if that lot was still open when we passed (Parks closes the lot once it’s full and limits traffic access). When we passed Moraine Lake at 7:45am, the sign said lot full, but we could still see some cars being let up the access road, so we decided to try and were thrilled to be admitted up to the lake! We grabbed the first parking spot we saw and then got ready for the hike. In retrospect, a good idea would be to make your breakfast once you’ve parked to save a bit of time in the morning.

Moraine Lake is a dream. It was my first time there and it was absolutely gorgeous. You can visit the lake from the parking lot, but Sentinel Pass trail continues on from the lake. I think I will write separate posts about Sentinel Pass and Plain of 6 Glaciers, but Sentinel Pass was by far the highlight of the trip to Banff for me. We had gorgeous weather for it and the meadows at the top were filled with wildflowers! You get the most amazing view from the pass and the entire hike was really a joy. Sadie did really well on the hike, though she’d been having some tummy issues over the past few days and Seth was getting a little concerned about her. We ended up calling the animal hospital in Canmore because she’d had diarrhea for 3 days and Seth was concerned about parvo. They said to try feeding her a bland diet of chicken and rice, so our first stop after the hike was to the grocery story to pick up chicken breasts for Sadie. I boiled them, which was a new experience and pretty much the grossest way I can think of to eat chicken. It worked like a charm though and the next day she didn’t poop at all! (TMI?)

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Our second day was intended as a relaxing day between the two hikes. We slept in and then went into Banff town to do a bit of shopping. We’d been dismayed throughout the trip by the lack of people wearing masks. Whenever we stopped anywhere we would wear our masks, even just using the bathroom at gas stations, but very few people seemed to be doing the same. So it was nice to see some pretty strict rules about masks in Banff. I assume it’s because it’s mostly a tourist town, but they’d converted the main street into a pedestrian road and masks were required everywhere along the stretch. We got some new gear at the Smartwool and North Face stores and me and Emily had a lot of fun tea shopping at Banff Tea Co. We’re both tea addicts, so we picked up a few new flavours.

It was getting progressively hotter, so we went out to Lake Minnewanka in the afternoon. It was super busy at the lake and we had to circle the parking lot for a bit, but eventually we did find a spot. The lake is really interesting. It’s a huge reservoir and you can rent motorboats and canoes. There’s a trail that goes along the edge of the lake and instead of one big beach, there are lots of little beaches along the lake where you can hang out for the day. We found a spot to set up in the shade of the trees and finally decided to blow up the rubber dinghy we’d brought on the trip. It was a good time for the dinghy because Minnewanka was a lot colder than Okanagan Lake. We went for one little swim, but as gorgeous as the lake was, it wasn’t really a swimming lake. So instead we took the boat out for a little spin and marveled at the gorgeous mountains surrounding the lake.

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We returned to the campsite for dinner, but after that Seth and I decided to take Sadie for a walk. There’s a nice trail running all along the campsite and we walked to what was labelled as the “hoodoo viewpoint”. We didn’t know what a hoodoo was, but learned it’s basically just a name for a weird rock feature. The viewpoint was gorgeous! It looked out at Rundle Mountain and from it we could look down at the Bow River, see the hoodoos, and even glimpse the fancy Banff Springs Hotel. It’s just off the main road, which is one of the things I love about the Rockies, you don’t even really have to hike anywhere to get amazing views.

On our last full day in Banff we headed back to Lake Louise to do the Plain of 6 Glaciers hike. Lake Louise is gorgeous, but a little overwhelming. We came back at 8am again and had no trouble finding parking in the massive lots. The crowds were a lot though. Moraine Lake is busy, but because of the size of the parking lot, it didn’t feel too busy (usually there’s shuttles that run up there, but not this year because of Covid). Lake Louise had a very different feel and I didn’t want to hang out for too long because of all the people.

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Both mornings had been chill when we started hiking, but while Sentinel had gotten really hot later in the day, 6 Glaciers remained cool throughout. I’m glad we got up early for the hike though because we finally saw a bit of rain for the first time on the trip. It was gorgeous blue skies when we started, but as we continued to hike, the clouds started to move in. Again, I think I will write a second post about the particulars of the trail, but the highlight for me was that there’s a tea house located at the top, so we were able to each get a cup of tea at the top and shared a scone. It was also a gorgeous hike, but I’d still give Sentinel the edge over 6 Glaciers. The glacier hike is a lot more barren, whereas I liked all the meadows and wildflowers at Sentinel. It started raining on our way back, but fortunately it was after we’d seen the view, so we couldn’t complain about it.

Though it rained in Lake Louise, there was no evidence of rain at our campsite and we enjoyed one last lazy night and campfire. Sadie was beat after the hike and took it easy for the rest of the night. In the morning we packed up again and started to head home. It was too far to drive all the way home in one day, so we had a hotel booked in Salmon Arm. The main motivation for getting a hotel was that all the shower houses in the National Park were closed because of Covid. I get it… but like, also you should want people to be bathing themselves. We made a stop at Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park on the way home (another park I’d like to explore more), but we ran into some trouble in Glacier National Park. We’d planned to stop there again for lunch, but it poured when we passed through, so we held out until the end of the park, when we saw a rest stop with covered picnic tables.

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After that we drove straight to Salmon Arm and had a lazy night swimming in the pool and ordering take-out. On the final day, we made a stop in the morning in Kamloops where we took Sadie to this awesome dog park. It’s located right on the river and she had a great time running around the beach and in the water. We’d intended to stop at Falls Lake for a walk when passing through the Coquihalla, but the lot was closed, so we pushed through to Hope. After that it was just a quick lunch before heading home. It was a great trip, but it’s always nice to arrive home again. I really loved hiking in the Rockies and I think I might have to try and make it an annual thing since there’s just so much to explore! We only visited a small part of the Rockies and I can’t wait to go back for more!