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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3 Brothers Mountain Day Hike

I haven’t written about many of my day hikes on this blog. I’ve gone on tons of them over the years, but I tend to write more about my backpacking trips since sometimes it seems like there’s not a whole lot to say about day hikes. But I’m excited to write about 3 Brothers Mountain and have decided to make it the first post in a mini-series about E.C. Manning Provincial Park. My first time visiting Manning Park was in 2016. Since then I’ve hiked and camped all over the park and it has become my favourite Provincial Park in BC to date. The first time I travelled there was with Emily when she was visiting from Newfoundland after finishing her Engineering degree. She stayed with me for about a month and we decided to spend one weekend car camping in the park. It was just the two of us and though it was the middle of July, it was a pretty cold weekend. I’ve had both hot and cold trips to Manning Park since then, but Emily seems to always be there for the cold ones, so I’m starting to think she might just be bad luck.

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Anyways, after a cold night in the tent, we decided to hit the trail to try and burn some calories and warm up. It wasn’t very warm when we woke up, but as we started driving up Blackwell Road to get to the trailhead, the car thermometer kept dropping. By the time we reached the top, it was only 6 degrees. We hadn’t anticipated it would be so cold, so we grabbed all the sweaters and coats we had in the car and set off. It was a rough start when I realized I’d brought a camera with a empty SD slot, so I was forced to use my cell phone for photos. Probably not a big deal for most people, but I love my little mirrorless camera, so I was pretty bummed about it. You’ll have to excuse my photos for not quite being up to standard.

If you’ve never been up Blackwell Road, it’s worth going up there just for the view. You don’t even need to be a hiker. There’s an amazing viewpoint about halfway up and then another great view of the surrounding wilderness from the parking lot. If you have enough time for a short hike, follow the paintbrush trail, which does a short little loop near the parking lot and is covered with wildflowers (hence the name) around late July/early August. We had set our sights a little higher though and were aiming for 3 Brothers Mountain, a 21km out and back trip. The actual name of the trail is the Heather Trail and it continues on past 3 Brothers to Kicking Horse Camp and Nicomen Lake. I have also hiked that trail, but it’s a story for another time.

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The Heather Trail and 3 Brothers Mountain are really top notch though. Because you’ve driven all the way up Blackwell Road, most of the elevation gain is done by car. That means the trail is already starting in the alpine, which makes the entire trip incredibly scenic. There is still almost 500m of elevation gain on the trail, but a lot of that is at the very end when you summit the First Brother Mountain, so spread over the rest of the 10km, the elevation gain is not bad at all. You start out on the ridge from the parking lot and descend about 5km to Buckhorn Camp. It’s a very quick 5km and we did it in about an hour. It’s a good place to stop for a pee break and a snack because there are several picnic tables and camping pads. I’ve never seen anyone camping there, but I could see it being a great campsite if you wanted to drive out after work on a Friday and get an early start on the Heather Trail in the morning.

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After Buckhorn Camp, the trail starts to climb again and that’s when things get truly scenic. The remainder of the trail is through alpine meadows and since we were visiting in mid July, the wildflowers were starting to come out. They weren’t quite at their full glory, but definitely picturesque. The only downside of course is that the Heather Trail is known for it’s wildflowers, so it attracts a lot of people at that time of year. Overall there’s a lot of trail to spread out over, but we were still regularly passing large groups of people that seemed to be doing Meetups at the trailhead. We were making a pretty brisk pace to try and stay warm, so we ended up passing a lot of people. But the trail is really beautiful as you look out over the green meadows and wildflowers out towards the North Cascades, so you can kill a lot of time taking photos!

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About 9km in you reach a junction – you can either continue on along the Heather Trail for another 11km to Nicomen Lake and beyond, or you can take the branch that leads up First Brother Mountain to the viewpoint and our final destination. The name 3 Brothers Mountain is somewhat confusing. I couldn’t find a whole lot of information about it, but from the Park website I learned that the alpine meadows used to be used for sheep grazing until 1931, when they created the 3 Brothers Mountain reserve, which included the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Brother mountain peaks. It later became part of Manning Park in 1941. There’s the trail branch to go up the First Brother and the Heather Trail passes by the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Brothers along the way. But don’t ask me what the deal is with the Fourth Brother and why he was excluded from the trail and park name because I really have no idea why.

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We were just aiming for the First Brother on our trip though. It was a pretty overcast day, so while we’d been able to enjoy the views on the way up, some of the higher mountains were still shrouded in fog – this included the First Brother. We branched off the trail and started climbing into the clouds, lamenting that it was both getting colder as we climbed and the view worse. We made it all the way to the signpost at the top of the mountain, but we couldn’t see anything from there and it was very cold and windy. We sheltered behind some rocks to eat our lunch, but while we were eating, the wind finally moved the fog out and the view started to clear for us! From the top you have an incredible 360 degree view in all directions. The climb up is not for the faint of heart – it is pretty steep, with lots of rocks to climb over as you make your way along the ridgeline with a drop on either side of you. It made for an incredible walk back down though! Everything we couldn’t see on the way up came into view on the way down and it took us a while to get back as we were constantly stopping for photos.

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Even though this is a 21km hike, which I would normally expect to take a minimum of 7 hours, but more likely 8 or 9, somehow me and Emily did the whole thing in just 6 hours, including lunch break. This is a bad pace by which to measure other hikes because that is a super intense pace for us, but it does serve to highlight that the topography is definitely easier on this hike than others I’ve done (and that is was COLD). Please don’t use this as a reference for how long this hike takes though because another group of friends that I often hike with did the same hike in 10 hours. We ended up running into one of my friends on the way out. He’d spent the night at Kicking Horse and was heading back to the parking lot, so we did the last 6-7km together. He’d been planning to stay a second night, but he said it was just too cold up there to stay any longer. So we made good time on the way out and before we knew it we were back at our campsite again, building a campfire to warm ourselves up properly!

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So my first visit to Manning Park was a little rough around the edges, but it was the start of a long and beautiful love story! That first visit inspired me to hike the Skyline II Trail a year later and the entire Heather Trail the year after that. We continue to car camp in the park annually and it’s become one of my favourite places to snowshoe in the winter. It’s a beautiful park, but it attracts less visitors than Garibaldi (I don’t actually know if this is true, but it definitely feels like it), so even though I love both parks, Manning makes for a more enjoyable experience. Plus the night sky in Manning is to die for! Tune back soon (hopefully), for more stories from my many adventures in Manning Park.

Favourite Hikes in Southwestern BC: Part II

About 2 years ago I compiled a list of my Favourite Hikes in Southwestern BC. At the time I’d hiked about 40 trails and narrowed it down to my top 10 favourite trails. Some of those trails would definitely still be in my top 10 hikes, but since then, I’ve surpassed 100 trails and decided it was time to compile a new list! I haven’t included any of the hikes from the first list, so check out that post if you want to see my original list, but this list features even more awesome trails! All photos taken by yours truly.

#10 Lightning Lakes – I’m a little bit obsessed with EC Manning Provincial Park (as you’ll soon see from this post) and what I love about Lightning Lakes is that it’s got a little bit of something for everyone. The entire Lightning Lakes Chain Trail is actually 24km long and travels through the valley past 4 different lakes, but I’ve actually only done shorter loop around the first two lakes (but I’d love to do the whole trail someday). But I love this trail because it is pretty flat, so it makes for a great beginner trail and because there’s multiple lakes, you can customize it to whatever length you want. It has the most gorgeous views of the blue lakes and the surrounding mountains, as well as it’s a great place to swim and hang out in the summer. Me and my friends go every year to chill and BBQ at the first lake. (24km, no elevation gain, you decide the time and length!)

#9 Dam Mountain and Thunderbird Ridge – Located at the top of Grouse Mountain, I’ve never explored these trails in the summer, but I had a blast when I snowshoed them in the winter. It’s annoying to have to pay the gondola fee to get up Grouse Mountain, but on a clear day with a fresh snowfall, this hike has the most gorgeous views looking out into the Metro Vancouver watershed. It’s an easy enough trail – a lot of people just snowshoe up to Dam Mountain and then turn around, but I’d recommend going the extra 2km along Thunderbird Ridge. I also have to say that I ran into some equipment issues (personal equipment) and the Grouse Mountain staff were so helpful in resolving them! (7km, 250m elevation gain, 3 hours)

#8 Ring Lake – Ring Lake would probably rank even higher on this list had it not been right in the middle of wildfire season when I went there. But even with the insane amount of smoke in the area, I still loved this hike and am now dying to go back at a clearer time of year. Ring Lake is located in the Callaghan Valley and is a very low traffic trail. The gravel road to get to the trailhead is a little dicey (I’d recommend high clearance) and it is in grizzly country, but it’s a great area to explore if you want to escape the crowds. It is a steep trail up to the top because most of the elevation gain is in the second half of the trail, but the views at Ring lake are fantastic. The only issue right now is that one of the bridges is out right before the lake and you can’t cross it in high flows, so I would definitely recommend visiting in August or September. Even if you don’t make it to the top though, it’s worth visiting for the berries and alpine meadows located just past Conflict Lake. (20km, 500m elevation gain, 8 hours)

#7 Flatiron/Needle Peak – Flatiron and Needle Peak share most of the same trail, but split towards the end with Flatiron one way and Needle Peak the other. I think you could easily do them both in a day, but there was snow when I went a few weeks ago (early October). so we decided to skip steep Needle Peak. But this hike still blew me away! It does have significant elevation gain, but I liked it a lot because after an initial push through the forest (45-60 mins), the rest of the hike is along the ridge looking up at Needle Peak. Flatiron continues on to a lake that would probably be great for swimming in the summer and boasts great views looking down on the Coquihalla. Breathtaking on a clear day, but bring a sweater, it’s cold up there! (11km, 800m elevation gain, 6 hours)

#6 Frosty Mountain – The second hike from Manning Park on my list, I did a multi-day trip along the PCT and up Frosty Mountain (but you can do this one in a day). It’s definitely a steep hike, but the views are just amazing! my favourite part is the section running from what I call the “fake summit” to the actual summit, which goes right along the ridge up the peak with 360 degree views. I’ve heard awesome things about this trail in the Fall as well because the larch trees all turn bright yellow and make for some really vibrant pictures! (22km, 1150m elevation gain, 8 hours)

#5 Mount Price – A theme with my favourite hikes is that they tend to be some of the less crowded hikes. I did a 3 night trip through Garibaldi Park back in 2016 and hiked both Panorama Ridge and Black Tusk. My friend hadn’t been and asked me to join her for another 3 nighter, so I decided to switch things up and try out some new hikes while we were up there. While she was climbing Black Tusk (not a favourite of mine), I decided to hike the much less popular Mount Price. What a great decision because this hike is unreal! It’s basically Panorama Ridge, but on the other side of the lake and with hardly any people. It’s not a popular trail, so it’s not well maintained and does include a very dubious and steep hike up the side of Clanker Peak and then Mount Price, but the views from Mount Price are totally unreal! It has a very large summit, so I explored up there for over an hour without getting the least bit bored. It has great views across Garibaldi Lake of Black Tusk and Panorama Ridge, but it also has views looking back at the glacier and Mount Garibaldi. It was a tough hike, but ranks high on my list. (11km roundtrip from Garibaldi Lake, 600m elevation gain, 7 hours)

#4 Heather Trail – This one is a bit of a repeat from my last list since I included the Three Brothers Mountain in Manning Park, which is the first 11km of the Heather Trail. But I loved the Three Brothers hike so much that I had to go back and do the entire Heather Trail, and I definitely don’t regret it. If you love 360 degree views, the Heather Trail has it, but I personally love it for the alpine meadows. I’ve discovered I have a bit of thing for the alpine meadows (especially when wildflowers are in season) and I love hiking through meadow after meadow, there’s just so much open space and they make me feel like I’m living in the Sound of Music. I also really liked Nicomen Lake on this hike, but it was extremely buggy. The Heather Trail can be done as a through hike or return, we did it as a through hike by combining it with Hope Pass Trail from Nicomen Lake (38km through hike, 1000m elevation gain, 2 day hike)

#3 Cheam Peak – This one makes the list as well because of my recent obsession with meadows. It’s located in the Chilliwack Valley and you definitely need 4WD to get to the trailhead. But despite that, it was still a pretty busy trail because it boasts a great view looking out over the Fraser Valley. However, on the day we did it it was super foggy, so we didn’t actually see this view at all. But it really didn’t bother me and it still tops my list because the views looking back at the valley and the alpine meadows were breath-taking. In my opinion the fog made for some super interesting pictures and we had the most wonderful post hike swim in Spoon Lake, so the fog didn’t deter me at all. I felt like I was in middle earth for this hike, so I was content the whole time and would love to go back! (10km, 650m elevation gain, 5 hours)

#2 Juan de Fuca Trail – Okay, I know the Juan de Fuca is a bit of a stretch for this list, but it is still technically “Southwest BC”, it just involves a bit of travel time to get to the island if you live in the lower mainland. But it was seriously one of the highlights of my hiking experience over the past 5 years and I can’t not include it on this list. The Juan de Fuca is a 50km trail along the south-western coast of Vancouver Island and is known as the “West Coast Trail Lite”. I’ve devoted three whole blog posts to my experience on this trail and it was really unlike any other hike I’ve done before. The ocean speaks to that part of my soul that grew up in Newfoundland and this was my first multi-day through hike, so it felt like more of a journey than any other hike I’ve done before. I’d highly recommend this trail, I’d just say not to underestimate it. It is a very strenuous hike and it definitely kicked my ass, but it was the most rewarding hike I’ve ever done. (50km, 4-5 days)

#1 Skyline Trail/Hozameen Ridge – I had to end this list with one more trail from Manning Park. I really do love this park and I spent a lot of time exploring it over the last 2 years, and the Skyline Trail was definitely the highlight. With the exception of the first 5km, the entire hike runs along the “skyline”. You basically hike along the ridge from mountain to mountain with the most amazing views of the alpine meadows, wildflowers, and mountain range. You can do this trip in a single day if you’re ambitious, either as a through hike or return trip (25km), but we did it as a two night trip, base camping at Mowich Camp. On our second day, we day hiked along Hozameen Ridge to the border monument and the most incredible view looking out at the enormous Hozameen Mountain. I loved every second of this 3 day trip and would recommend to everyone. The first 5km are a pretty consistent incline, but after that, it’s not a difficult trail. (40km, 500m elevation gain, multi-day trip)