The Canadian Rockies are a hiker’s paradise. Hiking is free, and the mountains offer some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. With exceptions made for the most popular overnight hikes, all trails detailed in this book are day hikes. Anyone of moderate fitness could complete them in the time allotted. Strong hikers will need less time, and if you stop for lunch, it will take you a little longer. Remember, all distances and times are one-way, so allow yourself time at the objective and time to return to the trailhead. Basic trail descriptions are available through local information centers, but anyone planning on focusing their trip around hiking should pick up a copy of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, authored by Brian Patton and Bart Robinson; the publisher is Summerthought (www.summerthought.com).
Banff National Park holds the greatest variety of trails. Here you can find anything from short interpretive trails with little elevation gain to strenuous slogs up high alpine passes. Trailheads for some of the best hikes are accessible on foot from the town of Banff. Those farther north begin at higher elevations, from which access to the tree line is less arduous. The trails in Jasper National Park are oriented more toward the experienced backpacker, offering plentiful routes for long backcountry trips.
Waterton Lakes National Park is small but has a complex trail system geared especially for the day hiker. Many of the hikes in Yoho National Park entail significant elevation gain, but they reward your extra effort with spectacular mountain panoramas rivaling those of the more famous parks across the divide.
Many less-visited parts of the mountains hold unexpected gems. Examples include Grassi Lakes, near Canmore; Rawson Lake, Kananaskis Country; Fish Lake, Top of the World Provincial Park; and Grande Mountain, near Grande Cache.
The Canadian Rockies hold many peaks that can be reached without ropes or climbing skills, provided you have a good level of fitness and, more important, common sense. Obviously, this type of activity has more inherent dangers than hiking, but these can be minimized by planning ahead. Check weather forecasts; take food, water, and warm clothing; and be aware of the terrain. Routes to the top of the most popular peaks are flagged with tape or marked with rock cairns showing the way, but you should always check with information centers or locals before attempting any ascent. The Bow Valley offers a good selection of well-traveled scrambles. These include Mount Rundle, Cascade Mountain, and Chinaman’s Peak.
Most hikers are just out for the day or a few hours, but staying overnight in the backcountry offers many rewards. Some effort is involved in a backcountry trip—you’ll need a backpack, lightweight stove, and tent, among other things—but you’ll be traveling through country inaccessible to the casual day hiker, well away from the crowds and far from any road. Lake O’Hara, in Yoho National Park, is the trailhead for what is generally considered to be Canada’s finest backcountry hiking area. The lake is easily accessible; a shuttle bus runs from the highway up an old fire road to this alpine gem. Unlike at other backcountry destinations, visitors to Lake O’Hara not equipped for camping have the option of visiting for just a day. Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is another popular spot far from civilization. Like Lake O’Hara, there’s a lodge for hikers not equipped to camp out. Banff and Jasper National Parks also have backcountry lodges. Another option for backcountry accommodations is offered by the Alpine Club of Canada (403/678-3200, www.alpineclubofcanada.ca). The club maintains a series of huts, each generally a full-day hike from the nearest road, throughout the Canadian Rockies.
Heli-hiking is an easy way to appreciate high alpine areas without having to gain the elevation on foot. The day starts with a helicopter ride into the alpine, where short, guided hikes are offered and a picnic lunch is served. For details, contact Alpine Helicopters (Canmore, 403/678-4802, www.alpinehelicopter.com) or Robson Helimagic (250/566-4700 or 877/454-4700, www.robsonhelimagic.com), near Mount Robson Provincial Park. Expect to pay from $380 for 30 minutes of flight time, a guided hike, and a mountaintop lunch. Primarily known for its heli-skiing operations, Canadian Mountain Holidays (403/762-7100 or 800/661-0252, www.cmhhike.com) has a summer program of heli-hiking trips, with overnights spent in luxurious backcountry lodges; expect to pay about $800 per person per night, all-inclusive.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition