This past weekend I spent an incredible 5 nights in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. My original intent was to spend most of the trip hiking and taking massive quantities of photos while taking a break from thesis writing. In the end, I completed the latter two, even though I still managed to get some work done on my thesis towards the end of the trip. The hiking, however, was not to my liking, and could definitely have been avoided. This was not because of a lack of trails or bad views. On the contrary, there are dozens of awesome trails with some stellar views of the park no matter where you stay. The trails were not to my liking for one reason and one reason only: I couldn't do any!
I am not a strong hiker by any means. The most rigorous hike I have ever completed prior to visiting Banff was a hike up the 3700 Steps of Repentance of Mount Sinai in Egypt in the scorching summer heat. That may sound intense, but lots of water and Led Zeppelin got me through just fine. Banff, was a different beast in itself, as every hiking trail I originally wanted to do was still covered in snow as of the middle of May. This came as a shock to me, as the outside weather in Banff approached 24C (75F) on a few days while being slightly cooler up in the trails. While the trails were technically opened for those who wanted to brave them, the thought of walking on near cliffs while on ice without snow boots had no appeal to me, so I stuck to the easier treks, and a well placed gondola, to enjoy the park a different way.
Lake Louise – No Hiking Here
I have already expressed my shock that the lake was entirely frozen over at this time of year, and the hiking trails were the same way. In fact, just getting to the lake turned into an interesting experience as the lower elevation trails still had large patches of ice that needed maneuvering. The most popular trail is a 4 hour return trip up into the mountains to a far away tea house and nearby Lake Agnes with overlooking views of Lake Louise along the way. The ranger report was not encouraging, and fellow travelers completed the hike with some moderate difficulty only while wearing snowboots rented from the hostel. I opted for the easier and more horizontal walk around the lake instead, with equally beautiful views. The comparable Trail of the Ten Peaks in Moraine Lake was also crossed off the list for the very same reason. In fact, I never made it to Moraine Lake in the first place, but since it is still frozen over, I think I'll be okay not seeing that one.
Banff – Better Trails, Almost
The dozens of hiking trails in Banff are quite accessible by any standards, and lead to many far and away places based on whatever site you want to see. My first hike was an easy one and quite possibly the most popular in Banff, Tunnel Mountain, a 250m elevation climb on a 2.3 km one way trek. Due to the low elevation change, the trail was free of snow and relatively easy if not moderately graded the entire way up. Being the closest mount to the city, the views offered a decent birds eye view of the town and nearby mountain ranges. You know the hike is easy when the victory sign at the top states that someone completed the trek over 4000 times in their lifetime, sometimes twice in one day, and some British royalty also climbed the trail a long time ago.
The second trail I tackled of the day was a relatively flat walk out to Bow's Falls nearby the hostel I was staying in. Unfortunately the term Falls is a bit of a misnomer, as the area is whitewater if that. Certainly not enough to raft over, and definitely not enough to call a waterfall. The walk was redeemed on the return trip when I spotted a doe and elk in the forest nearby. Unfortunately the doe was injured and the elk appeared on guard watching over the situation, but seeing wildlife in semi-closeness is always a worthwhile experience.
I was determined to tackle a good trail on my final day in Banff, and after much prodding by Canadian friends and readers, I set my sights on Sulphur Mountain. The trail guide says that Sulphur Mountain is roughly 5.3 km one way with a 650m elevation change for an approximate 4 hour return hike. Unfortunately, another 1+ km hike was required to reach the start of the trail, and I got lost. So lost that I got turned around and walked quite a significant way in the wrong direction before figuring out where I was. At one point I managed to stumble out on a road that led directly to the entry to the Sulphur Mountain trail and took it up to the entry point of the hike, effectively draining my body of most of its energy in the process. Looking up at the mountain and seeing the snowy peak reminded me of the hike to Lake Louise, and I caved and took the gondola up instead effectively bypassing the 2 hour hike in 8 minutes. Along the way up, the trail was visibly covered in ice, and probably a bit too dangerous to someone as inexperienced as myself, so the $30CAD seemed like a pretty good investment. And the views, well, at the top of Sulphur Mountain, the nearby Tunnel Mountain looks like a mole hill. In fact, it actually felt like I was truly on top of a mountain and was treated to perfect visibility over all the mountain ranges.
The hike back down to Banff included an actual trail, as I found the Upper Hot Springs trail along the way, which is normally a precursor before tackling the Sulphur Mountain trail for those departing from Banff. A short 30 minute downhill walk (much steeper for those going the opposite direction) and I completed my third and final “official” trail in Banff National Park. Somehow I feel like I did not do the park justice with the many hiking trails that were present, but the ice and safety factor was a large deterrent. But don't worry Banff, I will return!
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