Best Canadian Rockies Day Hikes
The Canadian Rockies is renowned for hiking—in fact many visitors plan their entire vacation around hiking. Here is a list of personal favorites, each of which can easily be completed in a day by anyone of a reasonable level of fitness.
Banff National Park
Bourgeau Lake Hiking TrailLength: 7.6 kilometers/4.7 miles (2.5 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 730 meters/2,400 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: signposted parking lot, TransCanada Highway, 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) west of Sunshine Village Junction
This trail follows Wolverine Creek to a small subalpine lake nestled at the base of an impressive limestone amphitheater. Although the trail is moderately steep, plenty of distractions along the way are worthy of a stop (and rest). Back across the Bow Valley, the Sawback Range is easy to distinguish. As the forest of lodgepole pine turns to spruce, the trail passes under the cliffs of Mount Bourgeau and crosses Wolverine Creek (below a spot where it tumbles photogenically over exposed bedrock). After strenuous switchbacks, the trail climbs into the cirque containing Bourgeau Lake. As you explore the lake’s rocky shore, you’ll hear the colonies of noisy pikas, even if you don’t see them.
Hiking at Sunshine Meadows
Sunshine Meadows, straddling the Continental Divide, is a unique and beautiful region of the Canadian Rockies. It’s best known as home to Sunshine Village, a self-contained alpine resort accessible only by gondola from the valley floor. But for a few short months each summer, the area is clear of snow and becomes a wonderland for day hikes. Large amounts of precipitation create a lush cover of vegetation—over 300 species of wildflowers alone have been recorded here.
From Sunshine Village, trails radiate across the alpine meadow, which is covered in a colorful carpet of fireweed, glacier lilies, mountain avens, white mountain heather, and forget-me-nots (the meadows are in full bloom late July to mid-August). The most popular destination is Rock Isle Lake, an easy 2.5-kilometer (1.6-mile) jaunt from the upper village that crosses the Continental Divide while only gaining 100 meters (330 feet) of elevation. Mount Assiniboine (3,618 meters/11,870 feet), known as the “Matterhorn of the Rockies,” is easily distinguished to the southeast. Various viewpoints punctuate the descent to an observation point overlooking the lake. From here, options include a loop around Larix Lake and a traverse along Standish Ridge. If the weather is cooperating, it won’t matter which direction you head (so long as it’s along a formed trail); you’ll experience the Canadian Rockies in all their glory.
It’s possible to walk the six-kilometer (3.7-mile) restricted-access road up to the meadows, but a more practical alternative is to take the Sunshine Meadows Alpine Shuttle along a road closed to public traffic. This service is operated by White Mountain Adventures (403/762-7889 or 800/408-0005, www.sunshinemeadowsbanff.com). Through a June to September season, buses depart Banff (at 8:30 a.m. daily, adult $55, child $30 round-trip) and the Sunshine Village parking lot (on the hour 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, adult $26, child $15 round-trip).
Lake Agnes Hiking TrailLength: 3.6 kilometers/2.2 miles (90 minutes) one-way Elevation gain: 400 meters/1,312 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: Lake Louise
This moderately strenuous hike is one of the park’s most popular. It begins in front of the chateau, branching right near the beginning of the Louise Lakeshore Trail. For the first 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles), the trail climbs steeply, switchbacking through a forest of subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce, crossing a horse trail, passing a lookout, and leveling out at tiny Mirror Lake. Here the old, traditional trail veers right (use it if the ground is wet or snowy), while a more direct route veers left to the Plain of the Six Glaciers. The final elevation gain along both trails is made easier by a flight of steps beside Bridal Veil Falls. The trail ends beside Lake Agnes Teahouse, which overlooks Lake Agnes, a subalpine lake nestled in a hanging valley. The teahouse offers homemade soups, healthy sandwiches, and a wide assortment of teas.
From the teahouse a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) trail leads to Little Beehive and impressive views of the Bow Valley. Another trail leads around the northern shore of Lake Agnes, climbing to Big Beehive or joining to the Plain of the Six Glaciers Trail, just 3.2 kilometers (two miles) from the chateau and 2.1 kilometers (1.3 miles) from the teahouse at the end of that trail.
Larch Valley Hiking TrailLength: 2.9 kilometers/1.8 miles (60 minutes) one-way Elevation gain: 400 meters/1,310 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: Moraine Lake, 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Lake Louise Drive
In fall, when the larch trees have turned a magnificent gold and the sun is shining, few spots in the Canadian Rockies can match the beauty of this valley, but don’t expect to find much solitude (and don’t be too disappointed if the trail is closed in fall–it often is because of wildlife). Although the most popular time for visiting the valley is fall, it is a worthy destination all summer, when the open meadows are filled with colorful wildflowers. The trail begins just past Moraine Lake Lodge and climbs fairly steeply, with occasional glimpses of Moraine Lake below. After reaching the junction of the Eiffel Lake Trail, keep right, passing through an open forest of larch and into the meadow beyond. The range of larch is restricted within the park, and this is one of the few areas where they are prolific. Mount Fay (3,235 meters/10,615 feet) is the dominant peak on the skyline, rising above the other mountains that make up the Valley of the Ten Peaks.
Jasper National Park
Bald Hills Hiking TrailLength: 5.2 kilometers/3.2 miles (2 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 495 meters/1,620 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: picnic area at the end of Maligne Lake Road
This trail follows an old road for its entire distance to the site of a fire lookout that has long since been removed. The sweeping view takes in the jade green waters of Maligne Lake, the Queen Elizabeth Ranges, and the twin peaks of Mount Unwin and Mount Charlton. The Bald Hills extend for seven kilometers (4.3 miles), their highest summit not exceeding 2,600 meters (8,530 feet). A small herd of caribou summers in the hills, although are rarely seen. On the return journey, make the short detour to Moose Lake (see below).
Cavell Meadows Hiking TrailLength: 4 kilometers/2.5 miles (1.5 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 380 meters/1,250 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: parking lot at the end of Cavell Road, 27.5 kilometers (17 miles) south of town
This trail, beginning from the parking lot beneath Mount Edith Cavell, provides access to an alpine meadow and panoramic views of Angel Glacier. The trail begins by following the paved Path of the Glacier Trail, then branches left, climbing steadily along a rocky ridge and then through a subalpine forest of Engelmann spruce and then stunted subalpine fir to emerge facing the northeast face of Mount Edith Cavell and Angel Glacier. The view of the glacier from this point is nothing less than awesome, as the ice spills out of a cirque, clinging to a 300-meter-high (984-foot-high) cliff face. The trail continues to higher viewpoints and an alpine meadow that, by mid-July, is filled with wildflowers.
Wilcox Pass Hiking TrailLength: 4 kilometers/2.5 miles (90 minutes) one-way Elevation gain: 340 meters/1,115 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: Wilcox Creek Campground, 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) south of the Icefield Centre
Views of the Columbia Icefield from the Icefields Parkway pale in comparison with those achieved along this trail, on the same side of the valley as the Icefield Centre. This trail was once used by northbound outfitters because, 120 years ago, Athabasca Glacier covered the valley floor and had to be bypassed. Beginning from the Wilcox Creek Campground access road, the trail climbs through a stunted forest of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir to a ridge with panoramic views of the valley, Mount Athabasca, and the Athabasca Glacier. Ascending gradually from there, the trail enters a fragile environment of alpine meadows. From these meadows and the pass, most hikers return along the same trail (the distance quoted), although it is possible to continue north, descending to the Icefields Parkway at Tangle Ridge, 11.5 kilometers (7.1 miles) along the road from the trailhead.
Ha Ling (Chinaman’s) PeakLength: 2.2 kilometers/1.4 miles (90 minutes) one-way Elevation gain: 740 meters/2,430 feet Rating: moderate/difficult Trailhead: Goat Creek parking lot, Spray Lakes Road, 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) west of Canmore
Ha Ling Peak is the impressive pinnacle of rock that rises high above Canmore to the southwest. While the sheer eastern face is visible from town, this trail winds up the back side of the mountain and ends with stunning views across the Bow Valley. Leaving your vehicle at the Goat Creek Trailhead, cross the road, then walk up to and over the canal to search out the trail, which begins from behind a small work shed. The trail climbs steadily through subalpine forest of Engelmann spruce before breaking out above the tree line, where views north extend down the glacially carved Goat Creek Valley. The trail then forks; the left fork climbs unforgivingly to Chinaman’s Peak, but hikers are rewarded with views no less spectacular by continuing to the right along a lightly marked trail that ends at a saddle. On a clear day, the panorama afforded from this viewpoint is worth every painful step. Take care on the return journey; stay high and to the right, and watch for rock cairns and colored flagging to ensure you enter the trees at the right spot.
Rawson Lake Hiking TrailLength: 3.5 kilometers/2.2 miles (1.5 hours) one-way
Elevation gain: 305 meters/1,000 feet
Trailhead: Upper Lake day-use area, Kananaskis Lakes Road, 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Highway 40
This picturesque subalpine lake is one of the most rewarding half-day hiking destinations in Kananaskis Country. It sits in a high cirque and is backed by a towering yet magnificently symmetrical headwall, so it’s easy to spend an hour or two soaking up your surroundings once you reach the end of the trail. Snow lies along the trail well into July, and the lake doesn’t open for fishing until July 15, but it is nevertheless a popular destination throughout summer. Make your way to the farthest parking lot at Upper Lake (through the middle of the main parking lot) and begin the trek by taking the Upper Kananaskis Lake Circuit Trail. Sarrail Creek Falls is passed at the one-kilometer (0.6-mile) mark, 150 meters (0.1 mile) before the Rawson Lake cutoff. Taking the uphill option, you’re faced with almost two kilometers (1.2 miles) of switchbacks. The trail then levels out, with boardwalks constructed over boggy sections of trail, suddenly emerging at the lake’s outlet. Continue around the southern shore, past an intriguing elevated outhouse, to small meadows and slopes of scree that disappear into the lake.
Kootenay National Park
Floe Lake Hiking TrailLength: 10.4 kilometers/6.5 miles (3.5 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 730 meters/2,395 feet Rating: moderate/difficult Trailhead: Highway 93, 8 kilometers (5 miles) north of Vermilion Crossing
Of all the lakes in Kootenay National Park, this would have to be the most beautiful. Unfortunately, reaching it requires a strenuous day trip or an overnight expedition. From Highway 93, the trail crosses the Vermilion River then begins its long ascent of the Floe Creek watershed, passing through a forest of lodgepole pine and making many long switchbacks before leveling off 400 meters (1,310 feet) before the lake. Nestled in a glacial cirque, the gemlike lake’s aquamarine waters reflect the Rockwall, a sheer limestone wall rising 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above the far shore. In fall, stands of stunted larch around the lakeshore turn brilliant colors, adding to the incredible beauty.
Yoho National Park
Iceline Hiking TrailLength: 6.4 kilometers/4 miles (2.5 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 690 meters/2,260 feet Rating: moderate/difficult Trailhead: HI—Yoho (Whiskey Jack Hostel)
The Iceline is one of the most spectacular day hikes in the Canadian Rockies. The length given is from HI—Yoho to the highest point along the trail (2,250 meters/7,380 feet). (Day hikers are asked to leave their vehicles across the road from the hostel, in the Takakkaw Falls parking lot.) From the hostel, the trail begins a steep and steady one-kilometer (0.6-mile) climb to a point where two options present themselves: The Iceline Trail is to the right, and Yoho Lake is to the left. After another 20 minutes of walking, the Iceline Trail option enters its highlight–a four-kilometer (2.5-mile) traverse of a moraine below Emerald Glacier. Views across the valley improve as the trail climbs to its crest and passes a string of small lakes filled with glacial meltwater. Many day hikers return from this point, although officially the trail continues into Little Yoho River Valley. Another option is to continue beyond Celeste Lake and loop back to Takakkaw Falls and the original trailhead, a total distance of 18 kilometers (11.2 miles).
Waterton Lakes National Park
Crypt Lake Hiking TrailLength: 8.7 kilometers/5.4 miles (3 to 4 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 680 meters/2,230 feet Rating: moderate/difficult Trailhead: Crypt Landing; access is by boat. The Crypt Lake Shuttle (403/859-2362, June to Sept., $20 round-trip) leaves the marina at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. daily for Crypt Landing; return trips depart at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
This is one of the most spectacular day hikes in Canada. Access to the trailhead on the eastern side of Upper Waterton Lake is by boat. The trail switchbacks for 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) past a series of waterfalls and continues steeply up to a small green lake before reaching a campground. The final ascent to Crypt Lake from the campground causes the most problems, especially for those who suffer from claustrophobia or acrophobia. A ladder on the cliff face leads into a natural tunnel that you must crawl through on your hands and knees. The next part of the trail is along a narrow precipice with a cable for support. The lake at the end of the trail, nestled in a hanging valley, is no disappointment. Its dark green waters are rarely free of floating ice, and the steep walls of the cirque rise more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) above the lake on three sides. The international boundary is at the southern end of the lake. A good way to avoid the crowds on this trail is to camp at the dock and set out before the first boat arrives in the morning.