At our home in Ontario, winter has yet to arrive, but we had a snowy sneak preview of the season in Banff National Park in October. An hour west of Calgary in the Canadian Rockies, this massive wilderness park has already received several snowfalls. The week we were visiting the area, much of it had melted and there wasn’t enough accumulation for snowshoes. Still, we were treated to a few snow-covered trails for our runs, and were able to scout out some spots that would be perfect for later in the season with snowshoes.
A wilderness area like Banff National Park is overwhelming in the choices of places to see and trails to experience. Everywhere you turn, whether driving around or out on a trail, is yet another stunning vista. As Canadians, we felt it was long-overdue that we experienced this national treasure. Our goal was to see as much as we were able in the week we had, and we look forward to going back again to experience more of what the Canadian Rockies have to offer.
Below is an outline of some of the trails that would be ideal for snowshoe excursions in the area – either for snowshoe hiking or running. We found the guidebook Mountain Running in the Canadian Rockies, by Bob Walker very useful for choosing trails, and would recommend it for further information and options for snowshoers.
Lake Louise – Agnes Teahouse and Little Beehive
We drove 30 minutes north of the Banff Townsite to the iconic Chateau Lake Louise. From here there are many trail options accessible, and we chose the Agnes Teahouse trail. It is a gradual to moderate climb for 5.4 km, with spectacular views looking down on Lake Louise. The unique emerald blue of the lake grows more intense and unreal as you view it from increasing heights. The trails in this area are usually very busy, but we enjoyed an almost solitary experience due to the off-season and the icy conditions.
The trail ends at Agnes Lake and the Agnes Teahouse, which is open from May to October and serves light meals. From here there are additional trail options to continue on farther. We chose to go on the extra kilometer to the summit of Little Beehive at 7,300 ft. It was a fairly easy climb, and even at this time of year we could have used our snowshoes. Later in the season, they would be required equipment. The effort up is well worth it, to look down on Lake Louise, the Chateau, and the immense valley surrounded by majestic 10,000+ foot peaks in every direction. The clear mountain air was cleansing in its purity, and coupled with the enormity of the landscape we were in, it left us feeling invigorated and refreshed.
Johnston Canyon and Ink Pots
The Ink Pots trail can be accessed either by the Johnston Canyon trailhead or the Moose Meadow trailhead, both about 20 km north of Banff off of Highway 1A. The Johnston Canyon trail is paved, and is heavily used. It is a pretty trail with impressive waterfalls and deep canyons. The Moose Meadow trail is a good option to avoid crowds and enjoy less-trampled snow. Beyond the junction of these two lead-in trails, the Ink Pot trail continues climbing into a stunning backcountry valley. The Ink Pots are seven small mineral springs that are different shades of blue. Gray Jays met us here and tried to charm some of our Snickers bars away from us. The return trip is a gentle downhill, making for a faster trip. Round-trip distance is 12 km.
The world famous Icefields Parkway starts just north of Lake Louise, and runs 230 km up the Continental Divide to the Jasper Townsite in Jasper National Park (see Debbie McKeown’s article on Jasper for more information on snowshoe opportunities here LINK: http://www.snowshoemagazine.com/viewContent.cfm?content_id=428). About 40 km north of Lake Louise on the parkway is Bow Lake, where we found a gorgeous snowshoe trail.
The trail starts at Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, and is flat as it circles around the north side of Bow Lake. Stunning mountains jut out from the shores and surround the lake. Eventually the trail rises into a hidden valley, and it is like escaping into another world entirely as we crossed the wind-swept moraine to see the glaciers of the Wapta Icefield. After only a half hour of running we felt like we were in the most remote place on earth. The rocky barren landscape was subtle and serene against the gray sky. The wind was strong and brought the temperatures well below freezing, so the packs on our backs containing extra layers were a comfort. Coming back, we found the trail shorter due to familiarity, with the red roof of the lodge nestled on the shoreline quickly growing larger as we ended our run.
Sulphur Mountain Trail
Close to the town of Banff, Sulphur Mountain offers spectacular views on a clear day. Unfortunately, the day Derrick ran up, his view was completely obscured by cloud. The trail is steep and challenging, topping out at the 7,415 ft summit. As a variation, a gondola runs up the mountain and can be used for the trip up or down. Each way is 5.5 km.
Tunnel Mountain Trail
This is an easy 2.3 km jaunt up a heavily switch-backed trail, and is easily accessed right from the town of Banff. It provides a great little workout on a busy day, with rewarding views of the town and surrounding mountains.
On our last day to explore, we were treated to a clear, sunny morning. We drove just five minutes from town and were greeted in the Minnewanka parking lot by a family of mountain goats. It is strongly advised that visitors to the park don’t interact with wildlife, or even go near them, but these goats must not have gotten that memo. We didn’t have any choice but to ready our gear while practically bumping against them. They proceeded to lick our car clean of salt while we were gone, with nose prints covering the car as evidence they did a thorough job.
The snow-covered trail ran along Lake Minnewanka, with high peaks and the brilliant blue of the lake making us feel like we were running through a postcard. The entire trail is 31 km and runs right through the remote wilderness and out of the mountains into foothills. We turned near the end of the lake for an out-and-back option. As on snowshoes, with running it was nice to have a trail in a mountain area that is flatter than the more typical all-up followed by all-down.
As a perfect ending to our snowshoe trail scouting, when we were finishing up this run – the last on our week here – the weather had turned and it was snowing hard. It looked like promising snowshoeing to come.
Resources for Planning, Safety, and Trail Conditions
For travel in remote backcountry areas, be sure to bring appropriate winter survival gear and check ahead with Parks staff on current trail conditions and avalanche areas.
Parks Canada www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/banff
Friends of Banff www.friendsofbanff.com
Mountain Running in the Canadian Rockies, by Bob Walker www.mtnrunning.ca
The following sites include information on guided tours, accommodations and dining. Two of our favourite places to eat were Melissa’s Restaurant (218 Lynx St) for a filling breakfast tortilla to fuel us for a day outside, and afterwards to refuel with a mountain of nachos in the pub upstairs; and Coyotes (206 Caribou St) for tasty lunches with many vegetarian options. For a fancier night out, we enjoyed Thai and Grill (202 Caribou St) for pad thai and curries.
Travel Alberta www.travelalberta.com or 1-800-ALBERTA
Banff Lake Louise Tourism www.banfflakelouise.com