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Sunshine Meadows: Top Rated Alpine Walk

Sunshine Meadows offers a remarkable combination of mountain scenery, colorful wildflowers and easy-to-access trails

By Jack Newton


(photo: Jack Newton)

After 35 years of rambling throughout the Canadian Rockies, the trails at Banff’s Sunshine Meadows continue to command my attention. The publishers of Lonely Planet Discover Canada guidebook are similarly impressed. They designate this one of the top five hiking areas in Canada.

Normally you have to walk for hours to reach treeline meadows, high alpine zones where the forest is sparse, colorful wildflowers bloom mid-summer and expansive vistas abound. But Sunshine Meadows is accessed in minutes via the Sightseeing Gondola and Alpine Shuttle that ferries walkers to 7082 ft (2159 m), chairlift ride and trails that fan out from the Sunshine Village. From here, I have taken trips ranging from a backpacking expedition to Mt Assiniboine (‘Matterhorn’ of the Rockies) to a one-hour stroll to pretty Rock Isle Lake.

My favourite day hike at Sunshine Meadows is the relatively easy 7 km (4.3 mi) loop past picturesque Rock Isle, Larix and Grizzly lakes. The route straddles the Continental Divide, traverses rocky ridges, crosses streams and skirts stands of larch trees that glow fiery gold in the autumn sun.

I also recommend the somewhat more difficult 18 km (11 mi) trip over Quartz Ridge to Citadel Pass; watch for trout lazily swimming the clear waters of Citadel Lake. Most walk the ‘there and back’ trail in a day, but Howard Douglas Lake Campground en route proved to be the perfect overnight stop for my daughter’s first backpacking experience.

If you would prefer to visit Sunshine Meadows’ more remote backcountry terrain with a guide, Hosted Hikes are available. One trip organizer notes, “this high alpine environment is so unique and interesting that it’s worth exploring with a knowledgeable guide.” As for other worthy hiking areas, here are a few of my many favorites:

• Near Canmore, Grassi Lakes is a relatively easy walk and testament to the trail building skills of Lawrence Grassi. Far more challenging is the rewarding circle route around Mount Yamnuska; for an adrenalin rush, try scree jumping frontside slopes.

• Banff townsite’s Cave and Basin Boardwalks are easy strolls that offer fascinating insights into history and nature. I often take visitors to Johnston Canyon and Marble Canyon west of town. This summer, I’m eager to try the cables, anchors and suspended bridge of Mount Norquay’s new guided via ferrata route.

• The trails at Lake Louise also make Lonely Planet’s ‘top five in Canada’ list. The walk to Lake Agnes Teahouse is the classic. More exhilarating is the trail to the Saddleback and summit of Fairview Mountain; go early to enjoy the stellar Temple Mountain view in solitude.

• Near Jasper, I recommend Cavell Meadows for its wildflowers and Angel Glacier view; take the upper trail return to make the trip a loop. High alpine Skyline Trail offers incredible backpacking; most trekkers camp, but at my age Shovel Pass Backcountry Lodge is an attractive alternative.

The are many excellent walks in the Bow Valley and Jasper & Area. Visit parks information desks for more route ideas, and current trail conditions and closures.


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