Banff National Park: Hiking in the Subalpine Splendor of Sunshine Meadows

 Overview of Sunshine Meadows

 

One of the most scenic hikes in the Canadian Rockies, and also one of my favorites, is in a high subalpine meadow in Banff National Park.  The season for hiking here is limited to only a few months because of the high altitude.  It's often late June or early July before the snow melts and the meadow and its trails emerge.  Snow begins re-accumulating in early October, so the window of hiking opportunity is very narrow.  But during those few summer months there’s an intense growing season spurred on by the long sunny days and high amount UV light, quickly yielding a lush green meadow and a large number and diversity of wildflowers.  The summer weather even at these high altitudes is often very pleasant, sunny with a light breeze and around 20 degrees C.  Sometimes it’s almost perfect (but if a storm blows in you need to be ready for everything from hail to snow, even in the summer).

 

Sunshine Meadows. The snow persists into July.

 

Our featured hike today is Sunshine Meadows, which straddles the Continental Divide between Alberta (Banff National Park) and British Columbia (Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park).  Unlike most of the Continental Divide, which is characterized by sharp ragged peaks, this region offers 100 square kilometers of fairly flat, easily hiked meadow.  It's one of the most accessible and beautiful higher altitude hiking experiences in the Canadian Rockies, a garden in nature really, situated at around 7300″ (2250 m) above sea level.

 

Sunshine Meadows is only a few miles from the Banff townsite and is accessed from the Trans-Canada Highway.  You can't drive your car to the meadow, just to the base of its mountain.  But as it’s close to a ski village, there’s an hourly shuttle you can ride up from Sunshine Village at the base of the hill, up a steep road to the “Nature Center” (Day ski lodge) at 2200 m; from here the meadow's only a fifteen minute walk away.   Reservations for the bus ride are best made well in advance if you want to be assured a spot as the number of people allowed up each day is limited.  Conversely you could walk up the mountain, a rather long, dull, tiring and dusty undertaking, but it's an option for those with endless energy or who can’t get a bus reservation.

 

Departing the Sunshine Meadows Day Ski Lodge (called a

 

Sunshine Meadows offers wonderful panoramic views encompassing wildflowers and grasses, beautiful lakes, towering mountain ranges and thousands of ground squirrels.  Most people enter via Rock Isle Trail which, after a kilometer, offers a branch point to access Mt. Assiniboine in B.C. (still 29 km further southwest and one of the tallest peaks in the Rockies), a classically pyramidal-shaped peak not unlike the Matterhorn.  As you continue you gain your first views of beautiful Rock Isle Lake. 

 

There’s a turnoff to the Garden Path Trail, well worth taking, which leads you on a side-loop diversion (4.8 km) including Grizzly Lake and Laryx (Larix) Lake.  After this you slowly climb through Twin Cairns Meadow towards Healy Pass and the fabulous Monarch Viewpoint which offers spectacular views to the north.  Healy Pass is accessible from Sunshine Meadows but was more than I could fit in the day I was there.   As it was my hike was around 15 km (10 miles) long but admittedly with only a modest 100m elevation gain.  My pace was not too fast because I seemed to be constantly stopping to take photos.

 

Sunshine Meadows, Banff National Park

 

Lonely Planet has rated Sunshine Meadows one of the greatest hiking destinations in Canada.  For unobstructed views of mountains, for green meadows with millions of flowers in bloom, for clear blue lakes, wildlife and bird viewing opportunities you can’t beat a sunny summer day at Sunshine Meadows. I had perfect weather the day I was there and really enjoyed this wonderful and special place.  I’m sure you would as well.

 

Larix Lake -- Sunshine Meadows

 

I hope to return to the Meadows sometime in the early fall to see the vivid colors on the grassland, shrubs and larches.  I think it would be an interesting contrast to the lush greenery I found in July.  There are also guided snow-shoe hikes one can take into the meadow in the winter which, on a nice clear day, might also be worthwhile.

 

Hike Length:  Very variable, depending on which the many trail options you take.

Elevation gain:  Depends on your trail but <100 meters (330 ft)

Rating: Easy

 

For legends to the photos in this blog, please hold your mouse over it, or click on the thumbnails below.

 

Sunshine Meadows - Rock Isle Lake

Views from Sunshine Meadows

Creek by Garden Path Trail -- Sunshine Meadows

Grizzly Lake -- Sunshine Meadows

Simpson Valley, views from Sunshine Meadows

Larix Lake -- Sunshine Meadows

Larix Lake -- Sunshine Meadows

Rocky Mountain views from Sunshine Meadows

View of Larix & Grizzly Lakes -- Sunshine Meadows

Overview of Sunshine Meadows

Rocky Isle Lake -- Sunshine Meadows

Sunshine Meadows

Hiking in Sunshine Meadows

Sunshine Meadows, Banff National Park

Sunshine Meadows, Banff National Park

Monarch Viewpoint, Banff National Park

Monarch Viewpoint, Banff National Park

Ground Squirrel -- Sunshine Meadows

Sunshine Meadows -- Anenome flowers

Sunshine Meadows -- Anenome flowers

Sunshine Meadows --Wildflowers

Sunshine Meadows -- Indian Paintbrush

Sunshine Meadows -- Indian Paintbrush

Sunshine Meadows -- Heather

Sunshine Meadows -- Wildflowers

 

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Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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Those photographs are wonderful, they're really giving me the itch to be there in person again. My visit to Banff and Lake Louise many years ago is one of my fondest travel memories. Imo, Lake Louise is one of the most beautiful, majestic and peaceful places to spend time. Recently, I've been considering going back, but I'm not one for cold weather. So it's gone on my list for next summer and I'm really looking forward to it.

 

The last time I went, we drove from Seattle, and the drive through the Rockies is one of the most awesome road trips ever, so I plan to do that again. But this time I'll start with Vancouver and Victoria, because we didn't have time to make them that trip. It will definitely be the highlight of my summer.

 

Really great post, and fabulous photographs.

Thanks for the nice comment, MsNomadica, and welcome to TravelGumbo!   The Canadian Rockies are a very special place and perhaps no place is this better demonstrated than in Lake Louise.  If you're traveling from Seattle, a trip up through Victoria and Vancouver, up and north from Whistler towards Jasper, then down the Rockies through Lake Louise, Banff, Canmore.  I'd recommend making a loop drive, down through the Crowsnest Pass, Fernie, Cranbrook, Bonners Ferry, Sandpoint, Couer d'alene and back to Seattle.  Some of the greatest scenery in the world here!

 

If you'd like more tips, post a question in the forums and we'll help you structure a great trip!

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

Hi,

 

Yes, that is exactly the route we planned to get there, though the trip will actually begin in San Diego this time and be preceded by a trip up the U.S. west coast. But coming back, we are thinking of going to Calgary then dropping all the way down to Montana and Wyoming, and heading back to San Diego via Las Vegas, where we have family.

 

We spent a nice little time thinking about it and planning, even though it won't be until next summer, all because of your post! So thanks for giving us the idea, because it has inspired an awesome mega road trip...even better, I think, than the San Diego to Key West we did last summer.

MsNomadica, I'd love to read more about your road trip from San Diego to Key West! I've been thinking about a similar road trip the last few years.

If you want a thing done, ask a busy man.

Travel Rob,

 

You can read about the San Diego to Key West road trip on www.msnomadica.com. It's on the posts from last July & August. They weren't really meant as a travel blog so much as a record of my sister and I trying to decide where we were going to live once we leave New Orleans.

 

In any case, I can tell you that we basically loved San Diego, Disney and Key West, while Austin and Fort Lauderdale were both a bit of a let down. We've loved living in New Orleans, but it's been just over a year now and we're both really itching to move on. Looks like it will finally be next month, and we will probably be headed back out West, but we are hoping to get another couple of months of travel in before settling down again.

 

Anyway, let me know if you have any questions.

 

Rebecca

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