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