Sublime Hiking in the Canadian Rockies
Section C offers some of the most scenic parts of the Great Divide Trail (GDT). Starting at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis it passes through several national and provincial parks (including the iconic Banff National Park) on its way to the town of Field. Most of this section is well-maintained and signed along official trails. At the same time, you will leave behind some of the seclusion you experienced on earlier sections as you hit several popular backpacking trails.
With the exception of a small portion of trail in Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, camping is only allowed in designated campgrounds and permits are required (see my post on permits here). As of this posting, national park permits (Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper) are available for the 2020 season. If you are considering the GDT for 2020, you’ll want to look into permits as soon as possible as many campgrounds are already fully booked. For those wanting to section hike the GDT, section C is a great place to start.
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Starting at the Elk Pass trailhead in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, there is a short road walk to the Interlakes North Trailhead. A longer, but more scenic alternative is to hike along the shore of Upper Kananaskis Lake. Another alternative from here is Northover Ridge. Rather than hiking counterclockwise toward Interlakes, you hike clockwise along the Upper Lake Trail up the headwall to Aster Lake. Here you’ll see the imposing peak of Mount Joffre (also known as The Tooth). I’ve spent some time here, and it’s a beautiful high alpine valley. Continuing the climb to Northover Ridge, you’ll straddle the divide for 2.5 miles (4km) with some mild scrambling and exposure. Off the ridge you’ll descend to Three Isle Lake. There is a popular campground here with lots of peakbagging options. This is where I went for my very first backpacking trip as a young Scout, so it has a special place in my heart. Heading over South Kananaskis Pass, you’ll pass Beatty Lake and head down into the Palliser Valley where the route rejoins the GDT.
If you’re sticking to the official GDT route, the trail heads up the upper Kananaskis Valley toward a backcountry campground at Forks. A trail here provides alternate access to Three Isle Lake. Continuing up the valley you’ll pass Lawson Lake, a narrow canyon and campground at Turbine, and the Beckie Scott High-Performance Training Centre on Haig Glacier where Nordic ski athletes train for the Canadian Olympic team.
Crossing the North Kananaskis Pass, the trail passes back into BC and descends into the Palliser Valley (random camping is permitted here). An alternate access point is available by heading south down the Palliser River; however, the trailhead is only accessible along a 50-mile (80km) drive on forestry roads.
On a less-maintained trail, you’ll climb to Palliser Pass and enter the world famous Banff National Park. This part of Banff is rarely traveled, but there are access/entry points at Burstall Pass and Mount Shark. There are several campgrounds in this section. In the winter, there is a popular network of well-maintained cross country ski trails in the area that I highly recommend.
After the junction with the Mount Shark trail, you’ll head up Bryant Creek. There are several backcountry campgrounds here at Big Springs, Marvel Lake, and McBride’s Camp. Parks Canada also operates a shelter at Bryant Creek. Its a fairly basic cabin with a stove, common eating area, and shared sleeping platforms. Permits are required to stay at any of these locations.
At Marvel Pass you enter Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, often called the Matterhorn of North America. Assiniboine has been a popular destination since the Canadian Pacific Railway was built. Several campgrounds and huts are available, and for those with deep pockets, the Assiniboine Mountain Lodge. Tea is available to the public between 4 and 5 p.m. This portion of the trail can be extremely busy and resupply is available via helicopter. From the campgrounds at Lake Magog and Lake Og the trail heads through the Valley of the Rocks, up to Citadel Pass, and back into Banff National Park. It’s a pleasant hike through alpine and subalpine meadows to the Sunshine Ski Resort. During the summer there is a restaurant and hiker gondola that will take you down to the main parking lot. Shuttle buses are available here to the Banff townsite and Lake Louise (both of which are extremely busy in the summer). Some will use this as an opportunity to exit the trail to experience the town of Banff.
From Sunshine the trail passes over Simpson and Healy passes (George Simpson was a colonial governor for the Hudson’s Bay Company who circumnavigated the world by land in 1841). The Healy Creek alternate also provides access to the Sunshine parking lot. Descending into the popular Egypt Lakes area, there are several trails, campgrounds, and shelters operated by Parks Canada. Expect this section of the trail to be busy. Leaving the crowds behind, the GDT passes over the rarely used Ball Pass into Kootenay National Park, highway 93 and the Hawk Creek Trailhead.
Next up is the popular Rockwall backcountry trail. Climbing up to Floe Lake, you’ll find the single most popular campground on the GDT, getting a spot here is like trying to get tickets to the Rolling Stones. In 2020, the campground was fully booked within minutes of it opening for reservations. I’ve wanted to hike this trail for years and am really looking forward to it this summer. The trail crosses several watersheds at Numa Creek, Tumbling Creek, and Helmut Creek. Each of these has both a campground (permit required) and acts as an entry/exit point. (Note: the Numa Creek trail has been closed for several years, but is expected to open in 2020; check the Kootenay Park website for the latest) Here there are several good views of Helmut Falls, the second-highest falls in the Canadian Rockies. Leaving behind the Kootenays, the trail heads through Goodsir Pass, into Yoho National Park, and after a short walk along the TransCanada highway, the town of Field.
Next up, Section D