Day 1 – July 24th – Interlake Trailhead to Turbine Canyon Campground (14km, 525m elevation gain)
The Interlakes trailhead in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is like an old friend. I’ve lost count the number of backpacking trips, picnics and day hikes I’ve started here. Situated at the end of the Kananaskis Lakes Trail (a road in this case) it acts as a gateway to several backcountry trails and campgrounds. I’ve probably hiked this section of the Upper Lakes Trail more than any other.
I couldn’t have asked for a nicer morning as I hiked over the dam and around a mirror smooth Upper Kananaskis Lake. Water levels were still high as I crossed the bridge over the Upper Kananaskis River and wondered what conditions would be like when I would have to ford LeRoy Creek and the Palliser River over the next few days. With a high snow year and a late spring, things had gotten down to the wire if this trip would even happen. The campground at Turbine had only opened 3 days earlier due to the still high winter snowpack and many people plans for early and mid-July had been cancelled.
Reaching the campground at Forks, you could see that preparations were underway for this seasons reconstruction. For the past few years, Alberta Parks has been refurbishing one backcountry campground each summer. I’m grateful to see the continued investment in parks infrastructure. I passed through the area quickly and took a break by the river before starting the climb up the side of Mount Putnick and the valley beyond. I could feel the difference in my fitness level from two summers previous when I was just starting to get my type 2 Diabetes under control. It had taken me two days to cover the same ground to the campground at Turbine. This year, I covered the 15km and 525m of elevation in a single stretch. Trail conditions were great, with only a bit of snow to cross at Lawson Lake. I arrived at camp just before dinner time and grabbed a nice private site. Parks had done a really nice job refurbishing the campground the previous year, with new outhouses, improved tent pads and even platforms at some of the soggier locations.
Day 2 July 25th – Zero Day
I had left an extra day in my schedule depending on how I felt. I could either take a zero at Turbine, or split my next section through Height of the Rockies Provincial Park into two days. Feeling pretty good with my pace, I decided to enjoy the campground the next day, check out the nearby canyons, relax, watch the clouds go by and do some reading.
It was somewhat of a surprise when I heard a helicopter approaching, and not just flying overhead, but coming in for a landing at the open field in the middle of the campground. I wandered over and had a chat the pilot. He had spent the morning ferrying crew, equipment and material into Forks to support the work there. The supervisor, who had overseen the previous years work at Turbine wanted to see how things had fared over the winter and decided to fly up the valley for an inspection. The folks at Alpine Helicopters are a familiar sight in these parts of the Rockies. Supporting Provincial and National Parks crews, local Search and Rescue teams, they also provide tourist flights in and out of Mount Assiniboine. I hope I never have to call them out for an evacuation, but I’m glad they’re out there.
After the crew packed up and headed out, it was an uneventful evening. I bumped into a young woman’s group who were in the midst of a 5-week camping/backpacking tour of the Western US and Canada, talked to a teacher from Ottawa completing the Kananaskis Pass loop and another group from Moose Jaw hiking a similar route as I.
Day 3 – July 26th – Turbine Canyon Campground to Burstall Campground 26km (600m elevation gain, 900m elevation loss
I was up bright an early the next morning as I knew it was going to be a long day. Coming across Maude Lake in the early morning light was absolutely spectacular and the views from North Kananaskis Pass into BC seemed to go on forever. While the route down towards LeRoy Creek was steep, it was in much better shape than I had anticipated. As the trail crosses out of Alberta and into BC, the trail goes from one regularly maintained by parks crews and volunteers, to the more remote Height of the Rockies Provincial Park. As part of my volunteer duties for the Great Divide Trail Association, I made note of trail conditions to help with future planning and maintenance activities. It didn’t take long before I was stripping off my shoes and socks for my first ford of the day and the unbridged crossing of LeRoy Creek. The water came up to my mid-calf and the chill from its glacier source was invigorating. All in all the crossing was uneventful. Except for a washout near the crossing, the rest of the trail down to the Palliser River was easy to follow and the junction back up to South Kananaskis Pass was well marked.
I grabbed lunch at the confluence of LeRoy and Palliser before again donning my sandals and crossing the river. A bit deeper, but not flowing as fast, I made quick work across the channel. Here the trail started to climb, first gently across several avalanche chutes, but then more steeply as I approached the head of the valley. I took a well-deserved break at the rustic campground (no facilities) at the top of the climb. I may have to come back, as it would make a nice place to camp, with great views and a nice creek. After that it was the final push past Palliser Lake and over the pass into the southernmost reaches of Banff National Park and the Spray River valley.
Here the nature of the trail changes considerably. Wide valleys start to open up where the slowly gathering Spray River meanders its way across open meadows. Belgium Lake was beautiful before I descended the 200m into the main valley. Here the high levels of melt water started to become and issue as they had flooded portions of the trail and the Spray was running high. The trail became indistinct in a few places and it took some time to sleuth out the route. At this point, my efforts to keep my feet dry failed as I tried my best to step around the water. With the sun getting low over the peaks, I stumbled into the campground at Burstall, one of my longest days to date. A few hours later the group I had met the previous day made it in, looking only slightly worse for wear. I filtered water and tucked into bed for a good night sleep.
Day 4 – July 27th – Burstall Campground to Mount Shark Trailhead (18km, 250m elevation loss)
The next morning, I was sore. The previous day had been a long one and I was feeling it. I made up some breakfast and talked to the group that had come in the previous evening. One of their party wasn’t doing so well, and had barely made it in. I gave them some advice on the best way for him to get off trail. Over Burstall Pass was one option, the route was shorter, but required a 500m climb to the pass. Shark Mountain was much longer (about 18km), but was mostly down hill and led to a much busier trailhead with many more options to get a ride. In the end he chose Burstall so we went our separate ways and hit the trail. It was a fantastic morning in the Upper Spray Valley. The sun was shining and the birds were out. Water was still high, but the section from Burstall is far more traveled and easier to follow. Along the way I bumped into a Park Ranger on horseback who was heading up to the Palliser Pass to do some maintenance and check on some wildlife cameras. I could get use to this as my “office” 😊. I took a break at the campground at Birdwood, it too looked like it had recently been updated, but the views at Burstall were much better. From here the trail heads below tree line and you start to lose some of the sights, in fact the last 3km to the junction at Spray Lake is pretty boring. This is also where you start to bump into more crowds. Day hikers, and people heading into Mt Assiniboine. I took a break for lunch and soaked my feet in the cool waters.
Here I had a tough choice to make. I had overexerted my self the day before, my body was aching, I was getting a blister on foot (first time in year) and was starting to chafe. I could turn left and head towards Assiniboine and 4 days till my next opportunity to get off trail, or I could turn right and hike the 6km to the Shark Mountain parking lot and hitch a ride home. In hindsight I should have continued, and I’ve started to learn that I should plan for a lighter day after a hard one. In the end however, I chose to head to the parking lot and get off trail.
Day 5 – July 30th – Sunshine Ski Resort to Healy Creek Campground (8km, 100m elevation gain, 400m elevation loss)
After a few days at home, I decided to pick things back up and make use of the permits I had booked in Banff National Park. Starting at the Sunshine Ski Resort lets you “cheat” a little bit, by taking the Gondola up to the alpine rather that having to hike your way up. When my kids were younger, they were ski racers, so we spent many winter days here. In summer, Sunshine Meadows becomes a hikers paradise with many short and intermediate loops. With the gondola and lifts operating, it’s probably the easiest way to access the alpine in Banff, and the wildflowers can be spectacular. For backpackers, it provides access both into Assiniboine Provincial Park (heading South) or the Egypt Lake area of Banff. While you can also hike in from the Sunshine parking lot, the trail is mostly a climb in dense forest.
On this day, I enjoyed the gentle breeze as I took the chairlift up to the Standish lookout. Mosquitos were out in force so I didn’t admire the view for too long. The trail descends steeply from the high point and joins the Rock Isle Trail looping around the northern edge of the ski resort. With the late spring melt, the wildflowers weren’t yet out, but the mountain sights more than made up for it. The trail climbs up to another viewpoint which overlooks the imposing Monarch Ramparts, before dropping down into the next valley. Back in and out of forest you’ll come across the less than impressive Simpson Pass (marked by a border cairn). With all of the views you’ve just experienced in the meadows, the fully treed high point doesn’t provide much in the way of views. Here there is a junction, one that leads down Healy Creek to the campground I’d be staying at, or onward to Healy Pass (where I’d be going the next day). Only 2km from the junction, the campground has several tent pads, an outhouse, and a separate eating area and food storage. I largely had the place to myself, with another couple coming around dinner time. It wasn’t a long hike, and if my permits had been different, I likely would have continued to Egypt Lake.
Day 6 – July 31st – Healy Creek Campground to Pharaoh Creek Campground (12km, 350m elevation gain)
This was another nice one and the views from Healy Pass were one of the top three of the summer. The night was uneventful and I rose with the sun, grabbing some oatmeal, I broke camp and got started back up Healy Creek. The trail here forms a triangle, with yesterdays junction at one apex, the campground at another, and the third side taking me back up towards the main trail. While I had lost a bit of elevation hiking down the creek to the campground, it was easy making it back up and regaining the meadows above tree line. Reconnecting with the trail, it climbs towards the pass (about 200m in 1.5km). Here the views again start to open up, with the Healy Lakes coming into view and the Rampart’s wrapping around the valley. I bumped into a Park Ranger who asked for my permit, which was good to see (the second of 3 rangers I’d see on the trail this summer). She mentioned that the previous night had been booked solid at Egypt Lake and that it was going to be ramping up for the long weekend. I asked about the shelters at Egypt Lake and Bryant Creek. The shelters had been removed in 2020 as they were in desperate need of replacement. We had stayed at the Bryant Creek shelter a few years prior during a winter cross country ski trip and I was curious about future plans. It turns out that due to supply chain issues and post-COVID inflation, costs to replace the shelters had gone up considerably. Rather than replacing them both at the same time, the one at Egypt would be built first (with work starting in just a few days), while Bryant would come later. Wishing each other a good trip, I finished the last part up to the pass.
All I can say is WOW!! Looking to the South one can see the meadows extending all the way past the resort and to the edges of Assiniboine (who’s distinctive peak is visible in the distance). To the north lies all the glacial lakes of the valley (Egypt, Mummy, Scarab, Pharaoh and Talc), You can see Whistling Pass in the distance. Just about every direction has something to see, so I took a while to enjoy. Over the pass, the trail descends at a steady pace back into trees and the crowded campground at Egypt Lake. The largest and most popular campground in the area, spots are well in demand (and unfortunately I hadn’t lucked out this year). Still I grabbed my lunch here and enjoyed the sights before heading down Pharaoh Creek where I’d be staying the night. A great destination in of itself, Egypt Lake is a great place to stay for a few days as there are multiple lakes and passes to explore. Down the creek is a bit less spectacular as it’s about 4km down the valley. I’ll be back to Egypt Lake in the near future. The campground at Pharaoh Creek is fairly basic, with a few tent pads, food storage and an eating area. Compared to the crowds at Egypt Lake, it was serene with the whole place to myself. I soaked my feet in the creek and had a relaxing evening as the sun went down.
Day 7 – August 1st – Pharaoh Creek Campground to Redearth Trailhead (14km, 400m elevation loss)
My last day on this trip was somewhat anti-climatic. After the scenery of the previous two days, the hike down from Pharaoh is almost entirely in forest. All the elevation I gained via the gondola two days prior as you make your way down the valley, with a fairly steep set of switchbacks before joining Redearth Creek and the old fire road. This section of the trail allows bikes (up to the junction) and some will take advantage of this option to expedite their trips into the more exciting areas of the park
. There is a small campground at Lost Horse Creek where a father and his young son were staying for an overnight trip. Mosquito’s were BAD, so I grabbed my lunch under my bug net before making the final push to the highway and parking lot.