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Banff National Park: The Subalpine Splendor of Sunshine Meadows


Those of us who enjoy hiking and backpacking grow impatient by early summer as we gaze to the mountaintops and their passes and wait for the snow up there to finally melt.  We busy ourselves with low altitude hikes and camping and such, but as much fun as these can be we know the best scenery and the greatest hiking awaits in those higher altitudes.  And when subalpine meadows emerge from their snowy blanket its time at last to start exploring!

In the Canadian Rockies the subalpine meadows are usually covered in snow until around the end of June or early July — and snow begins reaccumulating in early October, so the window of opportunity is narrow.  But during those few months there’s a short but intense growing season with lush meadows 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).

Rock Isle (L) & Laryx (R)Lakes, Sunshine Meadows

Sunshine Meadows, which straddles the Continental Divide between Alberta (Banff National Park) and British Columbia (Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park), is only a few miles from the Banff townsite and just off the Trans-Canada Highway.  Unlike most of the Continental Divide, which is characterized by sharp ragged peaks, this region offers 100 square kilometers of fairly flat, easily hiked sub-alpine meadow.  It is one of the most accessible and beautiful higher altitude hiking experiences in the Canadian Rockies. Sunshine Meadows, a garden in nature really, is situated at around 7300′ (2250 m) above sea level and is not directly accessible by car.  But as it’s close to a ski village, there’s an hourly shuttle you can ride up from Sunshine Village to the “Nature Center” (Day ski lodge) at 2200 m; from here the meadow is 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 and dusty undertaking, but it is 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 (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) Lakes.  After this you slowly climb through Twin Cairns Meadow towards Healy Pass and the fabulous Monarch Viewpoint which offers memorable 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 mostly because I seemed to be constantly stopping to take photos.

View from Monarch Viewpoint

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, and 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 Sept to see the fall 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.

(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)

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