As summer is upon us, I thought I’d feature another walk from the Canadian Rockies, this one directly accessible from downtown Banff on a trail that’s been around almost as long as Banff itself has. The hike is up Tunnel Mountain, a misnamed place in that there is no tunnel and this “mountain” is really just a large hill when compared to the size and grandeur of the other Rocky Mountains peaks around it (it’s the smallest mountain by Banff, but definitely still a memorable peak). There are wonderful views to be enjoyed from much of the trail, reason enough to make this a worthwhile hike.
The original name given to this peak by the natives was “Sleeping Buffalo Mountain” (because the shape of the mountain reminded them of a reclined buffalo), a name I like. In the late 19th century it was named “Tunnel Mountain”; as Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) engineers first developed a train route to Banff in 1882, they thought they’d have to blast a tunnel through the mountain to reach the Banff townsite. Fortunately an alternate route was developed at a much lower cost, so no tunnel was ever created. Still, like a tick on a hairy dog, the name Tunnel Mountain stuck around.
The trail is well maintained and your ascent is straight uphill via numerous switchbacks, with only a few flat sections. You ascend 300 m (950 ft) over 2.2 km (1.4 mi), so the grade is fairly significant (about 700 ft altitude per mile). Tunnel mountain is covered with a spruce and fir forest, but there are lots of openings where you can see great panoramic views in toto covering all 360 degrees, many of which are highlighted in the accompanying photos.
As you climb, you’re rewarded with great views of the town of Banff, the Bow River valley, Vermillion Lakes, Banff Springs Hotel and its golf course, Sulphur Mountain, and Mt Rundle. The trail narrows near the top but is still of excellent quality throughout. There’s some steep cliffs on the eastern side of the mountain, but even if you have severe vertigo or fear of heights, there’s no problem with that on this trail as you’re not walking near the edge of the mountain and a guard rail is up in the most dangerous parts.
The summit is forested, but there’s scenic views and a large rock which provides a memorable place to sit and overlook the Banff townsite and Vermillion Lakes. It’s a nice place to rest, enjoy the cool breeze, eat a picnic lunch and even do a little people watching, as you won’t be alone on this trail.
When you’re ready to return, you simply walk down the trail, much easier on the descent than in the other direction. A leisurely trip up and down the mountain takes about 3 hours (much less time if you rush), so count on a half day for the hike. After a nice rest you might be ready to tackle another of the town’s many trails.
Tunnel Mountain is a popular trail and for many of Banff’s residents it’s one they hike often, sometimes every day. One of the locals is said to have summited over 4000 times! The trail is accessible year round, although with fresh snow in the winter snow-shoes are recommended (when the snow is compressed, good quality traction boots are adequate). For those hiking after the thaw begins, beware of ice on the trail in the morning.
The hike is especially recommended for its views of Banff and the Bow River Valley.
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