We’re lucky in Calgary as we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to early season hikes. I’ve chosen five mountain hikes that are all within a 90 minute drive of the city.
The Hike to Castle Mountain Lookout
If you’ve got 3 – 3.5 hours for a hike then do the one up to Castle Mountain Lookout in Banff National Park for its great views up and down the length of the Bow Valley. On clear days you can even see as far as Vermilion Pass in Kootenay National Park. It’s only 7.4 kilometres return with an elevation gain of 520 metres. You’ll get a good workout, especially on the initial climb up an old road. It does get more visually interesting once you get onto the dirt trail – just 30 minutes into the hike.
The only downside to this hike is the highway noise that travels all the way up the mountain. Still, the hike is worth it for an early snow-free outing, the ability to get into the mountains and moving again and of course the views.
Ha Ling Peak Hike
If you look at Ha Ling Peak from Canmore, you might say there’s no way anyone can hike up there. But once on the actual trail across from the Goat Creek parking lot (off of Spray Lake Road) it’s a lot less intimidating. The hike is very popular, especially on a weekend. People look like ants on the top part of the mountain.
It’s a 3.0 kilometre hike up Ha Ling Peak with an elevation gain of 737 metres – a bit like the Grouse Grind in Vancouver if you’ve ever done that. Right from the start you’re climbing and perhaps sucking wind if you didn’t bother with a winter conditioning program. It may start off muddy early in the season but that will give way to snowy sections (perhaps) and then eventually to rock and scree. It took us 90 minutes to get to the top. If you’re going in April and May take ‘icers’ with you to help navigate the snow. Most people don’t bring any but look with longing at people that do have them.
If it’s a sunny day you’ll probably want to hang out at the top for a while and enjoy the airy view. Take your lunch and lots of water; find a few comfortable rocks and relax. You earned it.
Lots of families do this hike but it may take a little cajoling (read bribing) in places to keep the kids going.
August 2019: Ha Ling Peak is now reopened. Check this website for updates.
Lake Minnewanka – Aylmer Pass Hike
Head to Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park if you want a lovely hike along the largest and deepest lake in the park. The hike along Lake Minnewanka offers the option to make a long day of it by going all the way to Aylmer Lookout (23.4 kilometres round trip) or Aylmer Pass (27 kilometres round trip), both of which are off limits by early July because of bears. Or you can continue on the lakeshore trail all the way to the far end of the lake. That’s a 23 kilometre one way hike and best done as a backpacking trip!
What I like about this hike, apart from all the wildflowers and gorgeous views of Lake Minnewanka are all the options from one trailhead. I have never made it as far as Aylmer Pass but have gone as far as one of the nice beaches, a few hours out from the car. Just watch out for mountain bikers as they love this trail as much as the hikers.
C Level Cirque Hike
The length of the hike to C Level Cirque will vary depending on where you can park. Until mid-April a section of the loop road near Lake Minnewanka is closed to cars so you have to start the hike at the Lake Minnewanka parking lot (in Banff National Park) and that adds 4.6 kilometres. If the road is open, park at the Upper Bankhead Picnic Area.
The C Level Cirque hike is one I’d only recommend in early season as once the snow is gone there are more interesting hikes to do. It’s only 8.4 kilometres round trip with a moderate elevation gain of 455 metres. If you start at the picnic area you can be up and down in a couple of hours.
The hike starts on a pine-needle covered path in dense forest and takes you up past the remains of a coal operation. Mine shafts are fenced but there is the building pictured below where you can stop and admire some art work. Meander through forests of lodgepole pine and spruce to reach a traverse across a steep slope. We did this hike in early April last year and the steep section was snow covered and required a lot of post-holing. Gaiters would have been welcome here. Eventually you leave the forest and enter the cirque. The snow was so deep that without snowshoes further hiking would be a lesson in frustration. But once the snow is gone it’s possible to continue to the right edge of the cirque for superb views.
Heart Mountain Hike
This is one of those hikes I had on my wish list for a very long time. It’s about an hour’s drive from Calgary to reach the trailhead near Lac des Arcs, just eight minutes before you get to Canmore.
There are two hikes you can do from the Heart Creek parking lot. The easy hike follows Heart Creek to a waterfall, a distance of about three kilometres. It’s a great family friendly hike. But for an adventure and a workout tackle Heart Mountain instead. The hike is 2.8 kilometres one way with an elevation gain of 745 metres. Once you start up it doesn’t level off until you reach the summit. You need between four and five hours to do this hike.
There is only one truly difficult part on the hike providing you don’t get off-course, which seems to happen with some frequency if you read trip reports. Stay on the ridge and about two thirds of the way up look for a red square on a rock and flagging in the tree. You need to scramble up a short rock face which fortunately has good hand holds. From there it’s steep but very manageable hiking.
And the reward – incredible views of peaks you never see from the highway along with a great swath of the Bow Valley through to the prairies if the visibility is good.
How to dress for the shoulder season when you’re hiking
What gear to bring
Go prepared for everything. That means the 10 essentials should be in your backpack. If you think there might be snow, bring gaiters along with “icers”. Some people swear by hiking poles – while others like my husband, hate them. If you have to cross a stream or a river, poles come in very handy. You might want to read 12 Safety Tips for Safely Fording Rivers and Streams if a river crossing is in your future.
Base layers sit closest to your skin. You want layers that wick the moisture away so you don’t get chilled when you stop. Good choices include products made with merino wool – like Icebreaker (they use the highest quality wools and ensure all their farmers follow strict ethical policies with their animals) and synthetics like capilene. They come in different weights so you can layer for the season. I have become a fan of merino wool for a few reasons; it’s soft next to the skin, very comfortable and even after five days of exercise and no washing the stuff doesn’t smell. For real.
You want a piece of clothing that adds insulation and traps body heat. I love fleece as it doesn’t add much bulk. Some of the fleece products have added wind protection which can be a bonus. Low profile down is another option. Vests are an excellent choice in the shoulder seasons.
Outer layer of clothing
Always carry a shell to provide protection from the elements – whether that’s rain, snow or wind. It should be breathable. These pieces tend to be expensive but if you buy quality, you should get 5-8 years or even longer out of the shell. The outer layer should still allow freedom of movement.
What to wear on your feet
Wear sturdy hiking shoes or boots for mountain hikes. I recently got a pair of Salomon boots with GoreTex protection from Sporting Life that were a snap to break in and they keep my feet dry without adding the weight of a leather boot. If you have leather boots treat them so they are more water repellent. Wear a wicking sock.
I like super thin socks and only one pair but socks are very personal. Some people prefer a liner sock along with a thicker hiking sock. You’ll have to see what works best for you. Take an extra pair in case one pair gets wet. And don’t forget the sandals for when you get back to the car. It’s a delicious feeling to get out of boots and let your feet breathe.