One of the premier day hikes in Banff National Parks takes you to Citadel Peak via Sunshine Meadows. I didn’t have time, or the enthusiasm for the full 18.6 kilometre round trip hike to the peak but I was keen to see Sunshine Meadows in what I hoped would be peak wildflower season.
The hike into Sunshine Meadows gets you above treeline where you get a double whammy – wildflowers and gorgeous Rocky Mountain views. With gondolas and chairlifts, the heavy lifting when it comes to hiking a lot of vertical is done in minutes, not hours.
Getting to the start of the Sunshine Meadows hike
For years the hike started with a bus ride. Now you can take the gondola followed by the Standish Chairlift. Get off and you’re already at an elevation of over 8,000 feet. From the Standish viewing deck it’s possible to see three lakes – Rock Isle, Laryx and Grizzly.
You do have to pay to ride the gondola and chairlift. You can book online here. Note that Alberta residents get a small discount.
It’s only 4.5 kilometres up the road to Sunshine Village – where the downhill skiing happens in the winter. It’s a steep hike up and probably not the best use of your energy, even if you’re trying to save a few dollars on the gondola.
The actual hike into the meadows
The first kilometre of the hike is the steepest and least interesting – if you don’t take the Standish Chairlift.
Once you reach the top of the road, Sunshine Meadows unfolds before you. The meadows are on the continental divide so you’ll hike in both Alberta and British Columbia.
Before you start hiking, consider a stop at the interpretive centre. This is where you’ll get great information on all the wildflowers. Take a few photos so you can ID them on the hike.
Our gang of five visited in the third week of July, but we missed most of the wildflowers. I think in hindsight, a week later would have been better so I’ll have to try another year.
Phenomenal mountain scenery on the Sunshine Meadows hike
Even though the wildflowers were a disappointment, the mountain scenery was not. In fact it was superb and some of the best I’ve seen in Banff National Park. Once you reach the high alpine, there is loads of off-trail country to be explored.
This trail is also one of the gateways to Assiniboine Provincial Park and Assiniboine Lodge. But it’s a 29 kilometre one way hike and should be done as part of a backpacking trip.
Our hike to the ridge across from Quartz Hill totaled 4.7 kilometres one way. It took only about 90 minutes to reach our lunch spot and turnaround point.
A side trip to Rock Isle Lake
Most people we saw didn’t seem to hike that far as we saw very few people on the trail towards Citadel Peak. Rock Isle Lake seems to be the premier destination.
From the trail intersection it’s only 0.6 kilometres to the lake. Although the lake itself is beautiful, the area around it was full of people. Still, I was very impressed at how many elderly people had made the hike up, as it wouldn’t be a trivial for them.
When we got back to Sunshine Village, we had 30 minutes to wait for the next bus (before the days in the summer with the gondola running). Sensible people might buy a cold drink or beer, find a comfortable chair and enjoy the superb mountain views. But we did not.
The hike back to the parking lot
We are not always sensible people and elected to hike back down to the car. It was a VERY STEEP walk and hard on the quads. On the bright side, we got more exercise bringing our total mileage for the day to 15 kilometres. And we saved $80, as at the time it was an expensive $16 per person each way on the bus.
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Another hiking option
If you’re crowd adverse but crazy for wildflowers and don’t mind a long day hike, I highly recommend the 9.2 kilometre one way hike to Healey Pass. It starts right from the Sunshine Village parking area so it’s free. But you will gain 655 metres from the parking lot. Dogs are allowed on a leash.
The other way to access it is via the three day backpacking trip that includes Egypt Lake.
Guided hikes at Sunshine Meadows
Guided hikes with a pick-up in Banff are offered in the summer and fall. Hiking time is 4 – 5 hours, covering a distance of 6 – 10 kilometres over an elevation gain of 100-200 metres.
If you’re keen to learn about the wildflowers and ecosystems, rather than just walking through it, this would be an excellent option. A packed lunch is included. You can book the guided hike here.
Staying up at Sunshine in the summer
I love the Sunshine Mountain Lodge, though I have only stayed at in the winter. Who knows when it will open in the summer of 2020 but when it does you’re in for a treat spending a night in the mountains – with one of the largest hot tubs in the Rockies.
You can book a stay here.
The Sunshine Meadows area is also a good one in larch season
While I have never done this hike during larch season (around the third week of September) it absolutely needs to be on my must-do list as the photos I’ve seen are nothing short of glorious. It’s been called the best larch hike in Banff National Park – and that is saying something.
Further reading on great hikes in Alberta
- Hiking in Alberta: 16 of the Must-Do Day Hikes
- Hiking the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park
- Best Hikes in Banff: North Molar Pass and Fish Lakes
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