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A Hike Into Sunshine Meadows, Banff National Park

A Hike into Sunshine Meadows, Banff National Park

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.

The Sunshine Meadows trails are well-marked
The Sunshine Meadows trails are well-marked
Starting off across Sunshine Meadows
Starting off across Sunshine Meadows
Lots of ground squirrels early on in the Sunshine Meadows hike
Lots of ground squirrels seen early on in the hike
On the Sunshine Meadows hike there is still patchy snow in late July
There is still patchy snow in late July

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.

360 degree views from the ridge across from Quartz Hill
360 degree views from the ridge across from Quartz Hill
What a great place for lunch with a view of the Sunshine Meadows
What a great place for lunch with a view of the Sunshine Meadows
Looking in the other direction from our lunch spot
Looking in the other direction from our lunch spot
Great mountain views in all directions
Great mountain views in all directions with a sprinkling of wildflowers
Alpine forget-me-not
Alpine forget-me-not – one of my favourite wildflowers
A blast of pink on the Sunshine Meadows hike
A blast of pink on the Sunshine Meadows hike
Spectacular views of Howard Douglas Lake
Spectacular views of Howard Douglas Lake
Looking across to Quartz Hill
Looking across to Quartz Hill
The best we could do for wildflowers - a bit disappointing
The best we could do for wildflowers – a bit disappointing
These people were off for some fishing
These people were off for some fishing (don’t forget your license)

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. 

The much photographed Rock Isle Lake
The much photographed Rock Isle Lake
Rock Isle Lake is a pretty place to hang out
Rock Isle Lake is a pretty place to hang out

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.

It's a steep 4.5 km walk down to the parking lot
It’s a steep 4.5 km walk down to the parking lot

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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.

The stunning wildflower display at Healey Pass
The stunning wildflower display at Healey Pass

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

Click on the photo  to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The fabulous Sunshine Meadows hike in Banff National Park

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 21 Comments
  1. The weather has been so crazy this year that it is hard to plan for wildflowers no matter where you go. I thought the same when I went to Big Bend in April, but they are in a crazy drought, so the wildflowers were not so fantastic. At least you got some beautiful mountain views.

  2. As I told you a long time ago Banff is huge on my bucket list, Leigh! After a lifetime of seeing photos, etc I’ve never seen “this” side of it. It’s breathtaking! Just so you know…if Phoenix and I can make it up there someday (soon on his behalf) we aren’t going on any crazy hikes with you ha, ha! 🙂 Thank you for including that one photo with the dog in it. That made me smile! 🙂

    1. @Mike Maybe I’ll be able to change your mind. You would definitely like the area around Sunshine Meadows any time it’s not enveloped in snow. I’ll look after Phoenix so you can take the bus up and see as I don’t think either of you want to hike 4.5 steep kms just to get to the start of the trail.

  3. Leigh, this is another glorious hike. The lunch spot with view of Sunshine Meadow is dropdead gorgeous; I probably wouldn’t want to lift my booty off from that spot! It’s so exhilarating just looking at the spectacular nature from your photos.

  4. Planning for a trip to the Rockies late September 2018 for a big 60 birthday and found your blog. You’ve definitely sold Sunshine Meadows for us, it looks spectacular.

  5. Hi, Leigh,
    I’m planning a trip in August, and want to add this hike. Is this hike the Quartz Ridge Trail?
    Kailyn Cheung

  6. Hi Leigh,

    Are you allowed to bike on any of these trails? My wife and I would like to start from the parking lot and ride in. We may just do a hike a bike or if allowed ride farther. I guess it depends on steep the terrain is.

    1. @Norm No bikes as afar as I can tell but better double check with Sunshine Ski Resort and see what they say.I’m sure you could ride up the steep road but I doubt very much into the meadows.

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