I was looking for a good shoulder season hike – something that would offer up great scenery but wouldn’t take me into snow. The other factor was that my brother was visiting and he hadn’t been to Banff National Park for over thirty years. And he wanted wildlife. The trail along Lake Minnewanka, just 15 minutes from downtown Banff delivered on both accounts. I can highly recommend it as a great shoulder season hike – for May, June, October and November.
Lake Minnewanka is a stunning fjord like lake. It’s almost 24 kilometres long and it’s deep – 142 metres deep, making it the largest and deepest lake in Banff National Park. It hasn’t always been this way – years ago dams were built.
Lake Minnewanka is a wildly popular place – but don’t let that put you off, especially in shoulder season when the number of tourists isn’t that high in the Banff area anyway. Many people will opt for a boat tour, and many are happy to just enjoy a picnic by the lake. And if you’re a hiker, chances are you’ll lose the crowds after the first few kilometres.
To begin the hike, walk the service road past the boat dock and through the picnic area at the edge of the lake. In about a half kilometer you’ll see the sign with the mileage given to various points. You have the option of hiking over thirty kilometers one way from this point. Many opt for an overnight backpacking trip so they can explore all the way down to the far end of the lake.
The Stewart Canyon Trail
We hiked the first 1.5 kilometres to a substantial bridge over Stewart Canyon. This is the point we saw a number of people turn back. It’s a pretty view of the Cascade River from the bridge. The river cuts through a limestone chasm as it flows towards Lake Minnewanka. Across the bridge, go right and continue on the Lake Minnewanka Trail or head left if you want to explore the Stewart Canyon Trail.
We did both – but if you’re short on time just stick with the Lake Minnewanka Trail. The Stewart Canyon Trail takes you 1.5 kilometres one way along the edge of the river. It’s pretty enough and quite lovely especially if you stop at the end of the trail down where it hits the river – but it doesn’t offer the outstanding views that the Lake Minnewanka hike offers.
We did a quick out and back to the end of the Stewart Canyon Trail. Back at the intersection with the Lake Minnewanka trail we turned left. Here a sign greets you warning you not to bring your dog in the summer months and to travel ONLY with a group of four or more (and that’s because there has never been a reported grizzly bear attack in a group with that number of people). From July 10th to September 15th, this is prime grizzly bear territory – female grizzlies feed and raise their young here. That’s a good combination to avoid!! I personally would give July 9th and September 16th a pass too.
The Lake Minnewanka Hike
From the intersection of the two trails you head up – though it’s only 150 feet of elevation gain – and through a section of burnt forest from a controlled burn in 2003. It’s actually quite beautiful through here now with wonderful vistas and lots of fresh lime green vegetation. Enjoy the sight too of Cascade Mountain.
When you exit the burnt section the views are sublime. But do watch where you’re going. The trail is narrow and you have to share it with mountain bikers. All the bikers we met were wonderfully polite!
Continue along the trail over rocky ground and admire the rugged looking Mt. Inglismaldie on the far shore. Be prepared for some ups and downs over the next few kilometers. We stopped just short of the Aylmer Pass Junction – at 7.8 kilometres from the trailhead. A side path to the beach beckoned and so did lunch.
You could choose to continue on this trail – past the LM8 campground (with bear proof boxes), followed by one at the 9.3, 11 and the 18.8 kilometre mark. Reach the end of the lake after hiking 23 kilometres. You can continue even further to the Ghost Lakes and finally Devils’s Gap at 30.6 kilometres. Retrace your steps to return.
The big horned sheep below were around in great numbers yesterday – on the road. They seem less wild than the ones I saw in the Calgary zoo. They were quite happy to pose for shots – though don’t go after them. We also saw elk in the woods and a jumping white tailed deer – enough wildlife to make my brother happy.
Useful Information for Hiking the Lake Minnewanka Trail
- Dogs are allowed on a leash except during periods of high bear activity.
- You must buy a Banff National Parks pass to hike here. It’s hard to miss getting this if you drive into Banff National Park.
- You must get a backcountry pass if you’re planning to camp. You can buy one at the Banff National Parks office at 224 Banff Avenue in you guessed it – Banff. A hiker told me you could get a season’s pass for $65 – and that’s good for the whole season.
- To get to the Lake Minnewanka parking lot take Banff Avenue north out of town. It passes under the Trans-Canada Highway and becomes Lake Minnewanka Road. Continue on it for 5.5 kilometres until you reach the large paved parking lot on your left. Alternatively look for the Lake Minnewanka signs on the highway. They’re hard to miss. When you finish your hike continue on the road – which forms a loop. There’s a good chance you’ll see big horned sheep on this section of road.
Visit the Banff National Park website for more information.