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Burstall Pass In Kananaskis Country

Burstall Pass Hike in Kananaskis Country

The hike to Burstall Pass happened by accident. On a summer Sunday our extended family of four made the two hour drive to Kananaskis Country with the specific intent of hiking up to Chester Lake. But once we got to the parking lot we saw a trail closed sign because of bear activity. Rather than drive any further we made the decision to hike to the pass as the trailhead was directly across the road – and it was open.

Burstall Pass is the first hike I’ve ever done where I had no clue about what we were getting into. I hadn’t brought a map (as I knew the trail to Chester Lake quite well) and didn’t even know how many kilometres we were about to hike.

It’s just as well as I’d promised my sister-in-law a much shorter hike. I learned later that it was a 15 km round-trip hike with a 470 m elevation gain. Interestingly, even trail information wasn’t available at the trailhead – or if it was there, it wasn’t in an obvious place.

Lots of mountain peaks to be seen on this hike
Lots of mountain peaks to be seen on this hike

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Burstall Pass hike description

The trail starts on a berm beside Mud Lake. Walk across the berm (dam) looking for the hiker sign. You end up on an old road for around 2.5 km – at which point it tapers to a trail.

You’ll see a place to lock up your bikes just as it narrows. Before that look for several side trails down to all three of the Burstall Lakes, though it’s hard to get to the shore of at least two of them because it’s so wet.

The first few kilometres of forest according to Graeme Pole, author of Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, is supposed to be good for birding. When he did the hike he heard “warbling vireos, hermit thrush, boreal chickadees and the drumming of three-toed woodpeckers.”

For this hike I recommend taking a copy of the Gem Trek Kananaskis Lakes map. It’s particularly useful if you decide to extend the hike once you reach the pass.

The hike starts off easily on what seems like an old road
The hike starts off easily on what seems like an old road

Don’t forget the water shoes on the hike

Continue on the trail for about a kilometre until you reach a large braided alluvial fan with multiple streams from the Robertson Glacier. A pair of water shoes come in very handy here. If you look carefully you will see hiker signs leading the way across the floodplain.

We used them as a reference but went considerably off-course trying to find narrow sections of stream to jump. It’s about half a kilometre across but it takes a lot longer than normal hiking unless you have on the water shoes. This section is particularly wet in early summer and during glacial melt in August.

There's about 500 metres of stream hopping to do with the outflow from the Robertson Glacier
There’s about 500 m of stream hopping to do with the outflow from the Robertson Glacier
 Everyone looking for a dry route
Everyone looking for a dry route; water shoes would make the going faster
Look for logs to get across the streams
Look for logs to get across the streams
The last bit of water before you're on a dry trail and climbing again
The last bit of water before you’re on a dry trail and climbing again

Once you emerge from the floodplain you start climbing, though it’s never overly strenuous. After about 30 minutes you arrive at a sub-alpine meadow, with a little snow still around. From there the hiking gets more interesting as you climb over limestone benches, lined with wildflowers.

You’ll be stopped in your tracks by the views but continue on to reach the pass at 2,380 m. On the other side of the pass is Banff National Park and a trail that continues around a sinkhole to Leman Lake.

Before reaching Leman Lake you’ll cross the Palliser Pass Trail. There are loads of options if you want to continue for up to several days. (See below.)

After about an hour of hiking you get into the high alpine
After about an hour of hiking you get into the high alpine

From the pass you can see Mt. Assiniboine – the sixth highest mountain in the Rockies. Looking north are three peaks – Commonwealth Peak, Pig’s Tail (Shark’s Tooth) and Mt. Birdwood while looking south and west of the Robertson Glacier, sits Mt. Sir Douglas.

Allow five to seven hours to do this trip – and a bit more if you want to climb the “Burstall Bump” or head down to Leman Lake.

This hike delivers great views
This hike delivers great views
From the pass you can see Mt Assiniboine
From the pass you can see Mt Assiniboine
Watch your packs when you stop for lunch
Watch your packs when you stop for lunch
The boundary to Banff National Park is at the pass
The pass marks the boundary with Banff National Park
My brother and sister-in-law enjoying the view
My brother and sister-in-law enjoying the view
I felt like we were hiking high in Colorado on this hike
I felt like we were hiking high in Colorado on this hike
Notice the Robertson Glacier as a backdrop
Notice the Robertson Glacier as a backdrop
 Rosie the 7.5 month old Bernese Mountain dog does her first mountain hike
Rosie the 7.5 month old Bernese Mountain dog does her first mountain hike

Getting to the trailhead

Drive 44 km south on the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Lakes Trail from Canmore. The trailhead is on the west side of the highway. You can also drive Highway 40 to the Smith-Dorrien Trail and continue for 22 km. Be prepared to have a VERY DUSTY car by the time you get to the trailhead.

Options for more hiking from the pass

From Burstall Pass you can continue to the top of Snow Peak. To do this requires that you hike another 2 km one way with an added elevation gain of 409 m. Some easy scrambling is required. You need 7 -8 hours to do the return hike – and that includes the pass. I have yet to do this but would like to.

From the pass you can also do the Birdwood Traverse, an epic sounding day that ideally requires a shuttle as it’s 19.6 km one way with a reasonable 665 m of elevation gain.

And the third option is to descend from the pass to the Palliser Trail though I’m not sure what sort of shape the trail is in.

The 5 things that come with me on almost every hike

I like something comfortable to sit on at lunch time. It can be your mitts on a warm spring day but in summer I swear by my almost weightless inflatable seat cushion

The older I get the more I like using hiking poles, especially so when a stream crossing is involved. On this hike in particular poles are very worthwhile. Invest in a good pair that are collapsible, preferably made of carbon because of their weightless quality. 

No matter how the day starts I always carry rain gear. And I find a ball cap or brim hat with a chin strap invaluable in the rain or on a hot, in your face sunny day.

I always pack a buff as it’s a multi-purpose piece of cloth yet it takes up almost no room.

I don’t pack gaiters on every trip, at some point on most hikes I usually wish I had them. In summer the half gaiters are ideal for keeping pebbles, sand and even some rain out of your shoes.

Another nice addition for those of you who love wildflowers is the book Popular Wildflowers of Alberta and the Canadian Rockies.

Other Kananaskis area hikes you might enjoy

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The Hike to Burstall Pass in Kananaskis Country

 

 

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 10 Comments

  1. Leigh,
    Thank you SO much for these amazing resources! We are heading up from Montana for a trail running and hiking trip in the BC/AB Rockies this coming week for our 5-year wedding anniversary, and we are staying our last 2 nights at Mount Engadine Lodge. If we (unfortunately) only have one full day for a long day hike based out of Mount Engadine, would you recommend Tent Ridge, Burstall Pass or Pocaterra Ridge? We always carry bear spray and have experience with grizzlies in Montana, and we are strong runners/hikers. Thank you so much for your expert insight! We are excited to finally get up to the Canadian Rockies!
    Cheers,
    Gillian & Peter

    1. @Gillian I hope I’m not too late to reply. That is a very hard question. If it’s the middle of September I’d do Pocaterra Ridge for the larches. I haven’t done Tent Ridge but hope to do it in the next few weeks. I have had many people say to me that it is their all time favourite hike in the Rockies and the TH is so close to Mt Engadine I’d probably opt for it. Pocaterra really needs a car shuttle to have the best experience. Burstall Pass was awesome but getting high and staying high for a long period of time always has appeal.

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