Monday, September 05, 2016

Hiking Sunshine Meadows

Lookout Mountain from far side of Rock Isle Lake
Overview: This is an easy access hike in alpine terrain suited to most fitness levels with hike lengths between 2-12 kms (elevation 200 metres), and access to longer backcountry hikes (Healy Pass and Mt. Assiniboine). In 2016, shuttle busses, which I recommend you pre-book, run once per day from Banff and every half hour Monday-Thursday from the parking lot at Sunshine Ski area to Sunshine Meadows Trail Centre at the edge of the tree line. In the summer on Friday-Sunday and long weekend Mondays, the gondola runs instead of the shuttle from the ski base to trail head. Current prices and schedules as of Sept 2016 are available here.

Looking back the 1km road down to the trail head 

At the 1 km mark, you cross the continental divide into BC
The distant mountain, far left, is Mt. Assiniboine

From the Trail Centre, a 15 minute walk brings you to the Continental Divide. There are three lakes, some forested paths, including elevated logs to cross creeks and marshy areas, and sections which traverse through an expansive meadow. Mountain views abound. As for creature comforts, the ticket office, washrooms and small retail shop is available at the base and a pub/restaurant, washrooms, retail shop are at the Trail Centre. Local guides circulate on the trail to answer questions; signage is clear, there are benches for resting and two outhouses conveniently spaced along the trail. Please note all photos in this blog, except where noted, are mine. Please do not use without permission.

Okay, enough of the "official" stuff.

I'd heard about this hike for years and since the growing season in this alpine destination is only two months long, the colour and variety of blooms will vary depending on when you go. I had to re-book our shuttle reservation multiple times due to weather conditions, since the summer of 2016 was excessively rainy, and my hiking partner and I both had unforeseen conflicts, but finally succeeded in finding a suitable day on September 1. Wild strawberry plants were in abundance throughout the hike. Some strawberries, while tiny, were ripe and some plants were even still flowering. I am not well-versed as yet on alpine plants, but the Centre offers a laminated brochure-sized Alpine Flower Guide. There are many ground squirrels and chipmunks. Please don't feed any wildlife.

Richardson's Ground Squirrel

This chipmunk is not speaking to me.


The first segment of the hike is 1km up a gravel access road to a fork where the trail for Mt. Assiniboine splits off to the left. Continue on the right hand trail another .4 km to the Rock Isle Viewpoint. If your time or energy is short, this is alone is worth the trip.

Rock Isle Lake

My first vision of the lake after cresting the hill
View to the left while ascending to Rock Isle Lake

The breathtaking view before you reach the lake.

As lovely as it had begun, I was determined to do the entire loop. Continuing on past the viewpoint, there is an outdoor toilet at a discrete distance from the trail. After this convenient "rest" stop, a brief distance beyond, the trail splits again, with the right side taking you 1 km to the Mt. Standish Viewpoint or to the longer Twin Cairns / Meadow Park Trail and onward to Healy Pass. This was not on our agenda, but the Mt. Standish view would look something like this:

Webcam sourced Sunday, Sept. 4 from

The trail continues counter clockwise over the undulating terrain alongside Rock Isle Lake, giving additional panoramic views of the lake and further mountains.

My hiking partner, Jean, contemplates the journey
View beyond Rock Isle Lake
A wide angle view using a EF-S 10-18mm lens
At the end of the lake, before we entered a more forested section, we see a lovely beach to relax, perhaps dabble our toes in the water. However, it was roped off, with signs requesting that we stay on the path and not enter protected zones. They are attempting rehabilitation of many areas damaged by high traffic human use. There were several Parks Canada officials on the path doing environmental assessments through observation, measurements, photos and recruiting hikers to assist with voluntary GPS tracking.

Lower water level "beach" on Rock Isle Lake

After a short distance, the path forked again, at the beginning of the loop through more forest and meadow which encircles Larix* Lake and Grizzly Lake. We opted to go clockwise but more people seemed to prefer the counter-clockwise route, so there were several times we had to step off the narrow path to make way for one another.

*Many individuals and online sites misspell the lake name as "Laryx". The correct name, Larix, refers to the larch tree which is plentiful in the area. 

Forest paths

A few dead trees make their own art

Jean gets the angle on a macro shot

Log bridges dot the trail

Tiny flowers.  
Photo credit: Jean Draper

One of the more prolific flowers

Teenie, ripe strawberries

Each of the two lakes, Larix and Grizzly, hold their own charm, as do the creeks feeding into them. One stellar view is between them at the Simpson Viewpoint. There is clear signage all throughout Sunshine Meadows, and all paths are well gravelled, though occasionally narrow, but a pleasant walk overall.

Larix Lake

Rocky lake bed

Simpson Viewpoint

Forest plant nursery

Grizzly Lake

Grizzly Lake shore

One of many creeks

Creek feeding Grizzly Lake

Life and death

Rest stop

Colourful fields

By this time, I was pretty tuckered out and there was more than a kilometre of 100 metre elevation back to the point which the descent to the trailhead began. There are adequate benches and rocks where you can rest. I have done difficult hikes in my day and this was among the simplest but it was my first hike after recovering from surgery so my energy level at this high elevation was fairly low. However, the thought of a nice cold beverage and a snack back at Trapper Johns at the trail centre kept me moving. The shuttles back to ski base and parking run every half hour, the last one at 6:30 pm, so we were in no time crunch from that perspective. We just had to get our time stamped on our return ticket and relax in the pub until the bus arrived.

My favourite moment was during the final corner around Rock Isle Lake, as a red fox slipped past us only about 30 meters away. Simultaneously, a golden eagle soared overhead. We could only capture one, so Jean caught the fox with her lens and the eagle soars forever in my memory. Over all, a very good day!

Final gift, a parting shot of the sly fox. Photo credit: Jean Draper

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