Banff National Park: C-Level Cirque

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By late morning, the weather still hadn’t improved, so I decided to stop waiting and start hiking — with hopes that the skies would clear by the time I reached the end of a trail.  After looking through my guide book, I decided to tackle the C-Level Cirque trail, mostly because it looked easy: 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) one-way.  I neglected to consider the elevation increase — nearly half a kilometer (1,500 feet).

The trail starts at the Upper Bankhead parking area (not far from the Lower Bankhead ghost town) on the road to Lake Minnewanka.  As the trail heads into the forest, it begins its uphill slope — and it doesn’t give you a break in the climb, until you’re at the top.

Along most of the trail, there isn’t a lot to see.  The path passes through dense forest, so you can forget about enjoying any sweeping views of the surrounding valleys as you hike.  It took me 32 minutes to go from the trailhead to this old building — and I was extremely thankful to have an excuse to stop the climb for a while.

The ruin is part of the Bankhead coal mine’s “C” level mines — the highest level of the mining operation.  The old building is in pretty good shape, even though it’s missing its roof, doors, and windows.  You’re free to walk inside…

… and check out an impressive display of graffiti on one of the interior walls.  I was amazed that someone would put the effort into hiking all the way up here, lugging an array of spray-paint cans, just to paint the wall.

I’ve read that there’s a viewpoint (with a view of Lake Minnewanka) atop a pile of coal tailings, somewhere near the ghost building.  I didn’t see it, but you might want to seek it out, since there isn’t much else to see along this part of the trail.

Beyond the old building, you’ll pass by several fenced-off holes in the ground.  These shafts provided ventilation for the miners underground, working the C-level veins of anthracite coal.  Beyond the holes…

… there are trees, countless numbers of trees, and not much else.  The uphill climb is steady and steep.  I’d like to tell you it was no big deal, but I can’t lie.  It was a tough, relentless slog uphill, and I had to stop to rest… a lot.

I was totally exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, when at long last I reached a break in the trees.  Finally, I could see where I was headed.  The long hike had a purpose after all:  the “cirque” was only a short distance further.  I plopped down on a rock and dug through my pack, then spent at least 15 minutes snacking and resting…

… and taking a few pictures from this vantage point.  Unfortunately, the mountaintops above the cirque were covered in fog, and it didn’t appear likely that the weather was going to change.

After snapping pictures of the nearby fir trees, then packing up my snacks (no, I didn’t draw the attention of any bears, thankfully), I finished the short hike up to the edge of the cirque.

At the foot of the slop that leads up to the cirque, I had a couple of options.  I could scramble over the rocks that lead up to the snowpack, or I could follow a narrow trail that skirted the gravel pile, on its way to a ridge opposite of the cirque. I decided to take the trail…

… which led to a great view of the Bow Valley.  The view in the distance was similar to the one I enjoyed at Cascade Falls — looking south, I probably could have seen Canmore on a clear day.

I also had a nice view directly into the cirque.

At the top of the ridge, the trail fizzled out in an alpine meadow strewn with boulders…

… and some beautiful plant life.  There were only a handful of other people on the trail that day, and none of them had opted to follow the final leg of the trail up to the ridge — so I had the place to myself.  It was good to know that the hardest part of the hike was behind me, and to know that all the hard work was worth it, thanks to the spectacular surroundings.

As I started back, I kept my eyes on a couple of kids that had wandered up the opposite side of the cirque, and were playing in a pile of glacial moraine.  Their mother was calling for them to return, but they knew better.  There was no way she was going to hike all the way up there to get them, so they kept on playing on the slopes.

In all, I spent about 90 minutes climbing up to the cirque, an hour climbing around at the top, and about 70 minutes on the way back down.  Back at the parking lot…

… I was amazed to find the skies looking blue and sunny in every direction…

… except where I had just been.  This is the view of the cirque from the parking area.  It was a long way to go, but it was worth it.  Plus, the climb helped shock my body out of “lazy, at home” mode, and into “outdoor vacation” mode.

The trailhead for C-Level Cirque is located at the Upper Bankhead parking area, off the Lake Minnewanka Loop Road.

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