For my final full day in Canada, I wanted to choose a great place to hike, that wasn’t too challenging, and provided access to everything that’s wonderful about the Canadian Rockies: mountain peaks, sparkling lakes, and alpine meadows. That’s why I chose Sunshine Meadows, at the Sunshine Village ski area, just outside of Banff.
You can’t drive all the way to Sunshine Meadows. You have to take a shuttle bus from the Sunshine Village parking area to the trailhead. The shuttle costs $25 (CAD). It may seem like a lot to pay, but I think it was worth it, since the bus does most of the tough, uphill work, making the hike at the end of the ride more enjoyable.
[tmt_info =””]To get to Sunshine Village from Banff, take Highway 1 westbound, and watch for the Sunshine Ski Area exit, 10 kilometers from downtown. The parking area is another 9 kilometers, up the curvy mountain road.[/tmt_info]
[tmt_info =””]You can also take a shuttle from downtown Banff, but it costs twice as much, so if you have your own car, it makes sense to drive yourself out to Sunshine Village. You can buy your ticket before boarding the bus, or at Sunshine Village’s ticket office on Banff Avenue in downtown Banff.[/tmt_info]
The bus takes a dirt access road, that follows the gondola’s route up to the Sunshine Meadows Nature Centre, a lodge, and a restaurant. (Unfortunately, the gondola doesn’t run in summer). The foot trail starts here, and continues uphill towards the Continental Divide.
This section of the trail is the least fun part, and one of the few areas where you’ll have to exert a lot of energy.
In less than 1 kilometer, the trail starts to level off…
… then crosses the Continental Divide. At this point, you’re stepping out of Alberta and Banff National Park, and into British Columbia and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park.
Beyond the Divide, the trail drops down slightly, and before long…
… Rock Isle Lake reveals itself. This is the first of three lakes at Sunshine Meadows, and the most famous, thanks to the tree-covered island in the middle of the lake. There’s a viewpoint here, then the trail circles around the right side of the lake, providing several more good photo spots (best in the morning).
I had arrived at Sunshine Meadows slightly after the peak of the wildflower season, but there were still plenty of Indian Paintbrush plants adding color to the meadows.
C’mon, when you’re hiking in the wilderness, isn’t any tree a restroom? Actually, there are some realfacilities hidden behind those trees, and at a couple of other locations on the trail.
Halfway around Rock Isle Lake, the trail splits. To the right, the trail leads up to the Standish Viewpoint (we’ll get there later), through Twin Cairns Meadow, and eventually back to the shuttle bus pickup point. To the left, the trail continues around the side of Rock Isle Lake…
… providing this nice viewpoint from high above the lake.
Then the trail heads downhill (this picture is looking back uphill)…
… and eventually, to this ledge. Although it may look like a bridge, this platform is actually just a viewpoint. Beyond this point…
… the trail goes down a staircase, to the lower area, where you’ll find Laryx Lake and Grizzly Lake.
Okay, there are still some wildflowers here in September!
After the steps, the trail passes by this small meadow…
… then splits into a loop. I took a left, which leads to Laryx Lake first.
Of the three lakes at Sunshine Meadows, Laryx Lake was my favorite. It seemed like every curve in the trail revealed a new scene, that was perfect for a picture.
Some sections of the trail resemble a balance-beam. These split logs cross drainage areas and creeks.
Next on the trail, Simpson Viewpoint provides a windy perch…
… that overlooks a deep valley and dozens of mountain peaks. The view came as a shock to me: I had forgotten that I was this high in the mountains.
Just after Simpson Viewpoint, the loop trail skirts the edge of sparkling-clear Grizzly Lake…
… before crossing over the lake’s inlet. That yellow tree is a Larch, one of thousands in Sunshine Meadows that turn color in September.
Once I closed the loop on the two outlying lakes, it was time to head uphill again.
A 1 kilometer trail (one way) leads up to the top of Mount Standish, the big hill that towers over the bus drop-off area.
At the top of Mount Standish, there’s a viewing platform (you can kinda see it on the right-hand side).
While much of the Sunshine Meadows area is relatively level, this part requires a strenuous climb — made even more strenuous for me, since I was rushing to finish my hike, and get back to the bus in time for its final departure of the day.
At the viewpoint atop Mount Standish, the whole area comes into perspective. You can see all three lakes here — Rock Isle on the left, Laryx in the middle, and Grizzly on the right. The valley beyond Simpson Viewpoint can be seen in the distance.
The viewpoint itself was windy, so I walked back a short distance from the edge. That’s an impressive arrangement of mountains on the horizon!
One mountain in particular that’s worth noticing is Mount Assiniboine (elev. 3,618 meters or 11,870 feet). It’s the highest peak in the southern Continental Ranges of the Canadian Rockies, and thanks to its pyramid shape, it’s often referred to as the Matterhorn of North America.†
A short loop trail runs along the top of Mount Standish, to the upper terminal of the Standish Express, one of Sunshine Village’s chair lifts. The lift won’t be running in the summer, which is a shame, because from here, it’s at least a 2.6 kilometer hike back to the bus. It is worth the time to walk out to the chair lift though…
… so you can get a look at this marker, which marks the Continental Divide, as well as the border between Alberta and British Columbia.
I spent as much time as I could at the top of Mount Standish, but by the time I made it back to the viewing platform, everyone else had left — making me wonder if I had waited too long, and if I would miss the shuttle. It was 3:45, and the bus left at 4:30 — and I had 2.6 kilometers to hike. So, I walked downhill, very quickly, until I finally caught up with a few others around Rock Isle Lake.
I guess I didn’t think to look behind me when I was walking uphill, earlier in the day. The final stretch of the Rock Isle Trail, back to the bus stop, is absolutely beautiful, with the surrounding mountains forming a dreamy backdrop.
[tmt_info =””]As an alternative to going back the way I came, I could have made a loop through Twin Cairns Meadow. From the Standish Viewpoint, this alternate trail would have been nearly 5 kilometers — twice the distance of backtracking. There’s usually a 5:30 shuttle, but on this day, the 4:30 bus was the last departure of the day. With an extra hour, I would have had plenty of time to take the longer loop.[/tmt_info]
There’s nothing luxurious about the bus ride back to the parking area. The ride is bumpy and slow, but at least you can pass the time looking at the scenery…
… and trying to remember the last time you were on a school bus.
Here’s the time-lapse dash-cam video of the drive from Banff to Sunshine Village, and back: