When selecting a trail for hiking, we frequently refer to guidebooks written by Craig and Kathy Copeland. In the past, we’ve most frequently referred to Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies, which highlights 55 premier trails in Kananskis Country and the Canmore area. We’ve had a copy of Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies for the past 5 years as well, but since the driving times to the Waterton, Banff, Yoho and Jasper Park trailheads are considerably longer than most of the K-Country trails, we haven’t done too many hikes from this book.
So when we were debating options for a hike this past Sunday, we hauled out our little-used copy of Don’t Waste Your Time… and paged through the premier dayhikes section at the front of the book. Citadel Pass (trip 3) sounded like a great opportunity to enjoy an experience simliar to heli-hiking, but at the bargain price of $90. Catching the seasonal shuttle bus from the parking lot to the ski area at Sunshine Village (turnoff is 9 km west of Banff) puts you 6.5 km and 500 meters gain closer to rolling alpine meadows, with plenty of hiking alternatives including 12 km of maintained gravel surfaced trails in the meadows, Healy Pass, Citadel Pass and even Mount Assiniboine.
It’s a good thing we called White Mountain Adventures the day before to book our seats on the 9 o’clock bus; when we arrived at the ticketing counter to pick-up our tickets, the attendant was turning people away, saying they’d have to wait for the 10 o’clock shuttle.
Things were a little disorganized, with hikers milling about until finally, a couple minutes past 9 o’clock, our driver issued an invitation to board. The narrow aisle between seats meant some of the back country campers really struggled to carry their heavily laden packs back to the first open seat. Even so, we were on our way by about 9:12, arriving at the alpine village by 9:25, where we immediately set out along the trail, heading up hill.
2019 UPDATE: As of this summer, there is no shuttle bus service from the Sunshine parking lot to the Sunshine Meadows trail head. Instead, there is daily gondola service via the Banff Sunshine ski hill infrastructure. The service runs from late June to early September each year. There’s no need to book tickets in advance, but if you do, you can get free shuttlebus service from Banff to Sunshine. For more details, visit Banff Sunshine.
The front section of the trail is wide enough that 3 or 4 people can comfortably walk abreast. It’s very well maintained with a hard gravel surface. After hiking just over a kilometer, we reached a trail junction. The wide trail continued roughly southwest towards Rock Isle Lake. We took the narrower (but still gravel surfaced) trail, aiming more to the southeast and Citadel Pass.
Looking southwest to Rock Isle Lake from the Citadel Pass trail
After we passed an informative sign about the Continental Divide, we spotted literally hundreds of Columbian Ground Squirrels! They were quite unafraid, staying on or adjacent to the trail until we approached within a couple of meters. K was hard-pressed to come up with names for all of them!
Columbian Ground Squirrel
The alpine valley is extremely wide, with such peaks as Mount Howard Douglas, Quartz Hill, Fatigue Mountain and Citadel Mountain. Unfortunately, the sky was extremely hazy, no doubt due to drifting smoke from forest fires in BC. After some rolling ups and downs, we had a bit of a climb (maybe 150 meters) up onto one shoulder of Quartz Hill, where we came upon a pair of hikers. From this vantage point we could see Lake Howard Douglas just down the other side and we were told that usually, with clear skies, you can spot Mount Assiniboine from this vantage point.
Lake Howard Douglas
We stopped to take advantage of the outhouse facility at the Howard Douglas Lake campsite. This is the first of three campsites along the trail to Mount Assiniboine, and it’s quite small, with 5 or 6 tent platforms. We were surprised to find an original watercolour painting hanging inside the outhouse: “A Wet Night – Howard Douglas Lake” by D. Anderson.
From Howard Douglas Lake, we climbed another 100 meters or so, and then hiked through another gently rising meadow, headed straight towards Citadel Mountain. There was one boggy patch along this section, plus a couple of small creek crossings, but it was otherwise uneventful.
Mount Citadel in the distance
Looking back to Quartz Hill
We reached Citadel Pass at 11:45, just 2 hours and 15 minutes after reaching the trailhead. One other couple was enjoying their lunch, so we found a flat rock about 50 meters away and over a small hill and settled in to enjoy the hazy views while we ate our picnic. Mr. GeoK climbed the shoulder of Mount Citadel to take a few panorama photos and look at the rock pillar slowly breaking off from the “citadel”.
Base of Mount Citadel
Quartz Hill and Mount Fatigue from the shoulder of Mount Citadel
The flies were kind of crazy, so we were headed back down the trail by about 12:30. As we hiked, I checked the elevation at our lunch spot vs. the elevation at the trailhead and discovered that our net gain was only, but a quick study of our track log back home showed total elevation gain of more than 700 meters!
Leaving Citadel Pass
C on the shoulder of Quartz Hill, with Mount Howard Douglas in the background
K on shoulder of Quartz Hill
Looking across the next valley towards the trailhead
About 5 kilometers from the trailhead (and at about 1:40 pm), we started debating whether or not we could catch the 2:30 bus back down the hill. For a while, we picked up our pace to about 6 km/hr, but with 2 km to go at 2:15 pm, we decided that if we really wanted to catch the 2:30 shuttle, we’d have to run. So in fits and starts, with K and Mr. GeoK jogging along at a pretty steady pace, we went into boot camp mode, running with full packs! Fortunately, it was mostly downhill, so gravity did some of the work for us. Unfortunately, C’s feet are continuing to grow, so they were jamming up against the ends of his boots! But in the end, we all made onto the 2:30 shuttle!
Total hiking distance = 18.7 km in 5 hours (including a 45 minute stop for lunch). On the drive home we decided this wasn’t quite the same thing as what we imagine heli-hiking to be (i.e. mostly ridge walking), but for $90 it’s a heck of a bargain. If we do this hike again, we’ll go a little earlier in the season, so that we can enjoy a wider variety of wildflowers.