After our fairly short hike to Grizzly Col at the start of the week, we decided wrap up the week with our second hike of the season, willing to tackle something a little longer. After browsing through “Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies” by Cathy and Kraig Copeland, checking the weather forecast and trail reports, we decided to head to the Sunshine Village Ski Area in Banff National Park. We had two options in mind:
- If there were any seats available on the shuttle bus, we’d catch a ride up to Sunshine Village and from there, decide whether to head to Citadel Pass or Healy Pass; or
- If there were no seats available to get us to alpine elevations, we’d hike up the Healy Pass Trail.
We should have known there wouldn’t be any seats available on the shuttle bus! After all, Lonely Planet’s Discover Canada guidebook has just named Sunshine Meadows the #1 day hike in Canada!
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.
We soon located the trailhead for the Healy Pass Trail and began the fairly gentle climb along an old access road. After about 800 meters, we spotted a trail sign and turned off the road onto a wide trail that roughly followed the course of Healy Creek for the next 5 km. Recent rains meant much of trail was extremely muddy; we did our best to avoid the worst of it, but it was impossible to avoid the occasional splat of mud up the back of our legs!
After we skirted Healy Creek Campground, the trail became notably rougher and steeper, until we reached a broad meadow bright with wildflowers and sweeping views to the south. After one more push, we reached the pass, covering 9.3 km with 750 meters (net) elevation gain in 2 hours, 20 minutes. NOTE: Our oldest son, who set a blistering pace, reached the pass in just 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Since it was a Sunday, the trail was quite busy. We overtook one large group of hikers, a couple of families and passed some backcountry campers headed back to civilization after a weekend (or more) in the backcountry. We were also overtaken by several trail runners over the course of the day.
The early wildflowers were gone or fading, but middle season flowers were in bloom. Over the course of the day, we spotted common harebells, early blue violets, common bearberry, moss campion, elephantheads (not yet in full bloom), red paintbrush, bunchberry, alpine buttercup, glacier lilies, purple fleabane, bracted honeysuckle, round-leaved yellow violets and more. There are plenty of larch in the valley southeast of the pass, so this would also be a beautiful autumn hike.
After resting for a bit at a large rock at the trail junction for 1)the Monarch Ramparts (heading southeast), 2) the valley to the backcountry campground at Egypt Lake (heading northwest), and 3) up to Hawk Ridge (heading almost due north), we wandered for a bit to take some photographs. Then Mr. GeoK decided to head at least part way up Hawk Ridge to take some panorama shots. Mrs. GeoK followed him part of the way, and then got side-tracked by a noisy bird. Meanwhile, the GeoKids amused themselves with some rounds of “hangman”, while we all stayed in touch via FSRs (walkie-talkies).
Mr. GeoK gained about 200 meters additional elevation over about a kilometer and a half, and his effort paid off with some fantastic photos!
With the trail so busy today, we eventually sent the GeoKids off down the trail back towards parking. We departed the Pass about 15 minutes after they did, and kept in contact via our radios throughout the hike down to the parking lot. We encountered at least 40 hikers / trail runners on their way up and overtook another dozen people on their way down. The kids were fortunate enough to spot the Ptarmigan family again, at just about the same location we spotted them in the morning. They completed their descent in one hour, forty minutes and then waited a full 20 minutes before Mr. and Mrs. GeoK joined them in the parking lot.
We have mixed feelings about letting the kids hike on their own. It’s satisfying to see them becoming more independent and they have eight years of hiking experience already. And they’re well-equipped with all the right gear. Even so, we’ll not let them go so far ahead of us on trails that are less well-travelled or not well-signed.
All-in-all, this is one of the best alpine meadow hikes we’ve ever done. It’s well-signed, well-maintained and has sturdy bridges for all the creek crossings. Options for a return visit include hiking this trail in the fall and / or hiking over from Sunshine Village, via Simpson Pass.