Hiking Banff National Park – Sunshine Meadows

Taking advantage of bargain end-of-season pricing for seats on the shuttle bus, we caught the Saturday morning 9 o’clock ride to Sunshine Meadows. Earlier this summer, we hiked from Sunshine Meadows to Healy Pass and in 2009 we hiked to Citadel Pass. This time out, we opted to walk the approx. 12 km Sunshine Meadows loop with some friends who have considerably less hiking experience. It turned out to be a great choice. Although the sky was grey all morning (and even threatened precipitation a couple of times), shortly after lunch the clouds broke up and we enjoyed warm sunshine and blue skies while trekking around the lakes and back to the nature centre.

NOTE: The shuttle service shuts down after Thanksgiving weekend (second Monday in October). From November to early May, White Mountain Adventures offers half-day guided showshoe trips to Sunshine Meadows. Check their website for details on the 2013 shuttle schedule.

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 opted to travel counter-clockwise around the loop. This turned out to be a good choice, as we encountered only 6 other people before we reached the Standish Viewpoint around 11 o’clock. From then on, the trails got a little crowded, even this late in the season.

Shuttle Drop-off to Monarch Viewpoint
From the shuttle drop-off, we started a gentle climb alongside a creek, rounding a corner to wind our way between rock slabs before levelling out for the final section of the approx. 2 km walk to the Monarch Viewpoint.

First impressions
Taken about 15 minutes into the hike, this image conveys the dull sky hanging over us all morning, as well as the sense we had that late fall and early winter are in fine balance across the high altitude Sunshine Meadows. Plan to visit in late September if you want to enjoy the alpine larch in all their golden glory.
Monarch Viewpoint
View to the west from Monarch Viewpoint (the large mountain on the left is The Monarch).

After pausing for a snack break, Mrs. GeoK and friends retraced their route for about 200 meters and then headed generally south along the Twin Cairns / Meadow Park Trail. Meanwhile, Mr. GeoK and the boys took a short side trip to hike up an unamed ridge running north from the Monarch Viewpoint.

Ridge walk
Mr. GeoK and the boys walked about 1.5 km along an unamed ridge running north from Monarch Viewpoint.
K-sized larch
K found a couple of K-sized larches along the ridge walk.
Taking a short break at the cairn
The boys took a short break at the “summit” cairn on the unamed ridge.
The Monarch and the cairn
The Monarch and the cairn.

Twin Cairns / Meadow Park Trail
The Twin Cairns / Meadow Park Trail is pretty flat, with a number of simple log bridges / boardwalks installed to ensure hikers keep their feet dry at numerous creek crossings / boggy areas. The terrain is hummocky (looking like little grass moguls), evidence of past glaciation. Sharp eyes will also spot many chunks of ancient reef alongside the trail – remnants of the ancient Bearpaw Sea, perhaps? Also, a large sign along the trail describes the Continental Divide.

Creek along the Twin Cairns / Meadow Park Trail
Frozen creek along the Twin Cairns / Meadow Park Trail.

Standish Viewpoint
The short climb to the Standish Viewpoint is well worth it, although the structure itself seemed a little shaky. We didn’t do the short loop behind the viewpoint, choosing instead to enjoy the view overlooking the lakes.

Rock Isle Lake from Standish Viewpoint
Mr. GeoK and K take in the view from the Standish Viewpoint platform, built on a small peak just above Rock Isle Lake, with Larix Lake to the right.
Standish Viewpoint
Rock Isle Lake, Larix Lake, Simpson River Valley and Grizzly Lake from Standish Viewpoint.

Lake Loop
Descending from Standish Viewpoint, it was a unanimous decision to make the 1 km trek along the shore of Rock Isle Lake and through rolling terrain to complete the 2.8 km loop around Larix Lake. This trail follows the shore of Grizzly Lake for a short distance and includes a viewpoint overlooking the Simpson River Valley (George Simpson was the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company during its heydey), before continuing about halfway along the shore of Larix Lake.

Rock Isle Lake
The majority of the larch trees at Sunshine Meadows have dropped their needles, but there was still a vibrant cluster of Larix lyallii above the shores of Rock Isle Lake.
Simpson River Valley
The haze / mist hanging in the Simpson River Valley revealed the sun’s rays and created the striking blue layering that you sometimes see in the mountains when conditions are just right.
Larix Lake
Looking across Larix Lake towards Eagle Mountain and Mount Howard Douglas (we think).
The Monarch across Larix Lake
A dusting of snow preserved by evergreen shadows along the Larix Lake shoreline trail. The Monarch dominates the skyline.

Retracing our route back to Rock Isle Lake, we had one eye on the scenery and one on the clock. In order to catch the 2:30 bus down, we opted not to pause at the Rock Isle Lake viewpoint. Instead, we kept up a good pace along the Sunshine Meadows Trail, arriving back at the bus stop with about 10 minutes to spare.

Total hiking distance = 12.5 km for Mrs. GeoK and friends, 16 km for Mr. GeoK & the boys

Elevation gain = 200 m net (300 m total) for Mrs. GeoK and friends, about 100 m more for Mr. GeoK & the boys

This is an easy, family-friendly half-day hike (if you catch the shuttle bus both ways, even fairly young children could do the hike along the Sunshine Meadows trail to the lake loop and back, for a total distance of 6 – 7 km with very limited elevation gain). Add a side trip towards Citadel Pass or Healy Pass to turn it into a moderate, full-day hike. This is a very poplular hiking area during peak wildflower season and also has some good larch viewing opportunities. Maybe we’ll get out here again over the winter to try it on snowshoes. If you’ve done the guided snowshoe outing, please leave a comment to share your thoughts on whether it’s a worthwhile outing.

Early Signs of Winter

Larch needles and ice
A thick mat of larch needles covered a large flat rock protruding above the ice-covered surface of a quiet stream.
Ice wrap
The creased and curved ice looks more like a sheet of plastic wrap draped over a rock and resting on the surface of the creek.
Ice crystals
A random pattern of ice crystals on a creek between the Monarch and Standish Viewpoints.

Impressions of Sunshine Meadows
Finally, here are few more “artistic” impressions of the Sunshine Meadows scenery, captured using an “in camera” art filter.

Hummocky terrain
Hummocky terrain along the trail between the Monarch and Standish Viewpoints (key line filter)
Sunshine Meadows Lake Loop
(L to R) Rock Isle Lake, Larix Lake and Simpson River Valley from the Standish Viewpoint (key line filter)
Rock Isle Lake
Rock Isle Lake (key line filter)

2 thoughts on “Hiking Banff National Park – Sunshine Meadows

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