Parks Canada added a third option to its menu of Burgess Shale guided hikes this summer. We did their Wolcott Quarry hike back in 2009. Five years later, we joined the second (ever) offering of the new guided hike to the Stanley Glacier. It’s an easy 10 km hike with lots of appeal: fire, ice, flowers, falls and fossils.
From Canmore, the trailhead is a 45 – 50 minute drive, 15 km along Highway 93S from Castle Junction. We pulled into the parking lot shortly before 9 a.m. to meet up with our Parks Canada guide, Kristi, who had us sign waiver forms and do a basic gear check before she assembled everyone in our hiking group for introductions. Just before 9:30, we hit the trail. A total of ten paying customers followed Kristi along the trail with a volunteer “trail sweep” at the end of the line.
The first section of the trail is an easy warm-up, slowly winding through a landscape irrevocably altered by one of the most significant wildfires in Western Canada, which burned more than 12.5% of Kootenay National Park over a span of 40 days in 2003. Today, wildflowers, willow shrubs and young lodgepole pines are slowly overtaking the mostly fallen, charred remains of the last generation of forest. In its present state, it’s ideal habitat for lynx. As it continues to mature, moose and bears will move into the area. In fact, we spotted a young black bear beside the highway shortly after leaving the parking lot at the end of the day.
After about 90 minutes we came to a double-log bridge. Once everyone was safely across, we had a quick snack break while Kristi explained some of the prevailing theories re: how the Burgess Shale fossils were formed. If you’re interested, the Royal Ontario Museum has a terrific website devoted to the Burgess Shale.
Continuing to slowly gain altitude, we eventually worked our way around a narrow avalanche debris field, emerging from the woods to a valley floor strewn with rocks – including debris from the eroding Burgess Shale layer, clearly visible along the entire flank of Mount Stanley. And there in the distance….the remnants of Stanley Glacier.
We left the established trail well before we reached the receding Stanley Glacier, heading instead for prime fossil hunting grounds near the base of a large waterfall.
Once we reached Parks Canada’s huge lock box for storing fossils, Kristi set us loose. We had almost 2 hours to enjoy lunch, search for fossils and make our way up the scree slope to check out the 150+ meter waterfall (thanks to Alex, who left a comment alerting me to the fact that come winter, this waterfall becomes Nemesis, a grade 6 ice climb).
The best part of the entire day was when K spotted a small rock slab (maybe 20 x 60 cm) containing more than a dozen fine fossil specimens. Kristi deemed it more than worthy of being added to the collection stowed in the lock box. And Mr. GeoK also found a “keeper”. Remember, removing fossils from Burgess Shale locations is strictly prohibited. You’re welcome to photograph any fossils you find before leaving them in place. Or you might consider packing a few sheets of relatively thin paper and some pencil crayons to make some rubbings.
With clouds rolling in and the threat of rain, we started back down the valley just before 2 o’clock, reaching the parking lot shortly after 3 pm. Along the way, we enjoyed some great views of Mount Whymper across the highway and Castle Mountain up the valley.
Total hiking distance = 10.0 km
Total elevation gain = 450 m
Total hiking time = 6 hours, 3 hours actually hiking plus 3 hours for trails stops, lunch break and plenty of time to search for fossils
Without a guide, I would consider this an easy half-day hike. With a guide, it’s an easy, not-quite-full-day hike due to the fact that you move at a pace that’s comfortable for the slowest hiker in the group and you are given lots of time to search for fossils. At 10 km, it’s longer than the Mount Stephen “Stone Bugs” hike, but only gains about half the elevation. The classic Wolcott Quarry hike not only doubles the elevation but more than doubles the distance. So our view is that this is the easiest of the three Parks Canada guided fossil hikes. On the other hand, it’s easier to find fossils at the Wolcott Quarry and much easier to find fossils on the Mount Stephen hike. So you’ll want to consider both your physical fitness level as well as how hard you’re willing to look for fossils when choosing between them.
While the Wolcott Quarry and Mount Stephen sites can only be accessed via guided hike, the Stanley Glacier trail is open to all hikers. So if/when we do this hike again, I’d opt to go without a guide. But here’s some food for thought:
- For the rest of the 2014 hiking season, without a guide you’ll be faced with fording the creek at the start of the hike. Kristi advised us that Parks Canada is closing the bridge the week of July 7 and it will be closed for the remainder of the season for re-construction. The guided hikes will continue to have access to a bridge crossing, but the general public will not.
- Another major benefit of going with a Parks Canada guide is that you’ll learn about the post-wildfire forest regrowth and about the formation of the Burgess Shale. Kristi was also able to identify many of the fossils found during our exploration time.
- Finally, if you’re nervous about encountering lynx, cougars or bears while hiking in any of the Rocky Mountain parks, one of the Parks Canada guided hikes is a good way to minimize the risk of a dangerous wildlife encounter.
For current trail conditions and details of any warnings/advisories, be sure to check the most recent Parks Canada trail report.