Cascade Mountain commands the attention of visitors arriving in Banff National Park via the east gate near Canmore. Topping out an elevation of 2,998 meters (9,836 ft), it’s the highest peak in the immediate vicinity of Banff. While few have the physical conditioning and experience to undertake the scramble to the summit, there are a couple of less-demanding options available if you’re determined to explore part of Cascade Mountain.
1) Cascade Amphitheatre – The last time we hiked to the Cascade Amphitheatre was BC (before children). My most vivid memory from that hike is swarms of biting horse flies, an inevitable side-effect of the fact that the multi-use section of the trail is shared with horses. Flipping through an old photo album of 35 mm prints, I am reminded that the amphitheatre itself is impressive, but I confess we’ve never desired to repeat the hike.
2) C-Level Cirque – In early August one of K’s friends was staying with us for a few days. After consulting some of our favourite hiking guide books, carefully comparing hiking distance/elevation gain and driving time to the trailhead for a few different hikes, and taking the weather forecast into consideration, we decided to take the boys on the half-day C-Level Cirque hike. We will probably make a return trip the viewpoint at about the 1.5 km mark someday (for golden hour or night photography), but we have no desire to repeat the hike to the end of the trail.
The trail is well-established and well-maintained. There were just a few isolated wildflowers to be seen, so I shifted my attention to the interesting patterns of roots and coal and the ever-shifting patterns of light and shadow.
The first major point of interest is the husk of an old building, situated just off the trail at about the 1.3 km mark. It took us a little under half an hour to get there, with an elevation gain of about 200 meters. If the coals seams visible along the trail aren’t enough to get you thinking about the fact that a century ago there was coal mining in Banff National Park, this remnant of the highest elevation mining operation certainly will. Hefty bolts protruding from the cement floor are an obvious clue to the building’s history. The missing roof and colourful graffiti are strong hints that coal mining operations were abandoned many decades in the past.
The second major point of interest is less than 200 meters beyond the old building. On the day we hiked the trail, there was a clear – though temporary – trail marker. We followed one of the multiple paths winding through the trees and emerged on to the top of an old pile of mine tailings. The end of the tailing line provides an excellent view of Lake Minnewanka and the Bow Valley to the east, with the Fairholme Range running along the north side of the valley and Mount Rundle opposite. The diffuse light of hazy skies created a more interesting, colourful sky that we would normally expect to encounter at about 9 o’clock on a mid-summer morning.
From the viewpoint it was a long walk through the woods before we finally emerged from the trees onto a pile of rock debris at the outlet of C-Level Cirque. We’d gained another 250 meters or so and this is where the boys opted to stop. They enjoyed a long snack break and a good visit while Mr. GeoK and I continued upwards and onwards, along a narrow path along the right hand side of the bow.
Mr. GeoK explored the bowl of the cirque, where he spotted a curious Pika and a half-dozen Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.
I followed the trail to its abrupt end on the shoulder of Cascade Mountain, at the base of a vertical wall of rock. From there I had an open view of the inlet end of Lake Minnewanka, as well as the the Bow Valley. Around the corner, I could peek into another cirque. The wildflowers, butterflies and bees were more abundant than they’d been at lower elevations.
In my opinion, the view was not that much better than the it was at the lower viewpoint near the old coal mining building. The extra time, distance and elevation gain simply doesn’t pay off. My view is that Ptarmigan Cirque and Arethusa Cirque are more picturesque. And when it comes to conditioning hikes, Pigeon Mountain and Taylor Lake are less-crowded options.
Total hiking distance = 11.2 km
Total elevation gain = 781 meters (758 net), 462 meters to where the boys stopped
Total hiking time = 3.5 hours to the end, including 45 minutes for photography stops
Not recommended, but if you feel a visit to Banff National Park simply won’t be complete without getting up close to Cascade Mountain, our recommendation is to hike the first part of the C-Level Cirque trail to the old mine building and the viewpoint at the end of the tailings. Then finish your visit to the area with a stop at Lower Bankhead, where the 1.1 km interpretive loop provides plenty of opportunities to photography old coal mining equipment and the complete story of how what was once Alberta’s most modern community became a ghost town!