We went on one of the first Parks Canada-guided hikes near Stanley Glacier. The hiking was easy, we found tons of fossils (all left on site, in accordance with the law) and we learned a fair bit about the geology of the 500+ million year old fossil beds.
But last time out, we barely caught a glimpse of Stanley Glacier. So when we agreed to choose the destination for day hike with friends, we had no trouble coming up with a long list of reasons to return to Stanley Glacier:
- Less than 2 hours from Calgary (under an hour from Canmore), travel time to Stanley Glacier is shorter than to many of our favourite hikes in the Highwood Pass area;
- It’s a fairly easy hike, an important consideration given my pending ACL surgery and our friends’ limited hiking experience;
- The area offers considerable scenic variety – new growth forest, impressive mountains, waterfalls, a hanging valley and Stanley Glacier; and
We pulled into the trail head parking lot close to 9:30 on a beautiful late August weekday morning. There were only a few other vehicles in the parking lot.
After crossing the 2014-era bridge over the creek, the trail slowly ascends through new growth forest that’s sprouted up since a 2003 wildfire burned approximately one-eighth of Kootenay National Park.
During wildflower season, this is the most colourful stretch of the hike. Beginning late August and into September, a little colour comes back as shrub and wildflower leaves turn colour. Our small group got pretty stretched out here, with the guys way ahead and the girls bringing up the rear (we were chatting too much). We eventually caught up when the guys waited for us at the bend in the trail that looks southeast towards cascading Stanley Creek.
After gaining about 300 meters elevation, the trail flattens out, turns roughly east and traverses a section of forest spared by the wild-fire, eventually reaching Stanley Creek. The creek crossing is easy, thanks to two bridges: a double tree trunk crossing and a modern constructed bridge.
In addition to wildflowers, mushrooms and squirrels, it pays to be on the lookout for birds – both in the trees and on the ground. We spotted a beautiful ptarmigan between the Stanley Creek crossing and the point at which the trail emerges at the leading edge of an expansive boulder field.
Once you reach the boulder field you have a couple of options: stay left on the easy-to-follow trail OR veer right down into the valley bowl. We aimed right, working our way past the giant cube-shaped boulder in the middle of good fossil hunting grounds and continuing on to the base of a giant waterfall. The waterfall is thanks to glacier melt and the spray is blissfully cool on a hot summer day. We don’t ice climb, but I’ve read a few posts that highlight the extremely challenging ice climbing routes in this valley.
Mr. GeoK set up a few longer exposures, but we didn’t hang around too long. Between the spray, the deep shadow and a light wind, it was relatively cool. We took a somewhat more faint path that roughly followed the shoulder of Mount Stanley.
Here and there we spotted early fall colour.
Across the valley, there was full sunlight on the ridge between Mount Stanley and Mount Storm, highlighting the different coloured rock bands and drawing the eye to some of the rock spires along the ridgeline.
About 10 or 15 minutes along we passed a shallow cave. The resident bats were home and we spotted several bolts that we presume are used by climbers/ice climbers.
Another 5 minutes or so further up into the valley we encountered our first delightful surprise of the day – another spectacular waterfall! Unlike the first waterfall, which came from the cliff top, this one appeared to emerge from some sort of karst system.
After another brief photo stop, it was time to gain a little more elevation, as we headed for the upper bench that stretches between the steep walls on either side of the valley and is enhanced by another fantastic waterfall. The middle of the upper bench, with the creek bubbling by, is one of the nicest picnic spots we’ve ever seen!
We hung out for a while, enjoyed our packed lunches (would have been ever better with a glass or two of wine) and made some photos of Stanley Glacier. This was as close as we got to the glacier, but a closer approach might be an interesting side trip next time. We spotted a couple of other waterfalls from here, too; again, these might be worth a closer look another time.
The trail is pretty faint as it crosses the upper bench, but we headed roughly east and eventually found our way back to the well-established main trail. We were careful to stay far enough south; there’s a big drop off to the north!
We enjoyed tremendous views of Mount Whymper and the valley walls all the way down to where we re-entered the forest. Mr. GeoK also took the time to look back towards the glacier.
It was a great hike, but between multiple photo stops and our extended lunch break, it was well after 3:30 before we were back at the parking lot! If you move faster than we did, a great option to extend the day is a visit to Marble Canyon, just a few km further west along highway 93S.
Total distance = 12.7 km
Total elevation gain = 670 meters (580 net)
Total hiking time = 6.5 hrs (including 2.5 hrs for lunch and photography)
All-in-all, this is a great hike. Our friends took some of their friends and family on the same hike the very next weekend. And we’ve added Stanley Glacier to our list of favourites; we’re already planning to return next year to explore the upper bowl a little more. If you’ve hiked here and have other suggestions for extensions, side trips or other scenic highlights, please share by leaving a comment.
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