Guided hikes can be a great option when travelling, or when you’re a beginner. In some ways, hiking with a guide is like hiking with a bit of a safety net: there is no need to stress about getting lost in an unfamiliar part of the world and they’ll carry things like bear spray, a really good first aid kit, some kind of SOS or communication device, etc., so you don’t have to haul all that gear along on your travels or go out and rent/buy it before you even know if you like hiking. Another great advantage to hiking with a good guide is they’ll be able to teach you about the area. And if it’s a group guided hike, you may even make a new friend or two.
In mid-August, when trying to choose a trail for a good conditioning hike, we came across the Parks Canada guided hike to the Mount Stephen trilobite fossil beds in Yoho National Park. We’ve previously done Parks Canada’s other guided hikes in the Burgess Shale: Walcott Quarry and Stanley Glacier, so it seemed logical to complete the trifecta.
It was Friday afternoon when we decided to check availability for the following day. Spaces were open, so we registered, organized our gear and set an early alarm for Saturday morning – the meetup for this hike is 7 o’clock at the Yoho National Park visitor centre in Field, BC.
Heading west from Canmore at 5:45 am, it was foggy and dark – perfect conditions to produce large halos around the lights at the approach to the east gate to Banff National Park.
Blue hour brought enough light to reveal that the previous day’s rain in the valley bottom turned to snow at higher elevations – a strong hint that fall is coming soon!
Arriving at the Yoho NP Visitor Centre a few minutes before 7, we met our Parks Canada guide, Cindy, and volunteer sweep, David. We also met the seven other hikers in our group and were not surprised to discover we were the only Canadians (this was also the case when we did the Walcott Quarry hike). Everyone signed the necessary paperwork and Cindy made sure everyone had rain gear and hiking poles. She had a good supply of hiking poles available to borrow for the day and a limited selection of rain gear for the same purpose.
Everyone was ready to depart by 7:15 and we set off across the bridge over the Kicking Horse River and through the tiny community of Field. This photo of Mount Stanley, taken at the end of the hike, shows the hike’s desination circled in blue.
Established in 1883 as a work camp for the Canadian Pacific Railway, many of the buildings in Field are picturesque, well-maintained and in keeping with that history – both in terms of size and style.
Assuming no delay to wait for passing trains, it’s about a ten-minute walk from the Visitor Centre to the Mount Stephen trail head. There is little to no parking at the trail head. What is at the trail head is a large sign making it clear that the trail is in a restricted area and that the fossil beds are in a closed area. Our guide, Cindy, explained that mountaineers aiming to summit Mount Stephen can pick-up a (free) permit at the Visitor Centre. Those wishing to visit the fossil beds must choose between the Parks Canada or Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation guided hikes.
This is a short, steep trail, gaining just shy of 800 meters (870 yards) elevation over four kilometers (2.5 miles) – an average grade of 20%. Consequently, we stopped for many rest breaks on the way up. Sometimes it was just a minute or two to allow for de-layering as we warmed up with exertion. Other stops were 10 to 15 minutes. Cindy kept these interesting by covering topics such as the history of Field, the discovery of the Burgess Shale fossil beds, current theories on how the Burgess Shale fossils formed, recent field studies by the Royal Ontario Museum and more.
The trail is in fairly rough condition, mainly due to constant water erosion. Parks Canada has installed a large diameter pipe to divert the worst of the problem, but this trail needs some repairs and upgrades.
Thanks to the constant seepage of moisture, we spotted several kinds of mushrooms and fungi beside the trail, including these fan-shaped fungi. If anyone knows the name of these, please leave a comment and we’ll update this paragraph.
At the last rest stop before the final push to the lower fossil bed, we had a chance for a snack break and learned more about the Burgess Shale fossil beds.
It was still as cloudy as it had been all morning, which put the kingfisher that landed in a nearby spruce in silhouette.
Our next stop, at the lower fossil bed, was about three hours after departing from the Visitor Centre. Cindy opened a large storage locker to pass around fossils and 3D models so we’d have a better sense for what we’d be looking at at the main/upper fossil bed.
Another 20 minutes of hiking and we arrived at our destination. While we ate lunch (a little early), Cindy brought out more fossil samples, magnifiers, identification cards and explained the boundaries within which we were free to explore for the next 90 minutes or so.
This site has fossils galore! Pretty much every stone we picked up had a fossil on one side, the other side, or both. Some rocks had single fossils and others had clusters – mostly similar but sometimes different. Mrs. GeoK added to the fun factor by using a Lego minifig for scale.
We had a bit of rain and some snow pellets for a few minutes, but eventually the clouds rolled back and we finally saw Mount Burgess and Mount Field across the valley. Mr. GeoK even managed a few panorama shots that included the hamlet of Field and the Kicking Horse River.
With the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation guided hike group approaching, we departed the treasure trove of fossils at about 12:15. Cindy, our guide, was the last to depart so that her appearance on the remote, monitored camera, would signal that all members of her guided party were off the upper fossil bed.
We descended just a few minutes before stepping just to the side of the trail to wait for the oncoming group to pass.
Thanks to a steady stream of hikers and on-going water erosion, there are plenty of exposed roots and rocks on the trail. Add the previous night’s rain to the mix, and it was a bit slippery on the way down. A couple members of the group required a bit of coaching on how to use hiking poles while descending. But Mrs. GeoK – despite many years experience hiking with poles – was the only one to have a bit of a slip.
Despite another fairly long rest break where Cindy brought out an activity related to earth’s geological timeline, we were back at the Visitor Centre by 1:30 pm, just 75 minutes after leaving the upper fossil bed. That left plenty of time to visit the Burgess Shale exhibit at the Visitor Centre and exchange email addresses with fellow hikers before heading for home.
Distance = 8.8 km
Elevation gain = 808 meters (795 net)
Time = 7 hrs 55 min, including 4 hrs 35 min for rest and information breaks plus lunch, fossil-hunting and photography stops
Comparing the three guided fossil hikes offered by Parks Canada, this one is definitely tops when it comes to sheer number of fossils. And although the hike is rated difficult due to steepness, the easy pace and multiple rest stops meant we found it pretty easy. The Walcott Quarry hike is also rated difficult and we remember finding a wider variety of fossils at that site. The Stanley Glacier option if definitely the easiest hike, but the fossils were fewer and smaller. Any/all of these hikes are worth doing if you’re interested in fossils and/or the history of this part of the world.
Have you done one or more of the Parks Canada or Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation hikes? If yes, what did you think? If no, what’s holding you back?