Some hikes are pleasant strolls in new surroundings. Other hikes are literally amazing — nature experiences so sublime you’ll be floating for days, no matter how sore your quads are. Hikes like these typically demand extra planning or muscle, or both. Here are 5 hikes that reward you, and then some, for putting in the effort.
Kootenay National Park: Take the Highway 1 past Banff to Castle Junction. Head south 15 km on highway 93 to Stanley Glacier parking area and look for the footbridge over the Vermilion River.
This hike is hugely rewarding, and the good news is that it isn’t too hard — it’s just a long drive from Calgary. About 11 km out and back, the trail takes you through a “burn,” a 17,000-hectare area of forest destroyed by a lighting-strike fire in 2003. Today, it’s an expanse of baby lodgepole pines and an impressive variety of wildflowers. There’s a river to cross, waterfalls to admire and a receding glacier to contemplate: pure Rocky Mountain joy.
Hey, science lovers: You’re in Burgess Shale territory — sign up for a Parks Canada interpretive hike and you can hold fossils of very, very old trilobites and brachiopods.
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park: Turn south from Highway 1 onto Highway 40 and find the Highwood Pass parking lot. Look for the trailhead at the north end of the lot.
Want to summit four peaks in one day? Pocaterra Ridge is a leg-burning 11 km, but you spend most of the hike on a wildflower-strewn ridge above the tree line, which means 360-degree Kananaskis views all day. Don’t be surprised if you’re sharing the trail with bighorn sheep. Allow at least 5 hours (7 would be wiser) and prepare for muddy boots.
Parking strategy: There’s no backtracking on this hike, which is great, but it takes some extra planning. Park an extra car or bike at the Little Highwood Pass parking lot, where the hike ends, or else you’ll need to walk or hitchhike back to the Highwood Pass parking lot.
Plain of Six Glaciers
Banff National Park: Park at the Chateau Lake Louise (about 2 hours west of Calgary) and find the trail that follows the lakeshore around the turquoise, postcard-perfect lake. You really can’t miss it.
Once you get to the top of the lake (about 2 km), the trail takes you up the valley with views of Mount Lefroy, Mount Victoria and, of course, 6 glaciers. Just past the 5-km mark you’ll find the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, a charming wooden café where you’ll balk at the prices until you realize each little teabag and brick of butter was carried up on horseback. It’s a one-of-a-kind spot. Go a little farther and you’ll reach a viewpoint where you can gaze at glaciers. It’s a 14-km round trip, so give it at least four hours.
Do: Order the chocolate cake at the teahouse. Don’t: Be the dummy who tries to hike on a glacier.
Banff National Park: Find the well-signed Moraine Lake parking lot near Lake Louise, about 2 hours west of Calgary. Follow the lakeshore to the signed trailhead.
People sit on airplanes for 10 hours to see the larch trees of Banff National Park turn golden each September. There’s no better way to experience this natural spectacle than by hiking the 12-km Larch Valley trail, and Calgarians can get there on half a tank of gas and some well-chosen road tunes. Start at bright blue Moraine Lake — worth the trip on its own — and climb through forest to Larch Meadows and Sentinel Pass. Give yourself a full day for this one, partly because the climb is a challenge, but mostly because the fall colours and mountain views will stop you (repeatedly) in your tracks.
Strength in numbers: This hike gets crowded, but the numbers keep you safe from grizzly bears. Anyway, it’s fun to make new friends.
Waterton National Park: Head to the town of Waterton about 3 hours south of Calgary. Book a seat on a Waterton Lake tour boat, which will deposit you at the trailhead at Crypt Landing 15 minutes later (and pick you up after your hike).
An absolute masterpiece of a hike, this 18-km trek takes you past four waterfalls, up a steel ladder, through a natural tunnel in the rock and around a cliff (there’s a cable to keep you secure), before leading you to Crypt Lake, one of those tranquil alpine water bodies that looks like a mirage of a postcard of a dream. It’s a tough hike with about 700 m of elevation, which only makes it more fun.
On place names: If you think Crypt Lake is a badass name, wait until you get to Hellroaring falls.
By Julia Williams; photo featured at top courtesy of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism / Paul Zizka Photography