Banff-Assiniboine: A Journey Into the Centre of the Rockies

At the Vista Lake trail head, about to start our eight day hiking trip

The Rockies evoke images of sheer black rock faces topped by glaciers, turquoise alpine lakes, high mountain passes, and wildlife encounters. This trip had all of this in abundance, it was a journey into the centre of the Rockies, an exploration of the very heart of the Canadian Crumblies. The crowning jewel was definitely Mount Assiniboine. For days we could see it on the horizon, tantalizingly close. With its sheer rock faces, this pyramid captures one’s gaze and won’t let go.

It snowed on our first night out

Last year we spent some time exploring Jasper National Park. We still had our National Park Pass, so we decided to return to the Rockies, this time to Banff National Park. We picked up Steph and Clemens and left Vancouver. Our destination for the day was Revelstoke, about seven hours drive away, where we met up with our friends Jan and Warrick who would join us on the hike. Since this was a traverse, some car shuttling was necessary. We drove both cars to the first trailhead at Vista Lake, dropped everyone off, and Warrick and I proceeded to drive another 100km to our final trail head at Aurora Creek where we left our car, and then returned in the other vehicle. By this time some dark clouds had appeared and it was drizzling. We saw the dark smoke billowing up from the prescribed burn in the Simpson River and hoped it wouldn’t spread.

Warrick, hiking cross-country towards Gibbon Pass

Warrick and I hiked in deteriorating weather, first down to Vista Lake, perhaps a weird name for a lake down in a valley, and then up to Arnica Lake. From there we could just see the side of Storm Mountain, an appropriately named mountain, at least on that day. We arrived to the campground at Lower Twin Lake wet and cold. Wringing out my fleece gloves produced a stream like a small waterfall. Once we had the tarp up and some dry clothing in, and soup brewing on the stove, we were feeling much better. At the least the cold kept the bugs away.

Lunch at Shadow Lake

When I woke up the tent seemed very bright. It was covered by a layer of snow, but thankfully it wasn’t snowing or raining. I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag to see if anyone else was awake or if we could perhaps sleep in, but alas, we were sticking to our schedule. We passed by Upper Twin Lake where we detoured along the shore and then cross-country up to Gibbon Pass. Marmots and pikas were whistling all around us to warn their friends of the intruders. By then the weather had improved and the snow made the mountains seem all the more beautiful. The hike down from Gibbon Pass seemed like an odd combination of spring and fall, since the colourful flowers were half covered in snow. We reached the Ball Pass Junction campground and set up camp, chatting with a fellow who was hiking with his dog who carried his own food in a small saddle bag. The same guy managed to almost burn our tarp down when he set off a huge flame from his stove.

Haiduk Lake with Haiduk Peak (L)

Maya hiking up to Whistling Pass, Mt. Ball behind

We set out in sun and blue sky towards the marvelous Haiduk Lake, passing by steep and impressive light brown rock faces. A Haiduk was the Balkan version of Robin Hood, and Haiduk Peak was climbed for the first time only in 1977, but it is unlikely that bandits stopped anyone from climbing it… On the way to Whistling Pass we passed a picturesque boulder with a marmot standing on top and took the opportunity for some easy bouldering. The views from Whistling Pass were panoramic, and we could see Mt. Ball clearly with its distinctive plume of snow on the top. We went in for a refreshing swim at Egypt Lake, before ascending to Healy Pass, from where we had glorious views of the Monarch, the Monarch Ramparts and the very tip of Mount Assiniboine. Our camp for the night, at Healy Creek, was somewhat dreary, with log chairs appearing to have been used for firewood, and one of the sites located directly beside the outhouse. One has to wonder where do the high backcountry camping fees go?

Healy Pass, The Monarch in the background

The fourth day took us to the extensive Sunshine Meadows, indeed sunny and delightfully flowering. One of my favourite flowers is a type of anemone nicknamed “hippy on a stick” for the disheveled hair look. There is a ski area nearby with good access to hiking, so we started seeing many more hikers. Rock Isle Lake has a rock island in the middle (duh), and I thought it would be fun to swim out to the island, maybe next time…

Sunshine Meadows

Just after lunch we crossed over a shoulder of Quart Hill and saw some of the best views of this trip. We could see our target for the day, Citadel Pass, guarded by Fatigue Mountain and Citadel Peak, and the unmistakeable horn of Assiniboine in the background, towering above everything. Below us Howard Douglas Lake beckoned. When we reached Citadel Pass we scrambled a bit higher towards Fatigue Pass to get a better view. Warrick pulled out his monocle, as he did many time on this trip, and this time actually managed to spot something! It was a group of mountain sheep, around 15-17, grazing on a nearby hillside. We camped just below Citadel Pass by a picturesque tarn and spent a good hour or two hanging our food.

Fatigue Mtn, Citadel Pass, Citadel Peak and Howard Douglas Lake (L to R)

Swimming in Og Lake, Mount Assiniboine (R) and Mount Magog (L)

From the pass we descended on a trail that took us below some large avalanche chutes with the impressively flat Simpson Ridge visible on the opposite side, and then through the Valley of Rocks with its many rock sculptures. Then the huge open meadows, with the ever present Mount Assiniboine lying on the horizon, becoming increasingly bigger, and Og Lake where we had a quick swim. We camped at Lake Magog and had lunch with a perfect view of… you guessed it, Mount Assiniboine. We decided to spend another night at this large campground which was surprisingly almost deserted. The hike and scramble up the Nub, was one of the most scenic I have done. The view just got better and better, with countless sparkling lakes below, huge glaciated peaks and colourful rock faces. We spent some time identifying the many peaks, the way we had come, and the way we were going. We saw a huge hoary marmot, as puffy as a good cushion.

Maya and Gili with Sunburst Lake and Cirulean Lake from the Niblet. Photo: Warrick Whitehead

Then it snowed, again! We woke up to find snow on the nearby mountains, I sleep soundly enough that I didn’t notice a thing during the night. It was drizzling lightly, but gradually the weather improved as we neared Wonder Pass, which we agreed is quite a wonderful place, especially when the nearby peaks, Wonder Peak, Mount Cautley and The Towers are covered with snow. It was windy on the pass so we didn’t linger for long. We descended to Marvel Lake, now firmly off the beaten track, and the trail became smaller and had some fallen trees across it. Lake Gloria had an intensely bright blue colour, but it was difficult to see it through the trees. We had lunch at Marvel Lake and climbed up to Marvel Pass where we camped on the shore of Aurora Lake. Nearby signs warned us of grizzlies in the area, and indeed we found some paw prints near our camp and lots of bright red bear scat.

Hiking towards Wonder Pass, Wonder Peak behind

On our final day of the trip we decided to head up towards Aurora Mountain to get better views of the area. We headed directly up the ridge facing camp, up steep scree and grass slopes, reaching a small summit. We could see our camp at Aurora Lake below us, Wonder Pass which we had come from the day before, Aurora Creek which we would descend later that day, and many beautiful mountains, such as Alcantara, Gloria and Marvel Peak, directly behind camp. We thought we might continue along the ridge towards Aurora Mountain, but it was steep and it would involve an annoying detour, so instead we dropped down directly to the trail leading to Owl Lake and hiked back up to camp on that trail.

Camp at Aurora Lake

We saw a porcupine right beside the trail, which proceeded to climb up a high tree and stay still, to the point where I wasn’t sure if it had become a permanent fixture on the tree. We took down our tents and headed down the Marvel Pass Trail which follows Aurora Creek. On the way down everyone in the group but me saw a grizzly, since I was busy taking off my shirt… The photos are nice though. We then enjoyed a long session of huckleberry picking.

Maya, Aurora Creek and Mount Alcantara (L)

The last section of the trail was through a dying forest, and then a short section on a logging road back to the car. We crammed all our gear and six people into the car for the drive down to the Kootenay River where we found a neat spot to camp. The next day I took everyone to Radium Hot Springs where they would hang out while I dropped off Jan and Warrick at their car, which we had left at the beginning of the trip. Driving back, we noticed how far the smoke had traveled from the Simpson River fire – we had been lucky that it hadn’t traveled in our direction. When I finally returned to the rest of the group, close to 200km of driving later, the Germans were pretty much ready to leave but I had to take a soak as well. At this point I realized that I had lost my credit card, so that had to be dealt with as well. When I called up Mastercard, they said I should have called them within 24 hours of losing it, I guess they didn’t understand what it means to hike for eight days in the wilderness…

The Grizzly. Photo: Warrick Whitehead

Our final stop on the way home, and in many ways one of the reasons we even decided to head to the Rockies in the first place, was in Creston to pick cherries. Our friends own a cherry orchard and were nice enough to say we could stop by after the pickers had been through, and pick as many cherries as we wanted, which in this case was 130 pounds. A very sweet ending to a wonderful trip…

More photos

130lbs of cherries, a gift from our friends in Creston

This entry was posted in British Columbia (and nearby), Hiking & Scrambling, Rockies & Kootenays, Trip Reports. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Banff-Assiniboine: A Journey Into the Centre of the Rockies

  1. Nicole says:

    Wow!!! What stunning scenery!!!
    Beautifully written account, and wonderful photos…..

  2. Pingback: Tenquille Lake: Summer Grand Finale

  3. Pingback: What to do With 130 Pounds of Cherries? - Life in MAGIc Land

  4. Dave says:

    Great trip report & beauty pics! Enjoyed reading as I’m looking to do this next year around same time. Cheers, Dave

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