Banff National Park is HUGE (2,564 square miles!) and there it only one way to realize its immense size, and that’s by walking through it. That being said, the possibilities to enjoy solitude on some of Banff’s more remote trails are great, considering its size. It’s no secret that I enjoy having beautiful places to myself when I’m in the backcountry, and this is exactly the scenario I found while backpacking on the Canadian Great Divide trail along the outermost boundaries of Banff. These trails on the outer reach of the park may not be easy to find or get to… but some of the best places never are.
Continuing on the GDT, the trail enters Banff from the Height of the Rockies. Leaving Palliser Pass, the landscape changes into amazing wide open mountain meadows, my all-time favorite hiking. WARNING: the trails in this section were very overgrown. There were a group of park workers cutting back the trail in this section in August, 2015, but the low woody shrubs are horrible on bare legs. On the other hand, Banff does has well-marked, obvious trails and signage (even in the outskirts), and the hiking in this section was relatively flat (comparatively speaking) and easy going.
H@H Tip: If you are considering a hike in this area and don’t want to enter via Peter Lougheed or Height of the Rockies, it can be accessed via the Burstall Pass trail. Burstall pass is steep but it would lead direct to the Burstall campground in Banff.
Birdwood is the next campground along the GDT and is inconspicuous enough to walk by without being noticed. Though overgrown and small, Birdwood is a diamond in the rough. Don’t write it off at first glance.
H@H TIP: Campsite #1 is by far the best, with close access to the trail, a clearing big enough for a one large or two small tents, and a mean view of the mountains when you wake up in the morning.
Now the pièce de résistance of Birdwood: the cooking area. It is located down the trail about 100 ft past the campsites. I loved this site because it had a great view, direct evening sun and a big table with a bench and an awesome fire pit, where fires (at this site only) were permitted.
Not a peep was heard from any living thing all night. Our little hiking group had gone over 48 glorious hours without any other human contact. Amazing.
The trails from Burstall into the Spray Lakes area are very muddy, mostly due to heavy equestrian use. Once the trail emerges near the Spray Lakes reservoir (the Bryant Creek Trail) it takes on a different feel. The trail becomes a 4 foot wide, flat road with little elevation change. Easy for crushing miles, but still not overly busy.
The campsites up until this point in Banff had been basic and rustic. More developed backcountry campsites begin appearing the further into Banff you go. Big Springs Campsite was a great example of this. This campsite was next to a lovely stream and had incredible views, but drew a larger crowd (for good reason). I would recommend this campsite if you want a well maintained site with GREAT views. For those hikers wishing to visit Assiniboine Provincial Park from Banff (and I highly suggest that you do), the GDT passes an amazing trail near Marvel Lake. Wonder Pass (aptly named) leads directly into Assinboine Lodge and offers spectacular views into Assiniboine (so I’ve been told).
H@H Tip: If you wish to undertake a shorter weekend hike, a good option would be to enter at Mt. Shark Trailhead near Spray Lakes and reserve a stay at the Bryant Creek Shelter in Banff. The shelters in Banff are a wonderful retreat if the weather is crummy or if you wish to hike without tents in tow.
I would recommend staying at Big Springs, Marvel Lake or Bryant Creek. Further down the trail, Allenby Junction was a bit disappointing in comparison to the location and quality of these other sites. If you do end up here, be sure to find the CORRECT Allenby campsite. Before reaching Allenby, the trail forms a Y with an unhelpful sign that causes some confusion. To the left is an area that appears to be a campsite (no sign), complete with outhouse and horse corral. This is not Allenby, don’t be fooled. Follow the right branch of the trail for another 10 mins, over a couple of streams and bridges. And Voila ! The real (and signed) Allenby junction. No more impressive than the last, but at least it has a table and food hanging area. The front sites were overgrown but continue to the back to a wooded area to find a better site, #5. Another campground with no other hikers or campers. Peace and solitude continues…
If you continue along the true GDT (not the Wonder Pass route) you will enter Assiniboine Provincial Park via a moderate climb to Assiniboine pass, about 2.5 miles from Allenby.
Be aware that the hikers trail to Assoinboine Pass is usually closed around Aug-Sept to avoid human-grizzly interaction. Check before you hike. The lower horse trail is used as an alternative.
Banff has more than a few handfuls of popular hikes with amazing views from great trails which are easily accessed from main hubs. But I’m not a big fan of waiting in a crowd to take a photo of the views around me. I enjoy a more remote trail vs a popular, over-used spot. If you do wish to venture beyond the crowds (I’m sensing a theme to my posts here) to some more remote areas in Banff, I encourage you to pull out your maps and take advantage of some ultra-rustic backcountry adventures along the boundaries of this incredible park.