GREAT CANADIAN DIVIDE SERIES PART 4: Assiniboine to Sunshine Meadows
Hindsight is 20/20. That is how I felt about the Assiniboine section of the Canadian Great Divide Trail. If only I had had a crystal ball, I would have known to tack on a couple of extra days to my itinerary to spend some extra time in and around Assiniboine. The Great Divide trail proper skirts along the edge of Assiniboine Provincial Park but doesn’t venture into where Mt. Assiniboine stands, towering over the nearby peaks, lakes and trees. Thankfully, what I did get to see on a quick pass through the park, was jaw dropping and memorable… but left me wanting to explore more.
Mother Nature granted me more wonderful luck on this particular day. The rain and clouds held off long enough to enjoy some impressive views of the distant Mt Assiniboine (and take some sweet pics). I spotted my first large wildlife: a moose having a snack in the trees not far from the trail (but I missed a grizzly and her cubs by about 30 mins) and a raging storm passed by without striking down on me (it would come back to haunt the next day.. but that’s okay). On the trail, you take your blessings as they come.
Quick work was made of a moderate climb up Assiniboine pass, leaving Banff behind. The reward was some great views of Mt. Assiniboine peaking up over the trees. She (He?) truly makes her presence felt, towering well above the rest of the peaks and blanketed in snow. Sharp. Aggressive. Stunning. That’s the thing I love about the mountains; they create equal parts fear and excitement and awe to those who explore them.
Hindsight is 20/20. I would say this about twelve times during this section. I said it again when passing by Og Lake campground. It was incredible; impeccably maintained with breathtaking views. Each tent pad (yes, pad) sits just above a turquoise blue lake, with views of Mt. Assiniboine watching over you. This campground is the gateway into the heart of Assiniboine, and unfortunately I would only stop here for a snack before taking off along the trail to a further destination.
Campsites in Assiniboine Provincial Park are all on a “first come-first serve” basis (but are the cheapest backcountry campsites in the area – $5, what a steal!). Unfortunately, all of the campsites in the National parks that surround it require you to reserve ahead of time. For hiking the GDT, this meant planning months in advance to be able to ensure sites to accommodate our daily mileage and itinerary. Again, hindsight is 20/20; I would not know until undertaking the trail, that 80% of the campsites where I stayed would be empty and perhaps my itinerary could have been a bit more flexible than I had previously thought. This meant that Assiniboine would only get a passing glance this trip before getting back to putting miles in on the GDT.
“I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” – Robert Frost.
When a trail is dubbed “Valley of the Rocks”, it is pretty self-explanatory. This was the name of the trail from Og Lake to Citadel Pass. For someone with 5 raging blisters on the bottom of their foot, Valley of the Rocks may as well be called Hell Valley of foot torture. Large boulders line the trail and dot the desiccate surroundings. The resulting landscape is rather unique, eerie and moon-like. Certainly different compared to what I had been hiking on for the last few days.
Days earlier, our group stumbled upon another group of 3 who were hiking the same section of the GDT as us, but in the reverse direction. As our group exchanged stories of the trail ahead, their jovial warning about the dreaded Citadel pass would be the final word before we departed. “Good Luck on Citadel”, they said, laughing as they hiked off. Let me tell you, anticipation of torture is excruciating. The mind can begin to play games with you, especially after 5 days on the trail, 60 plus miles in and longing for a cold beer and hot pepperoni pizza. Citadel Pass felt like a monster. But again, hindsight is 20/20. Citadel pass would later seem like a breeze in comparison to the mountain passes to come. The trade-off for the hard climb up Citadel, was that for the first time in 5 days, the landscape changed from meadows, streams and ponds, to some epic ridge walking. The trail skirts high along the side of a steep mountainside, providing long views of the peaks and valleys all around.
Long switchbacks wind up and around before reaching the level section at the top of Citadel pass. Rocky lakes, windblown alpine meadows and wide open spaces lie in front of you. Not what you would expect after a brutal mountain pass. It felt unfinished, but interestingly beautiful all at once.
A slight decent down the opposite side of Citadel brought me back to Banff as well as a familiar landscape; the flowery meadow walk. It wasn’t far from here that I pulled into camp for the night. Despite having hiked over 17 miles today, arrival at camp came early in the day and I could rest my weary feet before getting started on dinner. As a dark storm began to brew overhead, campers started piling into the Howard Douglas campsite in Banff National Park. Howard Douglas is a little lake-side oasis, with a community camping area that is sheltered from the winds blowing up the side of the mountain by a thin layer of trees. This would be the first night since Forks campground in Peter Lougheed that our group spent with any other hikers. Unfortunately, reservations didn’t mean much to most of the people staying here and the number of tents far surpassed the number of sites. Most of the campers had come or were returning to/from Sunshine meadows. This is a popular access point for hikers heading into Assiniboine.
H@H Tip: Assiniboine would be a reasonably challenging, long-weekend adventure. Access the park from Sunshine Meadows or the Mount Shark Trail Head. Assiniboine Lodge can be reserved in advance. There are several campgrounds in the Assiniboine area as well as the Naiset Huts. All first come first serve.
It was apparent that we had left the peaceful boundaries of Banff and ventured into the heart of a hikers paradise. The hike from here on out would not have the same sense of solitude and isolation as the last few days. But on the flip side, if people were coming here by the masses, there must be something worth coming for, and Assiniboine was the first peak into what great things would lie ahead.
Howard Douglas is only about 3.5 miles from Sunshine Meadows, a ski resort-turned adventure center in the summer months. Shuttles run from the bottom of the mountain up to Sunshine village. The village is the starting point for backpackers and day hikers to explore a great network of trails here, some of which lead to Assiniboine. I had dropped off a resupply box at Sunshine before starting the hike, so the last 5 days were filled with anticipation of what great treats and clean clothes would await at Sunshine inside the resupply box. Waking up at Howard Douglas in thick fog and drizzle didn’t have me sticking around camp too long. Covering miles to Sunshine in the morning would be a breeze over the wide open, flat terrain. I knew that Sunshine Village had several luxuries: power, flush toilets, hot food… and beer. It was just as glorious as I had imagined it to be. Arriving in a raging hail storm made it that much more enjoyable. Spending the next few hours gorging on poutine and coffee with Baileys was a welcome treat, and a peak out the window would encourage another…and another. The raging hail storm from earlier had turned into a full-blown snow storm… which didn’t look like it was ending anytime soon. Sunshine Meadows eh? Yeah Right.
Perhaps it was a good thing (in Hindsight, of course) that I didn’t choose to dilly-dally around Assiniboine for longer than planned. My pre-determined itinerary had me booked into a shelter in Banff for the snowy night ahead. And by the looks of the weather, this shelter was going to be a blessing in disguise! Perfect timing perhaps? This wouldn’t be the first time I have experienced snow in the Rocky mountains in August. This too would be another great part of the Canadian Great Divide experience. And so, I headed out into the cold, blistering storm, this adventure must go on. Rain, shine…or snow.
Stay tuned for Part 5 of the Great Divide Series. The views just keep getting better as the miles stack up.