Shoulder season hikes in the Canadian Rockies

Spring in the Rockies. Temperatures are warming, the sun is shining, ephemerals are blooming, and bear cubs are emerging with their moms from a long winter snooze. Everything around you screams, ‘get out and go for a hike!’ That is, until you gaze up a thousand meters at a ridgeline of craggy crests, all still firmly entombed under meters of snow.

While the mountains may be calling, the spring months are kind of a cruel tease. With most alpine trails still snowbound, and many with avalanche hazards, eager hikers like ourselves have to settle for shorter, low-elevation options – no matter how tempting those loftier summits appear.

When we arrived in Golden, BC the penultimate week in May 2022, we knew we were in for a one- to two-month wait for most summit scrambles and alpine trails. Memorial Day weekend may be the quintessential kick-off to summer in many places, but it’s still early season here in the Rockies. Around the end of June (and the official start to summer), many summits in the Main Ranges finally start opening up; however, there are some that’ll still need a few more weeks to totally thaw out.

Luckily, while we waited for bigger objectives, we were still able to find a handful of early season outings that were (largely) snow-free. The trails listed below were hiked between the end of May and end of June. Depending on annual snowpack, conditions may vary each season. However, these are typically some of the earliest to melt out. Similarly, most of these also make nice fall objectives, and some can even be hiked in winter (e.g. Wapta Falls, Emerald Lake and Yates Mountain).

If you are like us, and find yourselves itching to get out for a beautiful spring day on the trail, consider checking out one of these scenic routes. Just remember to stay safe and always check conditions before setting out. It’s especially important to check the avalanche bulletin any time in shoulder or winter season. Additionally, Parks Canada has a brilliant site where they regularly update trail conditions at all Mountain National Parks: Trail Conditions at Parks Canada.

Wapta Falls

A family-friendly favorite and one of the easiest trails in Yoho National Park, this short route culminates at scenic Wapta Falls. At 100 meters (300 feet) wide and 30 meters (100 feet) tall, this is the largest waterfall on the Kicking Horse River. Meaning ‘river’ in Stoney Nakoda language, Wapta is also one of the largest falls in British Columbia by volume.

The trailhead for Wapta Falls is just off the Trans-Canada Highway, about a 25-minute drive (30 km) from the town of Golden. The trailhead is about a mile up a well-graded, dirt service road, although the road is closed during the winter season. Consequently, if you do choose to hike this route in the shoulder season, it’ll add about two miles (3 kilometers) to the hike. If you hike in summer when the road is open, the route is around 3 miles (5 km) roundtrip with just 300 feet (100 meters) of vertical gain. When the road is closed, it’s around 5 miles (9 km) with 700 feet (200 meters) of vertical gain.

The trail is largely forested with little in the way for mountain views, but the falls themselves are quite lovely. The thundering waters are made even more beautiful by the vibrant aquamarine waters of the glacially fed Kicking Horse River. While the trail culminates at a viewpoint above the falls, it’s also possible to hike down to the base of the falls – a great spot to enjoy a picnic lunch. With Wapta Falls being a fairly popular spot during the busy summer months, an off-season outing is the perfect opportunity to enjoy a bit more solitude.

Total distance: 5.4 miles (8.7 km)
Elevation gain: 706 feet (215 m)

Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake is undoubtedly Yoho’s most iconic gem. The beautiful jewel-toned lake gets its color from glacial silt – a mixture of sediments that are suspended in the runoff from Emerald Glacier. Sitting high above Emerald Lake, the glacier blankets the massif of the neighboring President and Vice President. When meltwaters reach their peak during late summer – carrying more glacial silt into the lake – Emerald Lake is at its most vibrant.

The Emerald Lake Loop – a 5-kilometer (3-mile) trail with very little elevation gain – offers the opportunity for some easy yet scenic year-round hiking. For most of the year, the trail follows the perimeter of the lake. When the lake is frozen during the winter months, however, one short section of trail is rerouted across the ice in order to avoid an avalanche path along the slopes of Emerald Peak (on the western side of the lake). As always in the off season, check conditions and adhere to all signage.

The lakeshore trail begins beside Emerald Lake Lodge, a historic retreat built more than a century ago by the Canadian Pacific Railway. The loop can be hiked either clockwise or counterclockwise, with no real advantage to either direction. The eastern side of the lake beyond the lodge’s cabins is mostly wooded, though there are some nice peek-a-boo views of the Presidents from beside the shoreline. The landscape opens up more along the northern end of the lake, where an alluvial fan spills down from Emerald Glacier. From here, there’s a great look at all the neighboring peaks, including Mount Burgess, Wapta Mountain and Mount Field, as well as the towering peaks of The Presidents.

Along the western shore of the lake, the trail reenters the forest, though the trees and vegetation are much less dense here. The views of Mount Burgess are beautiful from this side of the lake, and benches allow you to pause and take in the mountain scenery. We’ve hiked the loop numerous times now, including the shoulder season months of May, June, October and December. While it’s beautiful any time of day or year, our favorite outing was unquestionably a late-fall sunset stroll. The trail was quiet, the temperatures cool, and the warm light that washed over the lake and Mount Burgess was kind of unbeatable.

Total distance: 3.2 miles (5 km)
Elevation gain: 400 feet (120 m)

Emerald Lake and all other bodies of water in Yoho National Park are closed for the entire 2024 calendar year and until at least March 31, 2025. At the end of 2023, suspected cases of whirling disease were discovered in fish in Emerald Lake. The disease is caused by an invasive parasite and devastates young trout and salmon populations. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to eradicate once introduced. Consequently, Parks Canada has closed all bodies of water in both Yoho and neighboring Kootenay National Parks to all watercraft and angling. While you are currently allowed to hike on trails around lakes and rivers, it is imperative that you stay out of all water bodies within the parks.

Mount Hunter Lookout

One of the biggest challenges of early season hiking is trying to find an accessible trail that also has enough elevation gain to feel like you’re getting those hiking legs warmed back up after their long winter nap. The year we stayed in Golden, we were far enough from the front-range peaks that hiking that far east was largely off the table. Consequently, finding something in the much snowier Main Ranges added an additional degree of difficulty to our search. After stumbling across the Mount Hunter Lookout Trail, we were pumped.

We hiked this one the first week in June. The route is a maintained Parks Canada trail, so we were able to look up any trail hazards or warnings ahead of time. Aside from a decent amount of lingering snowpack near the top and a few blowdowns, the trail was in great shape for late spring.

The parking area for Mount Hunter Lookout is just off the Trans-Canada Highway at the bottom of Wapta Falls Road (just before the winter gate), which is about halfway between the towns of Golden and Field. To get to the trail, you’ll first have to cross the highway (look both ways, kids) and then the mainline for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Once those two high-speed, man-made hazards are behind you, the rest of the trip is smooth sailing.

The route to the lookout is fairly steep, gaining just over 3,000 feet of vertical as it climbs 3.8 miles along Mount Hunter’s southeast ridge. The trail is almost entirely wooded until it pops out at the upper lookout. About halfway up the trail there’s a lower lookout, but the views there are nothing to write home about. The only noteworthy thing is an inaccessible fire tower, whose bottom section of ladder has been removed for safety/liability purposes. For better views, continue up the second half of the trail to the upper lookout.

Mount Hunter’s upper lookout is crowned with a small cabin, and offers sweeping views into the Kicking Horse and Beaverfoot River Valleys. To the east and southeast, there’s a great look at the neighboring peaks of the Ottertail Range, including Mount Hurd, Mount Vaux and Chancellor Peak. To the southwest, you can look out over the many peaks of the Beaverfoot Range.

While the trail doesn’t offer much in the way of views on the way up, it does provide the perfect shaded habitat for spring ephemerals. We found clusters of calypso orchids along the trail, which was probably our favorite part of the hike. If you see these beautiful blooms, take care not to trample them or otherwise harm them. While the plant is not listed as endangered, it’s particularly sensitive to environmental conditions and vulnerable to any slight disturbance. The delicate orchids also have a symbiotic relationship with a fungus in their roots, which is critical for their survival. Aptly, the name Calypso comes from the ancient Greek for ‘one who hides away,’ like the nymph in Homer’s Odyssey. Because of their fragility, the flowers are usually tucked away from areas that see a lot of human traffic.

Total distance: 7.6 miles (12.2 km)
Elevation gain: 3,013 feet (920 m)

Sherbrooke Lake

One last early June outing for us was the four-mile roundtrip hike up to Sherbrooke Lake. Another easy outing in Yoho National Park, the trailhead for Sherbrooke Lake is right off the Trans-Canada Highway, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of the town of Field.

Depending on your abilities, the route could be considered easy or moderate, with a well-defined trail that climbs up a forested valley between Mount Ogden and Paget Peak. The trail culminates at the southern end of Sherbrooke Lake, where Sherbrooke Creek exits the glacier-fed lake. Here, you’ll find a massive log jam of trees that have been swept down the hillsides in prior avalanches.

In summer, the lake is a vibrant turquoise thanks to glacial meltwaters; however, the color is much less dramatic in the early season. While you may miss the vibrant lake hues during spring, you do still get a decent view of Cathedral Mountain as well as a closeup look of Mount Ogden’s imposing eastern cliffs.

If you’re interested in a longer outing, Sherbrooke Lake can also be paired with a trip up to historic Paget Lookout (more on that below). The combined roundtrip is roughly 6.5 miles (10 km) with around 1,900 feet (600 m) of vertical gain.

Total distance: 3.7 miles (6 km)
Elevation gain: 844 feet (260 m)

Know before you go: There are avalanche hazards after reaching the lake, so check conditions before you go. The area is also known for grizzly activity, so be sure to carry bear spray with you at all times of the year and respect any wildlife closures.

Yates Mountain

A front-range peak on the northern end of Kananaskis Country, Yates Mountain makes a nice shoulder season outing when higher-elevation peaks are snowed in. We actually hiked this one in fall (2023), though it can also be easily hiked in spring. In fact, because the mountain sees less snow than other areas, it can actually be enjoyed year-round with a pair of snowshoes or spikes. The views from this one are certainly not epic, but it’s a great way to get your hiking legs in shape when most major peaks are inaccessible.

Beginning from the Barrier Lake Day Use Area, the Prairie View Trail is very straightforward. After crossing the Barrier Lake Dam, the path to the top largely follows an obsolete service road. As the road peters out near the top, a narrow, more traditional looking trail continues to a small set of bluffs overlooking Barrier Lake and Mount Baldy. From the bluffs, it’s a short walk to up to the Barrier Lake Fire Lookout. From here, you can look out over Mount Yamnuska and the Trans-Canada Highway as it winds its way into the Bow Valley. To the east, the views (fittingly) open up onto the prairies and out towards Calgary.

Because of its location and easy to moderate rating (depending on your abilities), Yates Mountain is a very popular trail. Prepare to start early (or late) or hike on a weekday to avoid the more crowded hours. Also, if you’re into photography, the lake views are almost perfectly due south. Be prepared for a lot of sun glare if you’re up there on a bright day at any time other than sunrise or sunset (case and point: our pics).

Total distance: 9.9 miles (16 km)
Elevation gain: 2,491 feet (760 m)

Route options: If you want to keep it short and along the wider, more trafficked trail, an out-and-back via Prairie View clocks in at 7.5 miles (12 km) with 2,150 feet (650 meters) of vertical gain. There’s also the option to hike a slightly longer loop via Prairie View and Jewell Pass (stats below). Like Prairie View, the Jewell Pass Trail is also entirely wooded, though the route follows an actual trail rather than a service road. It’s also much less crowded if you’re looking for more solitude (we saw maybe three other people until we got back to the lake). In addition to being quieter, the Jewell Pass trail also skirts the northern side of the lake for the last mile, offering an opportunity to pop down and explore the shoreline.

The next two are a couple of trails we were able to complete the last week of June, which is approaching the end of early season. Each of these is linked to a more detailed trip report. You’ll definitely want to monitor early season conditions for these two, but they were two of our favorites:

Aylmer Lookout

For some serious panoramas, consider a hike up to Aylmer Lookout. Perched some 2,000 feet above Lake Minnewanka, the viewpoint offers a stunning look at Mount Inglismaldie and Mount Girouard rising above Banff’s largest lake (21 kilometers long).

Because you have to walk about five miles (8 km) along the lakeshore before gaining any meaningful amount of elevation, this hike is on the longer side at 15 miles (24 km) and 3,000 feet (900 meters) of vertical. Additionally, most of the elevation gain (2,000 feet) on this one comes in the last two miles up to the lookout, making it fairly steep once the trail finally pulls away from the shoreline. If you’ve got the stamina for a longer outing, this one’s a solid choice.

Paget Lookout/Paget Peak

Located on the eastern side of Yoho National Park, Paget Lookout and Peak were named for Reverand Dean Paget, one of the founding members of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) and the first to climb the peak. Built in 1944, the historic Paget Lookout cabin is the oldest surviving fire lookout in Canada’s Mountain National Parks.

Beginning from the Sherbrooke Lake Trailhead, the roundtrip hike to Paget Lookout is 4.2 miles (8 km) with around 1,600 feet (500 meters) of vertical gain. The cabin itself is really cool and the views of Mount Victoria, Cathedral Mountain, and Mount Stephen are breathtaking.

If you’re looking for more, there is also the option to continue up to the summit of Paget Peak from the historic lookout. Beyond the cabin it is a scramble to the summit, so stop at the lookout if you’re uncomfortable continuing off-trail on steeper (scree) terrain.

While it’s only an additional 0.8 miles from the lookout to the summit, the route gains another 1,600 feet of vertical – the same amount you gained to the lookout but in just one third the distance. Being about three times steeper and involving some light scrambling over scree, be confident in your ability before you head up. The roundtrip to the summit clocks in at 5.8 miles (9 km) with 3,200 feet (970 meters) of vertical.

We scrambled Paget Peak in late June and it was nearly snow-free, save for a small bit near the top. If you plan to hike up here in shoulder season, it’s a good idea to bring spikes along. Depending on the year, meaningful amounts of snow can linger here through the end of June.

Shoulder season in Kananaskis

Further east of the Main Ranges of Banff and Yoho, you’ll find Kananaskis Country – a collection of beautiful provincial parks and recreation areas. With some areas of K Country seeing less snow that the more western interior, there are a number of front-range peaks here that make for some nice early- (or late-) season outings.

When we were in Golden in 2022, many Kananaskis trails were out of reach for us. The drive was upwards of four hours in each direction, and the highway closures across Kicking Horse Canyon added another layer of difficulty in getting this far east.

When we returned to the area in summer of 2023, we decided to stay in Cochrane. Now that we were just 30 minutes west of Calgary, K Country suddenly became much more accessible to us. We hiked the following trails in the shoulder season, though this time in late fall/early winter instead of spring. That said, most of these trails can also be hiked in the early season if conditions allow.

If you’re looking for some shoulder season outings in Kananaskis, here are a few more options (click for full trip reports):

Some other options we haven’t yet tried in the shoulder season, but are on our list include: EEOR, Prairie Mountain, Moose Mountain, Troll Falls, Tunnel Mountain (Banff), and Lipalian Mountain (Banff). We’ll be returning to Canmore for the second half of 2024, so hopefully we’ll be able to update this list later in the year.

Know before you go

  • A Discovery Pass is required for entrance into Canada’s National Parks. Passes can be purchased online or in person at select locations. An annual pass costs $151.25 CAD and can be used for up to 7 people in a single vehicle. Because it pays for itself in just 7 days, this is probably the cheapest option if you’re in town for a week.
  • If you plan to visit Kananaskis Country, you’ll need to purchase a separate Conservation Pass (K Country’s conservation areas are maintained by Alberta Parks). One pass per vehicle is required and can also be purchased online. A day pass costs $15 CAD while a yearly pass costs $90 CAD.
  • Recreate responsibly. Pack in, pack out all waste and remember to leave no trace.
  • You are responsible for your own safety. Always check trail conditions and avalanche bulletins before heading out, do your own research, know your limits, and pack all necessary gear for rapidly changing conditions (10 Essentials for Hiking).

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