The minute my niece asked if we could stop here for a minute, my sister and I wholeheartedly agreed. We were hiking along the gentle gravel trail that winds its way through Sunshine Meadows in the high alpine of Banff National Park in early July. We’d arrived at one of the wooden benches planted along the trail that invites slowing down and soaking in the magnificent Canadian Rockies vistas.
All around us, tall grasses and buffalo berry bushes were bejewelled with sparkling water droplets left by overnight showers. Wispy clouds slithered around the rugged mountain tops like wafting cigar smoke. Bands of golden sunlight streamed through the patchwork of remnant clouds and clear blue sky. Indeed, this was the perfect place to sit and soak in our glorious surroundings.
Banff’s Number One Favourite Hike
After a quick 18 km (11.2 mi) drive from downtown Banff to the Sunshine Village parking lot, we’d boarded the Sunshine Meadows Alpine Shuttle bus that whisked us up the 5 km (3 mi) private gravel road to the trailhead. Getting off at the day lodge, we stopped at the deli for a treat and then slipped on our day packs filled with water, snacks, rain jackets and warm sweaters.
All of the trails here are gravelled, making it easy for hikers of all ages and abilities. In addition to benches planted at just the right scenic viewpoints, there are two strategically placed rest stops along the trail network as well.
As soon as we began hiking up the gradual incline of the 7 km (4.3 mi) loop trail to Rock Isle, Larix and Grizzly lakes, we realized why Lonely Planet rates Sunshine Meadows among the top five hiking destinations in Canada. Launching our hike at 2,150 m (7,054 ft), we were instantly immersed in a colourful wonderland of delicate alpine wildflowers. At this elevation, they are in bloom from late June to early August.
Guided Hikes or Independent Rambles
Tiny pikas the size of guinea pigs broke the quiet with little squeaks as we reached our 2,225 m (7,300 ft) high point near Grizzly Lake. As if on cue, a raven flew by, spreading its wings to soar high on the wind thermals, its jet black body reflected in the mirror surface of the sparkling clear water.
While years of hiking allowed me to identify the yellow arnica, lavender-tinted fleabane, crimson Indian paintbrush, tiny blue forget-me-nots and bright pink fireweed that contributed to the colourful explosion of wildflowers, I spotted several flowers I didn’t recognize.
Next time, I promised myself, I’ll join a guided hike led by a professional interpreter. That’s another thing that makes hiking at Sunshine Meadows special. Hikers are welcome to explore on their own, or join a guided tour. You can hike for an hour, explore for a full day to Quartz Ridge or Simpson Pass, or even embark on an overnight backpack to Assiniboine, the Canadian Rockies’ seventh highest peak known as the Matterhorn of the Rockies.
By the end of our hike, we’d all decided to return in September when the fireweed is red, the larch trees turn gold and Sunshine Meadows erupts in another enchanted explosion of colour.