Banff Sundance and Stewart Canyon Hikes

Sundance Canyon hike-7

One of the best things to do in Banff, and the cheapest and healthiest thing, is hiking. There are so many hikes in the area that range from short and fairly easy to long and strenuous. When planning my trip, I decided to maximize the easy hikes and make judicious choices when it came to the moderate hikes, since I knew I only had so much energy in my body.

I chose to start my hiking vacation extravaganza with the Sundance Canyon hike, which was deemed easy in my guide book (though moderate at the trail head, but often times those recommendations are a bit more cautious and geared toward the very casual hiker). The description of the Sundance Canyon hike sounded very pleasant, since about half of it is on a flat or gently uphill paved path, some of it along a nice river with mountains in the background. I thought it would be a good way to get my body ready for more difficult hikes down the road, and get my first taste of Banff scenery.

Sundance Canyon hike-1

I started the hike in the mid afternoon, figuring I would take a couple hours to do the hike, which is a loop hike up to and past a waterfall, through a forest, and down through the forest, back to the paved path. I had some concerns for my own fitness and stamina when I started off on the flat, paved path and was struggling a bit. I had been exercising in advance of this vacation to prepare, and wasn’t expecting to struggle at the outset on an easy hike. Though I didn’t realize it then (though I should have), I think this was just my body’s way of adjusting to the change in altitude. Even though I knew Banff National Park was in the Canadian Rockies, it never really occurred to me to look at the starting elevations for these hikes, even though I took careful note of elevation gain on the hike.

Banff National Park sits around 5,000 feet elevation, which is not enough to feel just walking around, but is enough to feel when doing some vigorous exercise, like fast walking. So part of me was thinking my poor performance was JUST a fitness thing, and not partially an altitude acclimation thing, but I continued the hike.

Sundance Canyon hike-8

The initial walk along the river was really nice, and there were often benches along the river to allow you to take a rest and take in the wonderful view of mountains reflected in the river directly in front of you. Once past the river, the path remains paved, but starts a gentle incline uphill. You know you are about the start the more hiking portion of the hike once the paved path ends and the dirt path takes over.

Sundance Canyon hike-2

You cross a small river almost immediately and the path starts to ascend up the river until you come to a wooden bridge going over the waterfall. This is the highlight of the hike in terms of beautiful nature. If you were pressed for time, it would make plenty of sense to stop here, get your fill of the waterfall itself and the view of the canyon from the bridge, and then turn around and go back from where you came. I was honestly surprised at how quick it was to get from the start of the dirt path to the top of the waterfall. I was expecting something more strenuous, but the short, steep hike up to the bridge is the most steep uphill of the hike.

Sundance Canyon hike-4

I decided to do the rest of the hike, even though I had heard it wasn’t as scenic as the waterfall. The path initially parallels the river as you go deeper into the canyon, but eventually the path takes you upward and through a forest. It’s at this point the path starts wending its way back, but through forest. I knew at some point, the midpoint (such as it is) was going to be a viewpoint of the surrounding valley through the trees. This view isn’t marked with any sort of sign, but you know it when you see it. It’s at the point where the trees open up, and there is a wooden fence that lines the hilltop, so you don’t go too far and slide down the hill.

Sundance Canyon hike-5

Once you reach the viewpoint, the path continues and winds its way steeply downhill through a series of switchbacks, until you find yourself back at the trail head for the dirt trail and then just take the pavement path back to your car. This is a fairly easy hike, and I think it is a good one to start with. The views are nice, but not astounding, so I think I would have been a bit disappointed if I had done one of the hikes with amazing views, and then did this one, which has comparatively fewer awe-inspiring vistas. I thought it was a good choice to start small and then work my way out to the longer hikes and better views.

Banff National Park-17

The Sundance Canyon hike started my hiking vacation, and the Stewart Canyon hike effectively ended it, at least from a hiking perspective. So these two, relatively easy hikes served as bookends for my vacation. I did the Stewart Canyon later in the afternoon, though due to a variety of reasons (mainly because I wanted to visit someplace else for sunset), I only did a part of this hike. But it was enough to see this is as a pleasant hike, though not overwhelmingly beautiful. Like Sundance Canyon, this is a good introductory hike to the area, because it is pretty easy, and doesn’t have the jaw dropping views that you will see later. So doing this hike at the end was not going to fill me with the same wonder as if I had done it at the start of my vacation. However, I chose to put this
hike at the end of my vacation, because at the start of my vacation, the area was still under bear restrictions. Meaning, that the trail was open, but if you went beyond the bridge over the river and followed the path up the canyon, you had to be in groups of four or more, because hungry bears were more likely to be prevalent in the area. The bear restriction was going to lift before the end of my vacation, so that is why I did it on my return to Banff.

The hike starts at the shores of Minnewanka Lake, which is one of the largest lakes in the Banff area, and you can take a boat tour of the lake if you so desire. By the time I had returned to Banff at the end of my vacation, it was like fall foliage was in full bloom, and the tree leaves had turned a golden yellow.

Banff National Park-19

The hike initially takes you along the lake shore and past some picnic tables and fields into a rocky, rooty path. It’s not as rocky as I have experienced, but you do have to watch your step at times (and be on the lookout for mountain bikers, because they like this path as well). The trail takes you along the lake, and then around and up the Cascade River that feeds the lake from Stewart Canyon. It is impossible to get lost on the trail, and you know have hit the end of the free portion of the hike once you hit the bridge that crosses the river. There are plenty of signs that point out the bear restriction if you go further, even though that restriction had been lifted by this point.

Banff National Park-18

After walking a bit along the canyon trail, I got the sense that while the canyon trail is pretty, I wasn’t liable to see anything that I haven’t seen before, since I had done numerous canyon hikes by this point. So I made the decision to return even though I only did about half of the hike. The hike itself is pretty easy, but keep in mind the dates for bear season, and plan accordingly if you intend to be in the area during bear season.

Banff National Park Above…

Vermillion Lakes-11

For the past couple of years, Banff National Park in Canada has been on my must see travel list, and due to needing to burn some vacation days, I had the opportunity to visit this past September. For me, September was the perfect time to visit, because the weather is still pretty decent, the crowds are thinning (though they were still pretty strong the middle of September, but by the last week of September, they were just a shadow of their former self), services are still available (though the gondola to Sunshine Meadows shut down a few days before I arrived) and the fall foliage is out, but the snow hasn’t really hit (though it started snowing a day or two after I left, so I timed it right).  Since I had two weeks, I decided to split my time for several days in Banff city, several days at Lake Louise, and a few days up at Jasper National Park. I figured that would give me the greatest diversity of nature views and hiking opportunities in the area.

Banff National Park-4Banff National Park-5

Even though I think Lake Louise has more beauty bang for your buck, there are definitely plenty to see and do in Banff town area itself. I had originally planned on going hiking in the Sunshine Meadows area, because that is considered the premier hiking place in the area, but in my research, I somehow had missed that the Sunshine Gondola shut down a few days before I arrived, and I couldn’t see another way of getting to the summit (I was in no condition to hike the few thousand feet elevation gain to get to the top).

Banff National Park-12

Banff National Park-6

So I pivoted and decided to take the Banff Gondola up to the top of  Sulphur Mountain for an expansive view of Banff town and the surrounding valley. Since my research said that the gondola gets really popular around late morning, I went early morning shortly after it opened and had zero wait and few other tourists to contend with. So for a blissful period of time, I could take in the view in silence (though battling the at times fierce wind at the top) and without having to fight crowds for nice views.

Banff National Park-13

The view from the top was lovely, and even though there were clouds, the view wasn’t socked in, and the clouds added some personality to the photographs. From the summit, you can take a short hike on boardwalks to the weather tower not far away that gives you different views of the area. It is pretty easy to walk, since they want to make it as accessible as possible. Beyond the views and some exhibits, there are also a couple restaurants if you want to eat or snack up there, and overall, it is a good way to pass a couple hours before taking the gondola back down.

Banff National Park-10

If you like waterfalls (I happen to love them), Banff National Park is chock full of them. Most of them are accessible from a reasonable hike, but one waterfall in town is just right along the main river and easily accessible. Bow Falls isn’t a large falls (the drop is only about 30 feet), but it is a wide, pretty falls, and there are a couple of nice viewpoints to take in the falls.

Banff National Park-1

The first viewpoint I went to was on the west bank. It has a large parking lot, easy for accommodating tour buses (there were a couple when I first arrived, but they were gone shortly after). Right from the bank, you have a nice view of the falls, and a short, kind of steep hike up some stairs will take you to an even better viewpoint that overlooks the falls.

The west bank viewpoint alone is good, but if you want a different perspective, you can drive to the east bank viewpoint at Surprise Corner. This viewpoint has a smaller parking lot, but you cross the road and head to the top of a small hill for an expansive view of Bow River, Bow Falls, the surrounding hills, and a very photogenic view of the famous Fairmont Banff Springs hotel (that looks like an old castle).

Banff National Park-2

Another beautiful area worth your time is the Vermilion Lakes which are within walking distance from the town, or you can drive them. I visited them twice, once at the beginning of my tour, and once at the end. The first time I visited, it was on my first full day of Banff, and I visited them as an aside while doing the Fendland Trail hike. I started from the train station and walked to the trailhead, which was only about 400 meters away.

20190913_13084420190913_123713

The nice thing about the Banff area, is that is possible to walk most places. The Fenland trail was super easy and flat. It winds its way through the forest and alongside a river, and it was one of the best and easiest places to watch elk feeding. I happened upon a couple female elk feeding in the forest and was able to see them from a safe distance, and in the parking lot, there were more than one elk feeding, and attracting crowds of photographers. I knew wildlife viewing was possible in the area (and it wouldn’t be my only time seeing wildlife), but it is still sort of trippy to see these huge animals feeding close by.

20190913_123508

The trail to go the Vermilion Lakes is an offshoot from this trail, and the “trail” itself is not a trail but rather a road. So you can walk along the road, or choose to bike, or drive. The first time I walked, and I made it to the first two lakes. Part of it was I wasn’t sure how many lakes there were or if the road was a throughway. I had checked on a map, but it wasn’t the best map. So, not knowing everything, I decided to turn back after the first two lakes, but I certainly got to enjoy a gorgeous view.

Vermillion Lakes-1

The road is flat and easy to walk, though at times, I felt the cars weren’t as considerate as they could be to people walking alongside the road. The lakes are a series of small lakes, some of which seemed to be connected by creeks. They are set within a peaceful wetland area, with a nice backdrop of mountains. I read how gorgeous they are at sunsets, which I imagine, but of course, it would still require a colorful sunset, which was a rarer commodity when I visited, because most days were rather cloudy.

Vermillion Lakes-2Vermillion Lakes-5

At each lake, there are some benches to sit and contemplate the beauty in front of you, and there was an unhurried quality to my visit. Because I was just getting my body used to hiking multiple miles every day- and coupled with being unsure how far the Vermilion Lakes went- meant that I turned back after the second lake, but I knew I had to come back and visit. Due to travel requirements and such, I decided to come back to Banff town and spend the night on my last night in Canada (to make it an easier drive to the airport), so I resolved to stop once again at the Vermilion Lakes, but this time drive the road, and see if there was anything I missed on my first visit. And there definitely was.

Vermillion Lakes-6

First off, even though it had only been a week and a half since I visited, the fall foliage was very noticeable (all around the area, not just here), and the marsh was now awash in  reds, oranges, and yellows. And since I visiting closer to sunset on a nice day, the colors of the sunset just added to the soft autumn tones of the scenes.

Vermillion Lakes-10

There are actually two more lakes past the second one, though there is a gap between the two sets, which is more noticeable if you are walking (hence why I turned back the first visit). Plus the road ends in a turnaround at the last lake (though the bike path continues further if you were biking the trail), so there is no doubt you have reached the last lake.

Vermillion Lakes-7

I was just taken aback by the colors and the beautiful scenery and didn’t want to leave. In fact, it was more of a challenge to maximize the waning daylight and see the two lakes I hadn’t visited before (which in my opinion were a bit prettier than the first two- if I was forced to rank them), and not spend too much time at one and miss the other.

Vermillion Lakes-8

If you are in the town of Banff, it is so easy to stop at the Vermilion Lakes, that there is really no excuse not to, especially if you love gorgeous, colorful nature that is also peaceful and contemplative.

Vermillion Lakes-9