If you've ever been to Banff (or seen a photo at least), you've probably noticed a perfectly placed mountain at the end of Banff Ave. This did not happen by chance. Back in the late 19th century, the town of Banff was consciously designed to illuminate the majestic Cascade Mountain in all of its glory. Standing at an impressive 2998m height, Cascade looks like a snow-covered misplaced pyramid in the Canadian Rockies. The dense tree line reaches less than half way up this colossal mountain whilst the rocky jagged peak soars high into the sky. Waking up every morning to a view of this mountain never gets old. And what makes it even better - is knowing that I’ve reached the summit of this bad boy!
To start this pretty strenuous all-day hike, head up to the Mount Norquay ski area and grab an empty spot at the parking lot. The trailhead begins at the Mount Norquay Ski Lodge and from here you want to follow the signs towards the Cascade Amphitheatre. Parks Canada signs will guide you to the Cascade Amphitheatre, but no further. The reason for this is because of the high risk and danger that hiking to the summit of Cascade Mountain can ensue. From the Ski Lodge, walk past the bases of the ski lifts until you get to the Mystic chairlift (0.8km). As you pass Mystic on your left, there is a sign to the Cascade Amphitheatre which leads you into the valley to Forty Mile Creek (2.9km). Cross the bridge and then the five hour upwards climb begins. First, you are treated to some pretty arduous switchbacks through wonderfully green and dense Canadian alpine forestry (2.3km), which can sometimes feel never-ending. The end of the switchbacks leads to a spectacular opening to the beautiful Cascade Amphitheatre. Towering limestone cliffs encompass an extensive polychromatic alpine meadow with fresh vibrant wildflowers scattered as far as you can see. Standing in the natural amphitheatre, the summit of Cascade looks pretty close but it is here that I learnt that appearances can be very deceiving. The false peak from this angle is stupidly obvious, but as soon as you get to the ridge line it is definitely not-so-obvious.
To the right you will see a steep path through scattered trees leading upwards, head this way until you get to another clearing. The next stage of the hike (top of the amphitheatre to the ridge line) looks like a never-ending trail of rubble in the form of huge boulders. It is here that your pace will probably begin to slow down as you have to think carefully about every step you take forward. From this point of the hike, there are no more Parks Canada signs. Instead, you are guided by fluorescent orange spray paint marks on scattered rocks – be sure to look for the next orange tag before you leave the one you’re at! As you make your way across these boulders, you'll often see a trail of scree (small loose rocks) that will lead you along the most popular route to the next orange point. As you traverse across the mountain, cute chubby marmots play hide and seek with their friends. You'll see them resting every now and again to take in the stunning view of Mount Norquay with its luscious green snow-less ski runs carved perfectly in-between the trees.
Once you get to the ridge line, it is now you're turn to tower over the humungous Cascade Amphitheatre - looking down from this point can be somewhat scary. It is here that you will see the easily mistakable false peak. To avoid getting stuck atop of the fake summit, follow the faint zig-zag switchbacks upwards that seem to hug around the right side of the false peak. Once you pass the false summit, it is easy to see the ridge line again and get back on track for the real summit! Although it looks close, the final ascension to the top is still pretty far away. But at least from here, the end is in sight!
After about an hour of ruthless upwards climbing on very forgiving scree, you reach the summit of Cascade Mountain. And this view is nothing short of spectacular. On one side, you have an incredibly blue Lake Minnewanka surrounded by beautiful mountains. And on the other side, there is a breathtaking panoramic view of a mighty Mount Rundle standing in-between Canmore on the left and Banff on the right with a never-ending supply of mountains in the background. (I was kicking myself for not taking my SLR on the hike with me, so these are all just photos taken from my iPhone.)
If you're in Banff for a couple of days (and relatively fit), I'd definitely recommend this hike. The feeling that you get from climbing a mountain as grandiose as Cascade, which is topped off with an awe-inspiring view is out of this world.
Round trip: 10 hours (give or take, dependent on fitness and how many stops you take)
Length: 18km (approx)
One of the views at the summit of Ha Ling Peak looking towards Goat Creek Valley with Goat Pond just poking out behind the mountains. Canmore, Alberta, Canada.
One of the main draws that lured me in to Canada and its snowy tundra was the thought of some furry four-legged friends waiting for us across the Atlantic. The day finally arrived when we could fulfil the dream: the sun dawned bright in a bluebird sky on the morning we set off on our adventure. We were collected a mere 2 mins from our house (at one of the nearby hotels) in a big minivan by 'Pedro el Cubano' who kept us entertained on the half-hour journey into Canmore. Stopping off at the offices in Canmore first allows you to pick up rental boots or gear if necessary, and buy any pre-souvenirs (such as some awesome dog harnesses) before piling back in the van and heading to Spray Lakes.
The scenery that greeted us as we wound up the mountain was spectacular - the road provided jaw-dropping birds-eye views over the top of Canmore, turning it into a toy town that unfolded beneath us. By the time we reached the head of the trail, we were practically bouncing in our seats with excitement. We were rewarded as we stepped down from the beast of a van; greeted by barking, woofing, and the occasional howl (from us as well as the dogs). We were allowed free rein to meet the huskies that were to be our sled-mates for the rest of the afternoon: and meet them we did. We cuddled, petted, and fussed over each and every pup (quite literally EVERY one… I had to be dragged away at one point) until we were called over for our instruction sesh. Jeremy, third-generation owner of the Snowy Owl Sled Dog company, talked us through everything we needed to know to become amateur Mushers. Halfway through his speech, whines and whimpers started to drown out his words of wisdom, until we couldn't hear ourselves think. The dogs were raring to go: straining against their harnesses, and jumping all over the place, they were eager to set off. I climbed into our sled, got tucked in with a cozy blanket, and waited for our cue to 'Hike'.
At the command, the dogs gleefully leapt into action (well, mostly - except for a few reluctant stragglers at the back) and we encouraged them with shouts of praise. The sled took off, bumping for the first few yards until the dogs settled into a smooth, steady pace. As we ventured along the trail, through woody patches of trees and around snowy bends, our guide Nick chatted away to us, answering all the questions we eagerly shot at him. We learnt about the dogs: their names, their diet, their routines, their backgrounds, and their breeds in minute detail, reaching the half-way point before we even realised it. Stopping along with the other sleds (with a resounding 'whoooooaaa'), we switched drivers. H was at the reins now, a somewhat daunting prospect for us both. We continued on our way, passing through shadowy forests and across snowy plains, stopping now and again for a poo break (the dogs not us). Towards the end of our trip, the path began to slope downwards to a lake, iced-over and perfectly still. The dogs didn't miss a beat, loping smoothly onto the foot of snow-covered ice that protected us from the freezing water below. The scenery opened out before us, the mountains looming majestically and the bright sunshine beating down to warm the frosty breeze. Crossing the lake, we fought our way up the last uphill stretch - running alongside the sled made me seriously question both my fitness, and the dogs' ability to pull us along for an hour and a half, when I couldn't even get myself up a 2-minute stretch without losing my breath completely.
We were welcomed back to a raging camp-fire with hot apple cider and home-made brownies, and then snuck off to chill with our canine companions until we were dragged away for the home stretch.
This was one of the best experiences we've had out here (or at all for that matter), we can't suggest more strongly an activity to top the Banff bucket list.
P.S. Miss you Alfie!
For your info, there are many different options within Snowy Owl tours. We chose the Powder Hound tour, which lasts around 2 hours, and costs $160 pp. For any other FAQs or details, head to their website here.