Assiniboine Day-Hikes

Getting There

After driving down the Icefields Parkway, we spent the next day in Banff, getting ourselves organised for our 6-day sojourn in the shadows of Mt Assiniboine, nick-named the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”. Our preparations completed, we wandered down the banks of the beautiful Bow River to the spectacular, if somewhat horizontal, Bow River Falls.

As the day was late we thought we would head on up to that majestic folly that defines this town, The Banff Springs Hotel, and have a beer. The grandeur of the Banff Springs is only matched by its prices and snooty airs – I mean what is wrong with asking for a beer and two straws? Just joking – the staff were exceedingly friendly and we enjoyed our glasses of Grasshopper wheat beer, on a deck overlooking the picturesque Spray River Valley in the clear evening light.

Arriving in Banff - Vermilion Lakes and Sulphur Mountain

The classic photo of Banff township and Cascade Mountain

Looking up the Spray River Valley

The Bow River below Bow Falls

The next morning we caught a taxi to Canmore for a lift with a staff member to the Mt Shark heliport – we were about to enter Assiniboine in style. The sky had been blue when we left Banff, with only a few clouds on the western horizon. However, they soon began to multiply and, by the time our taxi arrived in Canmore, there was a distinct greyness above.

We headed out with Andrew, who loaded the helicopters at Mt Shark, and a truck full of groceries for a 45 minute drive over a rough dirt road to the south. When we arrived, Mt Assiniboine lay hidden behind the nearer range of mountains. These, however, were getting fainter behind the band of showers now passing over. The weather was becoming distinctly unpromising.

View from Mt Shark heliport - bad weather in the direction of Assiniboine

Our helicopter arrives for the flight into Assinboine

Luckily, the showers passed and our helicopter came thack-thack-thacking from the direction of Assiniboine, landing with a horizontal blast of air. All aboard – and we were off, rising rapidly above the waters of Spray Lake and up the narrow valley. At times it seemed as if you could reach out and touch the rock walls of the mountains. A slight lift to clear the ridge and we were soon descending to land at the helipad near Assiniboine Lodge, only 12 minutes after taking off. It was a short but exhilarating flight.

Lifting high above Spray Lake

Nello checking out the distance to the rock face

Bird's eye view of Marvel Lake

We looked around – where was the mighty mountain? Only the base was visible, the rest hidden by thick cloud – rain-bearing cloud – very cold rain-bearing cloud! The idea of camping here was becoming less appealing and, when the lodge staff told us that there was room in the nearby huts, we grabbed it.

Mt Assiniboine (at least where it should be on a fine day)

A first peek at the peak

Pink sky at night - hope for the morning

The Naiset Huts comprised several log cabins, each with 6-8 bunk beds and a pot-belly stove. A centrally-located and heated common room provided stoves and tables for cooking and eating. We settled into our hut, with its odd name of "Jonesy" (who was Jonesy?). It was a much better option than being in a tent, especially as the rain was turning to soft wet snow. Here it was melting, but the hills around were taking on a pale white appearance.

After the snow fall - our hut at Assiniboine (much better than a tent)

No walks today – just time to enjoy the warmth of the kitchen/meals room and finally head down to the lodge for a glass of red. The weather forecast posted there promised better things to come. As we returned to our little hut, the late afternoon sun broke through and lit up the snow-covered hills. Life looked distinctly better.

Day 1 – Windy Ridge Hike (17km - 750m ascent – 750m descent)

I opened the cabin door at 6.30am and there it was, clear and uncovered – Assiniboine rising above the spruce trees. The weather had turned and today would be fine, if a little cloudy in the morning. The white dusting of snow still covered the mountain slopes around us, but soon it would all be melted. Where to go on such a nice day – we opted for Windy Ridge where supposedly great views awaited and there was a chance to walk on fresh Canadian snow.

With the lightness of day-packs, we set off down the track, passing the lodge and stopping briefly to admire the classic view of Mt Assiniboine soaring above the waters of Lake Magog. Then it was northwards through the spruce forest to reach the broad open expanse of the Og Meadows.

Mt Assiniboine - the "Matterhorn" of the Rockies

Heading through the gap to snow-covered Windy Ridge

The mountains had a heavy dusting of snow overnight

On reaching a junction, we took the Og Pass Trail, descending to cross Og Creek before crossing a gentle rise in the grass- and herb-filled meadow, where we passed a fresh bear poo on the track (hmmm!). Ahead, we could see another two walkers – they were singing loudly and making a lot of noise. In fact, they had spotted the source of the bear poo, a grizzly on the track further up that fortunately headed off into the forest.

About us, the mountain scenery was superb, with the sun brightening the white dusting of snow and the pyramid of Assiniboine rising impressively behind us above its neighbouring mountains.

Cloudy morning above Og Meadow and Mt Cautley

We pushed on, leaving the meadow to pass through an area of low shrubs and enter the spruce forest, where the climb began. The track led us upwards, alongside a small gully and up the side of the slope. As we got higher, the dark green of spruce gave way to the lighter green of larch.

Track through the larch trees

Assiniboine framed by spruce

Heading towards Og Pass

We crested a small ridge to reach a clearing. We had arrived at the entry to Og Pass, a spectacular valley between the steep walls of Og and Cave Mountains. After a bite to eat in the warm morning sunshine, we pushed on to towards the bare snow-dusted ridge to the north of Og Mountain, climbing up onto a higher alpine meadow, filled with peeping ground squirrels and a scattering of wildflowers.

Not a bad place for a break - admiring Og Mountain

Looking down the Og Pass between Og and Cave Mountains

The track then led us through a series of switchbacks, as the slope became steeper. Further north, distant mountains came into view at the end of the valley, while Mt Assiniboine became even more dominant above the forests and meadows beneath. The few remaining trees here were very stunted, including one larch that had already taken on its autumn hue of gold.

A lone larch high on the slope

The glorious skyline of 3618m Assiniboine and its neighbours

Heading up to Windy Ridge

Crossing the last vestiges of snow near the ridge top

The track pushed on, entering a stony scree which began to show more and more of the yesterday's snow, until we finally reached the saddle of Windy Ridge viewpoint - a magnificent spectacle of sheer-faced rock walls plunging down into the far valley, where a small turquoise lake sparkled in the sun. The view point itself was a rocky outcrop set out from the cliffs by a metre wide neck. The fair Nello strode out to take in the view. I was much more tentative, as my exposure meter approached the red zone. Still, it was worth it!

The fair Nello out on the view point at Windy Ridge

The magnificent panorama from the view point to the east

The scree slope of Og Mountain (2873m)

The descent was quick - even on a calm day there was an icy breeze on Windy Ridge, so we didn't dally. Back in the shelter of the high meadow, we stopped for lunch, time to enjoy the magnificent views of Assiniboine and its neighbouring peaks, now facing us. It was a sight that you just don't get tired of – just as well, for all the way back it dominated the views.

Zooming into the rugged beauty ....

.... of the peaks to the north

Assiniboine's pyramid dominates the horizon

Where'd that squirrel go?

The clouds had virtually all dispersed by now and the light and dark green of the forest was dappled with bright sunlight. As we emerged on to the meadow, I caught sight of a blondish brown spot moving in the shrubs ahead – the grizzly! The bear was probably 200m away and intent on other things. For 10 minutes, we watched transfixed as it moved about, occasionally standing on its hind legs and jumping to rest head down, backside up. I think it was hunting ground squirrels.

Heading back down through larch and spruce

Grizzly bear in Og Meadow hunting ground squirrels

What's that in the meadow? I think its a grizzly

Time to head off

Finally, it moved away from the track, so we headed slowly on, one hand on my camera, the other on my bear-spray and, following the usual advice, began to sing loudly to let it know we were there.

This song (to the tune of “Run rabbit run”) works:-
Run grizzly, run grizzly, run, run, run,
Here comes the hiker with his bear spray gun,
You'll get by
Without your hiker pie,
So run grizzly, run grizzly, run, run, run.

The bear left, but then I've noticed humans do the same thing when I sing.

View back over Og Meadow - home to our blonde-haired grizzly bear

The stream through O'Brien Meadow

A reddish tinge to the meadow

Shallow lake on the Bryant Creek Trail

Magog Creek

We pushed on up the meadow and, just before reaching the spruce, turned east to head up toward Assiniboine Pass. The track climbed up alongside Og Creek to reach a large flat grassland, The O'Brien Meadow. Here it became clear that the pass was going to be covered in spruce with few views to offer, so instead we wandered up the meadow to join the Bryant Creek Trail as it headed in to Assiniboine Lodge. Crossing a series of humps and hollows in the forest, we reached the lodge and the end of the hike.

Beer o'clock on the verandah of Assinboine Lodge

Late afternoon view from the Lodge verandah

The warm afternoon sun was shining on its verandah, so we settled in for a debrief with other hikers who had come in from different walks, as sun-glinting cotton down drifted by in the breeze. With the dramatic spectacle from the lodge of this massive pyramid and lake beneath, cold beer and warm sun, it doesn't get much better. I am still finding it hard to believe that, 24 hours earlier, we were in the same place (well inside to keep warm) as the sleety snow pelted down, hiding the mountain in a foggy facade.

What a difference a day makes!

Day 2 - The Nublet and Lakes Hike (13km - 580m ascent – 580m descent)

It was a clear cold night and the stars blazed in the sky above. Consequently, the morning was crisp with a heavy frost, as the sun painted Assiniboine in an orange alpenglow before bursting over the horizon to begin a perfect day – not a cloud in the sky. There was no rush and we enjoyed a lazy breakfast chatting to the other hikers about the days plans before setting off ourselves.

Alpenglow on Assiniboine

A frosty start to the day

From the Naiset Huts, we quickly headed back to Assiniboine Lodge as we did yesterday, but then changed direction to veer westward through the spruce forest and start a gentle climb. We were walking this circuit anti-clockwise to get the climbing over early and catch the views in the crisp morning light.

Yet another perfect view

The track became gradually steeper, soon leaving the forest to emerge on the dome of a small hill. We had arrived at The Niblet and the views from it over the deep blue waters of Cerulean Lake, backed by the massive ramparts of Sunburst Mountain, were a taste of things to come.

The track up to The Niblet

View of Sunburst Peak and Cerulean Lake from The Niblet

Ahead and above us was a barren knob - The Nublet. Dropping on to a small saddle, we started the climb up its shaly slope, ascending steeply through an outcrop of rough-edged shale to reach its rounded dome. As we climbed, the views expanded dramatically, as first Sunburst Lake, then Magog Lake and finally Elizabeth Lake directly beneath came into view.

Nello climbing The Nublet

The route up from Niblet to Nublet

Four lakes were now scattered amongst the dark green forest of spruce and fir, framed by the rock, snow and glaciers of the Assiniboine cirque. Beneath a cloudless blue sky it was spectacular.

Panorama from The Nublet of Magog and Sunburst Lakes and Assiniboine

We stopped for a bite, turning our back on this panorama (we would see more of it as we continued) to focus instead on the eastern sky-line, where the ranges of the continental divide ran from north to south from Nasswald Peak, past Windy Ridge (where we had been yesterday) and on to Cave Mountain and the Assiniboine Pass. Not quite as spectacular – but that is nit-picking!

On top of the dome of The Nublet

View from Nub Peak eastwards - over Og Meadow to Windy Ridge and Mt Cautley

Immediately to the north lay the barren tops of Nub Peak and its unnamed twin, trailing away to a long line of ochre-banded ranges. It was a hard place to leave. Eventually we did, picking our way carefully down The Nublet to regain the saddle. Here we turned west, quickly entering the spruce and larch forest and decending rapidly through it.

Descent from The Nublet - Cerulean Lake

Out to our left, gaps in the canopy gave beautiful views down the length of Cerulean Lake. The track flattened out as it reached the green waters of Elizabeth Lake, wedged between forest and the bare rock slopes of Nub Peak. In the warm sunshine it was a good place to stop for a lazy lunch.

The emerald waters of Elizabeth Lake

Waiting for the photographer

From the lake, we followed the trail leading to Ferro Pass, as it followed a gully down alongside the outlet stream, then sidled along the slope through beautiful open forest. Above us,the twin glaciers of The Marshall gleamed in the sunlight.

The Sunburst Valley - on the Ferro Pass Trail

The twin glaciers of The Marshall (3190m)

Looking through the spruce to Ferro Pass

Elizabeth Lake outlet stream

At a junction with the Ferro Pass Trail, we headed back eastward, first climbing gradually, then, after crossing the outlet stream of Elizabeth Lake, we climbed around the large rocky ridge that separates it from Cerulean Lake. A little later, a clear blue-green glint through the trees announced our arrival at Cerulean.

The clear waters of Cerulean Lake

It was a beautiful setting and we called time out to sit on the shore admiring the colour and clarity of the water, sunlit midges flitting about the small firs that lined the shore and the darkly boding walls of Sunburst Peak on its far side – tranquil and majestic at the same time.    

For the next kilometre we sidled along this interface between forest and lake, the water changing from the blue-tinted emerald of the shallow bays to the rich sapphire of deeper waters that give the lake its name.

Cerulean Lake and Wedgwood Peak

At the far end, we could look back along its length to distant mountains backlit by the afternoon sun. It was actually good to be in an area where you couldn't see Mt Assiniboine, as it gave the other peaks a chance to strut their stuff.

Reflections in Sunburst Lake

View over Cerulean Lake to Sunburst Peak

And just when you thought it couldn't get any better, we crossed the low saddle to reach Sunburst Lake, now reflecting the snow-tipped peaks of Magog, Terrapin Mountain and Naiset Point in its still waters – breathtaking! Across to the west, the massive bluff of Sunburst Mountain, now dark in the afternoon shadow and backlit by the sun, completed the scene.

The dark shadow wall of Sunburst Peak towering above Sunburst Lake

Not again! - Assiniboine re-appears


We pushed on through the forest, sidling round the lake and then following its outlet down. A few hundred metres later, we wandered through the camp-ground at Magog Lake (not bad with its covered cooking shelter but with only a few hardy campers) to pick up the track that followed the shoreline of this lake. Mt Assiniboine was now visible again in its full glory.

Magog Lake from the north - backed by Naiset Point

Afternoon coffee on the verandah of "Jonesy" the hut

Nello and a fellow hiker

The girls get stuck into bananagrams

Passing the head of the lake, we climbed up into the forest and popped out at the Naiset Huts – the circuit was complete and another great walk in the Assiniboine area was over. It was time to sit on the verandah of our little hut, sipping a coffee and enjoying the late afternoon sunshine.  When it set, the world cooled down very quickly and we headed to the cooking/meals hut for dinner and a chat with the other hikers – the Australian family spending several months in the Rockies, the group of Canadian travel writers with whom the fair Nello was introduced to the addictively simple game of bananagrams, and others. It was a very social place to be.

Day 3 - Wonder Pass Hike (9km - 380m ascent – 380m descent)

I was up at 6.30am, wandering down from the huts o the shore of Magog Lake, leaving damp footprints on the frosted wood of the little wooden bridge as I passed. My mission was to catch the sunrise on the Assiniboine massif reflected in the waters of the lake. It was a magnificent spectacle from the first hints of alpenglow on the peak of this majestic pyramid, through the orange-tinted rims of the cirque to the rich colours of the rocks as the sun illuminated more and more of the face. All this was reflected boldly in the still lake waters, where soft surface mists formed and drifted over to the western shore.

Enjoy the photos as the sun rises to gradually light up the massif of Assiniboine!

Assiniboine Alpenglow reflected in Magog Lake

The shadow bear crosses the face of Wedgwood Peak

Today was our last day in this special part of the earth, but we still had a morning to enjoy it, so I wandered back up to the meals hut for a leisurely breakfast before the fair Nello and I set off on a short hike up to Wonder Pass. We quickly crossed the boggy flats near the huts on sections of boardwalk, before picking up the trail heading south beneath the rocky tops of Naiset Point and The Towers. It soon turned into a single file dirt track that meandered through a mixed spruce and larch woodland to cross a stony brook babbling its way down from Gog Lake. Gog Lake lies in a marshy spongy bowl beneath the rock walls of The Towers – a tranquil spot.

Heading south across the boggy flats

The Towers reflected in Gog Lake

The stream below the waterfall

Waterfall in a narrow gorge

The track however, veered away from the lake to climb steeply up through a dense grove of spruce. This brought us out to a higher plateau, lightly covered in low-growing larch, sparser of needle and lighter of colour than the spruce.

The Towers loom above Wonder Pass

Once again the track climbed, passing a picturesque waterfall that tumbled down the end of a heavily shaded ravine, and then climbing up under the warm sunshine to the Wonder Pass itself, guarded on either side by the shaley grey slope of Wonder Mountain and the sheer rock walls of The Towers. Back to the north, a wide Assiniboine-free vista opened up, right down the valley to distant Citadel Pass - tomorrow we would cross it. To the south we could see the even more distant peaks of the Blue Range.

View south from Wonder Pass of the larch-scattered plateau and beyond

You have been warned!

Wildflowers on Wonder Pass

Wonder Peak from the pass

Pausing briefly to read the Grizzly Bear warning, we started the descent to the other side of the pass. Our aim was to walk as far as the Wonder Pass View Point, though I'm not sure if we did. We found the fork in the track as expected, but there seemed to be no route up the steep shaly sides to the top of the spur that led off Wonder Peak (the logical place for a look-out and where the map suggested it was). Instead, it led us on a contour around the end of the spur into deep fir and spruce forest, before descending to a small clearing.

View from Wonder Pass south to the Blue Mountains

Panorama of Mt Gloria, Eon Mountain and Aye Mountain

Along the way there were impressive views of the Lunette - Eon Peak Cirque with its line of glaciers and, at the end, there was a nice partial view of the rich blue waters of Gloria Lake, but only a glimpse of Marvel Lake (luckily we got a good view of it from the helicopter on the way in).

Gloria Lake and Eon Mountain (3338m)

View across the fir and spruce to Marvel Peak

Looking down on to Gloria Lake

Was this the look-out? Perhaps we had become a bit spoilt by the incredible panoramas from other designated view-points in the park. My musings were distracted as an eagle soared overhead before sweeping off into the distance – that made up for any missed views.

Gog Creek

The meadows above Gog Lake

Back home - the boardwalk near Naiset Huts

We returned the way that we had come, keeping an eye out for any bears. We didn't see them, but did spot a couple of “bares”. Two of the Canadian ladies we had become friendly with in the huts were out getting a topless dose of solar therapy in the baking morning sun – it was that kind of day.

With nothing more to see, we headed quickly back down to the huts. Our walking here was over - after a somewhat inauspicious start, we had had three brilliant days of sunny weather. Now it was time to pack up, have a bite of lunch and leave this wonderful land of the stone boilers. Ahead lay a two and a half day hike from here to Sunshine Meadows way off the the north.