Like thousands of other Calgarians, we headed west for the August long weekend. We knew the trails would be pretty crowded, so we spent a bit of time last week planning for this weekend’s hike. Our criteria: in Banff National Park, a longer hike (at least 15 km) which would deter most casual hikers, somewhere we haven’t been before and a hike with some great reviews.
The approx. 20 km (12.5 mile) trail to Lake Annette, continuing into Paradise Valley to the Giant Steps seemed to fit all our requirements, so we left early enough that we arrived at the trailhead just after 8:30. There were just a few cars in the small parking lot (no outhouses) and one fellow was busy studying the trailhead signage. Since restricted access is currently in effect (hikers must travel in tight groups of four or more), he was hoping to join up with us if we were just hiking to Lake Annette. Since we planned to go all the way to the Giant Steps, he elected to wait around for another group.
NOTE: trail conditions and any restrictions are regularly updated on the Banff National Park Trail Report.
The first 3 km (2 miles) are a walk through the forest. One of the first things Mrs. GeoK noticed is that the bushes have all been stripped of the berries, which explains the many bear sightings in this area in July.
There are a few minor creek crossings and lots of wildflowers, but it’s not until you reach the first bridge across Paradise Creek that you get your first glimpse of Mount Temple. It was right about here that we passed another group of four – and we bumped into them several more times throughout the day!
At 3.9 km, the second bridge offers a more expansive view of Mount Temple to the southeast and Sheol Mountain to the northwest.
After following the creek for about 10 or 15 minutes, at the 5 km mark there’s a third bridge across the creek. From there, it was a short and somewhat steep climb up to Lake Annette. It’s a pretty lake, quite small in comparison to Bow Lake or Moraine Lake. But on a long weekend in August, you’re much more likely to find peace and quiet here than you are at either of those other two spots so popular with drive-up sightseers.
From Lake Annette, it’s another 15 or 20 minutes of climbing through mixed forest (lots of larches here, so this would be a great fall hike, too) before reaching the trail summit at a major rockslide. It was here that we heard the first of several rockslides that would punctuate our time in Paradise Valley. And also from here, the view to the head of the valley was breathtaking.
We made quick time across the rockslide and re-entered the forest, where the trail was criss-crossed by numerous small creeks (with some tricky crossings) and bordered by small open spaces blanketed with wildflowers.
We paused at about the 8 km (5 mile) mark to take note of the rock pillars that seemed to us to be “the sentinels” of Sentinel Pass.
From the junction with the Sentinel Pass trail, the GeoKids were pretty dismayed to see we’d be losing a bunch of elevation. The trail from here to the Giant Steps is a little rougher. The switchbacks are well-constructed, with some buried logs to divert water and help with trail integrity, but several trees were down in this area making it a little slower going.
There’s a back-country campground just a few hundred meters from the Giant Steps, but when trail restrictions are in effect, this campground is closed. We passed the junction to the campground and continued on to the main attraction.
After exploring for 15 or 20 minutes with our cameras in hand, we found a quiet spot for lunch. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes and horseflies decided the same spot was just right for them. So we didn’t stick around for desert but instead started our return trip. Three other groups arrived at the Giant Steps while we ate and we passed several more on the way back. I estimate there was somewhere around 3 dozen hikers on this trail on the Saturday of a long weekend – pretty quiet!
Until 2006, there was an optional “loop” aspect to this hike that paralleled the creek downstream along the valley bottom to the bridge just below Lake Annette. Parks Canada closed this trail in 2006 in order to provide more grazing range for grizzlies. As a result, we returned the way we came.
It’s a short climb from the valley bottom, but between that short climb and some other up-and-down sections, the total elevation gain for this hike is more than double the net 385 meters. Our GPS track showed total elevation gain of almost 800 meters over the 20 km hike.
We stopped briefly at Lake Annette to plunge our feet into the icy water. C wouldn’t join the fun, but that meant he was free to take our picture as we cooled off!
From Lake Annette back to the trailhead is a pretty easy, uneventful 5 km or so. We were back at the jam-packed parking lot about 3:30, so we were on the trail just under 7 hours.
Return distance to the Giant Steps – just over 20 km
Elevation gain – 385 meters net, approx. 800 meters total
Our difficulty rating – moderate, simply because of the distance
Would we do it again? Yes, in another season or as part of a circuit with Sentinel Pass / Larch Valley
Options – A popular option is to hike over Sentinel Pass to the Larch Valley trail (or come the other way). Unless you bring two vehicles for a shuttle, you’re looking at hitching a ride from one parking lot to the other (probably not too difficult given how popular Moraine Lake is) or walking another 9.5 km along the Moraine Lake Highline Trail (share with mountain bikes) to return to your vehicle.
NOTE – Although we didn’t encounter any bears this trip, they are frequently seen in the area. Be sure to follow the usual precautions (make lots of noise, carry bear spray, etc.) and check the Parks Canada website for any hiking restrictions.