Hiking Banff National Park – Saddleback Pass / Fairview Mountain

With a big hike scheduled later this month, we figured we’d better do a couple of conditioning hikes to confirm that boots still fit comfortably, that the rest of our gear is in good shape and to test the trail-readiness of Mrs. GeoK’s knee. We opted for distance first, tackling the trail to Eiffel Lake and Wenkchemna Pass. With significant elevation gain our primary criteria for the second hike, we settled on the short, steep trail to the summit of Fairview Mountain, adjacent to Lake Louise.

Fairview-MountainSeveral popular trails start from the Lake Louise parking lot, so an early start is key. There were parking spaces galore when we arrived a few minutes after 8 o’clock. But at 1:30 that afternoon, several vehicles converged as we stowed our packs, each driver hoping to take over our stall. All three public parking lots were jammed with spillover vehicles parked along the side of Lake Louise Road further than the parking lot for the Great Divide bike trail.

From the public parking lots, head towards the turquoise waters of Lake Louise. The trails to Little Beehive, Lake Agnes tea house, Plain of Six Glaciers and Mount St. Piran begin to the right. To reach Saddleback Pass and Fairview Mountain, stay left and watch for the Parks Canada’s trailhead sign – yellow text on a brown background.

Most of the first 4 km (2.5 miles) to Saddleback Pass is in the trees, with a few open stretches offering a peek at Chateau Lake Louise, a view along the valley towards Banff and a good look at the Ski Louise hill. This section of the trail gains just over 600 meters, with the aid of a few switchbacks.

If you need an excuse to rest, keep a lookout for wildflowers and then stop to examine one or more blooms. We spotted common harebell, wild blue flax, silky scorpionweed, leafy asters, fireweed, moss campion, windflower, elephant head, red paintbrush, heather, valerian, heart-leaved arnica and more.

Valerian

As the trail skirts the shoulder of Saddle Mountain (ahead and to the left), watch for pikas and marmots in the rocks:

On the day we hiked Fairview Mountain, at least half the hikers we spotted opted to turn sharply right as soon as the trail started to flatten, to follow a relatively well-established trail that basically goes straight up to the false summit. We continued to Saddleback Pass and took the well-signed official trail.

Even with the help of switchbacks, it’s quite a grind. We gained just over 400 meters in just one kilometer. That’s steep!! And it also required paying careful attention; the trail was quite faint over the more rocky stretches and there’s some trail braiding. Just below the false summit, Mr. GeoK went off course and had to backtrack a bit. As a reward for his extra effort, he spotted a plump Ptarmigan.

Ptarmigan

Looking back to Saddle Pass on the way to the summit:
Fairview-Mountain

Looking down on Chateau Lake Louise from Mr. GeoK’s detour:
Fairview-Mountain

K reached the summit at 10:23, a scant 2 hrs 15 minutes after leaving the parking lot. Mrs. GeoK arrived about 5 minutes later. As summits go, Fairview Mountain’s is quite spacious and not particularly exposed. We stayed up top for about 90 minutes total, ample time to find the lone geocache hidden along this trail, to take plenty of photographs and to enjoy a leisurely (early) lunch. There were plenty of butterflies and bees/hornets, but none of the mosquitoes we encountered near Saddleback Pass.

Looking southwest along the summit ridge. From left to right, the mountains are Mount Fay (in the Valley of the Ten Peaks), the Mitre (which looms over the Giant Steps in Paradise Valley, behind), Mount Lefroy (with Lefroy Glacier) and Mount Victoria (with Victoria Glacier, also part of the Plain of Six Glaciers):
Fairview-MountainAs we packed up our lunch remains a few minutes before noon, two more hikers reached the summit. In the 90 minutes it took to return to the parking lot, we passed almost 60 hikers (mid-week).

On the way down, K opted for the direct route, which he later described as punishingly steep and “a little sketchy” in places. On account of her knee, Mrs. GeoK opted to descended back along the same trail we’d used for the ascent and Mr. GeoK followed her just in case of knee trouble. From the summit to the pass, we were happy we had hiking poles along to minimize the strain on our legs.

SUMMARY:

Total hiking distance = 10.3 km
Total elevation gain = 1040 meters (1038 net)
Total hiking time = 4 hours 45 minutes (including 1.5 hour summit break)

If you don’t mind the drive to the trailhead, we think Fairview Mountain is a more scenic conditioning hike than Ha Ling or Mount Lady MacDonald in Canmore. But if you’re willing to make the drive and have a bit more time, you should also consider Mount St. Piran (up above Lake Agnes), which has almost the same elevation gain with added attraction of more varied scenery, including a couple of small creeks and at least one lake along the way.

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2 thoughts on “Hiking Banff National Park – Saddleback Pass / Fairview Mountain

  1. Hi Geokids,

    Your blog just makes me want to Fairview Mt. so much! Lovely…
    I’m planning to go there around the second week of May. Is that a good timing? Still many snow? Hiking alone there is safe?

    Like

    • Hi Andy – It’s hard to say what the trail conditions will be like around the second week of may. Right now, the trail report shows some snowy sections with cleats recommended for the icy stretches. But if we don’t get anymore snow, that could change quite quickly.

      Hiking alone should be fine on this trail, but you will definitely need to watch for the small stone cairns that mark the trail route above Saddleback Pass. Also, be sure to carry bear spray any time you are hiking, just in case you encounter a bear (not likely, but you need to be prepared just in case).

      Enjoy your time in Banff!

      Like

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