When the suggestion of spending five nights in the Canadian wilderness was first mentioned, I dismissed it with barely a moment’s thought. Little did I know the seed had been planted in Andy’s mind and when he brought the idea up again a few months later, I bizarrely found myself agreeing provided that a) there were at least two other people with us (as we would be hiking through grizzly bear territory) and b) that I didn’t have to organise a single thing. My boyfriend has a minor obsession with seeing big mountains, and following his considerable heartbreak after three nights spent in Zermatt and still not sighting the Matterhorn, I doubted he was going to let this one go. Especially once he learnt that Mt. Assiniboine was known as the ‘Matterhorn of the Rockies’.
Before I knew it, we were upgrading our gear, doing practice overnight hikes and requesting leave from work. Two months before our planned arrival date, we had to log onto the BC Parks Camping website to book tent pads at Lake Magog – honestly, it was no less stressful than trying to book an MIQ spot to return to NZ! After an hour of hitting the refresh button, our whole group was successful in booking three nights of tent pads. I was excited but verrrrrrry nervous, so naturally the next two months positively whizzed by and all of a sudden we were off.
A bit of context is probably important here. Mt. Assiniboine sits at 3618 metres tall in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, saddling both the Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia and Banff National Park in Alberta. The mountain can only be reached by a 28 kilometre hike, a similar route taken by horseback, or by helicopter. Needless to say, there was only really one option we were going to do, however flying in to the park is something we briefly considered, and something I would probably push for if we (ever) do it again.
The main campground in the park is at Lake Magog and it sits at the opposite end of the lake to Mt. Assiniboine. About a half hour walk from the campground is the Assiniboine Lodge, a rustic yet comparatively luxurious accommodation option, with stunning views down the lake to the mountain. Since July 1, the lodge has reopened to campers for happy hour, meaning we were able to go and have some beers in the sun (also cake), which felt like such a treat after spending multiple days eating nothing but muesli bars and dehydrated food!
With our three nights booked at Lake Magog campground, our plan was to split the 28 km hike up by camping approximately halfway along the trail on both the way in and again on the way out. We were going to do a loop trail starting from the Mt. Shark trailhead, by hiking in via the Assiniboine Pass and out via the Wonder Pass. We chose to do it in this direction because the Assiniboine Pass is meant to be a far easier incline (although less spectacular) and the better views would be saved for our walk out. It is also possible to do a through hike by beginning at the Sunshine ski field in Banff, however that would create a logistical issue with our car then being at the wrong end of the trailhead when we finished.
The journey in
Our group of five tended to make good time on the trails most days. Not surprisingly, I was the slowest (particularly going uphill), but I found that the hike on the whole wasn’t too difficult, rather it was just very, very long. We clocked up a serious number of kilometres across the week!
We spent our first night at campsite BR14, a walk-in campsite situated approximately 14 km along the trail. It was very peaceful amongst the trees with a nice cooking area, bear lockers (which was ideal, as it meant we didn’t need to construct bear hangs in the trees to keep our food away from us) and two toilets. There was no close water source however, which proved to be a bit of an inconvenience. Temperatures really dropped overnight and we didn’t waste too much time packing up when we awoke the next morning.
Day 2 was supposed to be the toughest day in terms of incline, so getting an early start was in our best interests. It was looking a bit hazy as we left the campsite, due to the smoke drifting in from the unseasonably early wildfires. The fires themselves were not a threat to us that week, but the smoke impeding our views was definitely at the forefront of my mind as we set off. We gradually climbed our way through the valley and trees, up a few switchbacks until we reached the top of the Assiniboine Pass. We had lunch at the top of the Assiniboine Pass and to describe it in one word: “buggy”. It felt as though we were constantly being swarmed by flies and mosquitos, which seemed to land as soon as we stopped moving. Miraculously we didn’t see another person on the entire trail, so we definitely felt like we were way out in the wilderness. To compensate for the apparent lack of people, we were particularly loud as we cycled through various word games, occasionally yelling “Heyyyyyyyyyyyy bear” and clapping periodically. Needless to say, we also didn’t see any bears. Spoiler alert: we didn’t see any bears the entire week!
When we arrived at Lake Magog I was pretty weary and eager to ditch the heavy bag. Blisters were looming and my feet generally were extremely tender. To my dismay (but eventual joy), the campground was a spiders web of trails, leading to different tent pads. We had three tents across two pads (although Stu’s tent was approximately the size and shape of a pencil), so we were trying to find somewhere we could pitch them together. This meant our walk wasn’t quite over, as we scoped out our sleeping options. We landed two pads not far from the cooking area, bathrooms, bear lockers and with a perfectly framed view of Mt. Assiniboine. Happy campers!
Three nights at Lake Magog
Three nights ended up being the perfect length of time at Lake Magog campground. This gave us two whole days, which enabled us to climb the Nub, explore the lakes, visit the lodge, as well as having some much needed down time to rest our tired legs. We were extremely fortunate with the weather – the smoke was never too far from the frame and could always be seen in the distance, but for the most part the mountains close to us remained clear.
Sunburst Lake, Cerulean Lake and Elizabeth Lake are all within about half an hour walk from Magog Lake. Sunburst Lake provides the best reflection views of Mt. Assiniboine, although we never managed to catch the lake at a time when there weren’t ripples. The only lake we ended up swimming in was Magog, although Cerulean was such a pretty blue that it was certainly tempting.
The Nub is a day hike from Magog, totalling about 12 kilometres, and is the hike which provides the most well known view of Mt. Assiniboine. It was a given that we were going to make the journey, but I don’t think any of us realised quite how steep the slope would be, or that it was going to be quite a scramble. To get there we ventured past the lakes, through some wildflower filled meadows and up a few switchbacks. The first lookout is known as the Niblet, then the Nublet and lastly the Nub. The Niblet provided 95% of all we needed to see, but naturally we wanted to get the full panorama, so up we went. The ridgeline was rocky, narrow at times and extremely windy, but the incentive of lunch at the top kept us going.
On our way down we went via the Assiniboine Lodge for happy hour. We knew it was from 4 p.m. – 5 p.m., but there was a bit of confusion over which time zone we were in. I was adamant that it would be British Columbia, as by this stage we were in the Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park (which is in BC), so it was fortunate we got there early as it ended up being the Alberta time zone, aka ‘Mountain time’ – which I suppose makes sense in hindsight. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones to make that mistake!
We spent a lot of time on the shore of Lake Magog. We ate multiple meals there and it was a perfect place for relaxing in the sun due to the apparent absence of bugs. By the second or third night we had established quite a set up around our campsite to deal with the onslaught of mosquitos and flies, including layering up, forming a perimeter of coils (which repel the bugs) and always carrying a bottle of bug spray. We were lucky to see a deer meandering along the beachfront, as well as a battle between a bald eagle and a falcon over the falcon’s catch. Sadly the poor fish ended up getting dropped into a bush; I think there were no winners on that fateful day!
The journey out
We left the campground at about 10 am, knowing we had approximately 18 kilometres of mostly downhill ahead of us. We powered across the meadows past Assiniboine Lodge and up through the valley alongside Lake Gog. The colours from the wildflowers made for one of my favourite sights of the whole trip. We endured a series of switchbacks before reaching the top of the extremely gusty Wonder Pass. The view from the top was pretty wonderful, so the name of the pass is pretty apt. The group barrelled on through to get out of the wind, but stopped in awe once we got to the lookout over Marvel Lake. It did not go unnoticed how high we were and the rate of descent at which we would be making our way down the hill. I think everyone was relieved that Andy had planned our trip to ensure we didn’t have to ascend that slope, and I felt very sorry for all those poor souls we saw with heavy bags making the climb.
We walked for 14 km before stopping for lunch. We powered through that first 14 km so fast that at lunch we seriously considered hiking out to the car. We ended up deciding against that option, in case we got back to the car (at about 6 pm) and then couldn’t find accommodation for 5 people on such short notice. Given that it’s peak tourism season and we were in one of Canada’s prime destinations, not finding (affordable) accommodation was a very real possibility.
Instead we hiked to BR9, a picturesque campsite about 9 km from the start of the trail. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading our books by the river and playing cards in the sun. For dinner we finished off the last of our dehydrated meals (YAY) and went to bed while the sun was still up, as we were fizzing to get up and out of the trail as early as possible. Our alarms went off at 6.30 am and I don’t think we had ever packed up so quickly! We made it to the start of the trail in record time, the sense of accomplishment and desire for a shower giving us the final boost we would need.
A successful trip!
I couldn’t have been happier with how everything turned out. The weather, the bears, the difficulty are just some of the things I was worried about and everything turned out okay. Even eating dehydrated meals for 6 days straight ended up being better than I thought: these days there is such a wide selection (and they feel much healthier than they used to) that we never even had to eat the same meal twice. Our bags were heavy, but it was surprising how easy it was to carry them once they were actually on our backs. The pride I get from achieving things like this is definitely one of the main reasons that I know I should always say yes to these kinds of opportunities, so I was thankful that Andy organised what can only be described as a once in a lifetime trip. We were lucky to have such a fantastic group to do it with: a constant source of fun and good chatter, Taylor, Connor and Stu were awesome company and always ready for a laugh. Here’s to the next one!