All good things are wild and free – Henry David Thoreau.
This is about our adventurous hike to the Saskatchewan Glacier located near the Columbia Icefield in Banff National Park. We are not a fan of huge crowds or touristy spots. Driving through the less traveled routes, camping off the beaten paths, hiking and soaking in natures’ charm is our kind of travel. Although, we are not hardcore back country hikers, we like to hike through less traveled trails. This time we wanted to see a Glacier up close on our own.
While on our way back from Arctic Ocean Roadtrip, we drove though the Banff National Park. Located north of Banff is the largest Ice field called as Columbia Icefield. The most popular one among the tourists is the Athabasca Glacier which can be experienced by group tours in a massive vehicle especially designed for Glacier travel. Like I said, its a very popular in this area and too crowded for our taste.
We researched a little and found this unmarked unofficial trail to Saskatchewan Glacier! So far we have been on many less traveled hiking trails, but never on an unmarked trail. So, lots of research about the terrain, path, location, local climate, wildlife, gears needed, safety precautions went in. Upon digging, we stumbled upon this page that had good info about the hike.
Though most of the info on this page is accurate, we had some hiccups in finding the correct route though the woods. It is easy to get confused and get lost here. We were off course for a while and wasted about an hour trying to track the valley.
Parking / Start of the Trail
GPS : 52.172780, -117.064441
We were traveling with our converted travel trailer on this trip. We planned to camp for the night at the small parking space near the start of the trail and head out early next morning. Upon reaching late at night, we realized that it was not as trailer friendly as it looked on Google satellite image. The short gravel road from the Icefield parkway is very narrow and steep. So, we drove to the closest campground – Rampart creek campground to stay for the night. Next day, we left our trailer in the campground and took our Nimo.
We were supposed to start the trail early around 6 am. But we had a long drive the previous day due to the tight schedule. Figured we needed good sleep before our hike, hence were able to start only around 9 am. There is a niche for parking right before an old abandoned bridge. It can accommodate 3 to 4 vehicles. To start the trail you have to cross the bridge and take immediate right that leads down along the river.
Saskatchewan Glacier hike
Distance – approx. 10 miles (roundtrip)
Skill level – Moderate
Time – 10 hrs atleast if you plan to walk on the glacier too.
There is another official trail called Parkers Ridge to see the Saskatchewan glacier from top. But this unofficial, unmarked trail will take you to the base of the Glacier. Its longer than Parkers ridge but it is insanely spectacular, quiet and provides a different perspective to experience the Glacier . Once you enter the valley, your eyes will be filled with gorgeous waterfalls, ice capped peaks, gushing water streams and a glance of the majestic glacier at a distance showing off as your targeted trophy. When we visited, the fall colors were just beginning making everything around us even so striking.
What to carry?
- Wear water proof hiking boots – Our shoes were not water proof. So, had a hard time (and wet time :P) during our hike.
- Bear spray & bear bell – This is bear country, be cautious.
- Hiking pole – a must have.
- Water, snacks & some food.
- It was extremely windy and cold when we were there in August 2018. Winter jackets, gloves, cap, ear muffs are essential.
- Emergency kit as a precaution
- Photography/Video gears – views are unspeakably stunning there.
- Crampons or Ice cleats if you plan to hike on the Glacier
CHECK OUT THE VIDEO BELOW!
Route condition and what to expect
Only the first mile is tricky to navigate. Once you are in the woods, the route is pretty obvious. You will first walk along the river (which will be on your right) for a while among the covered forest, then on the gravel shore of the river. Then comes the narrow pathway through the dense forest with overgrown vegetation. There are elevation changes, but it is only for a fraction of the entire hike. After crossing the woods, its all about walking through the open canyon with huge mountains around.
Then the challenge is to find the correct path that leads into the forest. If you see something resembling the below picture, you took the wrong turn! This is the place where river water comes out of the valley. Its clearly not the place you can cross. Backtrack your way and find the the trail which leads through the woods.
At this point we felt nearby trees and bushes move. We were positive it was a bear or atleast a large animal, but thankfully did not get a chance to meet face to face. Just the prior week, we were driving along the Dempster highway and were eager to encounter bears and foxes from the safety of our car. But this time, it was different – we seriously hoped to prevent a close encounter! Clutching on to the bear spray on one hand, ready to use it if needed, we made our way out of the woods.
The trail path going through the woods is a little broader than the path near the old abandoned bridge. You will clearly see 2 tracks at most of places since this trail was used by the US Army in 1930’s. Follow the road through the dense forest. It is also time to take out your hiking pole since you will be doing a little bit of climbing. Since this is the only way to get out of the woods, keep your eyes and ears sharp for wild animals.
As you come out of the woods, the first thing you would see is the tiny shimmering water falls on top of the mountains and sound of the nearby gushing river. Soon you will be at a junction facing the river that flows down to your right into the canyon and disappears. This is what reappears near the big bend parking lot in Icefields highway. Its in the picture (three above) where we got lost earlier.
You will also find an old food stash.
From here there are two ways to the Glacier. Well, the first one only takes you closer to the glacier but not all the way if you want to hike on it. The second path that we took was along the right shore of the river. It is a little dangerous route, since you have to cross a old log bridge and a few water streams. From the food stash, follow the little path to your right that leads you to the log bridge. Cross only if you think you are up for it. Check the logs if they are rigid enough to walk on it. It is just dried trunks placed by travelers. Resist the urge to look down when crossing the bridge! I have to say, its adventurous and fun to cross as well.
After this, you will walk along the rocky shore. Soon, you will see a low level stream branch where you can cross (provided it din’t rain). This is where things started to get bad for us. We did not have waterproof shoes and did not expect we would cross a water stream.
Then you will find yourself among a number of tiny water streams. Just try to find the main river and navigate along its shore. Also at far end you will see the Glacier peaking out (as in the above picture). So, there is your target!!! 🙂
Since we are out of the dense forest area now, we took a little snack time and geared up to face the heavy cold winds. The glacier seemed to be close. But trust me, we are still atleast 3.5 kms away. It looks closer to our eyes than it really is.
Soon, our situation changed unpredictably. Only that morning, we checked the weather predictions before starting our trail. It said clear sky. Can you see dense clouds behind us in the above picture? Clouds were forming and moving towards us. Its started to drizzle and the time was around 3pm. Also, Naveen’s wet feet started to bother him more. Since we were walking directly facing the heavy cold winds, it was hard to keep up the pace. It did not look like we would be able to make it back to our car if we proceeded to the Glacier.
Considering all the above, we still desperately wanted to get as close as we can to the glacier. So kept on walking. Though we were mentally determined, our wet feet gave away. Tried to dry our feet and carry on. But it din’t help as it started to get more cloudy, dark and cold.
Luckily we were able to find our way out of the forest area before dark without any bear encounters! Though we felt bad that we couldn’t walk on the glacier, this trail had breathtaking views, scary moments and overall a different kind of adventurous experience.
If you are into geology, then you will absolutely love this hike. Check out the statistical data about the Glacier’s receding here.
After this, we drove back to our campground, hooked up our trailer and drove down to Banff National Park. The whole drive through Banff and Jasper National Park is very beautiful and scenic. There are many lookouts all along the road with good amount of parking space.