It will be a three season day. Stanley Glacier is an easy, tourist-popular, 9.6 KM (6 mile)return hike. Following an early start from Calgary, the 165 KM (103 mile) drive west is through spectacular mountain scenery on the TransCanada Hwy, past the Town of Banff, south on Hwy. 93 at Castle Junction, past Boom Lake at the Continental Divide (which is also the Alberta, British Columbia border, and the transition between Banff and Kootenay National Parks), bringing me to the Stanley Glacier trailhead for a 9:30 AM hiking start-time.
This lower elevation trail beginning at 1,585 metres (5,200 ft) provides stunning views of adjacent mountains including Stanley Peak (3,154 m: 10,348 ft), Storm Mountain (3,161 m: 10,371 ft), Mount Whymper (2,843 m: 9,327 ft) and Boom Mountain (2,760 m: 9,055 ft). The trail initially crosses the Vermilion River on a narrow wooden bridge, then quickly and gently gains 1,148 ft (350 m) of elevation on excellent quality, well-graded and well-travelled switchbacks. There is ample evidence of the 1968 Vermilion Pass forest fire which destroyed 2,500 hectares (6,177 acres) in an 18 day burn.
At 2.0 KM (1.3 miles) the trail levels and leads through new growth forest into the hanging valley.
At 2.5 KM (1.6 miles), sawn logs aid crossing Stanley Creek into mature forest where birds sing to the accompaniment of babbling Stanley Creek at trail-side. Idyllic!
A quick rise on natural stone steps tops an ancient, forested lateral moraine which leads to the end of the maintained trail at an overlook of the spectacular bowl with caves in the sheer cliffs of Stanley Peak and the hanging Stanley Glacier in the distance to the right.
It is an incredibly beautiful place of surrounding rock and waterfall.
My mission is more aggressive and I continue on routes of talus and scree to the caves on my right. The caves I have chosen are purportedly the home of brown bats and after a short and challenging scree climb, I duck through the falling water, put on my rock helmet and caving gloves, carry powerful lamps and scramble up into the back of each of the relatively shallow caves. In the second one I find a single, muddy squeeze too tight and risky for my solo access, so exploration is short-lived.
I continue to work my way another kilometre around the scree slopes to the Stanley Glacier. My route will take me to the toe of the glacier however I need to work for it. Large plains of snow require scrambling on wet rock outcrops around and above the obstacles on difficult terrain but the views of the glacier are awesome.
The view of the valley I have hiked through and beyond is breathtaking with Mount Whymper dominating the end where my hike began.
Rather than returning the same way I came, I decide I will cross the headwall and return on the other side of the valley. There is a plain of copious water running in a maze of tributaries from every direction. Reconnaissance reveals some are easily crossed but invariably lead to impassable fast water. I have been in this situation many times before. The solution, in this case, is simple. The bowl I occupy is reasonably small. I will hike above the water flow and punch my way across snow slopes on the headwall to the other side. It is one of my best decisions of the day. In this exercise I gain a very tight angle on the base of Stanley Glacier where melt from the ice is tumbling into a rock cauldron enclosed by a terminal and lateral moraines. It results in photos which cannot do justice to this visual and audible extravaganza. Overwhelming! Spiritual beauty.
The trek down the north side of the valley, below the headwall, reveals a powerful and beautiful waterfall. From the climb up the south side of the valley there is no visual evidence this waterfall exists.
I carefully pick my way down through steep talus and scree to eventually arrive back at the tourist overlook by mid afternoon. I estimate I have hiked an additional 6 KM through challenging terrain for a total of 16 KM (10 miles) and elevation gain of 450 metres (1,444 ft). The hike back to the car is uneventful with beautiful mountain views and the tumbling water of Stanley Creek.
I am tired. It has been an arduous and wonderful day.