South Buller Pass provides access to Ribbon Lake from the west in Kananaskis Country, Alberta.
The access to Buller Pass, wedged between 2,805 m (9,203 ft) Mount Buller and 2,970 m (9,744 ft) Mount Engadine is located on the Smith-Dorrien / Spray Trail (gravel road Hwy 742) south from Canmore to the Buller Mountain Day Use Area. Past the turnout for the easy and popular day hike to Grassi Lakes, the north end of the gravel Smith-Dorrien Trail is in less than ideal condition.
The drive continues south past outstanding mountain views across Goat Pond and, further south, to notice the waterfall from Old Goat Glacier, on the other side of Spray Lakes Reservoir, is much larger than normal.
At the Buller Mountain Day Use Area there are two parking areas. The first, small parking area is for hiking the Buller Pass Trail and the second much larger parking area is for fishing or picnicking at very beautiful Buller Pond.
Gearing up and and walking the short distance back across the Smith-Dorrien Trail, finds the clearly marked trail-head just a few meters past roadside. The initial goal is the 7.5 KM (4¾ mile), one-way hike with 670 m (2,200 ft) of net elevation to the 2,484 m (8,150 ft) South Buller Pass.
The hike's objective is the incredible view east into the bowl which contains Ribbon Lake. No photograph can do it justice. It is necessary to stand there.
The trail-head is clearly marked with signs and a map. The trail immediately crosses a wooden bridge over Buller Creek and onto some impressive forest trail. The sun is filtered by lush, aromatic forest on this fair weather day.
A short while later, this luscious trail crosses another wooden foot-bridge into the cool refreshing shade of dense forest. Elevation initially increases gently and gradually.
The 'Buller Burn' was conducted a year earlier to combat and prevent the spread of the Pine Beetle infestation. The forest fire evidence is prevalent for many long stretches along the trail. The pungent aroma of charred wood is powerful in marked contrast to the smell of healthy forest. Some might see this as a bad thing. The variation is an interesting and fascinating feature with an unusual beauty of its own.
The third bridge crossing Buller Creek is of the sturdy, sawn log variety. From here the trail remains very good, but more rustic, and elevation gain is slightly more robust. In a more open area, the trail makes an impressive pass beneath a tower-like outlier of Mount Engadine.
At the 4.0 KM (2½ mile) mark, the trail passes a small, but stunningly beautiful, waterfall where pristine and unique Buller Creek tumbles into a blue rock bowl. Time is spent here to enjoy and photograph the fall. A short distance further, over a short, rocky knoll, the fourth and final bridge is encountered. The importance of this bridge remains unknown until later in the day.
Once again, the trail becomes more rustic. Rate of elevation gain through forest increases for a short while, then levels again into a burn area which reveals astounding images of charred trees in contrast with white rock. The area is incredibly beautiful in a very unique way. The aroma of the burned wood is powerful but pleasant.
Within a short time and distance, the burn area ends and healthy forest dwindles as sub-alpine elevation increases. The valley first narrows, then opens into a broad valley with a smooth hump to the left and steep mountain walls to the right, surrounding a flat, meadow plain interlaced with rivulets of crystal water from remnants of melting snow.
South Buller Pass stands clearly in front to the right, as the trail passes a pretty waterfall on the hike over a stubborn patch of snow and ice. The ascent to the top on reasonably well-organized rocks is a, one foot in front of the other, slog. The cairn at the top beckons and rest stops seem mandatory to view the valley just hiked.
The view from the top reveals world-famous, 3,618 m (11,870 ft) Mount Assiniboine in the notch to the far west. Mount Assiniboine is a landmark, a beacon, spanning the Alberta, British Columbia border used often and from substantial distance to assess pending weather change. A band of heavy weather is currently forming up in the west and drifting towards South Buller Pass.
Hiking a short distance north along the top of South Buller Pass brings Ribbon Lake, at the bottom of the bowl, into view with the dual peaks of majestic Mount Kidd providing the backdrop. A little further along, the entire view of the bowl opens up with Guinn's Pass at the south terminus of Mount Kidd. Recollections come back of the young biologist, Orval Pall and pilot Ken Wolff, whose plane crashed here in terrible weather on June 6, 1986, setting off the largest and most tragic search and rescue in Kananaskis Country history.
Memorial Lakes, tucked underneath Mount Bogart, and between Bogart Tower and Ribbon Peak lies a few kilometers north of current location. A Memorial Cairn there honors the 13 people who lost their lives in the 1986 search and rescue operation turned tragic. From current location, there are trails which lead there, but today the mission is to consider a hike down to a trail junction which will allow a return loop via North Buller Pass. A comfortable spot with a perfect view near the trail is chosen to rest and enjoy lunch.
The map and guide show a trail, but visuals remain elusive. While pondering the next course of action, two men hike up the trail from Ribbon Lake. They are from Rosebud, Alberta. Rosebud is a unique, small town northeast of Calgary towards Drumheller. Many historical aspects of the town of Rosebud have been preserved and Rosebud is also the home of the infamous Rosebud Theatre. The two gentlemen who have just arrived at South Buller Pass are associated with the Rosebud Theatre.
The new arrivals have not noticed the trail junction to North Buller Pass on their hiking ascent from Ribbon Lake. Maps are reviewed together because they are planning to hike down the South Buller Pass trail and return to the Ribbon Creek Campground via the North Buller Pass. This is the same route being pondered in the opposite direction. Hiking solo, there are too many unknowns to justify dropping the significant elevation without confidence so reluctantly, the hike will return return the same way taken in.
Following are a few best photographs captured on the return from South Buller Pass via the same trail used for access. Passing the two Rosebud gentlemen provides the opportunity to chat briefly. They have discussed the location of the junction to North Buller Pass with another hiker and share that information. Remember the fourth bridge? The junction is nearby and less than obvious.
The band of heavy weather passes overhead depositing four large drops of rain accompanied by a one second long puff of wind. Sometimes, mountain weather is bordering on comical.
Arrival at the sawn log bridge (the fourth bridge inbound or the first one on the way back) is tempting because there is one more short hiking opportunity here. Access to North Buller Pass can be achieved from a junction on the South Buller Pass trail. An hour will be insufficient to complete the trail completely but half an hour in and half an hour out is doable There is a tiny cairn but the entire junction could be missed in the blink of an eye so a marker is created for the Rosebud contingent with the expectation our paths may cross again.