Lake Minnewanka hiking trails become winter snowshoe trails in Banff National Park, Alberta.
Unseasonably mild weather is compromising the snow cover on the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Apparently, most of the snow is on the East Coast in the Maritime Provinces and New England States with a special mention for Connecticut and Newfoundland where an Alberta Clipper, combined with a Nor'easter have joined forces to create winter havoc. Sorry about that: for the Clipper, I mean.
The drive west, under clear skies, from Calgary to Banff National Park on the TransCanada Highway, demands a short stop at the Banff Airstrip, near the exit to Lake Minnewanka, where a small herd of about fifty elk are grazing in the sun beneath Cascade Mountain. What a spectacular way to begin the day.
The main road north, past Upper and Lower Bankhead is closed to traffic between November 15 and April 15 to protect an important winter wildlife corridor. The 4.5 KM (2⅞ mile) closed section of road is available for cross-country skiing. Today's objective is a snowshoe along the incredibly scenic shore of Lake Minnewanka which can be accessed by the alternate and very scenic route past Two Jack Lake.
In inclement weather, this alternate route can be challenging, but today the partially icy road is clear. There is an outstanding viewpoint of surrounding mountains above the road and across Two Jack Lake to Mount Rundle.
A short distance further north, another viewpoint hosts a plaque recognizing the importance of the Palliser Expedition. Adjacent are first spectacular views of mountain-bound Lake Minnewanka. Thick black ice is rippled with wind-blown snow.
At a second, nearby view-point, a weathered plaque, documents the development of the lake which has become a year-round recreational paradise. Lake Minnewanka is a boating and fishing mecca as well as a historically significant dive site to the foundations of the old Village at Minnewanka Landing.
The parking area is sparsely populated on this weekday. Trails are firmly packed and snow cover is thin. The crisp views are outstanding under predominantly clear skies.
At the trail-head, the decision is to make an attempt at the relatively long, 12 KM (7 ½ mile) one-way snowshoe to Aylmer Lookout. The trail will track along undulating terrain in forest, towards an unnamed mountain with a huge burn area on its flank, and around the lake shore to negotiate the wooden bridge across Stewart Canyon.
The canyon contains the Cascade River which collects water from a massive surrounding watershed. Before the dams were built to create Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake and Johnson Lake, the runoff on Cascade River caused recurring and devastating damage in the valley below. Raging and unpredictable water resulted in the demise of the mining town of Anthracite. The picture from the wooden bridge over Stewart Canyon, is captured with sun directly behind.
The trail continues past the Stewart Canyon Trail and ascends in a wide U-turn through very beautiful, sun-filtering, predominantly lodgepole pine forest. When the trail surface levels, views of the lake improve through trees which have been charred from an old forest fire.
The day is warming rapidly. Snow cover is rapidly disappearing and the trail becomes a thin strand of evaporating, wet ice in bright sun. It is no longer satisfactory snowshoeing terrain.
The view is amazing, as shown in the following brief video. A warm trail-side rock provides seating while enjoying a leisurely lunch in the sun with ice is melting around me. Birds are calling. The air, the sun, and the surrounding scenery are intoxicating and so relaxing the decision is made to call it a day and alter the objective at about the 5 KM (3.1 mile) mark.
There are options. The snowshoes can be stashed in favor of using hiking crampons to continue on ice. The warm sun along the north shore, in full exposure from the sun in the south, will likely change the trail surface from intermittent ice to mud. Another day makes better sense. The mountains are like great friends. They will always be there when you need them.
Please enjoy my brief video of the sweeping view along Lake Minnewanka towards 2,964 m (9,724 ft) Mount Inglismaldie. For reference, the surface of Lake Minnewanka is at 1,474 m (4,836 ft). The black surface of the lake is thick ice and the white bands are drifting snow deposited by mountain winds. This is a common winter scene in the mountains.
The return is via the same route taken in. There is something about Mount Inglismaldie which perpetually captures the attention. Perhaps it is the broad and powerful profile. Pondering its magnificent and prominent presence is calming and significant. Like a fortress? Or a castle?
On the final approach through the substantial recreational complex (closed until spring), the final approach to the parking area is dominated by the massive profile of 2,998 m (9,836 ft) Cascade Mountain.
This day of altered expectations, in warm sun tempered by intermittent and subtle cool breezes, provides a temporary reprieve from a traditional winter may bring an interim hiking season in the east part of Banff National Park. Diversity can be good.