Access to Hilda Glacier is a short distance north of Parker Ridge on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
The small parking area for Hilda Ridge and the Hilda Creek Hostel is on the east side of the Icefields Parkway about a kilometer (⅛ mile) north of the more popular stop for the Parker Ridge hike. There are significant and amazing opportunities here at this less publicized location.
Parking at the Hilda Ridge parking area is surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. The first challenging and potentially exciting objective is to cross the Icefields Parkway without being killed or causing a traffic accident. When the highway is busy, timing can be critical. Make a dash for the other side. On the far side, as a blast of wind from a passing tractor trailer pins you against the highway guard-rail, you will be staring down at a robust creek of white, frothing water resembling milk.
This is Hilda Creek hosting the outflow from Hilda Glacier. The next humiliating maneuver is negotiation of the careful climb over the guard-rail without altering your gender or tumbling down the scree slope into the cold-water creek. Odds of success are slightly enhanced by walking around the end of the guard-rail but exposure to tumbling down the scree slope is marginally increased. Hike slow and steady down and across the angled slope. Hiking poles will help. Allow for the possibility the author exaggerates slightly for dramatic effect.
The sketchy trail over scree angles down to a large boulder which hides the intersection of the creek with the metal viaduct channeling Hilda Creek beneath the Icefields Parkway. Mounting the big bolder and crossing the viaduct provides the opportunity to examine the opposite shoreline of the white water creek heavily laden with glacial silt before advancing on trail to the Hilda Creek Hostel a short, ascent distance away. There is no-one occupying the cozy, 6-bed hostel on this day.
The facility is locked up including washrooms off to the right. Instructions on the door of the cabin provide information for rental and not-so-convenient access for pick-up of keys. Forward planning would be valuable. The trail for Hilda Ridge is obvious straight ahead past the left side of the hostel and initially civilized ascent quickly becomes aggressive through intermittent patches of forest mixed with sub-alpine shrubbery and spectacular wildflower accents. The air is cool, fresh and aromatic.
Off to the right, there are commanding views of the Hilda Glacier tucked into the lower flanks of colorful Little Athabasca. The hike up Hilda Ridge provides the opportunity for making an off-trail access to view the Hilda Glacier up close and personal. Glaciers draw people to them like a magnet. They are places of seductive and potentially significant danger. Knowledge and common sense prevail.
The new objective will be plotting a course high enough up the ridge to allow a lateral transition, off trail on passable terrain, to the best viewpoint for the glacier. The logical course will be to hike on and off trail to a band of subalpine shrubbery which may present an off trail probability that might provide a feasible route.
Past the fourth band of progressively thinning forest, there appears to be a potential access opportunity. One of the important characteristics about glacier access is that no matter how far away they appear, the distance is actually much greater. It is an optical illusion of some kind.
There are a number of unforeseen obstacles along this well-chosen off trail route. A series of relatively shallow draws, (drainages along the flanks of Hilda Ridge), marginally interrupt lateral progress as additional time is required to navigate down, across and up the other side. Very sturdy hiking boots are being tested as they get a thorough workout over rugged terrain while protecting feet and ankles from injury.
Within an hour of steady and consistent progress, the tops of scree slopes expedite forward progress. The terrain is fascinating. Thousands of years ago, long before the most recent ice age, this entire area was at the bottom of an ocean.
Persistent progress morphs to careful positioning for good photographs of Hilda Glacier. There is time to sit and ponder the magnificence of this location and the great fortune to become one with the image and ambiance. Warm sun. Cool, gentle breeze on the skin.
For the return hike, shallow descent above the lateral moraine will compromise the return transition to the Hilda Ridge trail and may even require a reverse ascent to escape by the original route used for access. Decisions.
By maintaining safe exposure there is still the opportunity to examine the fascinating river delta at valley bottom. The smooth moraines shelter turquoise, shallow ponds as rivulets of wandering water carry glacial silt to mighty rivers and, inevitably, oceans.
Far side moraines host established trail undoubtedly used for hiking and mountaineering access to the Hilda Glacier by experienced mountaineers, Parks Canada personnel, geologists and scientists who continually study the fascinating detail and change surrounding and beneath the Columbia Icefield. The Columbia Icefield feeds three oceans, straddles the Alberta, British Columbia border and roughly defines the demarcation line between Banff National Park and Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada.
On the retreat, there is an excellent view of portions of the Saskatchewan Glacier in the distance.
From the low point, where additional views are no longer worth pursuing, the lateral off-trail traverse back to the Hilda Ridge ascent trail is relatively straightforward. There is one section of shoulder height, and very dense thicket of evergreen growth which is challenging. Slow and persistent progress leads to very beautiful and naturally adorned creek and swamp sustained by year round runoff from sheltered snow and ice higher on the ridge. Great care is taken to step on stone and to protect the fragile surrounding flora.
A very large snow bank higher on Hilda Ridge has hosted two climbers throughout this endeavor. Likely one climber is training another in technique as they repeatedly climb and retreat on the steep surface.
Continued route finding and persistent descent leads past and through crystal-clear creeks with brilliant green moss borders eventually intersects the Hilda Ridge trail for a rapid return descent to the Hilda Creek Hostel.
Back at the Hilda Creek Hostel, the objective will be to locate and confirm the trail which leads past the terminal moraine and up onto the lateral moraines. Just past the locked washroom building a clear trail makes shallow descent to wooden structures over two creek crossings. These structures are likely modified, and even removed, for changes in water course, or when water levels are too high and dangerous to cross.
Parker Ridge, Hilda Ridge, and Hilda Glacier can be hiked on one fairly aggressive day for well-geared hikers with experience or for the unusually masochistic. Following is a route recommendation.
For a Hilda Glacier, Hilda Ridge, Parker Ridge same day hike in late summer or fall, consider the following suggestions. Park at Hilda Ridge parking on the east side of the Icefields Parkway a kilometer north of parking for Parker Ridge. Cross the highway and Hilda Creek. Hike the short distance to Hilda Creek Hostel and pass the washroom building to trail across Hilda Creek and beyond through forest and valley hosting Hilda Creek. Great care is required to avoid slippery terrain and steep drop-offs. Passing trail end (around 1.75 KM / 1⅛ mile) is dangerous and requires mountaineering gear and glacier travel experience. There is melting, unstable ice beneath the deceiving surface. Research this component of the full day hike on AlbertaWow. There will be little time for extended appreciation.
Return to the Hilda Creek Hostel and take the ascent trail on the left side of the residential building. Climb up into alpine terrain on Hilda Ridge for phenomenal vistas of surrounding mountains. In your backpack you are carrying a first aid kit, toiletries, an emergency kit and extra layers including neck, face, head and hand coverage. Head left into descent along the top of Hilda Ridge until you arrive at the junction with Parker Ridge. Bear right along the top of Parker Ridge and enjoy the views into the river delta and of the Saskatchewan Glacier. At End of Trail, turn about and retrace steps to the junction of the Parker Ridge Trail with the Hilda Ridge Trail. Bear right to descend the Parker Ridge Trail. There are washrooms at the Parker Ridge parking area.
Hike along the highway one kilometer and carefully cross the Icefields Parkway to your vehicle at Hilda Ridge parking. A fair weather day is best but be prepared for anything and do not hesitate to abort if weather Hell breaks loose. Mountain weather systems can change dramatically, rapidly and unpredictably.
Be prepared. Practice maintaining a positive attitude at all times.
The reverse direction is possible but would be more psychologically challenging. It is about the process of properly sequencing highlights and putting the majority of the overall descent at day's end.
Whatever happens, the loop will be a forever memorable day of the variety that can potentially change your life forever in a very positive way.
Photographs for this short but rewarding excursion on the Hilda Ridge trail for head-on, off-trail views of the Hilda Glacier were captured on Tuesday, July 28, 2015 near Hilda Creek Hostel at Hilda Ridge parking along the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.