Burstall Pass is a classic hiking adventure along Smith-Dorrien Trail to lofty glaciated mountain vistas in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.
View back from the top of Burstall Pass in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada
The Burstall Pass trail-head is clearly-signed 35 KM (21⅞ miles) south of Canmore, Alberta, Canada on the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Lakes Trail, across the road from hiking access to Chester Lake and Chester Mountain.
The drive west to Canmore continues south past the Canmore Nordic Centre on the Smith-Dorrien Trail (Road 742).
The hike begins at 10:40 AM on a beautiful sunny day with temperature hovering near 5 degrees C. From the clearly signed Burstall exit across from Chester Lake parking, the short lane leads to ample parking complete with washroom facilities. The hike soon passes the south shore of Mud Lake onto an old fire road and into a forested area where overnight frost remains on the ground. Larch trees on this September morning are beginning to turn from green to orange and yellow.
Mud Lake near the beginning of the Burstall Pass hike
For the next hour, this classic Kananaskis Country hike passes through forest between mountains and the chain of Burstall Lakes to the right, on good trail, until a swing right leaves forest and enters the alluvial fan created by the Robertson Glacier in the left distance. The alluvial wetland which feeds Burstall Lakes is created by melt from the glacier and the myriad of watercourses through brush are never the same twice.
Good ankle-high hiking footwear and/or waterproof sandals are an important asset. The trail marker on the opposite side of the alluvial plain pokes above surrounding brush and leads into trail through forest where elevation gain is moderate. Arrival at an alpine meadow beneath mountain walls, ground smooth by past glacial recession, provides brief relieve until the trail begins more aggressive ascent over rock bands.
The alluvial fan is wetland fed by the Robertson Glacier
Recent snow at higher elevation adds contrast to the mountains and smooth mountain surfaces carved by glacial retreat many thousands of years ago.
The view back into the valley on the ascent route to Burstall Pass
Past the meadow, trail becomes more rustic and elevation gain is more aggressive. Patches of snow become more frequent. The trail is muddy from melt on the transition through dense forest. At about 7,800 feet (2,377 m) rustic trail breaks out of the tree-line onto a series of ridges known as the head wall.
There is ample evidence of moose activity in this area although there is no opportunity to enjoy a sighting on this day. At the third tier of the hike up the head wall the trail passes through patches of more sheltered snow with awesome views of surrounding mountains. Access exists to three passes within hiking range but alternatives will be left for another day when terrain is easier to navigate.
Surrounding vistas from Burstall Pass are spectacular.
Lunch is a special experience while sitting on the warm top of large rocks surrounded by snow. Serious tanning takes place in warm, direct and reflected sun accompanied by a gentle cooling breeze. Shirts are hanging on nearby tree branches to dry.
From this vantage point there are magnificent surrounding views of countless mountains as well as the snow-covered Robertson Glacier and the French Glacier. An unexpected flock of butterflies spontaneously join us for lunch. This is paradise.
On the return hike via the same route, warmer temperatures have increased snow melt and trails are very muddy for a good portion of the descent. Footing is periodically tenuous and mandatory hiking poles aid stability. The descent from Burstall Pass in these wet and slippery conditions is a full body aerobic workout.
Wetlands near Mud Lake near the end of the hike from Burstall Pass
The classic hike to Burstall Pass is a magnificent experience. The scenery is nothing short of breathtaking.