Burstall Pass is a popular hike through dramatic terrain in Kananaskis Country, Alberta.
Park Ranger, Alex, reviews Burstall Pass trail access detours in exchange for information about conditions for the previous weeks hike to the French Glacier. The current information will assist in counselling other hikers considering that mission.
Today's hike will be the popular and familiar trail to Burstall Pass. This classic hike in the Rocky Mountains will begin on a cool, breezy and predominantly overcast morning. Weather forecasts for Kananaskis Country call for afternoon clearing but heavy weather in British Columbia to the west suggests it is best to be prepared for anything.
The drive west from Calgary turns south at Canmore, Alberta thorough Whitemans Gap, wedged between Ha Ling Peak and the East End of Rundle for the drive south over good gravel road on the Smith-Dorrien Trail to the Burstall Pass parking area.
The hike begins past Mud Lake by helping two young women onto the trails for nearby Hogarth Lakes. The Hogarth Lakes hike is a very pretty, flat and easy loop hike so they will end up back where they began. In the midst of surrounding construction there is no signage on these trails and it is easy to get disoriented in the labyrinth of trails and shortcuts which begin from here.
Familiar landmarks quickly ensure the hike is proceeding to Burstall Pass. Initially the hike is above fast-running Burstall Creek on old logging road that gradually gains elevation. Within 3 kilometers (1⅞ miles) the road turns into good, rolling trail through dense forest.
A brief rest on the shore of Burstall Lakes is time well spent surrounded by magnificent mountains before the hike resumes and the trail winds south. A few kilometers later the trail pops out of the forest onto a half-log bridge across a tiny creek onto the alluvial flat about a ½ KM in width.
The alluvial fan is a fertile deposit of clay, silt and sand created over thousands of years by run-off from the Robertson Glacier clearly visible to the left. Marshland and mountains frame Burstall Lakes on the right as the hike continues through the myriad of pebble stone paths punctuated by dense shrubbery and streams on the alluvial plain.
They are widely spaced, but helpful trail markers, on tall posts assist in locating continuing trail on the other side.
It would be easy to get lost in this maze and the hike across the alluvial fan takes 2 KMs (1⅝ miles) to gain one kilometer as hike the across the alluvial fan proceeds in a zig-zag fashion up and down multiple streams to find places to jump across without getting boots filled with water.
Logs thrown across creek beds by previous hikers are invariably in the wrong place as the water dynamically changes course over the flat plain. Into the forest on the other side, elevation is gained rapidly on good, but steep trail before reaching a flat alpine meadow rich with fields of wildflowers.
The first view of Burstall Pass unfolds ahead and a moment is taken to mentally prepare for the final crunch up and over rock ridges. Above to the left, is a sheer cliff-face with vertical and horizontal striations demonstrating the powerful force of the receding glacier as it sheared off the side of the mountain.
Past the meadow, the hike continues on steep trail through forest on 5 broad switchbacks, then above the tree-line, to reach the pass at 7,808 ft (2,380 m).
Continuing about a kilometer along the trail beyond the pass, and into Banff National Park, there is a ridge with excellent views of the pristine, emerald Leman Lake below.
The lake appears small only because it is about 4 kilometers (2½ miles) from the top of the ridge. From here there is an opportunity to begin off-trail exploration of Burstall Pass ridges to the south.
Heavy weather is definitely moving in quickly, so a brisk hiking pace ensues to complete the hike from cairn to cairn before weather turns nasty. The breeze increases intensity and heavy ceilings are dropping. A slight dusting of corn snow begins.
The hike descends off the original ridge to consume a quick lunch on the lee side before beginning the return trek the same way taken in. A light drizzle begins. Following the ridge descent and the wet walk across the alpine meadow, there is another amazing moose encounter.
The huge, adult, female moose is walking up the trail as I am descending. At about 20 meters (66 feet) apart, the moose stops walking forward. There is a moose / hiker standoff to decide who will get off the trail first.
When the moose begins walking toward me, the decision is confirmed it will be my privilege to concede the trail but then this magnificent, gentle animal finds an opening along the side to off-trail around and out behind to continue up the trail. It makes my heart soar to see these animals at close range in the wilderness.
Each of us turns to look back and a goodbye wave precedes the return crossing of the alluvial plain beneath the Robertson Glacier.
It is raining now with 8 kilometers (5 miles) remaining to return to the trail-head.
Back at the alluvial flat, boots are quickly swapped for sandals to complete the hike. No stream hopping is necessary. Walking straight through the many creeks of cold, glacial-fed water, sometimes above knee-deep, to get to the other side and back into the forest motivates expediency and is actually quite refreshing.
There is just another 4 kilometers (2½ miles) remaining. It is enough to be drenched and chilled by the time the return to the parking area is complete.
The Smith-Dorrien Trail is mud which makes driving slippery and cautious but within 20 kilometers (12½ miles) the skies open, the fog and cloud lift, and at Canmore there is full, warm sunshine all the way back to Calgary. Such is the way of the mountains.
This has been a diverse and wonderful day of adventure in the mountains.