Healy Pass is a popular hike above Sunshine Village in Banff National Park, Alberta.
The previous trip to Healy Pass was a combined hike/snowshoe with the Calgary Outdoor Club when the pass was covered with several feet of snow.
Today the 140 kilometer (87½ mile) drive west on the TransCanada Highway from Calgary, Alberta, Canada to the parking lot of Sunshine Village Ski Resort west of the Town of Banff will intercept sunny weather over more pleasant and easily navigable summer trails.
There are a few cars in the parking area but most of these will be backpackers as this is a major staging area for multiple-day trips along the labyrinth of trails in this spectacular mountainous region.
Until late afternoon the day will remain cool and predominantly overcast.
The trail is damp and muddy from previous heavy rain but the grade is gradual as the hike proceeds along, across and above Healy Creek through incredibly lush and aromatic forest.
The mud feels good in the hiking sandals and hiking poles stabilize the upper body.
After 7.7 KM the trail pops out of the forest and passes a cascading creek where it is refreshing to enjoy a brief break in an almost imperceptible, refreshing drizzle.
The moderate upward climb is through thousands of acres of alpine meadows brimming with every variety of flower indigenous to the region and altitude.
The approach to Healy Pass is an awesome sight. The unnamed tarn resides in the alpine valley to the left and Pharaoh Mountain looms in the chain of mountains beyond Healy Pass.
The top of 2,330 m (7,640 ft) Healy Pass is achieved for breathtaking views of mountain vistas beyond before heading left along the ridge above the pristine tarn to ascend the first summit. There is no way to adequately photograph this spectacle of surrounding magic.
A prairie chicken and her brood of seven newborn chicks share lunch with me at the summit. From this vantage point at 2,591 m (8,500 ft), the entire route between the current location and Pharaoh Creek Junction can be seen and appreciated.
There is a possible off-trail route straight off the ridge below, alongside the beautiful tarn and diagonally across flat alpine meadow that will save a lot of time and elevation.
The ridge descent requires a bit of caution and route finding, but the hike around the lake and through densely flowered alpine meadows is magical.
Back at Healy Creek junction, a trail option for the 2.6 KM (1⅝ mile) route to Simpson Pass is chosen for the next leg of the hike. The trail is dotted with lakes and ponds and offers excellent views of surrounding mountains.
The terrain is wet and along the shores of ponds, plants actually float above the water table so stepping on the surface causes hiking sandals to submerge into cool refreshing water.
The trail makes a gradual descent to Simpson Pass. On a short, steep downward slope in dense forest next to a waterfall, the trail leads abruptly into an open meadow where a single coyote is watching me from about 20 m (66 ft) away. It is a beautiful animal but by the time the camera is acquired and operational, wily coyote has sauntered about 200 m (660 ft) distant.
At the next trail junction there is the opportunity to climb an additional 480 vertical meters (1,575 ft) to summit of 9,615 ft (2,931 m) Mount Bourgeau above Harvey Pass and Bourgeau Lake.
The trail is initially good beneath a rock-fall-laden ridge but becomes wet and slippery through rolling terrain. By the designated turnaround time of 3:30 PM the summit is painfully close but the scree slug will take longer than sensible or practical. Mount Bourgeau will very reluctantly need to done another day.
Common sense prevails and the hike retreats to the Simpson Pass junction and the trail back to Healy Creek. The entire route is through dense forest on decent trail. Familiar trail provides descent back to the Sunshine Village parking lot without having seen another person all day. Unusual.
The hiking day has been an extended, rewarding experience with 10 hours of hiking on 36 kilometers (22½ miles) of diverse and amazing trail hosting just under 5,000 gross vertical feet (1,524 m) of elevation. Sunshine Meadows and surrounding terrain host spectacular beauty.