Banff National Park: Lake Minnewanka to Alymer Pass Lookout (3 days / 51 km)

The Lake Minnewanka route offers an amazing backcountry experience for hikers, canoers and bikers alike. The Lake Minnewanka trail takes you around the north side of this beautiful glacier lake through areas rich with animal life including elk, deer, mountain sheep and bears. Sleep beneath the giants of the South Banff Range, and wakeup to the sound of the waves lapping on the rocky shores of the lake. Indigenous people have lived in this area for 10,000 years and it is easy to understand why they

This trip report details a 3-day hike but can even be a 2-day adventure or longer if you continue further down the trail. 

Trip Completed: June 2019

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Lake Minnewanka Trail Head (51°14’52.43″N, 115°30’1.96″W)

Ending Point: Lake Minnewanka Trail Head

Total Distance: 30 km

Elevation Gain: 1118 m

Duration: 3 days

Difficulty: Beginner 

Location

This route is located in Banff National Park.

Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of Michif Piyii, Tsuu T’ina, Stoney, Ktunaxa ɁamakɁis and Niitsítpiis-stahkoii ᖹᐟᒧᐧᐨᑯᐧ ᓴᐦᖾᐟ (source).

Maps & Resources

Map: The Parks Canada PDF has mapped the entire backcountry trail system.

Guidebook: If you wish to hike to Aylmer Pass follow the AllTrails map which shows the various trail systems. If you wish to climb one of the mountains in the area you can follow Alan Kane’s “Scrambling in the Canadian Rockies” which are by far the most popular and best routes. 

Permits and Campsite Reservations: Must reserve through Parks Canada. Select “Backcountry Camping”, and for the park choose “Banff, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks”. Then select “Lake Minnewanka Trailhead” as your access point. You will need to purchase a backcountry permit which you can do in advance when reserving your campsites. You will also need to have a National Parks day pass which you pay as you enter the park. Print your passes out and place them at your campsite. 

Outfitters & Shuttles

Shuttle: A shuttle is not needed as this route starts and ends at the same point.

Outfitter: An outfitter was not needed for this trip. If you chose to canoe or bike this route, rather than hiking, there are many outfitters available in the Banff townsite. The rental places within Banff are very expensive. Calgary has countless rental places including the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre which will be the cheapest option. 

Trip Report

Day 1: Lake Minnewanka Parking Lot to Mt Inglismaldie Campground (LM11)

It was early June and I was itching for the first camp of the season. Unfortunately, summer doesn’t really start in the mountains until early or mid-July. Even with the warm weather and sunny days, many routes are snowbound until this time. Since this route takes place at a lower elevation, it is a great shoulder season adventure.

We left our house in Calgary bright and early and took the Trans-Canada to the park gates just passed Canmore. It was a typical sunny Alberta spring day, and we were excited to escape for the weekend. We arrived at the trailhead which, like most places in Banff, was packed. Lake Minnewanka is a very touristy area that offers amazing views with very little effort. Fortunately, the parking lot is massive, and most tourists don’t venture far from the parking lot. If you are going on a long weekend, I would highly recommend arriving before 9 AM. We set off on the trail past the picnic areas with countless families setting up for lunch and relaxation along the shores of the lake. Very quickly you will reach a bridge that crosses the Cascade River and Stewart Canyon. The trail briefly climbs here and then double backs towards the lake. From here on out the trail is almost entirely flat which is great for being able to enjoy the stunning blue waters of the lake and watch the boats cruise by. 

As we entered a forested section of the trail, we encountered a couple hiking in the opposite direction, screaming that a bear was coming. I quickly grabbed my bear spray and asked if it was a black bear or a grizzly. They did not speak English very well so my question went unanswered and my heart began racing. Soon enough in the trail to our left a cute black bear was scrambling through the bush. I was relieved. I kept my distance and it continued on by us. When hiking in bear frequented areas, you should follow guidelines which Parks Canada explains very well.

I holstered my bear spray and on we pushed. After about 3 hours we made it to the Aylmer Junction campsite (LM8) which is where we would be staying the following night. Right before reaching LM8, there is a narrow bridge over a stream. Between LM8 and our campsite at Mt. Inglismaldie (LM11) is Aylmer Canyon (LM9). Out of the 3 campsites, LM9 is the worst but still nice. LM8 and LM11 have incredible views of the lake and mountains. 

As we arrived at our LM11, we encountered a herd of deer relaxing by the shore. They were actually around our tent pad, so we waited until they left before setting up camp. The shore of the lake is rocky, with driftwood and logs strewn across it. I could only assume this was caused by the fierce winds that rip through this area. I have been to Lake Minnewanka dozens of times and every time has had strong winds, even on the nicest of days. We brought our food over to the cooking area where numerous firepits and picnic tables were. We chatted with some other campers who said they saw a group of grizzly bears around the LM9 campground. Luckily, we did not see them as we passed through there. The campers informed us that the bears love this area because of all the buffaloberries that grow here. As you pass through the LM8 campground you will see the entire meadow is buffaloberry. 

Campsite: Mt. Inglismaldie campground (LM11). This campsite is right on the shore of the lake and has amazing views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. There are bear lockers for your food and tent pads you must put your tent within. Firewood is provided by Parks Canada for free. Only logs are provided so you will need to scavenge for kindling. Bring an axe if you wish to chop the logs.

Campsite Coordinates: 51°16’34.37″N, 115°23’18.82″W

Day 2: Mt Inglismaldie Campground to Aylmer Pass Junction Campground and Aylmer Pass

We woke up to another sunny day, made breakfast, and sat by the lake. There was no boat traffic yet and the sun glistened off the calm waters as the birds chirped in the trees behind us. Today was going to be a relaxing day. Our plan was to hike back to Aylmer Pass Junction (LM8), set up camp and day hike up to Aylmer Pass Lookout. 

We slowly packed up our gear and sauntered the 3 km back to LM8. We kept our eyes and ears on high alert as we passed the area where the grizzlies were seen the day before. We made it to camp in an hour and set up our tent on one of the tent pads with a view of the lake looking east. We packed our day packs and started on the trail to Aylmer Pass Lookout. 

To get to the trail to Aylmer Pass Lookout, head from the campground back to the main trail where the sign warning about grizzly bears is. Continue straight (going left will bring you back to the trailhead and going right will bring you to LM11). The trail begins to climb and will keep climbing until you reach the lookout. After 2km you will see a sign indicating the direction to go to reach Aylmer Lookout. The other direction leads you to Aylmer Pass and Mt. Aylmer. If you are an experienced scrambler I recommend climbing up Mt. Aylmer. The YDS Class 3 route is described in Kane’s book linked above. Countless climb reports can be found online as well. Since it was only June this trip would not be possible for us this time. In fact, we were hiking in snow already at these elevations. 

After another 1.7 km, you will reach the lookout. The views here are incredible! You have a 180degree view of Lake Minnewanka. To the west, you can see Tunnel Mountain and Sulphur Mountain at the Banff townsite. Across the lake rise the gorgeous Mt. Inglismaldie and Mt. Girouard. Looking east where Lake Minnewanka empties into the Ghost River, Saddle Peak rises like a wall. This is one of my favourite views in all of Banff National Park. We ate lunch and relaxed for a couple of hours as the sun peaked in and out of the clouds. There was not a sound other than the odd breeze and passing of a plane. We knew we had to leave eventually, so I broke the silence and the trance we were in. Before we knew it we were back at the campsite and hungry for dinner. 

The designated cooking area of the LM8 campsite has amazing views of the mountains. We started our fire, cooked our food. A herd of deer joined us for dinner, grazing in the field between us and the lake. We were treated to a spectacular sunset with the golden light hitting Mt. Inglismaldie perfectly.

Campsite: Aylmer Junction (LM8). This campsite is much like LM11. This campsite is right on the shore of the lake and has amazing views of the lake and mountains. There are bear lockers for your food and tent pads you must put your tent within. Firewood is provided by Parks Canada for free. Only logs are provided so you will need to scavenge for kindling. Bring an axe if you wish to chop the logs.

Campsite Coordinates: 51°16’33.87″N, 115°25’36.55″W

Day 3: Aylmer Pass Junction to Lake Minnewanka parking lot

Another morning and another sunny Alberta day! We were sad to leave so took our time to pack up so we could enjoy this place longer. The hike back follows the same path as you took in. On our way back we encountered another black bear. We made it back to the car and made our way back to Calgary. 

Reflections

This is an amazing beginner trip and perfect for shoulder season. The fact you can also canoe to these campsites or even bike also opens the doors to those who aren’t big into hiking. That being said, the trail is very easy. 

Bear safety is very important here. I know you always hear about bear safety and rarely encounter bears, but do not take it lightly here. Other than the fact that you will likely encounter a bear, Parks Canada enforces their regulations here very strictly with fines up to $25,000. I have seen in the news when hikers have been fined $3000 for not adhering to the regulations. You are in the bear’s home and Parks Canada will follow through with their mandate in protecting it. 

Another great thing about this route is that it opens the possibility of connecting to wildland provincial parks where you can do more wild camping. Both the Ghost River Wilderness Area and Don Getty Wildlands Provincial Park connect to Lake Minnewanka offering the possibility of through hikes or larger loops. These wildland parks offer eastern entrances to these campsites. If you enter through these eastern entrances, you still need to pay park passes and backcountry permits for the nights you are within Banff. If you wanted to stay fully within the national park, the Lake Minnewanka extends 31km all the way to the east end of the lake and has backcountry campsites LM20, LM22 and LM31.

Safety: This area is frequented by Grizzly bears and you are more than likely going to encounter them. Bring bear spray and ALWAYS carry it with you. Cook and eat in the designated area away from the tents. Between 1998 and 2010 there were 7 bear attacks in this area.

In fact, Parks Canada has restrictions and WILL enforce them within this area during certain times of the year.
Between July 10th and September 15th:

  • 1) Minimum of a group of 4 and bear spray is required.
  • 2) Biking prohibited
  • 3) LM8 campground is CLOSED. Must camp at LM9, or LM11.

Please refer to here for all closure related information before going. 

If canoeing, be careful about rough waters. The weather can change in a second in the mountains, and the wind rips through the Lake Minnewanka valley. This will make travel difficult and/or dangerous. 

Gallery


Author Bio

Sean Vandersluis is an outdoor enthusiast who loves exploring Canada’s outdoors. He always brings along his camera to capture some of Canada’s most beautiful locations. Mostly a backpacker in the mountains of western Canada, he has started to get into canoeing after moving to Ontario (but still prefers a good old fashion hiking trip). Follow his Instagram to follow along!

Instagram: @seanmarksluis and @seanmark_photography

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