Visiting the Matterhorn of the Rockies: Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park

Admittedly, I did not know much about Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park prior to this trip. Sure, I had seen images of the famed Assiniboine Mountain, but beyond that I never thought much more about it. However, this all changed when earlier in 2017 a buddy sent me a picture from the Nublet showing a sweeping view of Mt. Assiniboine and the valleys below dressed in their best fall colors, with a message saying we had to go next year. Immediately taken back by its beauty, I began to attempt to convince him to go sooner. Fast forward a few months later to July when the group I was planning on visiting Canada with decided they wanted to hike into Assiniboine; resoundingly, it was a yes! Well, honestly, at first it wasn’t a resounding yes, only because it was my first trip to Canada and with so much to see it was hard to pick certain places over others, especially as this trip should be done in a minimum of 3 days to truly enjoy the beauty. However, once I came to my senses I took the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful places in the Canadian Rockies that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Getting To Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park

To get to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, you either have to hike (or ski/snowshoe during winter) or fly in via helicopter. There is no way to drive into the park. If you’d like to fly, you can fly both ways or choose to hike one way and fly the other. You can also elect to send your gear by helicopter and hike in with just a light day pack. You can helicopter in from either the Mount Shark Helipad or Canmore. For more details, visit the Assiniboine Lodge website for all your options and current pricing.

As far as hiking is concerned, there are two main routes, starting from either: (1) the Sunshine Village Ski and Snowboard Resort; or (2) the Mount Shark trail head. The route from Sunshine is arguably much more scenic, but is also a slightly harder hike, whereas the Mount Shark trail head provides for a less scenic but also a more direct/less strenuous option by taking Assiniboine Pass. Regardless of where you start, you can elect to take various side trails and stops along the way to Mount Assiniboine to make your trek as strenuous and scenic as you wish.

Depending on where you begin, you may or may not need back country permits from Banff – for example, if you were to leave from Sunshine Village and did not make it to Assiniboine in one day, you will be camping in Banff territory and would need a Banff back country camp site. Same goes for Mount Shark – if you do not complete the hike in one day, you’ll likely have to camp in Banff and thus need a permit. In our situation, we had 3 total days so we decided to hike in via Mount Shark, with a stop at Marvel Lake Campground, and then helicopter back out. Our trail was as follows:

Starting PointEnd PointMileage
Mount Shark TrailheadMarvel Lake8.1 miles
Marvel LakeMount Assiniboine Lodge8.2 miles
Total16.3 Miles

All of the camping within Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is on a first-come first-serve, cash only basis. If you would like to stay at the hut or lodge, reservations are required. For more information visit http://assiniboinelodge.com/general-info/mount-assiniboine-provincial-park.

At the end of this trip report are some recommendations for lodging and day hikes. You could skip to the end…but what fun is that! Plus, these pictures will be all the motivation you need!

Day 1: Mount Shark to Marvel Lake

The drive up to the Mount Shark Trailhead is on a gravel road that is decently maintained with a couple rough spots here and there. It starts in the town of Canmore and slowly winds its way up to the trailhead, widening out along the way up. We got to the trailhead around 2:00pm and was on trail by 2:30pm. Knowing that we were only traveling to Marvel Lake this day, we weren’t in any sort of rush. The trail is very uneventful as it follows an old logging road for the most part. The path is wide at first but quickly narrows down between the tall trees. You’ll cross a couple wooden bridges, the first of which as it 6.6 km in and crosses over Bryant Creek and the second of which is 9.6km in at the Big Creek Campground BR9. Meandering along, you’ll come across the Own Lake junction located at 12km; the trail out to Owl Lake looked more like a bushwack than an actual trail when we were there. Another km up the road you’ll reach the junction for Marvel Lake Campground BR13. Shortly thereafter you’ll reach the trailhead for the Wonder Pass and the Bryant Creek Shelter. Note there is a trail from the Marvel Lake Campground that will take you down to Marvel Lake and which spurs back up to meet the Wonder Pass. For us, this signaled the end of our first day as our destination was to Marvel Lake. We took the trail down to camp, which was relatively spread out. There is one campsite right along the river and another connected to it. The sites are pretty spacious, fitting 2-3 tents each. The cooking area is also nice, with a few very large group tables. 

Off we go! In the distance you can see the nearby forest fires that dominated the Canadian summers

Taking a break in the river

View of Bryant Creek from the bridge

The view for about 90% of the trail

Afternoon light along Bryant Creek

Setting up camp!

View from the river next to camp

After setting up camp, we took the trail across the river and headed down to look for the lake; now this is where it gets funny. Meandering along the trail we come across the first split; it was unmarked but with tired bodies and quickly fading light, we decided to take it. The trail popped us out in a very soggy meadow and we all looked around questioning if we were really at Marvel Lake. It didn’t seem like we had gone the .7km the sign said, but being what it was, we rolled with it. Good times were had and beer was shared as we watched sunset before heading back to camp. Funny enough, the next day we would come to realize that we actually had not made it to Marvel Lake, but rather, a marshy bog along the way. 

Last bit of light touching the peaks, with Mt. Assiniboine in the distance

Calm stillness just past sunset

Blue hour at the bog

Day 2: Marvel Lake to Mount Assiniboine via Wonder Pass

The next day we woke up and shot sunrise from the bog; admittedly, I passed on walking back out there at night to shoot the milky way. Afterwards we made breakfast, packed up camp, and got back on trail to make our way up to Wonder Pass – the portion I was most looking forward to. Once we got on the trail and went past our original bog, we hiked for about 15 more minutes before reaching the turnoff for Marvel Lake. Upon first sight, it was evident why it earned the name Marvel Lake. We stopped for a bit at the lake to explore, afterall, we couldn’t go all that way and not take pictures of the actual Marvel Lake. Thankfully, the light wasn’t all that bad yet and the lake was still as glass when we arrived. We fired off and just as we were ready to leave the wind picked up. Funny how that works.

When the fire starts to burn

First light on the peaks

Off we go! Crossing the bridge near camp

Calm mornings at Marvel Lake

Once back on the trail we began the real hike towards Wonder Pass – we could have taken the quicker and easier Assiniboine Pass but that hike is rather uneventful and bland. In my opinion, taking Assiniboine Pass is not the best decision unless you are on a time crunch – the view up and over Wonder Pass is worth the extra climb, plus you can scratch that off your list on your way in and not spend time heading back up there as a day hike while you’re actually in Assiniboine since it’s  a beautiful area you won’t want to miss.

The trail to Wonder Pass starts off slow, climbing through the forest below Wonder Peak with intermittent breaks in trees at the beginning that would give you glimpses of Marvel Lake. With each small glimpse I became more eager to get a full view of the lake from further along the trail. About a mile or so in, you clear the trees and find yourself hiking along underneath Wonder Peak. The trail lasts the length of the lake, passing through many wildflowers fields and a few avalanche chutes. Once you near the end the views really open up – jagged peaks loom large, accentuated by Mount Assiniboine,  with another glacial lake hiding in the distance, all the evidence you need to understand why the Canadian Rockies are a thing of beauty. At this point in the trail you’ll reach a split where you’ll want to keep right, taking you up a steep set of never-ending switchbacks straight to Wonder Pass. Thankfully for me, hiking in the Eastern Sierras has really been great practice as switchbacks dominate many trails. We topped out a short time later and decided to have lunch overlooking Marvel Lake right at the edge of the pass. Honestly, I enjoyed the views along the hike up more than I did along the actual pass, so I was very happy to have gone that way up.

Beginning the climb out of Marvel Lake

First reviews of Assiniboine

Along the trail

Sound of Music type views

Crossing one of the many avalanche chutes

Pure Canadian beauty

Nearing the end of Marvel lake

Beginning the climb out of Marvel Lake.

Up up and away! 

At the top of the Wonder Pass, looking back at Marvel Lake

While on the pass having lunch, we had the backcountry gods smile down on us. A lady and her family approached us from the direction of Assiniboine and we started to chat it up. She told us about how the park had just reopened the day before due to the fires (we actually did not know that) and how she had planned to come with a bunch of friends who all cancelled last minute – worst part, they had reserved a bunch of the famed Naiset Huts and now she was out the money. Delightfully, she offered to rent us a hut and coincidentally, she had one that fit 8. The cost? the same rate that they usually charge, 25 Canadian. My immediate thought was a resounding yes. More importantly, she also told us about happy hour at the lodge, with beer, wine and plates of cake. Ecstatic, we knew we had to make it down in time to at least purchase a bunch of alcohol and cake before they closed for dinner. 

Once we were rested, we repacked, refilled water from a melting ice sheet nearby and set off off across Wonder Pass. The trail slowly climbs over rolling hills for 1.3 km at which point you will top out and be treated to a sweeping view of Assiniboine and its meadows and lakes you are about to walk through. The next 1.9 km is all downhill, taking you past a forest of larch trees and many patches of wildflowers.  Please remember that as pretty as they are, you are not supposed to pick the flowers. About 2km down the trail you will reach Gog Lake and shortly thereafter you will cross a bridge taking you over Gog Creek. Continue on the trail and 2.6km later you will come upon the Naiset Huts. After admiring the huts, we continued on and finally came upon the famous Assiniboine lodge. We rolled in with 45 minutes before the end of happy hour, and needless to say, we definitely took advantage of it.

Looking over Wonder Pass, towards Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park

Into the valleys we go

Heading down among the larches

The views only got better as we descended to the valley

Pretty doesn’t begin to describe the trail

The wildflowers were abundant around Gog creek

The Towers towering over

Snippet of Gog Lake

A calm Gog Lake and the Towers

The Towers and Naiset Peak in the distance

Stopping to smell the roses

View of Lake McGoog and Mount Assiniboine from the lodge

We hung around the lodge taking in the views of Lake Magoog and Mount Assiniboine for the rest of the afternoon. We plotted our plans to shoot sunset/sunrise and went back to the huts to make dinner before heading out for sunset. When it was time to shoot, the weather had changed drastically. Clouds rolled in and you could barely see Assiniboine. We nonchalantly made our way back to Lake Magoog, not expecting to shoot much of anything, then out of nowhere the sky opened up and a bright beam of red shot through, illuminating Sunburst peak. We all freaked out and sprinted as fast as possible to find a composition. Afterwards, we laughed all the way back to the cabins about what we had just experienced. We had planned to shoot the stars and milky way that night, but when we came back out around midnight the entire park was socked in with clouds.

Heading out to shoot a bleak looking sunset

Afternoon fires in the distance

Was looking pretty moody!

Did I say it was moody?

Touch of reflective color

A storm’s brewin’ over the huts!

A cloudy looking scene over Lake Magog

Then….the clouds parted and it lit up out of no where! You can even see The Towers in the distance.

Scrambling to find comps and saw these wildflowers!

Lake Magog, Assiniboine Mt. Magog, with Naiset Point Illuminated in red

A pano of the valley

Day 3: Nublet, Sunrise Lakes and Helicopter Ride Out

The next day we decided to make our way up to the Nublet for sunrise. The hike up didn’t seem all that bad, but boy were we in for a surprise. Once you pass the lodge, the trail begins to climb ever so gently. Along the way, I noticed a beautiful reflection of Assiniboine in a tarn and had to stop and shoot it – the rest of my group continued on without me. After shooting, I got back on trail and it continued to climb through the trees until I reached the first major clearing that is referred to as the Niblet. The trail wdefinitely became more gradual as it went on. From here, you do get a good view of Assiniboine and the surroundings, but continuing up to the Nublet provides you an even better perspective. The trail up is anything but – it starts as a trail but quickly turns into more of a scramble. With sunrise coming fast, we flew up the scramble to get to the Nublet just in time. From here, you can continue on the ridge walk to get to Nub Peak.

Early morning tarn reflections

Early morning glow on Sunburst Peak

Watching the clouds swirl around the peak of Mount Assiniboine

Rays fill the valleys of Mount Assiniboine

From left to right – Wonder Peak, Wonder Pass, The Towers and Naiset Peak. Wonder Peaks reminds me of Mt. Rundle.

Looking down on Lake Elizabeth and Mitchell’s Meadows, with Chuck’s Ridge in the distance.

Great place for coffee!

The entirety of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park as scene from the Nublet

Squad goals

After enjoying sunrise, it was time to make our way back down. I elected to go the long way down, stopping at Sunrise Lake and Cerulean Lake before returning to the cabins. After catching some great reflections at Sunrise Lake, I made my way back to the cabins and packed up for our heli flight out. I was actually very excited for the helicopter ride, so I scoped out the flight path to make sure I sat on the right side to grab a few shots of Marvel Lake and Assiniboine on our way out. Finally, after watching all the morning groups take off, we made our flight out and it was one of the most incredible 3 minutes of my life. Flying high above where we hiked in from was a surreal experience, knowing what we accomplished over 2 days was being undone in roughly 3 minutes. Looking below, I even noticed the bog we shot sunrise/sunset at mistakenly and just how obvious it is from above that it is not even a lake. But that was the beauty of it all, how a little perspective goes a long way.

Heading down the Nublet

Mount Assiniboine between the larches, with Sunburst Peak up front

The choppy waters of Cerulean Lake

A calm Sunburst Lake, with Sunburst Peak and a cloud kissed Mount Assiniboine.

Get to the choppa!!!

Off we go!

Marvel Lake from above

Lodging in Assiniboine

While in Assiniboine, you have various options for where you can stay:

  • Lake Magoog Campground: Located next to Lake Magoog and within .5 miles from the lodge, this first-come first-serve campground has 29 tent pads. Sites cost 10 CAD per person, per night. There is overflow camping if this campground is full.
  • Lake Og Campground: Located 5km from Lake Magoog along the trail to the Sunshine trail head, this campground has 7 tent pads. Sites cost 10 CAD per person, per night
  • Naiset Huts: There are one-room log huts made to fit 5-8 people located within .5 miles from the lodge. The sleeping arrangements include plywood bunk beds with with foam camping mattresses. The huts also have their own kitchen, fully stoked with all sorts of cooking supplies. The huts cost 25 CAD per person per night.
  • Assiniboine Lodge: You can also opt to stay at one of the rooms located within the lodge, or one of the cabins right next to it. Lodge rates vary from 290 CAD to 410 CAD depending on the number and size of the party.

Hiking in Assiniboine

The area around Assiniboine Lodge offers a lot of day hikes. The below is a map of what’s in the area. The major spots include:

  • The Nublet
  • Nub Peak
  • Lake Magog
  • Sunrise Lake
  • Cerulean Lake
  • Og Lake
  • Gog Lake
  • Elizabeth Lake
  • Wonder Pass

A nice loop from the Assiniboine Lodge area is the Nublet –> Elizabeth Lake –> Cerulean Lake –> Sunrise Lake –> Lake Magog –> Assiniboine Lodge. If you are shooting sunrise up at the Nublet, you can head this way back down to the lakes and find some nice light and a smooth reflection in the early morning.

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