Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail via Sunshine Village – Day 1

Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park
Mount Assiniboine rises over the Canadian Rockies landscape. This was the scene I dreamed of for a long time but it took a lot to get here.

I want to tell you about a 36-mile journey through the most gorgeous, mountainous terrain we have ever laid our eyes on. Complete with perfect summer mountain weather that revealed the beauty and majesty of the place in ways that boggle the mind. This is the journey that I envisioned when we set out backpacking the Assiniboine Trail, but it isn’t the one we got. Our journey had a lot of beauty but it also had a lot of adverse weather. In mid-July, we were inundated with every season of weather imaginable in our 5-day trip. We slogged through rain, grapple, hail, snow, thunder & lighting in a snowy white-out, as well as clear, hot, t-shirt type summer days. Ours is a story of perseverance in the face of adverse weather that led to unparalleled beauty and joy at the sight of the rocky peak known as Canada’s Matterhorn, Mount Assiniboine.

Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail

This post is all about our journey and what can be expected when Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail in Canada’s Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. If you are looking for more logistics to plan your own trip check out our Mount Assiniboine Guide.

Day 1: Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail

Elk Butt
On our way out of the Tunnel Mountain Campground we saw a few elk which are fairly common in Banff.
  • Route: Top of the Sunshine Village Gondola to Og Lake
  • Distance: 14.5 miles
    • Rock Isle Lake Spur: Added 1/2 mile (1/4 mile each way)
  • Total Elevation Gain: 2,741′
  • Starting Elevation: 7,230’ (Top of Sunshine Gondola)
  • Citadel Pass Elevation: 7,800’
  • Og Lake Elevation: 6,800’

We started our journey early on July 18th at Banff’s Tunnel Mountain Campground. We quickly made our way to the Sunshine Village parking area at the base of the gondola 15-minutes prior to their opening at 8:00AM. The thought was that we had 14-miles of mountain trails to traverse today and we should get the earliest start possible by taking the pricy gondola up to the trailhead in the sky. We arrived in a torrential downpour even though the forecast in Banff said no chance of rain for today. We looked at a radar map and decided that it would be best to wait out the storm and get started with warm dry packs. Less than an hour later the clouds subsided and we set off on our journey.

The Sunshine Village Gondola

Sunshine Village the start of Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail
Banff National Park’s Sunshine Village is the starting point for many backpacking the Assiniboine Trail.

The gondola as mentioned is pricey, costing us about $40 CAD a piece for the one-way travel up the mountain. (It cost more if you want to do a round trip.) We had to give information about our permits for Assiniboine as well as vehicle information for leaving the truck in their parking lot for the next 5 days. 

Money spent, we loaded onto the gondola and set off. The journey up is a long one going through two rerouting stations that eventually deposit travelers at a high alpine valley surrounded by ski lodging and restaurants. We stepped off the gondola and immediately set out in the direction towards Rock Isle Lake.

Hurry Up and Wait

We were abruptly signaled to wait a moment in order to speak with the park’s ranger. After finishing up with the previous group of day hikers she enquired about our destination. We told her Mount Assiniboine and she directed us to stay straight and then follow the path to the left. I had studied the maps ahead of time and was using maps.me which had this information. The fact that we had been forced to wait in a line for this useless information was a little frustrating. I suppose they are just trying to keep track of the people entering the park but since we had already covered our itinerary with the sales attendant at the base it seemed unnecessary. 

Crossing the Divide

The climb out of Sunshine Village is a moderately steep 300’ ascent over the first mile. Before we had even reached the top we had to stop and put on our rain gear. A storm cloud once again rolled in and the drizzle commenced. Covered in rain gear we topped the continental divide and entered British Colombia and the Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park.

Rock Isle Lake

Rock Isle Lake
This is the beautiful Rock Isle Lake found on the western side of the Continental Divide in British Columbia.

Before long, we came to a split in the trail, taking the path to the right to lead away from our main Assiniboine Trail. We ventured a short distance (less than a quarter of a mile) descending down to the Rock Isle Lake viewpoint. The snow-covered peaks were shrouded by thick clouds and we only had brief breaks in the clouds to illuminate the popular lake. Even under these conditions, the lake is beautiful. Jennifer was accosted here by two tourists who rather insistently requested for her to take a photo of them. Lucky for them my wife is a better person than I am. I don’t handle demands made by strangers well.

Return to Banff National Park

The Assiniboine Trail
The Assiniboine Trail cuts through the Continental Divide and returns to Banff National Park.

Back on the main trail, the next mile of the path undulated through an alpine meadow with the stunning high mountain peaks wrapped snuggly around it. Somewhere in this area, unclear to me as to the exact moment, we passed back over the divide and returned to Banff National Park. The Continental Divide is very subtle as it crosses through the alpine meadow.

Traversing a Lower Meadow

Approaching 3 miles into our journey the path begins a more noticeable descent. Over the next half-mile, we dropped 150’ before crossing over a lower meadow lined with trees. The descent is a bit ominous as we could see the path meandering through the meadow below and back up the opposite side. All elevation lost here we would soon have to regain.

Quartz Ridge

On the other side of the meadow, we start the moderately steep ascent through the trees that doesn’t let up until we summit Quartz Ridge. It was a 400’ climb in less than a mile. The views from the top of the 7,782′ ridge are beautiful in every direction. The weather here was some of the best of the day. But it was not to last. We start the steep descent down the northern side of the ridge towards the Howard Douglas Lake. The trail through here is worn deep into the earth. The south side of the ridge could use some switchbacks to help out with the extreme erosion taking place.

Weather Report?

Howard Douglas Lake
Banff National Park’s Howard Douglas Lake as seen from Quartz Ridge.

The trail descends almost the entire 400’ we had just gained down to the boggy Howard Douglas Lake. We made our way around the edge of the lake where we were startled by a camper who came running out of the woods as if to report a bear mauling. Instead, she questioned us about the weather report to which we incorrectly and naively stated that it was supposed to clear up. No rain was in the forecast for the next week. She said her group had arrived yesterday and had nothing but intense rain since setting off from Sunshine Village. We later saw her group heading back towards Sunshine Village and abandoning their attempt at the heart of Assiniboine. This was perhaps a wise choice.

Snow

Undaunted by the encounter we sat down on the edge of the lake and thoroughly enjoyed a bacon BLT wrap that we had prepared in the wee morning hours. As we were finishing our lunch the ominous weather the camper had feared reared its ugly head. We found ourselves packing up in an ever-intensifying snowstorm. 

Colorado Lessens

Living in Colorado for seven years has taught us two things that would come into play here on this day in the Canadian Rockies. First, that the weather is often forecasted wrong and that it changes quickly. Secondly, being on a mountain top with very few large trees is the last place you want to be in a lightning storm. Yet here we are. Colorado has one of the lowest populations of any of the 50-states but is the second-highest when it comes to people being struck by lightning. Why? People hang out above the tree-line a lot in Colorado and lightning tends to hit the tallest thing on the mountainside. This is often the people hanging out above the tree-line.

Snow, Hail, & Lightning

Winter Wonderland while Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail
Come to the Canadian Rockies prepared for every season in one day.

Leaving the Howard Douglas Lake behind we climbed up out of the alpine bowl about 50’ onto the ridge above. Here we were pelted by snow mixed with hail. As we started to descend into a treeless valley, the second of our learned Colorado conditions came into play as we saw lightning illuminate the dense cloud cover. We never saw the bolts but saw the flashes followed by the intense thunderclaps. One after another the flash would strobe and we would count the seconds before the thunder tore against our eardrums. 

Traversing the Fresh Snow

We took cover in a stand of trees and after 15 minutes the threat of the unique snow lightning had passed. The worst of the storm seemingly gone, we took off through the treeless meadow. It was a mile-long trudge through flat terrain now covered in fresh snow. The path was quickly turning to mud. Although the conditions were adverse we crossed paths with several fellow adventures heading the opposite direction towards Sunshine Village. “Merry Christmas!” we told them!

Ascending Citadel Pass

Citadel Peak
The clouds thinned long enough to catch a glimpse of Citadel Peak before it was quickly lost in the sheet of white.

I can only imagine that this high alpine meadow is stunning on a sunny day. For us, we could only see outlines of the jagged peaks in the distance thanks to the dense cloud as the snow continued to pile up. On the far side of the meadow and at just over 5.5 miles on the trail, the path once again turned into a moderately-difficult climb. The path gains about 400’ in a mile. Jennifer and I were moving quickly as the climb has very few trees. The impending lightning threat had moved on but it was still snowing heavily and we didn’t want to take any chances. The 8,612′ Citadel Peak was close and at times could be distinguished between the blowing clouds.

Deep Snow on Citadel Pass

By the time we arrived at the top of the large, relatively flat Citadel Pass (7,800’), the clouds had thickened even more. The snow continued to pile up. It was impossible to discern the path from the many small creeks as they all were just rivers of indented snow by this point. As we ventured onto the treeless winter wonderland a flash of lightning lit up the clouds. A thunderclap arrived three seconds later. Three miles away and headed in our direction, flashed through my mind’s synapses. We picked a likely trail and hauled butt across the wintery terrain heading for the lowest point on the ridge-line. There is no way of knowing if the path we took was the trail. We slogged through a mixture of wet snow and ice-cold creeks as we crossed over the pass.

Back into Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park

Citadel Tree-Line
The tree line on the south slope of Citadel Pass on a cold summer’s day.

Nearing the far side of the pass the nook in the ridge-line turned sharply to the right and there stood a sign that I can only assume informed us that we were at Citadel Pass and entering back into Assiniboine Provincial Park. I assume because we didn’t pause to take in the accomplishment but rather continued straight over the saddle, picked up what looked like the trail, and headed down the slope towards the tree-line. The lightning and thunderclaps were now less than two seconds apart and there was no time to waste. Luckily, tree line on the south side of the pass comes quickly and we were able to slow our pace. The thunder passed about 1.5 miles to the north of our position. 

Descending Citadel Pass

Descending Citadel Pass while Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail
Jennifer begins the steep descent from Citadel Pass. The path drops down through the tress on the right.

We descended about 200’ into the ever-intensifying safety of the tree line where a small unnamed lake could be seen off to the left. Shortly after spotting the lake, we found ourselves looking out across the mountainous valley terrain of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park and even seeing sun rays peeking through the distant clouds. From this perch, we could see the path descending steeply through a set of switchbacks into the dense forest below. It was still snowing on us but there was hope now that it wouldn’t continue much longer.

The Steepest Descent

We started the steepest descent while backpacking the Assiniboine Trail. The path drops 1,400’ in less than 2 miles. It was steep but we barely even noticed the elevation loss other than the occasional foot slip on the muddy path. We were just happy to be safely in the trees. Along the long descent, we passed through head-high foliage that encroached the path. As we scraped our way through, the accumulated snow collected on our clothing and slid down into our boots thoroughly soaking what little dry clothing we had after more than an hour of intense snow. 

Porcupine Campground

The path down only flattens out long enough to intersect with a trail that will lead some backpacking the Assiniboine Trail to the Porcupine campground. The campground adds about half a mile total to the trip via a thru-path that we intersected again in nearly two miles. Porcupine is a first-come, first-served campground. We contemplated cutting our first day short and going there. But as the weather was now looking nice we only stopped for a brief moment near the intersection to ring out our wet socks and then pressed on towards Og Lake.

Crossing the Mountainside

Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail - Porcupine Slope
Jennifer crosses over the sloped terrain above the Porcupine Campground.

Emerging from the woods and still descending the path ahead, we entered a long exposed section that traverses a slanted section of a mountainside. The clouds had mostly dispersed and we were provided with unobstructed views of the valley at the bottom of the steep slope. Just watch your footing through this section as one slip would most likely mean a long rolling slide hundreds of feet to the valley floor. The Porcupine Campground lies hidden in the dense forest below. Along this exposed terrain is also where the descent finally ends and we once again found ourselves returning to a moderate climb. This short climb only ascends 300’ before topping out and leading away from the mountainside terrain. 

Valley of the Rocks

Valley of the Rocks - Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail
Jennifer backpacking the Assiniboine Trail through the Valley of the Rocks.

This is the beginning of a very bouldery, 5-mile long section of terrain known as the Valley of the Rocks. The sun was out at the start and it now felt like a summer’s day. The path twists and turns its way through the rocks while climbing and descending, then climbing and descending, then repeat time and time again. The whole 5 mile long path never ascends more than 500’ higher than where the boulders began. Along the way, we passed by the other intersection for the Porcupine Campground and kept hiking through the seemingly never-ending boulders. It is a land of pika who constantly chirped warnings of our approach. Other than their constant companionship, it is a fairly monotonous hike and the only major section while backpacking the Mount Assiniboine Trail without a source of water.

Spring Time Hail Storm

Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail - Og Lake
Jennifer heads through the last section of the Valley of the Rocks. Magog Peak rises in the distance and Og Lake sits below it in the image.

On our way through the Valley of the Rocks, the clouds swamped in quickly and we found ourselves hiking through a hail storm, complete with thunder and lightning. But at least we had tree cover this time. Finally, after 14 miles of backpacking the Mount Assiniboine Trail through all the seasons of weather, we topped our final hill and turned the corner to see the beautiful Og Lake in the distance. The rain subsided and we hiked the final stretch down to the campground under cloudy skies.

Og Lake Campground

Og Campsite
Our accommodations at Og Lake.

At 14.5 miles on the trail, we entered the Og Lake Campground (6,790′). We were exhausted after slogging along the trail for hours soaking wet, but with a break in the rain we quickly set up camp. It was still overcast and Mount Assiniboine was completely shrouded by the dense clouds. The area is still very beautiful and the campsites are well laid out on the hillside above the lake making for some epic views. We chose a site surrounded by bushes rather than the cliff edge sites with slightly better views. This was an attempt to stay warmer as the bushes would knock down the wind.

Dinner at Og

After setting up camp we made our way over to the exposed eating area and started cooking dinner just in time for another cold rain to roll in. We found ourselves along with another friendly couple of backpackers shivering in the rain and attempting to eat and then brush our teeth as quickly as possible. The Og Lake campground is said to sell out every night during the summer but on this frigid July 18th night, there were only two tents and four people (including us) in the small seven pad campground. 

Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail

Backpacking the Assiniboine Trail - Day 1
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We placed our food supply in one of the provided bear lockers and then climbed into our tent, dried off, bundled up, and quickly fell asleep. Our first day backpacking the Assiniboine Trail had seen every kind of weather imaginable and we still had four more days to go. This wasn’t the adventure we had thought we would get but it was definitely the start of an epic one, soaked shoes and all.

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