Back in the early days, people had a choice for cooling off during the heat of summer—go to a movie theatre (the first air-conditioned venues) or travel to the mountains. Air conditioning may be universal today, but the alpine trails of the Canadian Rockies are still superior to the shopping mall.
I can only remember a couple summers when we could scamper about at 2400m in shorts and t-shirts. But since mid-July, we’ve had a steady, nearly unbroken stretch of balmy weather (Lake Louise recorded more than 15 days with above average temperatures in July).
Thanks to these sunny, warm days, all the alpine trails in the mountain parks are melted out and in good shape. And the brief wildflower season above treeline is well underway. But don’t dawdle, because we may only have a couple of weeks before the first serious frost hits the high country.
Let me clarify what a true alpine hike is: if there are trees around, you’re not in the true alpine. Not to say there aren’t a lot of open subalpine meadows filled with big, showy wildflowers (you’ll pass through them on your way to treeline), but the real alpine is where you’ll find fresh breezes, invigorating temperatures, and a colourful array of low-growing flowers amidst rock and tundra.
Treeline and the lowest reaches of the alpine zone occurs at different elevations as you move north from the southern end of the Canadian Rockies at Waterton to Jasper in the north. It has even been hypothesized that there is no true alpine in Waterton Park because the mountains are lower and tree growth is higher than further north. But while there may be little alpine tundra in Waterton, the high, rocky, windswept ridges of Carthew Summit (189) and Lineham Ridge (190) are two of the Rockies best alpine trails.
Moving north from Waterton, here are some of my favourite high day hikes, some short, some long, where you will find true alpine tundra, wildflowers and wide-open views (numbers in parentheses are trail references in the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide).
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park: Ptarmigan Cirque (206), Burstall Pass (209).
Kootenay National Park: Kindersley Summit (177).
Banff National Park: Sentinel Pass (43), Wenkchemna Pass (44), Deception Pass (47), Helen Lake-Dolomite Pass (52), Parker Ridge (66).
Jasper National Park: Wilcox Pass (108), Little Shovel Pass (116).