Katherine Lake and Dolomite Pass from Cirque Peak Summit just above Helen Lake. This is one of the most extensive stretches of alpine tundra and wildflowers along any day hikeing trail in the Mountain Parks. Brian Patton photo.

Katherine Lake and Dolomite Pass from the 2500m summit just beyond Helen Lake. This is one of the most extensive stretches of alpine tundra and wildflowers along any day hike in the Mountain Parks. Brian Patton photo.

It should come as no surprise that the best hikes to alpine wildflowers would be from the Icefields Parkway—Canada’s longest and highest year-round roadway. And this summer is producing one of the earliest blooms ever in the high country.

First off, let’s be perfectly clear about alpine wildflowers. These are not the big, showy flowers that hikers find in lush, well-watered subalpine meadows just below the treeline. True alpine flowers only grow above treeline, in the sparse, rocky expanse of windblown ridges. Alpine flowers seldom rise more than 3 or 4 cms above the surface of this harsh, desert-like environment.

On July 7th, we were hiking on a ridge at 2500m. Wherever there was a veneer of soil, white mountain avens covered the slopes,  barren shale beds were dotted with the wonderfully symmetrical alpine hawksbeard, and there wasn’t a speck of snow. Two years ago, at the end of July, we were enjoying the blooms of moss campion and alpine forget-me-nots on a much lower ridge, and there were lingering snowbanks.

I recently bumped into Andre Renner, co-owner of Assiniboine Lodge, and he was lamenting that this premature bloom might not survive until August. A dose of moisture over the past week may have revived some of these high wildflowers, but true alpine blooms seldom last more than a week or two.

So if you’re up for lofty wildflower viewing, you’ll have to hurry. Here are five of my favourite alpine flower trails, all originating from the 127-km southern stretch of the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and the Columbia Icefield. Treeline is around 2300m in this section of the Rockies, so a bit of climbing is required. One-way distances and trail reference numbers to Canadian Rockies Trail Guide entries are included:

#50—Molar Pass—10.2 km

Alpine hawksbeard on a shale slope at 2400m. Brian Patton photo.

Alpine hawksbeard on a shale slope at 2400m. Brian Patton photo.

#52—Helen Lake-Dolomite Pass—8.9 km*

#55—Bow Summit Lookout—3.1 km

#66—Parker Ridge—2.7 km

#108—Wilcox Pass—4.0 km

And if you still prefer the lush subalpine flower meadows filled with Indian paintbrush, purple fleabane, valerian, and yellow ragwort, never fear. You’ll encounter plenty of those along these trails as well.

*Note: As of July 28, the Helen Lake-Dolomite Pass trail is closed due to grizzly bear activity.