As the coauthor of a venerable trail guide to the Canadian Rockies, people are always asking me: “What is your favourite trail?” My usual bemused response is: “The last time I hiked when the weather was good and the trail uncrowded.”
But I’ve given it more serious thought recently. I can’t think of any more scenic and rewarding hike than the 40-km Bow Valley Highline Trail. However, I’ve never hiked it through from end to end, only as a section hike—pieces I’ve completed dozens of times.
History of the Bow Valley Highline Trail
A lot of hikers have never heard of the term Bow Valley Highline Trail. They’re more familiar with destination names like Sunshine Meadows, Healy Pass, Egypt Lake, Shadow Lake, Twin Lakes and Arnica Lake.
Yet, the Bow Valley Highline is an historic name that dates back more than a century. In August, 1915, Banff outfitter Jim Brewster, National Parks commissioner J.B. Harkin, and CPR officials rode north from Sunshine Meadows on “the long-wished-for High Line Trail from Banff to Lake Louise.”
The party only travelled the southern section of the trail from Sunshine to Twin Lakes, but as reported in Banff’s Crag & Canyon newspaper “the officials were more than delighted with the magnificent views of mountains, lakes and watersheds the section of the country traversed afforded, and firmly convinced of the desirability of such a trail being constructed.”
But World War I and wartime recovery intervened. It wasn’t until the summer of 1929, while the CPR was constructing rest house cabins at Sunshine and Shadow Lake, that the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies sponsored their first trip along the trail. Six years later, in 1935, the CPR-inspired Skyline Trail Hikers completed the same trip on foot, overnighting at rest houses and cabins at Sunshine, Egypt Lake and Shadow Lake.
The dream continued in 1938, when Banff outfitter Claude Brewster and his volunteer crew, which included CPR photographer Nicholas Morant and his wife “Willie”, constructed trail northwest from the Banff-Windermere Highway to Moraine Lake via Taylor Lake.
Claude led the Trail Riders annual ride from Sunshine to Moraine Lake the following summer. It is almost certain that the Skyline Trail Hikers would have followed sometime during the 1940s, but World War II intervened. The northern section of the trail was seldom hiked again, and most sections were eventually consumed by overgrowth.
When Jim Thorsell was plotting a provisional route for the Great Divide Trail in 1968, the Bow Valley Highline route skirting the continental divide was an obvious choice. He envisioned staying near the crest of the divide all the way to Lake Louise. His assistant Jim Green was dispatched to investigate a connection over the pass between Boom Lake and Consolation Lakes. But since the pass was very rough and trail-less, he decided to swing west and include Kootenay’s Rockwall and Yoho’s Lake O’Hara instead.
While we didn’t treat the Bow Valley Highline as a single trip in the early editions of the trail guide, we did highlight the individual trips along the eastern crest of the Great Divide. In those days, the northwest end of the trail emerged at Storm Mountain Lodge and bypassed Vista Lake. But circa 1980, Parks Canada decided the trailhead on a curve opposite the lodge was too dangerous, and it created another trailhead 3 km to the west overlooking Vista Lake.
Hiking the Bow Valley Highline
Though it is not officially designated as the Highline Trail today, the historic name seems appropriate. This 40km (25mi) trail runs between Sunshine Resort and the Vista Lake trailhead on Highway 93 South. As it follows along the crest of the Great Divide, it passes over four 2300m summits, skirts a dozen high lakes, and traverses continuous wildflower meadows and stands of alpine larch. It is a remarkable landscape.
Since there are only four campgrounds along the trail, you can imagine how difficult it is to reserve one night let alone two or three to complete this trip as a backpack. Even if I were so inclined, I would never expose myself to the frustrations of trying to book a camping trip where we once travelled with no restrictions.
That’s why I recommend this hike as a day trip. That’s right. At only 40km, it is far shorter and less demanding than Kootenay Park’s Rockwall (55km) or Jasper’s Skyline (44km), which trail runners regularly traverse in a day.
Though I used to run on trails regularly, I never saw it as a marathon challenge. I ran on trails because it was more pleasant than roads, and occasionally I simply broke into a run for the pure joy of moving through landscape. And if the uphill grade was steep, I walked. Before I was a runner, I did long day hikes, the longest at just over 50kms.
Time and injury have taken their toll, so I would never consider anything so dramatic at this point in my life. But the idea of running or hiking the Bow Valley Highline in a day is intriguing. I eagerly recommend it to anyone who would give it a try.
Imagine the advantages. No camping fees. No locking yourself into distant reservations when the weather might turn grim (instead, be flexible, watch the weather and pick a day when conditions are promising). And starting your hike at 2370m, something you can’t do anywhere else in the Rockies.
Day hiking-trail running logistics
I would hike this trail from Sunshine to the Vista Lake trailhead to get the elevation advantage. You’ll want to have two vehicles. Up early in the morning, or the night before, and drop one vehicle at the Vista Lake trailhead. Then get back to the Sunshine Gondola for its 8am opening. Transfer to the Standish chairlift when you get to Sunshine Resort, and you should easily be at the start of your jaunt atop Standish Ridge by 9am.
We describe this trip starting from Sunshine Resort, but it only makes sense to skip the 1.6km climb from the lodge to Twin Cairns-Meadow Park junction. The distance from the top of Standish Chairlift to this junction is the same and virtually flat across open alpine terrain.
You’ll want to take advantage of longer days in July, since hiking the trail at a rather pedestrian 3.5km/hr will take you around 12 hours. Of course, if you run the flats and downhills, you will have even more time for relaxing on summits and lakesides for photographs.
The Bow Valley Highline Trail is featured in the latest edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide (pages 84-87) and covered by maps on pages 62 and 71. But I would carry Gem Trek’s Banff-Egypt Lake map, which covers the entire route at a 1:50,000 scale.
While this itinerary may sound a bit loony, I know there are hikers who are capable of completing the Bow Valley Highline in a day. I’d love to hear about the experience from anyone who hikes or runs this trail in a day (see “reply” below).
Hut to hut
Of course, if money were no object, I would give the hut-to-hut package offered by Sunshine Mountain Lodge and Shadow Lake Lodge a try. You’ll still have a long 25km (16mi) day from Sunshine to Shadow, but you will have the luxury of being pampered (and fed) at both venues.
A two-night stay is required at both lodges, which allows for a day trip from Sunshine to Citadel Pass, an extra 18km (round trip) of excellent alpine hiking that is a bonus warm-up for the Bow Valley Highline.
Despite a cost of around $3,000 (based on two hikers per room and two days at each lodge), the Sunshine-Shadow package does get booked up thanks to limited accommodation at Shadow Lake. So, you may find reservations are just as tough as booking campsites along the trail. For those with deep pockets, check out the hut-to-hut offerings at either Sunshine Mountain Lodge and/or Shadow Lake Lodge.