Day 2 was probably remembered most for its notorious switchbacks, and the surreal beauty of the Cascade Amphitheatre, not to mention the worsening smoke from the BC forest fires. The day’s hikes consisted of the Cascade Amphitheatre (13.2 km, 640m elevation gain) and Stoney Squaw (4.2 km, 190m)
It was Sunday, August 6th. Just like the day before, the sky was incredibly blue and the sun was out in all of its glory, albeit a bit hazy from the smoke. With a day of hiking under our belts, we were set to tackle one of Banff’s more popular day hikes – the Cascade Amphitheatre.
I had gotten much better sleep the night before, as hiking nearly 30k in a day will surely do for you, and was excited for another full day of hiking in the mountains.
Those car rides through Banff National Park, en route to whatever our destination was, never got old. I’d always find myself in the same position, face pressed to the window and eyes transfixed on the beauty of the surrounding landscape. This particular drive was no exception, as we made our way up to the Mt. Norquay ski area, which entailed driving up several switchbacks with stunning views of the Banff townsite and its surrounding peaks. Rundle (surprise, surprise) caught my attention, as it always does when I’m in the vicinity.
Upon arriving at the trailhead, we wisely got some dynamic stretching in as we all prepared ourselves and our packs for the 13km hike before us.
The first part of the hike was a bit odd, as it basically consisted of walking across a giant gravel parking lot and making our way past several ski lifts before finally meeting the main trail. Once on said trail, we actually lost some elevation, as we descended towards Forty Mile Creek. At this time of the day, the sun shone strong but brilliantly as its rays pierced through the evergreens flanking us on all sides.
Once past the creek, the trail began to rise steadily, eventually becoming quite steep on its last few switchbacks. At this point I found myself tagging alongside Logan, Rachel W, Hamza, Pat and Jenna.
Beyond the bridge, the forest opened up to stunning views of the sheer 390 m face of Mount Louis rising to the west. Views like these always served to remind me that although the flora and fauna (to an extent) are somewhat similar to that of back home, I certainly wasn’t in Ontario or Quebec anymore. Whenever I find myself in places like these, I love that you can peer through openings in the trees and gaze up at sheer mountain faces rising in the distance.
After a seemingly never-ending and relentless series of switchbacks, Logan, Rachel and I finally plateau’d, with the trail rolling gently towards the entrance to the amphitheatre.
Having finally conquered the switchbacks we took a quick breather for food, water and photos. which was much needed. The hardest part was over with, and the rest of the hike felt surreal. Within the next few hundred metres, we reached a massive clearing, and the once dense forest we found ourselves in began to part. The sun’s rays flooded the sub-alpine meadow before us. We had reached the amphitheatre, a clearing unlike any other.
Following the now gentle trail, we passed through a few more coniferous trees before the views opened up even more, leading us to meadows full of wildflowers.
At long last, we arrived at the amphitheatre’s headwall situated at 2195 m (7200 ft) and rested for lunch – i.e spaghetti out of a Ziploc bag
The amphitheatre was the site of the first of many photoshoots with Chander’s good ol’ Canadian flag.
This was one of those places that I could’ve stayed at forever. I didn’t want to leave. It’s funny how most of these places happen to be in the Canadian Rockies – places so beautiful that you almost can’t believe that they’re real and that you’re there, and not just looking at it through a picture on Instagram.
Reluctantly, I began to pack up once another round of Canadian flag photos were accounted for. I hiked out with Hamza and Logan, with Chander, Natalie and Rachel Li trailing us. As I hiked through the meadows of wildflowers, I was thrilled to see how many bees there were, as I had sadly seen none back in Ontario throughout the spring and summer. Taking care to stay on the main trail and not disrupt the little guys, we made our way back into the woods.
On our way back we ran into many hikers, some were attempting to summit Cascade (of which I was envious) and others were approaching the amphitheatre for the first time, much like ourselves. When asked how much further there was to go, we excitedly told them that they were nearly there and in for some breathtaking views and good times. And upon hearing those words, they eagerly pressed on.
So at a certain point, things got rather interesting. Making our way down the infinite switchbacks, we came across numerous shortcuts, some of which we took, while ignoring certain ones. There was one, however, that may as well have transported us to another dimension, because we felt lost, I mean really lost. Ask any of the guys about it and they’ll all tell you the same thing – it did not feel like we were on the right course anymore. See, logically the shortcut was bound to intersect with the main trail at some point, right? But on and on it went, declining steeply, with some bushwhacking necessary because who would even think to go down or even worse, up such a route? The further it went, the worse it got. We all began to question the decision and express how it felt like the shortcut took us to a different dimension.
This whole side adventure was marked by Chander expertly descending without poles and with two cameras in hand, stating that real men don’t use them – a statement that we would later remind him of on future hikes aha.
Much to the relief of us all, we were FINALLY on the main trail, and despite the worry, the shortcut did actually work, as we caught up with several groups initially well ahead of us. The rest of the hike was not nearly as eventful, with many of us expressing our desire for it to be over, as the smoke was beginning to worsen, and quite quickly at that.
The oddest thing about the dense smoke was how it made it appear much later in the day than it was. Although it was only around 3 or 4pm, the hazy sun made it look like it were 6 or 7pm.
Beginning to feel some slight blisters forming, we made it back to the Norquay ski area with 13km under our belts, with some feeling the effects of the smoke.
Stoney Squaw was up next.
This was a strange hike. It was short, a bit confusing, and awfully smokey. I feel as if many people, myself included, wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible due to the smoke and fatigue from having hiked 40km in the last 36 hours.
Stoney Squaw itself is the second shortest mountain adjacent to the town of Banff, taller only than Tunnel Mountain. It is situated between Mount Norquay and Cascade Mountain, and is part of the Vermillion Range. Topping out at 1868 m (6129 ft), and consisting of a 4.2km round trip hike with only 160m gain, we all knew we could power through this and enjoy a bit of time in the town of Banff afterwards.
Of all the hikes we’d done on the trip, this was the only one where I aimed to finish as quickly as possible. That said, I stuck with the front of the pack and it almost felt like I was participating in an XC running race again. The pace at which these guys moved was crazy quick and it felt good knowing that I was keeping up without missing a beat. Despite that, I couldn’t honestly say that I enjoyed it. When I hike, I do so to enjoy nature and to take it all in. While I did finish this hike blazingly fast, there was hardly any enjoyment in it. Even now, writing this account months after the fact, I don’t remember as much from this hike as I do others, which are much more vivid in my head.
What I do remember quite well though was how confusing this trail was at times. We reached a junction where it was basically a guessing game, and the only reason we went the right way was because of the mountain bikers that helped us out. On a normal day the views through the trees looking down towards Banff would have been sweet but the haze grew worse and worse.
After blazing through the trails, we arrived at the summit which was a really cool spot, but again visibility was greatly hindered. The lookout faced Cascade’s massive cliffs towards the east and was higher than I think most of us expected it to be. Spotting a helicopter far below us cemented just how high we actually were. I got most excited when I looked south and spotted Rundle’s signature ridges overlooking Banff. It was hardly visible but it was there and I got so excited at the thought of being up there again.
The hike back, much like the hike there was relatively uneventful. I decided to stick with my photographer buddies again, as Logan, Chander and I took our time, discussing an array of topics on the descent to pass the time.
With everyone else waiting on us (which would become the norm) we finally arrived at the trailhead, and excitedly made our way into town, to eat some non-camp food.
The following day would be our last at the Johnston Canyon Campground, but more on that in the next post.