I’ve said this before: every hiker should visit Burstall Pass at least once in their lifetime. It’s such an amazing place, so beautiful that it’s almost hard to describe. We’ve visited it on multiple occasions and each and every time, it was a joy to experience. Given how stunning it is, I doubt we’ll ever lose interest and I bet in a few years, you’ll find us returning. I rate it as one the best must-do hikes in all of Kananaskis. It takes a bit of effort to get there, but trust us, it’s worth it.
The trail is located on the Smith Dorrien/Spray Lakes road, a dusty gravely affair. It’s official, meaning the trail is marked with signs and it gets cleared of dead fall. You can bike it for the first few kilometres if you so wish. Sandals are a good idea as there is one unavoidable water crossing a few kilometres in.
Much of Kananaskis was damaged by the nasty spring 2013 floods. This trail was for the most part unaffected though.
From the Burstall Pass parking lot, head west past aptly named Mud Lake. Follow the signs to an old logging road. Enter the trees and turn right (west). A second trail heads south and takes you to French Glacier – a lower road goes somewhere else – never followed it. Take neither. The road is wide and the going is easy. It gains a little elevation but it’s so subtle that you’ll barely notice. At times you can hear a stream gurgling in a deep gorge below you. Along the way, there will be lots of side roads heading off in various directions. Avoid them, most are overgrown anyway, and keep heading west on the most obvious route.
In a break in the trees, one can see one of the Burstall Lakes off to the right. Take some time to visit this one, and a second a bit further west, also reached by a side trail.
Pretty soon the logging road ends. Right after the bike rack it reverts to single track. The going is still very easy though. In short order, you’ll come to a broad gravel expanse. There are a number of braided streams along here, coming in from a nearby glacier. Expect to get your feet wet.
Dense brush here means it would be easy to get lost. Fortunately a number of markers are in place to guide you along to the other side.
From here one has fantastic views of the mountains surrounding the gravel flats. Flanking Robertson Glacier in the west, is on the left, the oddly named Piggy Plus. On the other side is Whistling Ridge – Google calls it Whistling Rock Peak, others have named it Whistling Rock Ridge. Hmmm. On the north side of the valley is Snow Peak, Mt Birdwood, Pig’s Tail and Commonwealth Peak. All are are stunning! We”ll see the other side of Whistling Ridge, once we get to the pass. The glacier, by the way, seems to be shrinking. On our first visit, some ten years ago, it was clearly bigger.
On hitting the woods, stash your sandals and follow the trail as it heads up. This is the first real elevation gain. Huffing a puffing along, you’ll soon enter a nice sub-alpine valley, where the trail levels out for a time. The trees here are pretty thin and it’s here we get our first view of Burstall Pass, at the base of Snow Peak in the west.
The trail now turns left into the trees and heads up steadily for a time (more huffing and puffing). On arriving at the pass, finally, things open up. Prepare yourself for the views, they are amazing. It’s a wondrous place, an alpine pass, surrounded by ridges and mountains. It’s stark, comprised of barren limestone, yet at the same time it’s visually stunning. A few hardy larches grown here and there. On this visit we encountered a few lingering snow patches. Some are clearly very deep, reminding one just how much influence winter has on this place.
A ledge allows us a good look at the trail we just came up. In behind, the smooth slabs of Whistling Ridge (west side) really stand out. To the north is Mt Sir Douglas and then South Burstall Pass. To the right is a modest ridge (unnamed), which was to be our objective. By the time we reached the pass it was well over 30 degrees and we were worried about heat exhaustion (hot weather is our kryptonite). We’ll save it for another time.
To the north is Snow Peak, a moderate scramble route. At its base is a large deep sinkhole which was likely created when a cave system collapsed. These mountains are chocked-full of underground voids I am told. The pit drains of water meaning there is an outlet somewhere down there. Many karst formations can be found near here – these were created by groundwater – it dissolves some rock to create fissures, passages and caves and deposits the participated material elsewhere to create odd rock formations (all of this happening a long time ago). By the way, there are a lot of possible dangers in karst areas. Cracks in the rock that can twist your ankle and sharp formations can cut you good. Trust me, I’ve sliced my legs up more than once on these rocks.
Making our way to the west side of the pass – few other hikers we saw did this, oddly, even though it’s no more work – we open up some new vistas. The views here, overlooking the Spray River Valley, are stupendous! At this point, we are almost at the border with Banff National Park. To the south is, among others, Mt Leman. Below is it lake of the same name, a brilliant deep blue/green colour. There is a back country campground on its shores.
To the north of the lake are Mounts Leval, Vavasour, Warre and Currie. Peaking out from behind another summit is Mt Assiniboine. It’s called Canada’s Matterhorn and is the tallest peak in this part of the world. From our angle it reminds me of the Sphinx in Egypt.
We find a nice viewpoint to enjoy our lunch. And yes, of course, we brought wine. We always do.
Heading back to the east side of the pass – as slowly as we could, so we could take it all in – I elect to do a side trip to the south pass. There is a large ledge that leads the way. I am soon overcome by the heat thought and decide to turn around about half way up. While here I make note of the route up that ridge we were due to climb. It can be approached from the north or south but the former looks more manageable. I eye up the route to the south pass itself for the next time. I also make note of a series of ledges that would allow one to circle the valley high up, only to end up almost back where they started. There are a lots of off-trail possibilities here. Beside its beauty, this variety of routes makes Burstall Pass so enticing.
Heading down, the temperature has risen further, so much that we get a bit loopy from it. Recall, neither Connie nor I do well when it’s hot. We look forward to the glacier outflow crossing ahead of us. The water level has increased considerably since we made our way up. Cool, cool water, we like it. The rest of the trip back was uneventful.
This hike, for obvious reasons, is quite popular. We saw perhaps a dozen other people on this outing. An earlier visit, I best we saw double that.
Directly across the Burstall Pass trail head is the parking lot for the Chester Lake and Headwall Lakes hiking trails. Both of these are fine destinations themselves. In fact, most trails in the Smith Dorrien area lead stunning places.
There were many flowers seen on this trip, but most were not terribly photogenic. We also saw lots of berry bushes, Strawberries and Gooseberries in particular, but it was too early in the season for them. They were still at the flower stage.
If you wish more information on this trail, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: July, 2014.
Location: Kananaskis AB, Smith Dorrien area.
Distance: 18km out and back with side trips.
Height gain maximum: 480m (a previous trip the GPS said 465m).
Height gain cumulative: 550m.
NOTE: all heights and distances are approximate.
Technical bits: The glacier outflow crossing. Water was shin deep, flowing fast and was ice cold (nice on a hot day though).
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.