The trail to C-Level Cirque is fairly short and not terribly difficult and takes hikers up the lower flanks of Cascade Mountain in Banff National Park, to a large amphitheatre-like bowl. The views don’t happen to the end, but they’re well worth it. This destination is simply wonderful, and one can look out over the Cascade and Bow River Valleys below, surrounded by countless lofty peaks. On the way up mining ruins from a century ago add to the interest.
Start at the Upper Bankhead parking lot. We arrived early and were one of a handful of cars parked there at the time. On our return things were much, much busier. Not everyone was here to hike and it’s also a popular picnic site.
The trail is official, meaning it’s well graded and maintained. Since the going is relatively easy (I’d say by most hiker’s standards anyways), and the resultant reward so good, the route is naturally quite popular. We did it on a weekend and saw several dozen people along the trail. Go off season or mid-week if you want more solitude.
The name C-Level refers to the upper workings of the Bankhead Coal Mine, whose remains, later on, are passed on this hike.
The trail starts at the southwest corner of the parking lot. To the left, what looks to be empty meadows are home to some building remains which we’ll explore on the return trip. Mostly foundations, few people who come to Upper Bankhead, know these even exists. They’re not really marked and are sort off and away.
Right at the start you’ll note a sign warning of possible mine hazards. There are lots of old (vertical) air shafts up by the workings, all them fenced off and clearly marked, but still a potential danger I guess.
The trail heads up at a moderate grade all the way to the cirque. A few flat sections, here and there, allow one to catch their breathe. The going is always pleasant even if most of the time all that seen is trees.
At roughly a third of the way, the C-Level mine ruins are seen. There is a large concrete building, a pad to hold a ventilation fan (and old air shaft beside it) and a collapsed entry. There is also a slack dump, where waste material was discarded. There are some nice views from it, of the valley below, and to the left, that of mountain rimmed Lake Minnewanka. There used to be a tram-way line leading downhill from here. Its route can be seen on Google Earth, but we could not see any evidence of it first hand,
This was one of three levels at the Bankhead Mine, and is the highest. Coal was extracted from the sides of Cascade Mountain staring in 1904. At that time a town, Bankhead Alberta, was established nearby. The operation closed in 1922 with everything being abandoned or hauled away. There are lots of remains, most of them in Lower Bankhead where the main workings of the mine and processing plant were located.
People today might find it strange that a dirty coal mine was allowed to operate in (what’s viewed today as a pristine) national park, but in the early years this sort of thing was tolerated. We have plans to return to Bankhead to explore and document the town and mine remains more. There is a lot to see and it’s been so long since we’ve visited. C-Level is but a small part of it.
Beyond the mine, the trail heads north, zig-zags a couple time, then turns south-ish. Soon enough the trees thin and we get our first view of Cascade Mountain well above us. To the left is a faint side-trail leading to a small tarn, tinged a lovely pastel blue (due to limestone rock particulates). The cirque opens up. Rimmed on three side by vertical cliffs, the centre of the bowl is a huge sloping rock garden, still partially covered in snow.
This is the end of the official trail, but one can continue upwards to an even better view point (a great lunch spot). The trail from here is steeper then before, skirting the edge of the tree line. Once at the top take some time to soak it all up. It’s gorgeous. Lots to see for a bit of work.
Most people make this their turn around point. If you wish you can head a little higher up the cirque, explore the rock gardens more (as we did) or if you want to simply keep going, a trail heads up in a northerly directions taking one to a view point overlooking Lake Minnewanka. We ran out of steam to do the latter. It was 30c and heat is always a deal killer for us.
Once you’ve had enough, if that’s even possible, return the same way you came. We always hate this part. Notice that tarn seen earlier tucked away as you head down. It’s gorgeous.
The word cirque is French in origin and is best defined as a bowl-like landform gouged into the side of a mountain, by glaciers or erosion. A tarn is a small lake or pond that often forms at the base of a cirque.
We don’t often venture into Banff National Park, not that it’s a lovely place, it most certainly is, but it does tend to be rather expensive (paid park pass needed) and the roads, they’re a bit too crowded for our liking. Most trails here however, are pure heaven. No question about it.
If you wish more information on this trail, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: June, 2015.
Location: Banff National Park, AB.
Distance: 9km there and back.
Height gain maximum: 520m.
Height gain cumulative: 540m.
NOTE: all heights and distances are approximate.
Technical bits: none
Article sources: Book: Bankhead – the twenty year town, Banff Park archives.