This trip is a favourite of ours and we’ve been up this way a number of times. For minimal work one is rewarded with amazing views – unless of course you go up when it’s heavily snowing, which is what happened this day. None the less it is all worth it and there still was some incredible scenery to take in. The views west were completely obscured by heavy clouds this time but we could occasionally see down the valley we came up.
This trail is a a wonderful mix of old roads, some easy off trail at the gravel flats and singletrack. It’s a must do and should be on any hiker’s bucket list.
From the parking lot head west along the obvious trail past Mud Lake on the right. Gaining elevation slowly this section of the trail is an old logging road and it’s wide and well drained. There are occasional side roads leading off the left or right but the route is always obvious. It’s the most well trodden and heads almost directly west for most of its journey.
Levelling out for a bit, the trail skirts around the Burstall Lakes, all three of them. There are short side trails allowing you to visit these glacier fed lakes and the views here of the surrounding mountains are very nice. The lake shores are pretty muddy and marshy and I am told the fishing here is not too bad.
Shortly after the lakes the logging road ends and from here on it’s single track the whole way. It’s not as well drained now and in some places is muddy and rooted (is that a real word?). After a bit some bridged channels through the trees welcome you to the outfall of the Robertson Glacier. There is a large alluvial plain here with lots of shrubs and it’s criss-crossed with countless and ever-shifting waterways. Because of this it’s easy to get off track as you pick your way through – but just keep heading west towards the forest and you’ll be fine.
Once in the trees and back on the defined trail, it’s all up from here for a while. Up and more up, eventually you top out in a beautiful sub alpine valley. From here there is a flat section where you can catch your breath. Part way up this section is where the snow started and it got progressively worse as we gained elevation.
Turning south for a bit the smooth slabs of Whistling Ridge come into view. In the past I incorrectly called this ridge Piggy Plus (a strange name for a mountain). That mountain sits on the other side of and is opposite the ridge we are looking at. Who know how that name came about? There is a nearby peak named Pig’s Tail, an odd name too, so perhaps that’s the connection?
It’s here the Burstall Pass trail starts heads up again but but never too steeply and after a couple switchbacks, you arrive at the pass proper. To the east you have an excellent view of Mt Birdwood, Pig’s Tail and Commonwealth Peak and the valleys you came up (when the clouds cleared). To the south are a number of low ridges (which we’ll visit some day) – these were barely visible the day or our visit. To the north there is the aptly named Snow Peak, blanketed in fog. And if you could see west, and you couldn’t, you’d have a good view of Leman Lake far below which is located in Banff National Park. There is a back country hike-in campsite there. Note: Pig’s Tail is sometimes called Shark’s Tooth.
There is an interesting and very large sink hole at the pass, but it was a total white out by the time I got to it. I’d hate to fall into it when it’s snowy like this.
Our stay at the pass was brief as the wind and blowing snow made for an unpleasant experience. While it was full-on winter here, at the start of the trail it was quite nice. We decided it best to have lunch further down where the weather was less challenging.
You are allowed to bike this trail, at least until where the logging road ends and becomes a single track (there is a bike rack there). From there would can only proceed on foot. In winter you can snowshoe or cross country ski too.
Snow Peak is an easy scramble and can be summited in winter if conditions are right. The other peaks mentioned are for mountaineers or at best hard core scramblers. All the low ridges around Burstall Pass are easy targets for hikers.
Robertson Glacier is interesting as it seems to create it’s own weather, or at least heavily influences the weather around it. Every time we have been past it’s always blustery up there.
The trail can be quite popular at any time of the year and the crossing of the glacier outfall can be hard. Sandals can be a help here. And when it snows the steeps parts can be super slippery. Beware!
The Burstall Pass trailhead is along the gravel Smith-Dorrien/Spray Lakes road, accessed from the namesake day use area directly opposite the Chester Lake and Headwall Lakes parking lot. The road approach is either south from Peter Loughheed Provincial Park or north from the town of Canmore. Either way it’s a dusty and dirty road and your car will hate you.
If you wish more information on this trail, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: October 2011
Location: Kananaskis Smith-Dorrien area.
Distance: 16km return.
Height gain from start: 470m
Height gain cumulative: 470m.
Technical bits: Slippery slopes when snowy.
Notes: You may wish to bring sandals when crossing the glacier outfall.
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.