Postcard Views and Burgers
June 13, 2021. Trailhead at Lake Minnewanka Day Use Area, out and back to Aylmer Lookout, 24.5 km, 600 m elevation gain/loss, 6 hrs 50 min.
Siobhan wanted to do a Father’s Day hike but she would not be in town on Father’s Day so we went a week early. Aylmer Lookout is a popular hike in Banff NP and Siobhan had talked about doing the hike for a couple of weeks. It had been quite warm out but since it was June in the Rockies any trail heading up in elevation would be still snowbound so our options for a long day hike were still quite limited. Aylmer Lookout was a obvious choice for a good early season hike plus a friend of Siobhan’s had recently completed the hike and shared some great photos. Simply put the hike was fantastic. I cannot believe that I have lived in the Rockies for almost 25 years and have never taken the time to hike to Aylmer Lookout.
We knew the trail would be busy so we got up somewhat early and arrived at the parking lot at Lake Minnewanka at 8:55 am and were on the trail at 9:00 (I did say “somewhat early”). The trail cuts through the Minnewanka day use area before cutting over to the lake to follow the shoreline up past the mouth of the Cascade River to a bridge located in a pretty canyon known as Stewart Canyon. There is a trail up Stewart Canyon the Cascade Valley Trail but it starts at the trailhead for C-Level Cirque. It was very quiet while we made our way to the bridge one runner pass by us and one cyclist. The first 8.25 km of trail stays close to the shoreline of Lake Minnewanka and is frequented by hikers, runners and mountain bikers.
The trail heads uphill right after the bridge giving us a little elevation gain at the beginning of the hike. We pasted a group of three hikers with a small dog. We picked up the pace a little as they were talking very loud so we wanted to put some distance between us and them quickly. The trail headed back to Lake Minnewanka while rising slightly. Soon after returning to the lake the trail dropped quickly and stayed just a few tens of metres above the lake all the way to the junction to Aylmer Lookout. While the trail runs along the lake it is quite exposed to the sun so we stopped in a shady spot to sunscreen up. A solo hiker passed us by and a group of backpackers came up the trail the other way after spending a night at one of the lakeside campsites. We hustled our sun screening as we could hear a loud group coming down the trail and we thought it may have been the group from the bridge. We did not need to bother rushing as the loud voices belonged to a mother/daughter trail running duo that passed by us quickly. We would see the trail runners again while we were on the uphill approach to the Aylmer Lookout and they were on their return trip.
There were quite a few mountain bikers that passed by us. Everyone was quite friendly and polite. A couple with two large white samoyeds stepped aside as we passed them. The dogs were lovely and friendly but was not sure how they would fair on hike with the heat rising. We ran into a co-worker of mine out for a ride with her family. We had a lovely chat by the trail and would catch up to them again when we arrived at the junction to Aylmer Lookout. At almost exactly 8 km we crossed a narrow bridge over the creek draining Aylmer Pass. A couple hundred metres later we arrived at the junction to Aylmer Pass and the Lookout we had been hiking for 1 hr 50 min. Another short chat with our friends who were taking a break and it was time we turned our attention to heading up towards the pass.
Shortly after leaving the junction we stopped to refuel and adjust our shoes. The lakeside trail was very wide allowing for side by side travel now we were on a much narrower trail and walking single file.
The uphill climb was very pleasant. The trail never got very steep. We caught up to a group of four that had passed us during our break but they remained just far enough in front that we could not hear them. It took us 55 minutes to hike the uphill from the junction with the lakeside trail to the junction where we would turn off and head to Aylmer Lookout now only 2 km away.
Heading to Aylmer Pass leads to some very wild areas of Banff NP that few people venture to. We turned right and headed up to Aylmer Lookout. The hike up was fun as it had a lot of variation in a less than 2 km stretch. The trail twisted and turned and there was even a downhill section to stretch the legs before the final uphill. The solo hiker who passed us back when we were sun screening ourselves came by hiking the other way after his visit to the Lookout. Views of Lake Minnewanka began to appear as we gained elevation and the trees opened up.
As we made our way towards the final slope to the Lookout we could see the group of four just in front of us and a single guy coming down an alternate path. The trail was quite steep for the last few hundred metres but the view from the top was worth it. It had taken us 3 hrs 20 min to hike the 12 km to Aylmer Lookout.
Aylmer Lookout is worth the long walk providing views all up and down Lake Minnewanka. Other than the group of four who arrived just before us we were the only people at the Lookout. There is a natural photo spot just past the top on the lakeside. After waiting patiently for the other group to take their photos we took our photos and ask a person from th group to take a photo of the two of us.
After arriving at the top Siobhan was a little suspicious that something was up. First I was backpacking with the pack I used on the Great Divide Trail last year which was a little excessive for a day hike. Second as soon as we arrived at Aylmer Lookout she could see me looking around the top focused on trying to find something. It is always fun to have a little treat when hiking so for this day I had brought my camping stove and a frying pan to cook up some burgers for lunch. So I was looking for a sheltered spot to set up the stove out of the wind. Siobhan started laughing when I pulled the frying pan out of the backpack. It was a surprise and needless to say it was a big hit!
While we were having lunch the area on the top started to fill up. We decided to leave as soon as we had finished our burgers. I counted a total of 15 people at the top as we getting ready to lave. Just before we left I took a picture of a grassy meadow in the distance across the lake. While most people would probably not even notice the meadow it was significant to me as is above Stenton Lake. I hiked to Stenton Lake with Micah in 2018 and it remains one of my favourite overnight camping trips. It is not everyday you can hike to a deserted lake and view the Milky Way starting the hike right from your front door.
Our stay at Aylmer Lookout was about 45 minutes. We started back down just after 1 pm. I was shocked the steady stream of people we passed heading up to the lookout. It was a lot like rush hour. As downhill hikers and the fact that we were not really in a rush Siobhan and I pulled over to let the hikers pass. I am guessing we passed 20 or more people heading up to the Lookout. One of the groups that passed us was the couple we passed near the beginning of the hike with samoyeds! They had made it all the way to the Lookout. We starting jogging lightly letting gravity do some of the work to propel us forward. We arrived back at the junction for Aylmer Pass in just 18 minutes compared to the 30 minutes it had take us to hike up. Siobhan was just about to change into her running shoes when we noticed a deer feeding a short way off the trail. The deer seemed to be very habituated to people as it paid us no notice and just kept munching away. We took a couple of photos and headed down the trail a short way so Siobhan could change into her shoes without disturbing the deer.
After Siobhan had finished changing into shoes we continued running down the trail. Siobhan was happy to let me lead and recorded a short video that she later posted to Instagram. The music to the video was “Walking the Dog”, not sure I approved of that choice. We made great time running even given the fact that I had a huge crash near the bottom. I tripped over a rock and rolled onto my back. I thought I was going to get away with the crash and not get hurt but I ended up landing on my left leg and slamming the bear spray hard into the side of my thigh. Remembering the advice coaches gave me in my youth to walk off an injury I rubbed my thigh and headed off back down the trail running. To be truthful I do not think the advice to walk it off is well thought out but my leg did feel better and never did bruise. We arrived back at the junction with the main trial just 50 minutes after leaving the Lookout. For comparison the trip up had taken 1 hr 25 min. What was interesting after all the people we pasted initially heading up to the Lookout. we only passed one group after leaving the deer.
There was a women leaning against a tree at the junction. We chatted for a couple of minutes and then headed on our way back towards the car. Upon reflection there seemed to be something not quite right with the situation with the women. Siobhan agreed so we headed back and Siobhan asked her if she was OK or needed any help. She said she was fine so we turned around and headed back down the trail a second time. We passed a smattering of people and a few mountain bikers passed us but the trail was not very busy.
As we turned to walk up Stewart Canyon towards the bridge what looked like an mother/daughter duo rode past. The daughter was leading riding a tricked out modern mountain bike. The older mom cycled passed shortly after on a bike I could date to the late 90’s based on the brakes. As we entered the woods just before the coming to the bridge we met a women walking with an incredibly well behaved, friendly and huge cane corso. Both Siobhan and I enjoyed giving him vigorous scratches. He was also very slobbery. After saying goodbye to our new four legged friend we headed down to the bridge over Cascade River and back to the day use area. After spending almost 7 hours on the trail we were not quite prepared for the scene that greeted us as we walked through the day use area. The place was packed with people. People enjoying the lake side, people having picnics, people barbecuing. It was wall to wall people. When we arrived back at the car after an amazing hike we felt somewhat pressured to leave quickly. There were people driving laps of the parking lot waiting for a parking spot to open. When someone figured out we were leaving they stopped and waited for us holding up everyone behind them.
While the hike ended a little rush it had been a fantastic day. The only thing that could make it better was the ice cold smoothy and milkshake we got at Blondies back in Canmore. So long Aylmer Lookout it won’t be 26 years before I come back to visit.