June 18, 2021
I just bought at new pair of mountaineering boots, and I needed a short-ish hike to start breaking them in. Unlike hiking boots – which fit like slippers the first time out – mountaineering boots have a full shank that provides maximum stiffness. This is necessary when wearing crampons (not icers) on glaciers or ice climbing, but they are unforgiving!
When I was researching this hike, I discovered that part of the trail is on an old coal mine from the early 1900s. The mine was owned by the Pacific Coal Company, a subsidiary of the CPR. The coal was used for their train engines. The trail goes past several old mineshafts, and a cement building still stands. The trail head parking lot is Upper Bankhead, which used to be a town of about 1,000 people before the mine closed in 1922.
The official Banff National Park trail is 4.2 km (one way) to a view of the C Level Cirque. There is a side trail to a tiny tarn that is a beautiful blue colour. You may elect to go beyond the cirque viewpoint on an unofficial trail that is more or less straight up, but it provides a very nice view of Lake Minnewanka and area.
Hiking boots, poles, and day pack kit.
From the Upper Bankhead parking lot, hike up the trail until you reach the cirque. To continue past the official trail, hike on the right side of the cirque, over a boulder field, straight up through the trees, and then into another boulder clearing. Seek a look out from there, or continue up to the rock wall. Return the way you came.
Parking and Trail Head
Parking is at the Upper Bankhead Day Use Area. While it is a fairly big lot, I imagine it fills up quickly in the summer or weekends.
The trail head is at the far end of the parking lot. The trail starts as a wide, gravel path as access to the day use area picnic tables, but soon turns into a normal hiking path.
The first part of the trail is an uneventful uphill trudge. However, after a short one km or so, an old cement building from the Bankhead coal mine comes into view. It is so unexpected to see old buildings like this in the Rockies. I just love it!
After the building, there are several open shafts, which I am told were ventilation shafts. These are all fenced off, but by holding up my phone I could get some photos peering down. Bob Spirko says that the C Level refers to the level of the mine.
The hiking trail through here is black with coal.
You know you are past the mine shafts when the trail turns from black coal to a dirt trail with gnarled roots. The trail is in the trees the whole time, which is nice for shade but means no views.
While there are no views, the trail is typical of Banff: it is nicely graded, a solid trail, and no trail braiding. The only view you get is right before the cirque, when the trees give up a glimpse of the side of the massive mountain that is Cascade.
At the 4 km mark, there is a little rise of rocks. This is ideally placed to show off the impressive Cascade Mountain C Level Cirque. Avalanche debris filled the basin, and a small snow and rock avalanche came down just as I was leaving the high point of the trail.
Hiking time to this point was about 1 hour, with an elevation gain of 455 m over 4.2 km.
Keep your eye out for marmots and pikas living in the large boulders. I was lucky enough to see both as they were keeping a wary eye on the onslaught of hikers.
This is the end of the official C Level Cirque trail.
To continue to the Lake Minnewanka viewpoint, I took the unofficial trail. The trail grade and ease of use reflected this. This is also where I gained elevation in earnest. While it took me about an hour to hike the 4.2 km to the cirque, it took me another 45 minutes to go 1 more kilometer with 200 m elevation gain.
To access the viewpoint, I took the trail along the right side of the cirque.
At the end of the boulder field, the trail makes a right hand turn. I scrambled up some easy rock steps to another boulder field.
Once I crossed the boulder field, I re-entered the forest. Here, the trail was pretty much up, and then more up.
The forest section is surprisingly long, and feels like it’s straight up. While I had the hike up and summit area to myself, as I descended, I ran into several parties coming up through the trees. All were huffing pretty good and wanted to know how much further.
The trees end in another, smaller boulder field.
At the top of this boulder field, you can skirt around to find a lookout spot. Or continue up the ridge until you hit the rock wall.
From here, there is a great view of Lake Minnewanka and the surrounding valleys and peaks.
Distance to the Lake Minnewanka lookout is 5.3 km, with an elevation gain of 632 m. Time to summit was 1 hour and 45 minutes.
C Level Cirque Return
Return the way you came. The views coming down are just as spectacular as the lookout. Enjoy, because the trees will again block out the view.
On the way down, I got a great view of the cute little tarn that is just beside the rock pile.
I chose to visit the little tarn on my way back down. I thought I might eat my lunch here, but there wasn’t a shore and the trees were really tight, so I just headed back to my car.
After I got back to my car, I drove to Two Jack lake to soak my aching feet in the cool water. I might have to get these new boots blown out at the toe box…
C Level Cirque is a great little hike. If you have young kids, just going the 1 km to visit the old mine site is a grand adventure. If you don’t care about eyeballing Lake Minnewanka, then the official trail to the cirque is a respectable 8 km on an excellent trail. The full trek to the end is just over 10 km, and provides some additional route finding and exploration for the adventurous.
Totals – Tracked on Strava
Date: June 18, 2021
Group: Solo (Alisen)
Distance: 10.78 km
Elevation: 632 m (2,085′)
Time: 3 hours 36 minutes (includes viewing mine shafts and tarn)