Let me just say, if you feel like going on a little day hike, but you only happen to have, like, the first edition (circa 1971), of your Canadian Rockies trail guide, chances are things have changed. Important things. Like trailhead locations.
Sounds improbable, right? Ha. Well, I won’t bore you with the gory details, but my dear friend, Miz T., her faithful sidekick, Cotton the dog, and I ended up wandering along the Trans Canada highway near Banff in the blazing sun looking for a trailhead that had since moved due to a road extension and fencing off of a drainage underpass.
We gave up – wisely – after about 40 minutes and thumbed through the outdated guidebook from our Chateau Lake Louise staffer days to pick another hike. We wanted something that wouldn’t kill us, with a nice view or destination, and relatively short so we could do a few camping chores that afternoon in Canmore.
We settled on the C-Level Cirque up on the east flank of Cascade Mountain that was easily accessible from the Upper Bankhead parking lot off the Lake Minnewanka Road near Banff. This trail promised a bit of Bow Valley coal mining history and a pretty cirque to boot. The hike was ~7.8 km return and we figured we could knock that off no problem.
Well – I was sweating like a madman in the first kilometre, wondering why on earth this felt so hard. Ha. But seriously, this is a graded, well-maintained trail – it was just a little steeper than I expected. There were lots of people on the trail so I had to stand up straighter and look casual while trying not to pant heavily as they – fresh, perky, etc – passed by. Let’s blame the altitude, shall we?
We happily immersed ourselves in history – aka catching our breath – as we checked out the remnants of an old building dating back to the mining days in Banff National Park shortly after the 1 km mark.
The Canadian Pacific Railway thought it would be more cost effective to supply CPR locomotives by opening its own mine at Bankhead in ~1905. The coal mining operation included a coal mine and town on the lower slopes of Cascade, and it produced half a million tonnes of coal a year. In Bankhead’s heyday, the mine employed 300 men and the town’s population peaked at 1,500 people with taverns, a pool hall, a hotel and a school. The Bankhead mines closed in ~1922, and slowly the town began to disappear. Not long after, in 1930, all mining activity within the National Parks ceased.
Rested after our little diversion, we got back on the trail and almost immediately discovered several ventilation shafts from the C-Level coal beds. It was part eerie and part Goonies for me. The shafts were fenced off, but you could see the tops of that chain link were bent as people had climbed over to explore. Although unsafe, I can totally understand the lure of those vents.
We kept on with our altitude battle, Cotton giving us the occasional disdainful glance as she pulled us onward and upward. The best part was passing folks on the way down who told us we were barely halfway there…lol. But all in good company, Miz T. and I got caught up on so many things. I can hardly believe we worked together for Canadian Pacific Hotels & Resorts more than 20 years ago!!
Our youthful adventures back in the day took us on a crazy ski road trip to Montana in search of Whitefish but somehow we ended up in Great Falls delivering newspapers with some kid at 0500 hrs; hitchhiking through the mountain parks to the Lodge at Kananaskis where we stayed in an executive suite for the staffer rate of $30, and ate room service in the hot tub; hiking up Castle Mountain and sleeping under the stars at Rockbound Lake, watching a silent storm pass by, sheet lightning illuminating the massive rock walls; taking my little boys – 2 and 1 years of age – on their first backcountry camping trip to Ribbon Creek and watching them giggle as we hung Huey’s diapers from the bear pole… and so much more. Isn’t life amazing?
Soon enough the trees began to thin out along the trail to the cirque, and we caught glimpses of Cascade Moutain high above us. The whole grand rock bowl appeared as we emerged from the trees at the base of the formation. Cirques are typically carved out of the side of a mountain by glaciers or erosion. This was a lovely example of a cirque, with a tumbling rock garden down the centre. On the left is a faint trail down to a wee tarn, and on the right the trail continues steeply up along the treeline for even better views.
We ate our lunches and lounged for a bit in the sun, watching Cotton play. Afterwards, we made good time returning to the car and on to Canmore for a browse through the second-hand store, shopping for dinner stuff and a water fill up at the Canmore Nordic Centre… and then back to the Bow River campground for some R&R.