Mt. Norquay Lodge to Cascade Amphitheatre—6.6 kilometres (4.1 miles)
- Day trip, allow 2 to 3 hours one way
- Elevation loss: 150 metres (490 feet)
- Elevation gain: 640 metres (2,100 feet)
- Maximum elevation: 2195 metres (7,200 feet)
- Map: Banff 82 O/4
Access: From the Trans-Canada Highway at the Banff West exit, follow the Mount Norquay Road north from the Trans-Canada Highway 6.0 kilometres (3.5 miles) to the Mount Norquay Ski Area. Park at the trail kiosk sign located at the entrance to the first parking area on the left. Walk 200 m through the parking lot opposite the kiosk (right) leading to the ski area's lodge complex. Check trail conditions before you go.
One of the longer and more strenuous day trips near Banff leads up the western flank of Cascade Mountain to a large natural amphitheatre at just over 2100 m. This hanging valley, enclosed by the limestone cliffs of the mountain's summit ridges, features lush subalpine wildflower meadows and immense rockslides inhabited by marmots and pikas.
0.0 - Mount Norquay Lodge (1705 metres). Walk through lodge complex and down- valley on ski area service road.
0.8 - Junction. Forty Mile Creek trail (Sawback Trail) left. Cascade Amphitheatre ahead. Trail descends into forest.
2.9 - Junction. Lower Forty Mile Creek trail left. Cascade Amphitheatre right.
3.1 - Forty Mile Creek bridge (1555 metres). Steady uphill.
4.3 - Junction. Elk Lake ahead. Cascade Amphitheatre right. Steady switchbacking climb.
6.6 - Cascade Amphitheatre. Gradual uphill.
7.7 - Amphitheatre headwall (2195 metres).
The hike: begins at the ski area's lodge complex at the far end of the main parking area. Continue through the lodge plaza and down-valley on a service road.
The first kilometre can be a bit confusing as you work your way past the base stations of a number of ski lifts, but stay on the valley bottom and watch for trail markers. At 0.8 kilometres, in the middle of the last ski run, the trail branches right from the Forty Mile Creek trail, skirts behind the last lift terminal, and drops into forest on a broad path.
At kilometer 2.9 the trail reaches Forty Mile Creek, turns right and crosses the creek 200 meters beyond on a substantial bridge. This is a good place to fill your water bottles as the rest of the hike is steady uphill and bone dry.
Just beyond the bridge, the forest opens to a view of the sheer 390 m face of Mount Louis rising to the west. This vertical wall of Palliser limestone is one of the more popular and demanding climbs in the Rockies. The rugged summit of Mount Edith, another popular climb, can be seen south of Louis and behind Mount Norquay.
The last trail fork on the trip appears 1.2 kilometers beyond the Forty Mile Creek bridge, where the Amphitheatre trail branches uphill to the right from the Elk Summit trail. A relentless series of switchbacks transport you upwards through a dense forest of spruce and lodgepole pine for 2.3 kilometers to the cool, subalpine forest at the mouth of the Amphitheatre. From the Amphitheatre entrance, the trail extends for just over a kilometre to a headwall created by the mountain's main summit ridge. The moist meadows along the way are carpeted with wildflowers throughout much of the summer, beginning with white-flowered western anemone and nodding yellow glacier lilies along the edges of receding snow banks in late June.
Two small sink lakes also appear in the meadows with the spring snow melt, but these usually disappear by early July. Rockslides enclosing the upper end of the cirque are home to hoary marmots and pikas as well as the occasional white-tailed ptarmigan.
While the ascent of Cascade Mountain from the Amphitheatre is not particularly difficult, the route is tricky and can be dangerous at certain times of the year. If you want to go for the summit, pick-up a copy of A Climber's Guide to Cascade Mountain at the Park Visitor Centre in Banff.
Canadian Rockies Trail Guide
Trail descriptions are from the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide (Brian Patton and Bart Robinson; Summerthought Publishing), the original hiking guide to Banff National Park and the contiguous parks.
Originally published in 1971 and now in its 9th edition, this book details over 3,400 kilometres of hiking trails in Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay and Waterton Lakes National Parks