Minnewanka Parking Area to Aylmer Lookout - 11.8 kilometres (7.3 miles)
Minnewanka Parking Area to Aylmer Pass - 13.5 km (8.4 mi)
- Day trip or backpack, allow 4 to 5 hours to lookout
- Elevation gain: 575 metres (1,890 feet)
- Maximum elevation: 2055 miles (6,750 feet)
- Maps: Canmore 82 O/3, Lake Minnewanka 82 0/6
Access: From the Trans-Canada Highway at the Banff East exit interchange, follow the Lake Minnewanka Road 5.5 km (3.5 mi) to the parking area at the lake. Walk to the access gate leading to the tour boat concession. Check Parks Canada's trail report before you go.
When Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, made the first recorded visit to Lake Minnewanka in August 1841, he marveled at the beauty of the lake and exclaimed that "the surrounding mountains were very grand, of every varied form...their craggy summits resembling battlements among which dizzy heights the goat and sheep delight to bound." Hikers who journey to Aylmer Lookout and Pass can retrace part of Sir George's route and visit those dizzy heights where many sheep (and wood ticks) delight to bound.
0.0 - Access gate (1480 metres). Paved road through picnic area.
0.6 - Trail sign at end of picnic area.
1.4 - Stewart Canyon bridge.
1.6 - Junction. Stewart Canyon left. Aylmer Pass ahead.
3.0 - Lake viewpoint (1525 metres). Trail descends to lakeshore.
7.8 - Aylmer Pass Junction (1490 metres). Campground (LM8) right 100 metres. Lake Minnewanka trail ahead. Aylmer Lookout and Pass left. Steep uphill.
10.1 - Junction: Aylmer Lookout right (1.7 kilometres). Aylmer Pass ahead. Steep, steady climb toward pass.
13.5 - Aylmer Pass (2285 m).
Strong hikers can reach Aylmer Lookout and return in a day, though many bound for both the lookout site and the pass prefer to camp at Aylmer Pass Junction Campground (Lm8) and day hike from there.
Though the first 7.8 km of the journey follows Lake Minnewanka's north shore over gentle, undemanding trail, you should be ready for the ordeal beyond. Forking uphill, away from the tranquility of the lake, the trail to the pass and the old Aylmer fire lookout site is strenuous indeed.
Stock up on water at the stream near the Lake Minnewanka trail junction in preparation for gaining nearly 600 vertical metres over the next 2 kilometres. The next water is at least an hour beyond this stream, and the south-facing slope, which is usually snow-free in early June, is also one of the hot spots in the Rockies on sunny days.
Most day hikers opt for the shorter trip to the fire lookout site, which is situated on the end of an open ridge below the summit of Mount Aylmer. As you labour up the steep draw leading toward Aylmer Pass, watch for the lookout trail branching right 2.3 km beyond the Minnewanka junction.
The trail to the lookout continues steeply upwards, angling southeast toward the crest of the ridge. Along the way it passes through a prescribed burn that was set on this slope in 1990.
From this 2040 m viewpoint nearly all of Lake Minnewanka can be seen. The water, over 500 m below, is of the deepest blue, and boats look like tiny water insects skimming to-and-fro.
Across the lake stand the twin summits of Mount Inglismaldie (2965 m) and Mount Girouard (2995 metres), displaying massive cliffs of Mississippian and Devonian age limestone. Looming above the ridge, less than 3 km to the north, is Mount Aylmer (3162 m)—the highest peak in the Banff-Lake Minnewanka area. The Mount Rundle massif and the Bow Valley near Banff can be seen to the southwest.
Though the lookout tower and cabin are long gone, the open ridge is often visited by herds of mountain sheep who, perhaps, have some ancestral memory of the days when fire lookouts used to live here and put out salt blocks. Another form of wildlife found here in abundance in the spring is the wood tick (check your body and clothes carefully upon returning from this trip).
Aylmer Pass. From the fire lookout trail junction at km 10.1, the left fork continues its steady climb to the park boundary and the open alpine meadows of Aylmer Pass. The pass lies well above the last forest cover and is free of snow considerably later than the lookout ridge.
From the crest of the pass, views open into the highly folded and faulted mountains of the Palliser Range. Directly above the pass to the east is the summit of Mount Aylmer, a grueling but straight-forward scramble for hikers with good boots. Like the Aylmer Lookout area, the slopes above the pass are prime mountain sheep habitat.
Backpackers with a few days to spare can continue over the pass to explore the Ghost River Wilderness Area. Good trail continues down the north side of the pass to Spectral Creek, but the descent to Ghost River and beyond is strictly for explorers who are willing to make numerous fords of Spectral Creek and the Ghost, or else bushwhack along their banks.
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