We started this adventure of hiking the Assiniboine Trail by slogging 13 miles through rain, snow, and lightning. But on this final day, we traversed the trail in warm t-shirt weather and clear sunny skies. It is amazing how fast things change in the Canadian Rockies. Today’s journey would take us 8.5 miles with only 488’ of elevation gain. This was a stroll through the park compared to other days and we thought it would be an uneventful push to the Mount shark Trailhead. We were wrong.
Hiking the Assiniboine Trail
This post is all about our final day thru-hiking the Assiniboine Trail from Sunshine Village to Mount Shark Trailhead. If you missed any part of our eventful trip, get caught up using the links below. You can also check out our Mount Assiniboine Guide to start planning your own adventure.
- Sunshine to Og Lake – Day 1
- Og Lake to Magog Lake – Day 2
- Exploring the Heart of Assiniboine – Day 3 & 4
- Magog Lake to Marvel Lake – Day 4
Day 5 – Hiking the Assiniboine Trail
- Route: Marvel Lake to Mount Shark Parking/Trailhead
- Distance: 8.5 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 490′
- Marvel Lake Campground Elevation: 5,965′
- Mount Shark Trailhead Elevation: 5,725’
After the usual backpacking chores of preparing our oatmeal breakfast and packing up the campsite, we strapped on the bags and continued hiking the Assiniboine Trail towards the Mount Shark Trailhead. The initial path climbs away from the Marvel Campground a short quarter of a mile to the intersection with the main Bryant Creek Trail that runs over Assiniboine Pass in the opposite direction. We took a right onto the wide clear path that would be our transit for the remainder of the journey.
An Easy Descent Thru the Forest
The first mile on the path to Mount Shark is a moderately downhill descent that drops just over 300’ into an ever intensifying dense forest. After that, the path undulates slightly as it continues an overall descent dropping only 100’ over the course of 3 miles.
Big Spring Campsite
At about 2-miles the path crosses over a tributary creek flowing into Bryant Creek. This is the location of the Big Spring campsite which is the last backcountry campsite before arriving at Mount Shark. It is too far removed from the heart of Assiniboine to be of much use for that journey but for beginners wanting to spend a night in the woods it would make a decent site.
Jennifer and I are often asked about whether or not we fear bears when backpacking and hiking mountain trails. We have hiked hundreds of miles in the Rocky Mountain ranging from Colorado, Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia. While we have seen plenty of bears on or near the roads as we have visited these places we had never come across a bear in the backcountry. In fact, we had told this exact story to several fellow campers in the Magog Lake campground two days earlier. However, it was on this lonely stretch of flat path where that story would now change.
We carry bear spray when in bear country. We also talk while we hike. Bears will typically avoid humans if they hear you coming. We don’t carry bells or anything of that annoying nature. When I hike alone, to not sound like a crazy person talking to myself I will play music on my phone but I always pause it when other hikers are approaching. This is a curtsy as no one comes into nature to hear my music playing.
A Black Bear?
On this stretch of path Jennifer and I were actually very talkative, elated with our journey through Assiniboine. The path was straight and we could see well ahead of us when all of a sudden what looked like a medium sized black bear popped up on the path about 20 yards ahead of us. We stopped in our tracks and pulled the bear spray out of the easily accessible side pocket and popped the safety latch off. The bear too stopped in his tracks and stared at us as if curious about what he had come across. I pulled out the camera which I had a wide angle lens on and was nearly useless at the distance.
A Massive Grizzly
It was about this time that we realized that this was no black bear but rather an adolescent grizzly. This revelation came quickly as his massive mother lumbered out of the trees and onto the path. To say she was big would be an understatement. Jennifer and I instinctively backed away at the sight of her overwhelming size. She spotted us and stopped in her tracks. The adolescent bear now, under the protection of big momma, took a step towards us, seemingly curious about the unknown creatures who had wandered into their realm. Bears have a fight or flight mentality. It is common for them to take flight from humans. The fight instinct mostly manifests in a mother bear when she has a cub. Jennifer quickly made a lot of noise and the mother immediately beckoned her cub to take flight and both took off crashing through the brush.
For our part, Jennifer and I stood on the path in utter astonishment at our good luck of having finally seen a bear in the backcountry and one whose girth would be hard to over embellish. We made some noise, which included a somewhat uneasy joyous laughter. After a minute or two we cautiously proceeded hiking the Assiniboine Trail making sure to talk loudly as we passed by the area where the two furry travelers had vanished into the dense tree cover. Not another 100’ on the path we came to a small intersection where there were several signs posted lamenting the fact that we were in grizzly country and that hikers should travel cautiously. This part of the trail is also shared with bikes and the sign suggests cyclists dismount and walk the path ahead. We agree.
A short distance further and we once again crossed over Bryant Creek, just above where it flows into the massive reservoir known as Spray Lake (6,205’). Having traveled 4.5 miles today we decided that this picturesque spot at the tip of the reservoir made for a great lunch spot. The lake in this location resembles more of a rushing river as the water of Bryant Creek coming from the west mixes with the water flowing north from the Spray River, both mixing with the massive 20-mile long body of water. During lunch, a small ouzel hopped around searching for food in the water. A flock of ducks splashed in the lake and then waddled out onto a small rock island to dry off in the warm sunlight. This was our kind of lunch spot and we enjoyed our noodles while taking shelter in the shade of the trees.
One Last Climb
After lunch, we crossed over the Spray River via a well-built bridge above a small gorge. On the other side of the bridge, the path ahead hit the only real climb of the day. We ascended the 250’ hill over the next half mile. While not steep by the standards of our previous days’ adventures it was steep enough after 5 days of hiking the Assiniboine Trail.
The Last Few Miles
Once over the hill, the path arcs around a nearly unseen lake known as Watridge Lake. A half-mile further the trail intersects the path leading to Watridge Lake and the main trail to Mount Shark widens to the size of a single lane road. The last two and a half miles of the trail arcs slowly to the east as it descends softly to the Mount Shark Trailhead (5,725’). This old single-lane road meanders through large meadows interspersed by sections of a less dense evergreen forest. The path is mostly flat and passes by lots of signs for different cross-country skiing routes that look like they would be a lot of fun during the winter.
Mount Shark Trailhead
After nearly 8.5-miles on the trail today, Jennifer and I arrived at the semi-large Mount Shark parking area. The trailhead is comprised of two gravel parking lots with a large dumpster and a small bathroom. On the other side of the tree line is the Mount Shark helipad where supplies and travelers are flown to the Assiniboine Lodge.
White Mountain Shuttle
Now that we had finished the nearly 36-mile journey hiking the Assiniboine Trail, we found ourselves 53 miles via roads from the Sunshine Village. We had arranged a rather expensive shuttle back to our vehicle there and had to wait about an hour for our departure. While expensive the nearly 1.5-hour White Mountain Shuttle service was mostly comfortable. Although the road to Canmore is gravel with large potholes. The speedy shuttle driver skillfully dodged most of the large potholes and made good time. He even had water, granola bars, and small chocolates for us. We passed on the granola but eagerly consumed a lot of the chocolate. When we made it back to the village we quickly packed up and headed back to Banff. We were eager to check back into our campsite at Tunnel Mountain and head for Eddie’s Burger Bar for a real meal.
Hiking the Assiniboine Trail
Our journey through Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park was memorable but not for the reasons that we had originally anticipated. The unpredictable Rocky Mountain weather showed us every season in the span of 5 days. While we enjoyed ourselves hiking this beautiful country and feel blessed to have laid our eyes on the Matterhorn of Canada, the cost associated with this thru-hike is high. The campground is affordable although reservations need to be made well in advance. Unless done as an out-n-back the logistics of getting from one trailhead to the other is expensive. The gondola up to Sunshine Village is pricey and could you opt for the helicopter that is also costly. If you can stomach the cost then this roadless paradise holds a landscape that is stunningly gorgeous and an adventure well worth the effort.