An opinionated guide to the Burstall Pass hike in Kananaskis country, near Canmore, Alberta. This guide is brought to you by Canadian Rockies hiking experts Kathy and Craig Copeland at hikingcamping.com.
Location: Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Round trip: 15 km (9.3 mi)
Elevation gain: 470 m (1542 ft)
- trailhead 1910 m (6265 ft)
- pass 2380 m (7256 ft)
Hiking time: 5 to 7 hours
Map: Gem Trek Kananaskis Lakes
We once overheard a conversation at the Burstall Pass trailhead. A man who was about to begin hiking approached another who’d just completed the hike.
“How was it?” he asked.
Clearly he was European, a non-native English speaker, and he hesitated, struggling to respond.
“Eet wazz… very strong,” he finally answered, tapping his heart with his fist for emphasis.
What a beautiful answer. With just two words and a simple gesture, this foreigner eloquently described the emotional impact of witnessing the Canadian Rockies from atop Burstall Pass.
The trip begins on an old road where you’ll stride easily, probing a forested valley beneath pewter peaks. After hopping across (or de-booting and sloshing through) shallow stream channels, you’ll ascend to a hanging, subalpine valley. Then you’ll proceed up the headwall to Burstall Pass, where exhilarating mountain scenery extends in all directions.
You’ll see saber-sharp peaks slicing the sky. You’ll peer over the pass into the southern reaches of Banff Park. You’ll have enough visual stimuli to expand your emotions like a spinnaker in a gale.
The grassy alpine environs of the pass will prod you to explore, or induce you to lie down and let your mind walk the lush, lonesome bear haven of the Spray River Valley below. Try to keep moving. The ridge southwest of the pass is an easy, exciting, off-trail ramble where the panorama continues to unfold. In particular, glacier-chested Mt. Sir Douglas is more impressive the farther you go.
From downtown Canmore, follow signs leading uphill to the Canmore Nordic Centre. Reset your trip odometer to 0 at the Nordic Centre turnoff. Continue ascending on Smith-Dorrien / Spray Trail (Highway 742). Pavement soon ends. After crossing Whiteman’s Gap, proceed generally southeast. At 41.5 km (25.7 mi), immediately past Mud Lake, turn right (west) into the Burstall day use area, at 1910 m (6265 ft). This is across from the Chester Lake trailhead parking lot.
From the junction of Highway 40 and Kananaskis Lakes Trail (50 km / 31 mi south of Trans-Canada Highway 1, or 17 km / 10.5 mi north of Highwood Pass), turn southwest onto Kananaskis Lakes Trail. Reset your trip odometer to 0. At 2.2 km (1.4 mi) turn right (northwest) onto unpaved Smith-Dorrien / Spray Trail (Highway 742). At 22.2 km (13.8 mi), turn left (west) into the Burstall day use area, at 1910 m (6265 ft).
The trail departs the north end of the parking lot, where there are no trees. Go left (west), past the gated road, up onto the berm. Follow the berm southwest, passing Mud Lake (right).
Proceed onto a gravel road curving left (south). Within 70 m (77 ft), where the gravel road continues straight (south-southeast), fork right (south-southwest) onto a narrower, dirt road.
Cross another berm, this one channeling French Creek (left) into a culvert. Ignore a faint right (southwest) fork. Ascend south, following hiker signs.
Just above, where a trail forks left (southeast), stay on the road curving right (southwest). You’ve hiked just five minutes from the trailhead. From here on, the navigating is more straightforward.
Follow the road southwest along the north slopes of Mt. Burstall. Commonwealth Peak is right (north) across Burstall Creek valley. At 2.5 km (1.6 mi) pass Burstall Lakes on your right (north). The road soon tapers to trail.
At 3.6 km (2.2 mi), cross braided, shifting, sometimes flooded stream channels in an alluvial flat. It’s wettest in early summer. Expect to wade. The water is shallow, the current gentle, the bottom muddy, so it’s not dangerous, just cold. Robertson Glacier is visible left (south).
At 4 km (2.5 mi) begin climbing. Ascend west through dense forest about 30 minutes to emerge in subalpine meadows. The trail bends southwest here. After a brief, level respite, the ascent resumes—south, curving northwest. Crest 2380-m (7256-ft) Burstall Pass at 7.5 km (4.7 mi).
North of the pass is Snow Peak. North-northwest are, from left to right, Birdwood Pass, 3097-m (10,158-ft) Mt. Birdwood, Pig’s Tail, and Commonwealth Peak. Distant northeast, beyond the trailhead, is the 3000-m (9840-ft) Fortress. South-southwest is 3406-m (11,172-ft) Mt. Sir Douglas.
Continue through the pass, around a sinkhole, to overlook upper Spray Valley. Leman Lake is west across the valley. Distant northwest is 3611-m (11,845-ft) Mt. Assiniboine.
For the optimal view, proceed cross-country, ascending about 235 m (720 ft) to the ridgecrest southwest of the pass. You’ll see a huge expanse of Spray Valley, from Bryant Creek in the north to Palliser Pass in the south. Belgium Lake is just north of Palliser Pass. Mts. King Albert and Queen Elizabeth are immediately west of Belgium Lake.
After roaming the crest south, where Mt. Sir Douglas appears much closer, return the way you came.
Kathy and Craig Copeland are the opinionated hikers. They write unique guidebooks—bold, intelligent, entertaining and of course accurate—that ensure you make the most of your precious time outdoors. Their titles include “Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, The Opinionated Hiking Guide,” and “Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies, The Premier Trails in Kananaskis Country, near Canmore and Calgary.” Visit hikingcamping.com to see or purchase any of the Copelands’ books.