July 2020 Update – Check here for the status of the Yamnuska trail. Due to a number of recent injuries on the scree slopes, the trail is occasionally closed to the public. Unfortunately the popularity means that there are often many inexperienced groups heading up the scree at the same time, leading to the lower groups being at risk of rockfall from the groups above
Yesterday was a day for hiking, and we figured that, as it was forecast to be a warm day with not much wind, it might be a good day to tackle something steep and tricky with a lot of exposure. Mount Yamnuska seemed like the obvious choice for us.
I must have driven past Mount Yamnuska a hundred times on my way to Banff, and its sheer rock face always made it stand out compared to the other mountains you pass on the way. It’s the first mountain you pass on the way into the Rockies, so it’s also the closest mountain to Calgary. Perfect if you wake up late and feel like summit-ing something.
Mount Yamnuska hike stats:
Difficulty: moderate with some scrambling sections
This hike is super easy to find. You take highway 1 towards Banff and then take exit 114 towards Seebe. If you put “Mount Yamnuska” into Google maps, it’ll take you straight to the car park and the trail head. From Canada Olympic Park to the start of the hike it’s about 45 minutes, so it’s awesome if you’re not looking to drive too far!
Up Through the Trees:
The start of the hike took us up through the treeline pretty quickly. This is the part we were struggling with most because the incline is so steep, but it was a nice mild day and we weren’t pushing too hard. Fairly quickly we got to a fork in the road where it said, “climbers – left, hikers – right”. We definitely recommend taking the right route if you’re planning to hike this (the left route is hikeable, but way more slippery underfoot). It’s 100x easier to come down than up, so we recommend taking the solid ground for the way up, and the slippery ground for the way down. The anti-clockwise loop is definitely the way to go!
Once you emerge through the treeline, you’ll walk smack bang into the bottom of the sheer rock face in front of you. Look up and you’ll notice a gap in the rocks to the right, and you’ll have to hoist yourself up through the hole to reach the back side of the mountain and the trail.
The back side of the mountain is basically one giant slippery rock scramble and this area is where people are frequently injured.
The path is fairly unclear at times. Well…. maybe it’s clear to most people, but we missed the main path and decided to climb straight up the rubble. Don’t do this.
It was pretty slippery, and we saw one person far below us have a near death experience as someone above him dislodged a huge rock that tumbled down and missed him by inches.
This is exactly how someone died a few days ago, and our advice is that if there are lots of groups above you, either reconsider climbing up or take a route that completely avoids anyone above you. Also, bring a helmet!
Eventually we reached the lowest peak, and the furthest reaches of the Rockies. From where we stood, there was nothing between us and downtown Calgary and we could actually just make out the hazy outline of the Bow building far off in the distance.
This seemed like a good spot for lunch, so we stopped here for a good half hour while we soaked up the views and worked up the energy to tackle the summit.
Final ascent to Mount Yamnuska Summit:
From our lunch spot, the trail heads up and west. Some spots in constant shade were a little icy still, and these bits were pretty tough, but for the most part it was a fun walk upwards towards the famous chained section, “the crux”.
The Crux was pretty exciting, and fairly easy to navigate. Just hold on tight to the chain and it’s plain sailing! Maybe don’t look down though!
Once you’re past the chained section, there are a couple of sections where you have to climb down a little before the final ascent to the summit. Again, a little tricky with the ice, but definitely manageable!
The Summit was beautiful, but a little bit disappointing, as there were already about 30 people up there when we arrived. There was even a taekwondo team up there taking website photos and doing high kicks. Sometimes it’s nice to have a peak to yourself to fully take it in, but unfortunately the peak was teeming with people. This is something you might have to expect if you decide to do this on a nice sunny day.
Having said that, the views were just spectacular. Crowds or no crowds, it was pretty epic.
Coming down the mountain:
Coming down was probably the hardest part by far. The rocks are so loose that you’re almost in a constant state of falling. We found that the best way was to commit to the slide and just go with it.
Unfortunately, I’d decided to wear runners that day, rather than hiking shoes, and I was shaking rocks out of my shoes every time we stopped!
The way down is pretty hard on the knees, as you’re constantly in brake mode, but we managed to get back to the front side of the mountain without any injuries!
This last bit of the hike was by far the most fun, and it got us down the mountain super quickly. Basically, in front of the mountain, there was a huge rock runout, with a deep layer of little rocks; probably formed from thousands of years of erosion.
We found that it was so thick that it was possible to slide down the hill at full speed by just pumping your feet up and down. It was like sliding down in your very own little rockslide. An awesome experience that I’d never come across before! I definitely recommend taking this route down, as it’s nice on the knees and kind of awesome!
After that it was back to the trees and a final walk back to the car. It was an exhausting day, and I was deeead and pretty crispy by the time we got back. Definitely bring sunscreen, and probably bug spray too. A couple of friends of ours came back from Yamnuska with a few ticks, so make sure to check yourselves thoroughly when you get home! Happy hiking!
Tips for hiking Yamnuska safely
When Yam reopens, following these tips will help you complete is successfully:
- Bring a helmet. Yamnuska is notorious for rockfall on the scree slopes
- Spread out on the scree, don’t travel anywhere near any groups above you. Choose different lines that would put you out of harm’s way of any groups above.
- When hiking uphill on scree, push mostly on your uphill leg to lever yourself up. Pushing up with your downhill leg is what typically pushes rock downhill. Step lightly with your uphill leg at first, and if the rock moves at all, don’t push your weight onto it
- Visit later in the season, some of the sections can still be icy and slippery in early summer.
- We recommend travelling the Yamnuska loop in a counter-clockwise direction
- Don’t leave valuables in your car, Yamnuska parking lot has frequent break ins.