Cascade Mountain is probably the most recognisable mountain in Banff National Park, second perhaps only to Rundle Mountain or the Valley of the Ten Peaks. It’s a mountain that absolutely dominates the skyline above the town of Banff, and you really only need to step onto the streets and look upwards to know which one I’m talking about.
While Louise managed to conquer Cascade several years ago, it has always been my white whale. Cascade is notorious for having such an incredibly short hiking window, that each year the season seems to blow by before I’ve had a chance to attempt it.
This year, I was determined to check it off once and for all, so this summer we eagerly eyed the snow line on the summit, carefully waiting for our window. Fortunately, this year the stars aligned, and we managed to sneak it in during the last week of August.
Here’s everything you need to know about this beast of a hike, and whether it’s actually worth the effort!
- Distance: 20.1km
- Elevation gain: 1,806m
- Time: approx 7-10 hours
- Summit height: 9,836m
- Difficulty: Moderate (but extremely long)
Cascade Mountain General Overview
Cascade Mountain is always considered to be one of Banff’s harder hikes (it’s really a scramble) for a number of reasons, but the biggest reason is the distance and elevation change. At 20.1km, you’re looking at a long, long day of hiking, and the elevation change is pretty huge and comparable with hikes like Mount Temple in the Moraine Lake area.
Although Cascade Mountain looks like a typical pointy mountain from the town of Banff, it’s actually more of a horseshoe shape. This means that the only way to hike it is to completely walk around the back of it and up one of the sides. This makes the trail infinitely longer, and there’s probably a good 5km of hiking flat trails and switchbacks in the forest before you’re actually gaining any serious elevation.
Compared with other more challenging hikes/scrambles, Cascade really isn’t particularly technical at all, however it does have a very narrow hiking window where you’re able to do it safely. Snow lingers on the top of Cascade, and as a result, the trail is only hike-able for about a month in August.
The general rule of thumb is that there has to be no snow visible along the top of the mountain when you look at it from the town, in order for it to be doable.
Finally, the other somewhat challenging aspect is the trail itself. It isn’t always super obvious, so there is potential to come unstuck if you go off route. Fortunately, there are now bright orange trail markers above the treeline that make it easier to follow.
Norquay to Cascade Amphitheatre
Cascade Amphitheatre is the first part of the hike up Cascade Mountain, and actually it’s quite a popular route in itself. The trail begins at the Norquay Ski Hill, descends into the river valley below, and then finally winds up through the forest to reach the Amphitheatre. This part of the trail is around 400m elevation gain, meaning you gain almost all of it once you leave the amphitheatre.
If we continue with the horseshoe shape analogy, the Cascade Amphitheatre is the inside of the horseshoe. The trail reaches a wide plateau with a small meadow and sheer rock walls on all sides.
It’s a nice little day hike if you’re looking for somewhere to have a picnic, but overall I probably wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a short hike with breathtaking views.
Honestly, I’d probably liken it to the Sulphur Mountain Hike in terms of having views of trees the entire time and endless switchbacks. Some people like this hike, but I personally don’t think it’s worth doing unless you plan to carry on up to the summit.
Cascade Amphitheatre to the Crux
From the Cascade Amphitheatre, things suddenly get a lot steeper and more interesting. The first task is to escape the amphitheatre, and you’ll find a trail on your right hand side nestled in the trees. This climbs quickly onto the cliff band above and allows you to gradually gain elevation.
Within a few minutes, the trail starts to wrap around the front of Cascade, giving you panoramic views of Mt. Norquay (where you can try the epic Via Ferrata), Mount Edith, Vermillion Lakes, Stoney Squaw and the Sundance Range. Soon you’ll leave the treeline and the rockfield begins.
This is where you have to pay attention and look out for orange trail markers and the correct route. It’s not always obvious, and rarely requires any hands on manoeuvres. If you find yourself climbing rocks and actually scrambling, you’ve probably gone a little wrong.
Gradually you’ll wind higher until you see a notch in the mountain, and the false summit on your right. There is a large step down, at which point you can traverse over to the false summit. From the false summit, you have to traverse 230m around it to the right, until you’re on the front side of the mountain. Do not try to climb up the trail to the top of the false summit!
There is one section of this traverse that crosses a particularly slick slab with some large exposure, so I would really avoid this trail if theres any hint of ice or snow in the forecast.
Once you’re on the front of the mountain, the trail eventually reaches what I would say is the only real scrambling part of the hike. There’s one 6ft downclimb that will require your hands, but it’s not too technical and the exposure is minimal. This is what I would call the “crux” of Cascade Mountain, but it’s really only worth mentioning in passing.
Crux to Cascade Mountain Summit
This part of the hike is where the snow will halt your progress if your timing is off. If you’ve chosen your window well, it’s a simple straight shot to the peak from here, and it will probably take you 20-30 minutes of hard work to get to the top. There’s a small amount of scree, but nothing compared to harder scree hikes. For the most part, the ground is fairly solid underfoot.
Finally, the summit is absolutely breathtaking. Standing on the top you can see everything in all directions, and the hundreds of peaks that make up the Rocky Mountains. Below, you can see Lake Minnewanka stretching away to the prairies, Canmore, the entire Bow Valley, Rundle Mountain, the town of Banff far below and much more. The view is absolutely wild, and the summit is wide enough to hold plenty of people.
From the summit, it’s back down the way you came again. Prepare for a long grind back to the parking lot. The final 4 or 5 km through the trees seem to go on forever, so make sure you have good company and plenty of snacks!
Tips for hiking Cascade Mountain
- Bring plenty of food and water. This is a long 20km+ day that requires lots of energy
- Bring warm layers and gloves. Even if it’s a baking hot day, the altitude can make for some biting wind.
- Bring sunscreen. You’re out in the sun for a long time on this hike
- Bring decent hiking boots with ankle support; there are sections of scree and loose rock.
When is the best time to hike Cascade Mountain?
Officially (according to Parks Canada), the hiking window is “late June or early July to September”, but I would probably limit that to mid-to-late August if you want to really guarantee a good shot at the summit.
People do do this hike at other times of years, but they either have self arrest gear and crampons, or they simply don’t summit.
Cascade Mountain Trail Map
This is the official trail map from the Parks Canada website. Notice all the red X’s are from sites of serious accidents. Most of those probably came from people trying to take shortcuts. Make sure you stick to the trail!
Overall this trail is very straightforwards and looks a lot harder than it actually is. The main things to keep in mind are sticking to the correct trail and the fact that it’s a long, long hike. If you ask me, it’s well worth the effort and should definitely be on your Banff Bucketlist!
For me, it was great to finally scratch this itch and conquer the mountain that’s been taunting me for years!