Over the last few years, I’ve challenged myself to a big solo hike when I travel. I’m not sure as to the genesis of this desire. Perhaps it was my own way of testing my limits—how far I could push myself—or a way of reminding myself that I am a strong, independent woman. Last year, it was the W-Trek in Chile and before that it was Schiehallion in Scotland. When I decided to visit Banff and Jasper, I knew there had to be an epic hike that would fit the bill: Enter Skyline Trail, with its 46 km and sweeping mountain views. While most hikers camp at various campsites along the way, breaking up the journey into 3 or even 4 days, I am not a camper. Particularly as a solo hiker, I don’t want to be tasked with hauling all the necessary gear.
Thankfully, there is a lodge midway along the trail, with cabins and heating and facilities and food, though this does mean that one has to complete the hike in 2 days—approximately 22 km the first day and 24 km the second. Both are very doable distances, which I have covered on previous hikes, but I was particularly apprehensive this time around as I’d managed to strain a knee muscle a few days earlier and wasn’t sure I’d even be able to make it that far.
Day 1 (Aug. 27) – Maligne Lake Trailhead to Shovel Pass Lodge
As the trail is not an out-and-back type of trail, I parked at the north end and took a shuttle to the Maligne Lake Trailhead, that way my car would be awaiting my likely hobbling return. Poles in hand and backpack packed as lightly as I could manage, I set off into the woods around 10 am. Miraculously, my knee wasn’t giving me pain with every step as it had been the previous couple days, so I took the opportunity to try and make some good time. I had a very real concern that I wouldn’t make it to the lodge for dinner (at 6:30 pm) or before they closed (at 9 pm).
The trail wound its way through dense forest, and I glimpsed small lakes through the trees. I was definitely on high alert, as I was more than slightly concerned that I might encounter a bear. I had bought bear spray earlier that morning just for peace of mind, but it was still a terrifying thought considering I’d already seen two bears (from the safety of my car) on this trip. Many hikers affixed a bell to their pack to warn off wildlife; I chose to boombox music from my phone, which was also much more pleasant to listen to.
After about 5 km through the trees, I was grateful when the trail finally started to switchback to get above the tree line. It was a steady climb, though mercifully not too steep a grade, and I was soon glimpsing snow-capped mountains in the distance. Eventually, I emerged into a lovely, sun-soaked meadow, though I spied some ominous-looking clouds looming in the distance. At about 10 km into the trail, I came up Little Shovel Pass and looked back at the jagged peaks of the Queen Elizabeth range.
From there, I wound my way down into Snowbowl, a vast meadow criss-crossed by streams, and found myself hop scotching across stones and avoiding the muddier bits of the trail. Once I reached the Snowbowl campground, I took the opportunity to quickly scarf down a sandwich to fortify myself for the remainder of the day’s hike. I soldiered onwards, as the clouds rolled in and darkened the afternoon skies. I amused myself by spotting marmots, chipmunks, and other groundlings popping their heads out of their dwellings and skittering around the brush. I eventually spotted Big Shovel Pass (2286 m elevation) and made my way up the trail.
In many ways, I had few preconceived notions about what kinds of vistas I would be witnessing along the Skyline Trail. As a result, every ridge crested brought a new surprise and sense of wonder at what I might see next. And going over the ridge at Big Shovel Pass was definitely one of the more breathtaking moments I’ve had this year. The wind was howling as I surveyed what looked to be a completely different planet—barren dirt and rock with a tantalizing glimpse of rugged mountain peaks far off in the distance, bathed in shafts of sunlight.
I’m not sure if it’s inspiring or depressing to be able to actually see the long, narrow trail draped over the rolling countryside ahead of you. You’re able to see how far you need to go—but then of course, you realize just how far you need to go. I was just so thrilled that I’d made it this far on my janky knee, and that I was actually in striking distance of the lodge. I set off down what became an increasingly narrow (barely wider than my foot) and distinctly slanted trail, which made for an uncomfortable descent, as my knees were being wrenched at an awkward angle.
In my head, I’d delusionally believed that the lodge would not be at the bottom of the valley I was hiking through. Indeed, I’d spent so much of the day climbing in altitude that it’d seemed a shame to go all the way back down again, but I was soon disabused of my delusion as the trail continued its descent. My knees were screaming at this point, and I was soon half jogging down the rocky trail, muttering and swearing, desperate to get to the lodge in time for dinner.
At long last, with just 10 minutes to spare, I stumbled into Shovel Pass Lodge. A delicious dinner of pork chops and mashed potatoes awaited me, and I tucked into it voraciously. I sat with a foursome (parents and their adult children) who had been on the shuttle with me earlier in the morning and who I learned had arrived at the lodge a good 2 hours before I had. Feeling a little inadequate next to my fellow hikers, some of whom were easily 30 years my senior, I reminded myself that I was nursing a knee injury and should be grateful to have made it all.
After dinner, I settled in to my little cabin, equipped with just a washstand, propane heating and lighting. The bed was mercifully comfortable, and I was relieved to have a warm, cozy spot to rest up and recuperate before the long hike the next day. My gratitude for having booked a lodge (rather than camped) was amplified, as I listened to a howling rainstorm batter my cabin roof.