My brother hiked the Parker Ridge Trail with his family and told me that it was one of the must-do hikes along the Icefields Parkway. Since we had time for only one stop on our drive from Banff to Jasper we decided to give it a try.
Parker Ridge Trail is rated as an easy hike (albeit requiring some effort), taking 2.5 hours round trip. You are rewarded at the top as there is an exceptional view of the Saskatchewan Glacier flowing out from the Columbia Icefield. It’s 2.5 km to the crest of Parker, with a 250 m elevation gain. The ridge is treeless tundra and very windy so consider bringing a windbreaker.
The Trailhead is in Banff National Park on the south side of the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 North), 9 km south of the Icefield Information Centre, and about halfway between Lake Louise (119 km) and Jasper (113 km). It begins in a tree-lined forest of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. The trees gradually become stunted and then disappear. The last of the trees are called krummholz, meaning crooked wood.
It’s hard for plants and trees to grow here. Aside from the high elevation, the soil is poor, it’s windy and it is cold (there’s snow on the ground from September until June). Avalanches have uprooted trees here and the trail goes through one such area. In fact a sign says that if you find an unexploded warhead or avalanche projectile that you should not touch it but mark the location and report it to a Park warden.
Regardless, plants survive—at least hardy ones. The sign at the trailhead says moss campion, white-flowered mountain avens, woolly everlasting, yellow mountain heath, mountain heather, and Barratt’s willow grow here. It takes a long time for these alpine plants to reach any size, such as 100 years for the moss campion that you see on the trail. The sign says the plants grow in clumps and close to the ground for warmth and protection from the wind.
The Park understandably wants to protect the fragile vegetation and asks hikers to stay on the trail and not shortcut the switchbacks. There is currently an effort underway to repair past damage but it is a long and costly process.
There are some animals (chipmunks, squirrels, goats) and birds (mountain chickadee, rosy finch, white-tailed ptarmigan, mountain blue bird) and, of course, bears. This is bear country so travel in groups and make lots of noise.
And just when you think all those switchbacks will never end you’ll be at the top and the view will take your breath away.
By Jessica Sunter
Photo credits Riding the buses™
© Riding the buses™ 2015