Hiking Kootenay National Park: Stanley Glacier Basin in Winter

Making our way up the trail to Stanley Glacier.
The trouble my partner in crime and I had picking a day hike in Banff National Park (we chose Johnston Canyon) was just a preview of the trouble we were going to have doing the same in British Columbia's Kootenay National Park.

After overnighting in the town of Banff, we set off for Fernie Alpine Resort and gave ourselves a full day to get there, allowing plenty of time for some hiking along the way.

After much debate, and recommendations from the locals, we chose a combination of an out-and-back half day hike as close to the Stanley Glacier as we could get followed by a stop at Marble Canyon to round out the day.

Why the Stanley Glacier basin and Marble Canyon? Glaciers aren't something we have where we live now (Pennsylvania), the trails were listed as easy to find and follow, and both trails were right off of our chosen route along AB-93S, the Kootenay Highway. They were both absolutely stunning trails to visit, and I'll cover Marble Canyon in another trip report!

About the Stanley Glacier Basin and Getting to the Trailhead

The Stanley Glacier Basin, part of the Vermillion River Valley, sits below the slowly-retreating Stanley Glacier. A lightening strike caused a fire that burned a significant number of trees along the start of the trail in 1968, but new growth is clearly evident, even if you visit in the winter like we did.
With so much snow on the ground, it was impossible to tell how tall the new trees were. But they're there!
In the summer, from what we've heard, plants like fireweed and columbine brighten the landscape with a variety of colors. High peaks (Stanley Peak, Storm Mountain, Mount Whymper, and Boom Mountain) surround the valley, dominating the horizon, which was a big part of the appeal of the hike for us.

From the town of Banff, we drove west along the Trans-Canada Highway, then turned south along AB-93. In less than 30 minutes, we were at the trailhead. We turned into a parking lot right off the highway, finding only one other car there.

Hiking Toward Stanley Glacier (4.2km One Way)

Finding the trail from the parking lot was easy, despite several inches of new snow and snow still falling while we hiked. After crossing the Vermillion River, the trail climbs gentle switchback after switchback for two kilometers. Luckily for us, skiers and folks on snowshoes visited the area recently enough for us to make out where the trail went. With no blazes in sight, the trail would've been completely invisible otherwise.

I was grateful for those who'd hiked before us and packed the trail down!
As we climbed through remnants of the 1968 fire, the snow kept falling. I was concerned about finding the trail, but the ski and snowshoe tracks were deep enough that we didn't have any trouble. The thin tree cover made it easy to see where we'd come from, just in case we did lose the trail. And just over two kilometers into our morning, the switchbacks eased and we found a clearly man-made bridge across Stanley Creek - a sign we were headed the right way.

Pausing at the bridge across Stanley Creek.
To our right, tiny waterfalls of snow cascading down to the valley were frequently visible along an imposing limestone cliff in the distance. We heard these snow cascades are replaced by waterfalls in the spring and summer. Small caves in the cliffs were also incredible to look at, and despite the frequent piles of snow cascading down into the valley from the cliff, we were far enough away that it felt safe. To the left, Storm Mountain, technically across the border in Alberta, dominated the view.

The cliffs beneath Stanley Peak, covered in frozen waterfalls and dotted with caves.
The trail continued up the valley for another kilometer or so, and all of a sudden, the path through the snow stopped. We continued as long as we could until we started punching through the snow; I stepped into a hole up to my waist at one point, and we decided to make that our turnaround point. We could see the glacier in the distance, but we estimated it would've been another kilometer to get there, and we were certain it wouldn't be a pleasant kilometer stepping in snow that deep the entire way.

The trees starting to thin as we got closer and closer to the glacier and boulder fields.
We ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunch standing up at the end of the packed trail, and every time I stopped chewing, it was absolutely 100% quiet. Quiet enough, in fact, that I could hear my ears ringing. Intimidating snow-capped peaks dominated the landscape all around us, and as the snow continued to fall, I kept thinking to myself, "how is it possible that places as beautiful as this exist?"

Just about where the trail ended for us. I've never felt so tiny in my entire life!
After finishing lunch, we turned around and followed the packed trail back to the parking lot, stopping for a closer look at Stanley Creek and to watch the clouds swirl around Mount Whymper in front of us. The entire 6-7km route took us just over two hours, take a look at our route here.

Things to Know Before You Go

Get an early start, especially in warmer months. Though the parking lot was almost empty when we visited, it was snowing hard, temperatures were low, and our hike was in the middle of the week. In the summer, the parking lot fills up quickly because the hike is family-friendly and short.

Think about bringing snowshoes, at the very least, or skis if you're doing a winter hike. We left our snowshoes in Pennsylvania for this trip, but when we had to turn around because we punched through the snow, I regretted it. We also got super lucky having a packed trail to use; had the trail not been packed down, we wouldn't have made it far.

And before you pack your skis or snowshoes and head out, check the Parks Canada avalanche bulletin. Conditions were good while we were there, but things can change quickly. Review the avalanche bulletin and call local park offices to get the best, most up to date information. If the risks are high, don't go.

If you visit in the summer, remember, the glacier is moving. One trip report I read mentioned rockfall having occurred while hikers were visiting the area, which is always a risk. But it's important to keep in mind if you choose to explore beyond marked trails. Also, keep an eye out for wildlife, but observe at a safe distance if you find any!

Who's done this hike, or been to Kootenay National Park? I'd love to hear about any hikes you've done in this part of Canada, as it was completely new to me. Sound off in the comments!