Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies
Sample of a Canadian Rockies K-Country trip
Trip 5 Buller Passes
|Location||Spray Valley Prov. Park, east of Hwy 742|
|Round trip||14 km (8.6 mi) to Buller Pass|
|Circuit||17.3 km (10.7 mi) including unnamed summit beyond North Buller Pass|
|Elevation gain||670 m (2198 ft) to Buller Pass, 1070 m
(3510 ft) to unnamed summit (includes regaining
Low / high points 1815 m (5953 ft) / 2485 m (8150 ft) at Buller Pass, 2750 m (9020 ft) on unnamed summit
|Hiking time||4 to 5 hours for Buller Pass, 7 to 8 hours for unnamed summit|
|Difficulty||Easy to Buller Pass, challenging to unnamed summit|
|Maps||Gem Trek Canmore and Kananaskis Village; Spray Lakes Reservoir 82 J/14|
Coldwell Banker, in its marketing materials, proclaims that “Purchasing a home is the most important thing people will do in their lives.” Wow. What small, narrow lives they assume we’re living. Surely, becoming capable, creative, wise and compassionate, by pursuing imaginative, challenging, fulfilling, meaningful endeavours, is what’s most important in life. And along the way developing the confidence and flexibility to feel at home wherever we are. Judged by this loftier definition, going hiking is far more important than buying a home. So, off you go. On an adventurous, rewarding dayhike through the Buller passes, and up to an unnamed summit with a walloping view of Rocky Mountain wilderness.
You have several options here. Whichever you choose, only the first and last hour of the day will be in heavy timber. You’ll mostly be above treeline, with the surrounding mountains in view. To make this a shorter, easier round trip, turn back at Buller Pass. The view from the pass—across Ribbon Lake basin to Guinn’s Pass (Trip 14)—is outstanding, but the hike itself is merely worthwhile. The longer circuit, looping back via North Buller Pass, is preferable, adding a little more scenery and a lot more excitement—routefinding and cross-country travel. But if you want a panoramic vista that will blow open your doors and windows, detour about 40 minutes beyond North Buller Pass to an airy, unnamed summit high above the Sparrowhawk tarns (Trip 4). Given one of Alberta’s famous blue skies, you’ll see much of the Great Divide between Mt. Assiniboine and Mt. Rundle, including most of Spray Lakes Reservoir.
Wait until late July before attempting the circuit. A snow cornice tends to linger long on the east side of North Buller Pass. Keep in mind, you’ll be hiking a defined trail only as far as Buller Pass. Shortly beyond, you’ll navigate trail-less, alpine terrain. The unnamed peak demands a short, steep ascent on talus and scree. But it’s not a scramble, and it poses no exposure. North Buller Pass is also steep and rocky. Descending its west side is an exercise in slide-control. You’ll quickly drop to walkable terrain, however, where navigation is simple: just head down-valley. A path soon develops. You’ll re-join the main trail within 45 minutes of departing North Buller Pass.
Might North Buller or the unnamed summit outstrip your desire or ability? No worries. Examine them both after crossing Buller Pass and beginning the circuit. If they look too formidable, you can about face and head home via Buller Pass. So start early intending to do it all.
From downtown Canmore, follow signs leading uphill to the Canmore Nordic Centre. Reset your trip odometer to 0 and continue ascending on Smith-Dorrien / Spray Trail (Hwy 742). Pavement soon ends.
After crossing Whiteman’s Gap, proceed generally southeast. At 31.4 km (19.5 mi) turn west into Buller Mtn Day Use Area trailhead parking lot. Elevation: 1815 m (5953 ft).
From the junction of Hwy 40 and Kananaskis Lakes Trail (50 km / 31 mi south of Trans-Canada Hwy 1, or 17 km / 10.5 mi north of Highwood Pass), turn southwest onto Kananaskis Lakes Trail.
Reset your trip odometer to 0. At 2.2 km (1.4 mi) turn right (northwest) onto unpaved Smith-Dorrien / Spray Trail (Hwy 742) and drive generally northwest. At 32.2 km (20 mi) turn west into Buller Mtn Day Use Area trailhead parking lot. Elevation: 1815 m (5953 ft).
Return to the highway and cross it. The trail begins on the east side. Immediately cross a small bridge, enter forest, and curve northeast. This will remain your general direction of travel for the first hour.
Within 15 minutes, cross a bridge to Buller Creek’s north bank. The trail ascends moderately then contours for nearly 1 km (0.6 mi) through pleasant Engelmann spruce forest. At 2.8 km (1.7 mi), 1985 m (6510 ft), cross a bridge to the creek’s south bank. Ascend more steeply, then enjoy a level reprieve. Where the forest opens, you can look up both valleys: right (east-southeast) leads to Buller Pass; left (northeast) leads to North Buller Pass. Mt. Buller is farther left (directly north).
At 2100 m (6888 ft), about an hour from the trailhead, pass a turquoise pool where the creek cascades into a rock bowl. Then cross a footlog over the creek’s south fork. One minute beyond, watch closely for a fork near a tree blazed N-S. Here, at 3.7 km (2.3 mi), the narrow trail to North Buller Pass veers left (northeast). For Buller Pass, bear right (southeast) on the main trail. If you opt for the circuit linking both passes, you’ll loop back to this fork.
Proceeding on the main trail, within 15 minutes ascend past an interesting gorge on the right and attain a view of cliffs. Larches appear in the upper subalpine zone. The trail begins curving northeast. At 2240 m (7347 ft) Buller Pass is visible ahead.
Ascending gently into the upper basin, the trail grazes a creeklet and small cascade. Then it climbs the steep, rocky headwall, gaining 160 m (525 ft), to crest Buller Pass at 7 km (4.3 mi), 2485 m (8150 ft), about two hours from the trailhead.
Want to read about traversing to North Buller Pass or the unnamed summit? Get the book.