The trail to C-level Cirque is a forest-filled walk up to an old mining area just outside of Banff. There are some fantastic views of Lake Minnewanka on the way up, and then the viewpoint at the top allows you to stare up into a massive mountain bowl, that has been hollowed out by a glacier. This was the highest that miners were able to dig for coal.
Our most recent trip to Japser and Banff was in the middle of April, so there was plenty of snow on the ground. But we still wanted to get outside and take a peek at some shoulder season hikes. My brother and his wife had been exploring with us on most days, but we decided to split up for a day so we could head into the mountains while they explored the town.
C-level Cirque Trail Map
C-level Cirque – the basics
Distance: 13 km (8.4 km for the main trail plus 2.3 km extra each way in winter)
Elevation gain: 455 m
Highest Point: 1920 m
Time: 3-4 hours. We took 2 hours 10 minutes to go up, and 1.5 hours to come down (including the extra 4.6 km to Minnewanka Lake)
What to bring:
We used microspikes as the trail was well packed down. Earlier in the winter snowshoes might be better.
The 10 Essentials (as always)
If you do this hike in winter, the road will be closed, so you can park at Lake Minnewanka and hike in.
There were toilets at the Upper Bankhead car park, but they were closed for the winter.
Dogs are allowed on this trail if you keep them on a lead.
How hard is it?
Easy/Moderate. The path is easy to follow, but there are a few steep-ish sections. Be careful if you bring children along on this hike as there are some (fenced off) mining shafts.
C-level Cirque – Getting started
We stayed at the Juniper Hotel and Bistro just outside of Banff. I loved it for the views, and thought they have a reeeeally good breakfast. Hiking up to the C-level Cirque takes less than 4 hours, so it’s worth stopping for a decent meal before your walk! We had eggs benny with salmon and it was the best breakfast of our holiday.
The C-level Cirque trail starts at the Upper Bankhead Parking Lot and Picnic Area. However between November and April, the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive is closed (as it is a wildlife corridor.) Just drive to Lake Minnewanka and park there. You can take a peek at the beautiful frozen Lake Minnewanka aaand there are some fantastic loos with views.
You then walk the extra 2.3 km to the starting point. Cascade Mountain in the photo below is where we’re heading. We get to climb up to the large cirque just above the treeline. Before May, they’ll be no cars on this road, so you can walk right in the middle and see the best views.
This area has some buildings and slag-piles left from the mining operations that continued here up until 1922. The “C-level” mines were the highest that the miners ever excavated. We were impressed that they ever managed to get up here carrying their heavy tools. They must have been incredibly hard-working.
As well as the old mining buildings, there are quite a mining shafts as well as vent holes from the mine shafts below ground. They are all fenced off, so you cannot see much. I personally am not keen to fall down a mining shaft, so I kept well clear of them!
The trail winds through lovely tall woodland. In mid-April the first few hundred meters of the path were clear, but after that we needed micro-spikes the whole way up the mountain. We heard a few sweary squirrels, but the main noise at this time of year is the creak of the trees. We didn’t see any other hikers on the trail, even though it is a perfect shoulder season hike.
Once you’ve made it to the graffiti-covered mining buildings, you are just under half way up.
Viewpoint down to Lake Minnewanka
If you take a mini detour off the trail (a few minutes after the old mining buildings) there is a fantastic viewpoint down to Lake Minnewanka and the surrounding Rockies. You’ll be standing on a large slag heap, so there is an opening in the trees to give you this view.
After the viewpoint, head back to the main path and follow it up, past the mine shafts through more pretty woodland. The path curves around a few times following the contours of the mountain, but eventually you’ll start to see Cascade Mountain towering above you through the trees.
C-level Cirque Views
You’ll emerge from the trees and have a short steep climb up to the cirque. In summer you can continue beyond this to a higher viewpoint (where you can relax and meet marmots.) We found this top area had deep snow, and no obvious path, so we decided to stop here to admire the views.
It was such a beautiful, warm day! Clouds kept swooshing past, but we were warm and happy looking out to the surrounding Rockies.
The snow-covered rocks above are gorgeous. Then, in the other direction you get a fantastic view back to Lake Minnewanka, Banff and the surrounding Rockies.
Good for shoulder season?
We made it to C-level Cirque before 12:00pm, and the snow had *just* started to get soft. So if you go early you won’t have *too* many issues with post-holing. We could see marks on the snow from mini avalanches in the cirque, so just be sure to check local avalanche reports before you head out on this walk. We didn’t feel safe to go any higher in these conditions, but in summer or autumn you could keep heading up for even more impressive viewpoints.
Deer rescuing adventure
On our return journey, we decided to follow the Cascade trail through the trees, rather than walking on the road again. We found a pen where animals used to be fenced in. All the gates were open so there shouldn’t’ve been any animals around, but two young deers seemed to have wandered into the back of the pen and stressed themselves out trying to escape.
The poor deers were running and throwing themselves against the fences (with fur flying everywhere) in their attempts to escape. We figured if they’d just try running in the other direction, they could get back out into the forest. So, we went into the pen with them. Marc walked in one direction, and I went in the other in our attempt to shoo them out of their self-imprisonment. It worked! It was slightly scary when the deers took one look at us both and decided I was the less-scary option, they charged towards me, only zipping around me at the last second. Eep!
The deer lolloped off into the forest so we felt like we’d done a good deed for the day. Our reward was these gorgeous mountain views on our hike back to the carpark.
We saw a few other deer by the car park in Lake Minnewanka. These dudes looked for more chilled. There were four more in the forest behind the bravest one. Can you spot one of their faces?
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