You’ve had it on your hiking bucket list for decades. Now, finally, there you are at the summit, ready to claim the prize of gazing out on an otherworldly view of chiselled peaks, hanging glaciers and baby-blue lakes.But the overlook is packed and a train of people is steadily ascending. Jostling for position, you swim your way through the sweaty bodies to get your picture, before high-tailing it out of there, disappointed and disheartened.
Perhaps the culprit is our look-at-me, social media-fueled age that funnels people toward famous landmarks and viewpoints. Whatever the reason, people tend to migrate to the roads, the trails, most travelled, the familiar. But hiking doesn’t have to be this way. The mountains are threaded with many terrific trails that barely see a soul; you’ve just got to dig a little deeper to find them.
Here are some under-the-radar rambles that will take you far from the maddening crowds.
If you like Tunnel Mountain in Banff, try Missinglink Mountain in Sheep River Provincial Park
Distance: 4.2 km
Elevation Gain: 338 m
For short-and-sweet hikes in Kananaskis Country, minus the crowds, head into the Sheep River Valley just west of the town of Diamond Valley. There are many options here — High Noon Hills, Carry Ridge, Indian Oils and Mount Hoffmann — but one of my personal favourites is Missinglink Mountain. The trail starts with a moderate uphill section through the trees before reaching an open summit ridge. It’s fairly steep near the end, but spectacular K-Country views are the rich (and relatively easy-won) reward.
If you like views of Peyto Lake in Banff National Park, try Bow Summit Viewpoint
Distance: 6.8 km
Elevation Gain: 305 m
Peyto Lake is a magnet for selfie-seeking sightseers, and it’s best to avoid the oft-crowded trails around the viewpoints if you seek tranquillity. But that’s not to say there aren’t other options. From the same parking lot you can take the seldom-travelled trek to the Bow Summit Viewpoint. The main trail is relatively wide and not overly steep, with multiple offshoots that end up at the same point (what’s known as a “braided trail”). The views down the valley and of the baby-blue Peyto and Bow lakes are spectacular from many spots along the journey.
If you like Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park, try Thompson Falls near Golden, B.C.
Distance: 11.9 km
Elevation Gain: 460 m
True, Johnston Canyon is a fabulous foray into a famous Rocky Mountain slot canyon. The hanging boardwalks, waterfalls and rock formations are undeniably spectacular — but so are the crowds. Although it doesn’t come with the same slot canyon characteristics, the out-and-back Thompson Falls Trail just west of Golden is a beautiful and serene riverside hike with a pretty waterfall at the end that you may just have all to yourself. The trail starts in the forest along the Blaeberry River, before veering inland. It then heads back along the river, finishing with a steep and narrow section near the falls. To access the trailhead turn right on Moberly Branch Road (20 minutes west of Golden) and drive along the gravel road for approximately 10 minutes.
If you like Fullerton Loop near Bragg Creek, try Black Mountain and Whaleback Ridge Trail in the Bob Creek Wildland
Distance: 17.4 km
Elevation Gain: 761 m
Just an hour-and-a-half south of Calgary, bordered by rolling ranchland and grassy ridges specked with ancient limber pine, Bob Creek Wildland is a serene swath of hiking heaven. Only a handful of people visit this park on any given day, and the views, the wildflowers and the away-from-it-all aura here is unlike anything you’ll encounter in the more “famous” parks. The catch is that you’ve got to come prepared: there are no services and the trails can sometimes be tough to find. The main public access is the Bob Creek staging area on the park’s south end. For more information on the Wildland’s trails, access point, regulations, et al, visit albertaparks.ca.
If you like Lady MacDonald in Canmore, try Turtle Mountain Trail in the Crowsnest Pass
Distance: 7.4 km
Elevation Gain: 936 m
Famous for the 1903 Frank Slide disaster, Turtle Mountain — a limestone behemoth that tips out at 2,210 m — is an unmistakable landmark in the Crowsnest Pass. Exploring the boulder-strewn remnants near the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre is the most common way to gain insight into the catastrophe that claimed the lives of upwards of 90 people. But hiking to the top of the slide via the Turtle Mountain trail affords a hair-raising and unforgettable perspective. Like the popular (and overly populated) stairmaster Lady MacDonald trail in Canmore, Turtle Mountain is a grind: the initial steep and unrelenting approach to the relatively exposed shoulder of the mountain is a true leg-burner. The pitch and difficulty only increases from there to reach the initial false summit and the “real” summit beyond, however, a reward of spine-tingling views of the Crowsnest Pass and the slide awaits. Access to the trailhead is just off 15th Avenue in Blairmore, Alta.
If you like Sunshine Meadows or Assiniboine Lake in Banff National Park, try Northover Ridge Loop Trail in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Distance: 34.3 km
Elevation Gain: 2,304 m
The beautiful thing about a multi-day hike is that the further you go, the more likely you are to find solitude amidst the incredible natural beauty. Northover Ridge, an epic two- or three-day trek (tenacious trailrunners are known to run it in a day with a light daypack), isn’t for the faint of heart, and the hike up to Astor Lake and the eponymous ridge is steep and unrelenting, especially with a heavy pack. This is advanced-level hiking — expect loose rock, exposed sections and heavy winds — but the payoff is that much sought-after tranquility, and the views are sublime.
The Ultimate Horde-less Hike
For an undeniably high-end “away from it all” adventure, Banff-based Canadian Mountain Holidays, a.k.a. CMH, operates a variety of heli-hiking trips from its Bugaboos, Cariboos and Bobbie Burns backcountry lodges. In the summer of 2024, CMH will be launching special small-group guided trips with Canadian Geographic ambassadors. Guests can learn photography and get professional writing tips in some of the most spectacular wilderness terrain in British Columbia.
AllTrails, All the Time
Wayfinding apps are essential resources for those seeking out less-travelled hiking trails. Founded in 2010, AllTrails is one of the premier apps that hikers use to find trailheads, navigate routes, share reviews and log their kilometres. More than 50 million people use AllTrails and the app has information on upwards of 400,000 trails throughout the world. The basic app is free, while the AllTrails+ version ($35.99 per year) unlocks many other features, such as wrong turn alerts, offline maps and 3D maps.
[Note: This story has been updated to state that CMH’s Canadian Geographic trips will launch in 2024.]