Hike the Buller Passes with Kathy & Craig Copeland
Location: Spray Valley Provincial Park
Distance: 14-km round trip to Buller Pass, 15-km circuit through Buller and North Buller passes
Elevation gain: 670 m for round trip, 907 m for circuit
Hiking time: 4-hour round trip, 5-hour circuit
Difficulty: easy round trip, moderate circuit due only to brief round-finding
Real estate companies keep telling us that “Purchasing a home is the most important thing you’ll do in your life.” Wow. What small, narrow lives they assume we’re living.
Surely, becoming capable, wise and compassionate, by pursuing imaginative, challenging, fulfilling 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.
You can make this a four-hour, 14-km round trip by turning back at Buller Pass. The view from the pass—across Ribbon Lake basin to Guinn’s Pass—is outstanding.
Or you can create a five-hour, 15-km circuit by returning through North Buller Pass, adding a little more scenery and a lot more excitement.
Whichever you choose, only the first and last hour of the day will be in forest. You’ll mostly be above treeline, with the surrounding mountains in view.
Keep in mind, defined trail leads only as far as Buller Pass. From there to North Buller you’ll hike cross-country, but no trail is necessary in this open, alpine terrain.
A small, snow cornice lingers long on the east side of North Buller Pass, but by early July it’s usually easy to clamber over. Descending the steep, rocky, west side of North Buller is an exercise in slide-control, but you’ll quickly reach walkable terrain where a path is soon evident. Within 45 minutes you’ll re-join the main trail.
Might North Buller outstrip your desire or ability? Examine it after crossing Buller Pass and beginning the circuit. If it looks too formidable, about-face and head home via Buller Pass.
What to Bring
Wear hiking boots and bring trekking poles or old ski poles. Even if you start in shorts and a T-shirt, bring long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, a fleece pullover, and a light rain shell in your daypack. You’ll likely want sunglasses, a hat with a brim, and sunscreen. Gloves and a toque could be useful. In addition to a hearty lunch, carry a few high-energy snacks, plus two litres of water per person. A headlamp and a first-aid kit are always a good idea in case of emergency.
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 turn right (west) into Buller Mtn Day Use Area trailhead parking lot, at 1815 m.
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 through Engelmann spruce forest.
At 2.8 km, 1985 m, 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, 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, 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. Buller Pass is now 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 to crest Buller Pass at 7 km, 2485 m, about two hours from the trailhead. Ribbon Lake is visible east, in the basin below the pass. Behind it is 2959-m Mt. Kidd. North of the lake is 3144-m Mt. Bogart.
To complete a circuit via North Buller Pass, descend the rocky trail east-northeast from Buller Pass. In about 15 minutes, near 2280 m, turn left (north) at the bottom of the chunky rocks, just above the stunted trees. Proceed cross-country onto grass, dip into a depression, then ascend the slope ahead. At 2420 m, hike north between grassy knobs. Curve left (northwest) before losing significant elevation. Ascend steep talus to crest 2477-m North Buller Pass. You’ve hiked 1.7 km from Buller Pass.
From North Buller you’ll hike 2.6 km (1.6 mi)—about 45 minutes—to intersect the main trail to Buller Pass. Carefully work your way down the chunky scree on the steep, west side of North Buller. Reach flatter ground at 2325 m. Continue cross-country, generally west, occasionally on scraps of route beaten into the rocky, shrubby terrain. Curve southwest, staying right (north) of the creek.
A snippet of trail in the creek gully leads up and out, skirting a waterfall in a small box canyon. A divided trail begins on the right, above the waterfall. It leads through trees to creek-side willow flats. Proceed southwest. At 2205 cross to the creek’s southeast bank.
Soon intersect the main trail to Buller Pass, just above the turquoise pool where the creek cascades into a rock bowl. You’re now on familiar ground. Turn right. In a minute, cross a footlog over the creek’s south fork. Follow the trail 3.7 km (2.3 mi), generally southwest, back to the trailhead.
This description is an excerpt from Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies, The Premier Trails in Kananaskis Country. It’s one of many guidebooks published by hikingcamping.com and written by Canmore residents Kathy & Craig Copeland.