The Sawback trail runs 74km from the town of Banff to Lake Louise following the rugged Sawback range. Over its length the trail climbs over three 2300m passes (Mystic, Pulsatilla, and Boulder) and skirts no fewer than 4 spectacular alpine lakes (Luellen, Pulsatilla, Baker, and Ptarmigan). For those with a few extra days there are countless day tripping opportunities such as Badger pass, Johnston Creek ink pots and scrambling up peaks with breathtaking views. While never much more than a days hike from the Trans-Canada highway the Sawback trail maintains a true wilderness feel and several days can pass without seeing another soul.
Mount Norquay Trailhead - Mount Cockscomb campground:
Once you leave the parking lot the first kilometer of the trail can be a bit confusing to follow as you pass through the ski area, keep an eye out for trail markers and head down valley and you should be fine. Just short of the 1km mark there is a split in the trail, left is the Sawback trail, right will have you headed towards Elk lake. If you miss the junction and you head right all is not lost, other than time, as you can take a left at the next junction to get back onto the Sawback trail. At about the 6 km mark you'll come to the Edith pass junction, head straight, if you started at the Fireside Picnic Area this is where you'll join the trail. Cockscomb campground is only 2 km further. This leg is short and quite easy, with a reasonable start time you could push on to either Mystic Junction or Mystic Valley campgrounds. I chose not to as the weather looked unsettled and I wanted to ease into the hike especially since I was travelling solo. The Mount Cockscomb campground offers nice views of Mt. Louis and Edith from the nearby creek, otherwise it is a mostly forested site. Campfires were allowed at this site when I hiked the trail in 2005. Much of the Sawback trail is used by horse parties, this section of trail and the section to Mystic pass junction were in the worst shape.
Mount Cockscomb campground - Larry's camp campground
The first section of this leg is a relatively easy stroll through the forest, there is some elevation gain but not much. Enjoy this stretch as life gets more difficult after the Mystic pass junction at km 16. The trail up to the pass is a bit strenuous and characterized by an abundance of exposed rocks and roots so take care not to get tripped up. For those of you who decide to camp at Mystic Valley campground your first night rather than at Cockscomb You''ll find your campsites at roughly the 18.5 km mark. About half km further on is the junction for Mystic Lake, this beautiful lake is nestled under the ragged ramparts of Mount Ishbel, a great place to have a lunch break. Once back on the trail the climb continues for another 4km until the top of Mystic Pass. The Trees thin out and views improve long before reaching the pass offering visual distraction from any physical discomfort you may be experiencing. If you time your trip right you may be lucky enough to find the alpine meadows in the pass in bloom. The trail now plunges down towards the Johnston Creek Valley losing all that hard earned elevation, though the trail and scenery is pleasant. At the bottom of the valley at km 29 you'll find the junction to Larry's campground, the Sawback trail goes right. The campsite is located next to Johnston creek and is a agreeable though forested site. Camp fires are permitted here and there are some rather nice fire pits located close to the creek. Personally I found this to be the physically hardest day of the trip.
There is not much worth noting for the first part of this leg, just a slow forested climb along the creek. At roughly km 33 you pass the Johnston Creek warden cabin, one of two warden cabins along the trail, the other being at the 16 km junction before the Mystic junction campground. At km 38 you come to the junction with the Luellen Lake trail, a side trip here should be considered mandatory, definently one of the trail's highlights. Once back on the main trail you'll have a relatively easy stroll to Badger Pass Junction campground. The campsite is wonderfully sited in a small patch of forest surrounded by meadows. Views of surrounding peaks are phenomenal. This campsite is an ideal stopping point if you plan on heading to Badger Pass, an extremely rewarding side trip. Unfortunately, camp fires are not permitted at this site nor is water close at hand. I stayed here two nights so that I could spend an entire day exploring Badger pass and scramble up to the Bonnet Glacier.
Badger pass junction campground - Hidden Lake campground
This is the longest section of trail covering roughly 23km, a stay at Wildflower creek campground can make this much more managable. For the section between Pulsatilla and Baker lakes a compass and good map are definently assets as you can easily lose your way here, in 2005 the trail was faint in spots at best. I met one party that had wasted 4 hours travelling in the wrong direction so keep your eyes open and use your map and compass. The trail climbs up towards Pulsatilla pass and at its summit provides awe-inspiring views of Pulsatilla Lake and the surrounding peaks. The trail the drops steeply down to the Wildflower Creek campground junction located at 53.5 km, the trail stays right here, though the campground is a good place to stop for lunch. This section of trail is forested and is likely where your most likely to lose the trail. You'll eventually emerge into subalpine meadows and fantastic views abound of peaks and lakes alike. At km 59 you'll encounter a junction with Red Deer Lakes, turn left. The trail now follows the shoreline of Baker Lake, passes Ptarmigan Lake and climbs up to Blouder Pass under the Northern flanks of Mount Redoubt. The junction for Hidden Lake campground will be found a km and a half after Boulder pass. This is a highly popular campground so reservations may be required during peak season. Again, camp fires are not permitted here. There are so many opportunities for day hikes from here that it is definently worth spending an extra day or two here if you are able. I stayed an extra day so I could scramble up Mount Richardson and visit deception Pass.
Hidden Lake campground - Lake Louise
Turn right at the junction with the main trail. If you have time to spare and haven't already done so you can check out Halfway Hut. After 1km the trail enters into a subalpine forest and slowly loses elevation, on a hot day the forest can provide a pleasant respite. At km 70 the trail becomes a gravel road and you'll pass ski lifts signifying the end of your wilderness experience. This 4 km access road will bring you to the Fish Creek parking lot. If you do not have transportation from the trailhead prearranged you can hike into Lake Louise as I did, its not too far.
If travelling North from Banff there are two trailheads to choose from: Mount Norquay Ski Area or Fireside Picnic Area. I chose the Mount Norquay Ski Area as you can take a taxi from 'downtown' Banff for about $20. Take Mount Norquay Road from Banff to Mount Norquay Ski Area parking lot. Alternatively, take the Trans-Canada to Bow Valley Parkway exit, follow the Parkway to the Fireside Picnic Area access road, follow the access road to the picnic area.
If travelling South from Lake Louise the starting point is the Fish Creek parking lot at the Lake Louise Ski Area. At the Lake Louise Trans-Canada interchange take Whitehorn road to Fish Creek road, follow this to the parking lot.
If time is limited you can shorten your hike by ~30 km by starting at the Johnston Canyon trailhead, to reach this trailhead take the Bow Valley Parkway west from Banff.
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Posted By: tedsmailbox
- Fri Dec 06 14:43:36 EST 2013
QuestionHello and thank you for the wonderful post. We are flying from Germany to Canada the first and second week of August 2014 and were wondering id there are reservations required to camp along this route?ANSWERS are in this forum: Campgrounds
Posted By: Charlotte21
- Mon Mar 19 15:35:41 EDT 2012
Me and my friend want to hike near banff. So I just found this hikingroute.
Here they travel in 7 days. I want to know if it is possible to walk this trip in 3 days ?
CharlotteANSWERS are in this forum: Sawback
Posted By: hardern
- Sun Jul 31 11:57:09 EDT 2011
UpsideTerrific scenery. A challenging hike but not overwhelming. Very little traffic or other campers to compete with. DownsideVery secluded and some of the cairns were missing making for some challenging navigation points. CommentMy husband and I did this hike in 2006 and have been talking about it ever since!