Date of hike: September 28, 2017
Region: Banff National Park
Distance (one-way): 11 km to Gibbon Pass from Arnica Lake trailhead
Time (one-way): 3-4 hours one way to pass
Elevation Gain: 1350 m to pass
Difficulty Level: Challenging
Gibbon Pass is a place that has been on our radar since fall of last year. Last September, during peak larch season, we visited Arnica Lake and we were blown away by how gorgeous it was during the fall. After that particular trip, some locals in Banff that told us that next time we go to Arnica Lake we should extend our trip onto Gibbon Pass to experience one of Banff National Park’s premier larch hikes. Ever since then it’s been on our minds and we decided to go for it on this particularly gorgeous warm, sunny bluebird fall day.
Refer to our post on Arnica Lake for full details on trailhead access from Highway 93. Gibbon Pass is part of the Bow Valley Highline trail – a trail that essentially runs along the Alberta side of the great divide in the Bow Valley from Banff to Lake Louise. Due to the amount of backcountry campgrounds along the trail, it would make for a pretty epic backpacking trip starting at Sunshine Village Ski Resort and ending at the Arnica Lake trailhead (or vice versa). For a day trip, Gibbon Pass is best approached from the Arnica Lake trailhead, which also passes by Twin Lakes. Make no mistake though, this is a very challenging trail. From the trailhead you will experience many ups and downs on the way to the pass, and coming back at the end of the day you experience those same ups and downs once more. You gain and lose elevation going up AND coming down and it can be quite nasty at times, especially at the end of the day on tired legs. The clear advantage to the difficulty of this trail is you leave the crowds behind.
Once we arrived at Arnica Lake, we spent some time at the lake fishing for a while and to recharge before gaining more elevation to Twin Lakes. The larches around the lake and reflections were particularly striking on this day due to the non-existent winds and bright blue sky. Fish were generally picky as they were the last fall we were here, but we still managed to catch a couple.
After lunch we decided to hike up to Twin Lakes. From Arnica Lake you ascend the ridge on the East side of the lake, gaining roughly 120 m in elevation. There is a nice larch forest up here with some nice views. Upon cresting the ridge, Gibbon Pass, our eventually destination can be seen.
Now, unfortunately, comes the elevation loss to Upper Twin Lake. You’re going to hate having to gain this elevation again on the way back (we certainly did!). For now though, our spirits were high, and soon after about 2.2 km from Arnica Lake, Upper Twin Lake comes into view. There is a backcountry campground here which should be noted for future backpacking trips. We didn’t try fishing this lake as we were conscious of ensuring we left enough daylight hours to get to the pass and back, but we have heard there is cutthroat trout in this lake.
From here you continue descending another 50 m to Lower Twin Lake, which is a little less than 1 km from Upper Twin Lake. We tried fishing here for a bit (but with no luck). From Lower Twin Lake, the 2.9 km trail to Gibbon Pass starts right after the bridge over the creek.
From the bridge, the trail ascends gently up 260 m through forest to the pass, and it is fairly boring and uneventful for the first 30 minutes. Once you enter the larch forest, however, it is pure magic. Suddenly there are golden larch trees for as far as the eye can see, and it’s evident that all those ups and downs to get to this point are worth it.
A monument marks the top of the pass in a sparse larch forest. Golden larches can be seen in every direction. There is also a peak to the North of the pass that looks fairly easy to ascend and would most certainly offer panoramic views of Gibbon Pass and beyond – to be attempted at another time!
On the way down we were treated to an amazing sunset in the Bow Valley, and still with not a cloud in the sky, Castle Mountain was looking particularly radiant at this time of day.