On a short trip to Marble Canyon last winter, I drove past this trailhead on the side of Highway 93, just across the boundary between the Banff and Kootenay national parks, and was immediately reminded of how much I enjoyed hiking to the Rae Glacier last summer—walking up the floor of the cirque beside a stream that looked even colder than the surrounding snow, with cliffs towering over me and tiny flowers clinging to life in the most unlikely places, and behind me when I turned around, spectacular views into the open valley below. It’s a different world.
So when I had a chance on the weekend to choose a hike in that general area, the trail to the Stanley Glacier was the obvious choice.
Stanley Peak itself is 10,351 feet (3155 metres) high, although the glacier is well below the summit. I’ve seen the elevation gain for the hiking trail quoted as 1200 feet (365 metres) in a number of places, but I think this is only for the officially maintained part of the trail. Likewise, the official trail is 2.6 miles (4.2 kilometres) one way, but it’s possible to go much further. Another mile or so of talus and boulder-hopping, along unofficial trails which are often but not always clearly visible, will take you as close to the toe of the glacier as it’s safe to go.
If you follow the most obvious and direct route, along the northern side of the cirque floor (to your left) until it crosses over, and return the same way you came, this makes the round trip a total of more than 7 miles, or almost 12 kilometres. However, my friend and I crossed over to the right soon after the end of the official trail, adding almost another half a mile, a very wet stream crossing, and some minutes spent admiring waterfalls and caves. The round trip ended up taking almost 7 hours, and the scenery was worth it. The talus is time-consuming, but not all that difficult.
The cirque that the glacier once filled opens to the northwest, and the view is dominated by Mount Whymper on the other side of the highway.
Part of the way up, at the top of some cliffs well above where the main forest peters out, is another grove of small trees and a brilliant green marshy or boggy area, like an oasis amongst the barren moraines.
Only a very small part of the glacier is visible from the valley floor. The rest of it is hidden behind dramatic stone horns and spires, but it makes its presence felt by sending a number of very cold waterfalls down the southern cliffs. From the trail, these look small, but the cirque, and the cliffs on either side of it are huge. What looks like a wispy trickle turns out to be upwards of ten feet wide.
It’s easy for strange things to happen to one’s sense of scale in a place like this.