Hiking Buller Pass Loop (Kananaskis, AB)

Buller Pass (or Passes) Loop is a loop consisting of the less-used North Buller Pass and the more popular (South) Buller Pass in Spray Valley Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country. The trailhead is roughly 32km traveling either South from Canmore taking the Smith-Dorrien "Highway" or North from the Highway 40 / Kananaskis Lakes Trail Junction and you park at the "Buller Mtn Day Use Area". According to GPS, the loop was about 16km in length and we gained 825 meters in altitude, getting up to 2,470m (8,103ft) in elevation.

A little backstory on this hike: last September (2014), some friends of mine from University were in town from the East because a mutual friend was getting married and they wanted to go on a hike. I took the day off from work and decided to take them up Buller Pass. The review from "Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies" sold me on the view and I thought it would be a great hike to go on. There were 5 of us and everyone was in pretty good shape, so I thought it would be an awesome day out.

Buller Pass - Burnt Trees 2015The first half of the hike was amazing. Leaving the trailhead, you hike through dense woods following a nice clear trail as you gain elevation. After a couple of bridges, the trees eventually make way to a rougher patch of burnt trees (that apparently took place back in 2011 to combat the spread of a Pine Beetle infestation, according to Hiking with Barry). At roughly the 4km mark, you come across a nice waterfall on the left and not long after, you cross a bridge (that I later find out was very important) and veer right before traversing through more burnt trees that eventually open up into a canyon and the trees thin out. You follow a well defined trail that runs parallel the creek below, before ascending to the Pass. Navigating through the rocks up to the Pass was a bit challenging, but it was straight forward and well marked.

Up to this point, we did everything correctly!

Buller Pass Group 2014 | Andrew D. ForbesAt this point, other than crazy winds that picked and a bit of rain, everything was going according to plan and we stopped for lunch and Sarah was nice enough to take a picture of myself with my University friends (Vince, Edwin, and Charles). It was at this point that I was convinced that we had ascended North Buller and that we should follow the loop that the guide book had suggested we take by returning via the South Pass. Unfortunately (as it turned out), we were on the South Pass and we ended up traveling up to Guinn's Pass and into the Galatea Creek Trail. We eventually found a trail map to confirm this and given that we were a solid 12km into the hike decided to keep going toward Highway 40. The only problem was our car was on the other Highway(!), so we had to call our good friend Jay to drive from Canmore, pick us up, and take us back to the Smith-Dorrien to retrieve our car. Fortunately, other than a lot of scratches and blisters, everyone was safe in the end.

***

Fast forward to last Sunday's (second) attempt of North Buller. This time there were 4 of us (plus a dog named Kai) and I hadn't hiked with any of them; however, after the last attempt, I was much more prepared. We left the trailhead at roughly 10:40am and the first part was the same with a mixture of healthy trees, burnt trees and a few bridges to cross over. We came upon the nice waterfall, knowing that we were getting close to the North / South junction and soon after, we found the bridge and turned left to head up the North route!

Buller Pass Junction Waterfall | Andrew D. Forbes Buller Pass North/South Junction Bridge | Andrew D. Forbes Waterfall along North Buller Pass | Andrew D. Forbes

There were definitely some differences compared to the South route. The biggest one was the fact the route was less defined, which made navigating a little trickier. However, after ascending above the trees, we came across a creek that led us to a waterfall. At this point, we were forced to climb a steep but short bank to get around it, which led us in a valley that runs parallel to Mount Buller to the North. While the path comes and goes, the general direction was pretty obvious - follow the mountain range until we reached the point where we had to scramble up to the Pass (in the North East corner of the valley).

Valley to North Buller Pass | Andrew D. Forbes Ascending North Buller Pass | Andrew D. Forbes North Buller Pass Group 2015 | Andrew D. Forbes

On most days, I'm sure the view would be spectacular at the top of North Buller Pass. Unfortunately for us, the high wind and rain/sleet started to pick up and the crew wasn't in the mood to really soak in the atmosphere, so we kept moving forward. (There was also an option to head to the "Unnamed Summit" which we decided against.)

Back of North Buller Pass | Andrew D. Forbes
Back of North Buller Pass

Heading South, we came across a "mini" Pass with nice mossy terrain which, on the map, appeared to be the South Pass. Fortunately, we quickly realized it wasn't when we dropped into the valley (that leads to Guinn's Pass and Ribbon Lake) and could see the back side of the "real" South Pass. (We also bumped into another group who confirmed where we were.) The weather also temporarily cleared out, which was a nice break.

Buller Pass Ribbon Lake Guinn's Pass | Andrew D. Forbes
Back of South Buller Pass with mossy terrain on left, Ribbon Lake straight ahead, and Guinn's Pass to the right.

Once we climbed back up to the South Pass, it was a pretty straight forward hike with a well defined trail that leads back down through valley and into the trees, eventually joining the other route at the North / South junction, then down to the trailhead. (I could tell people were starting to feel the distance catch up to them as we were really booking it down the last 6km.)

All in all, a great hike with a couple of nice little waterfalls, a little variety of trees, amazing landscapes (if it's not raining), and many areas that make you think when navigating. You certainly want to have a map with you if you're going the North route. (The South route you could get by without if you stop at the Pass.)

(All photos credited to and owned by Andrew D. Forbes.)