In the fall of 2003, we were at Banff National Park, Canada, and wanted to hike the Sentinel Pass Trail but there was a minimal 6-hikers requirement to hike the trail at that time due to bear activities. We only had two (Kadia didn’t count because she was only a baby) therefore we waited by the trailhead (see right) for a little bit but no other hikers came by; soon we realized it was a little late to head up the trail as it was already 2 pm in the afternoon. Instead, we hiked the Consolation Lake trail on the other side of Moraine Lake; the trail also required 6 hikers but we were able to find other hikers to go together. I remember when we finished the hike and were back at the trailhead, a ranger caught two persons came out of the trail not in a group of six and took them to somewhere to fine them. Poor souls, maybe they would be out of 100 dollars or so, I thought.
We went back to the Sentinel Pass Trail again this time, hoping for better luck. The trailhead was at the Moraine Lake (see left), a picturesque lake featured on the 20 dollar Candian bill. We were there around 9:45 am and, unfortunately, again there was 6-hikers requirement. A ranger was standing guard at the trailhead with a couple of hikers waiting. We were told that both the Larch Valley and Paradise Valley were bear habitats, therefore, the usual group requirement to keep bears away from hikers: bears have not known to attack group of 6 or more. We joined the wait, hoping for better luck this time. However, we were a little apprehensive about hiking with others as we hiked relatively slow with two kids. We didn’t have other choices this time; we made a mental note that next time we will come with friends. Luckily we soon had 9 people to head up together. We mentioned our concerns to others but they assured us that they also hiked at a slow pace and led the way up the trail.
The trail was a steady climb, a series of switchbacks for the 1st one mile. Kadia hiked for about 1/3 miles but soon I realized she cannot keep up with the group pace. I put her in the backpack and continued on with the group. Although the group was going at a modest pace but the climb never leveled off and soon we needed a break badly. Another couple sensed our predicament and asked for a break. Normally when we hike, we like to take a lot of pictures therefore resting unknowingly without needing to take a formal rest break. This time the pace was too quick for us to take any pictures along the way; one consolation was that there wasn’t any good view in the 1st mile anyway as the view of Moraine Lake was covered almost entirely by dense trees.
The trail leveled off after a mile (about 1700 elevation gain) and we were in the Larch Valley surrounded by the ten peaks and beautiful Larch trees. After another half of a mile, we stopped at an open area where we were told earlier by the ranger that people can break up and reform groups there. There were a few log benches there for resting. This area was relatively open so bears and human wouldn’t surprise each other. We decided to stop for lunch and the group broke up, 6 pushed ahead toward the Sentinel Pass while we stayed behind with another hiker. Susan was tired with the pace and, by looking at the climb up to the Sentinel Pass (another 1000 feet elevation gain). We had lunch and rested there. A few groups went by but we still weren’t sure if we wanted to hike the last mile.
Finally when, after we had a long rest, we decided we should go ahead with the hike, no one came by for a while. Eventually 3 girls came by so we decided to head up with them (see picture on the right. Click on the picture and the trail is visible in the picture as a zigzap trail a little to the right in front of the 3 girls). Even though we didn’t have 6 but we figured we could always meet up with people coming down later. The last ½ mile up to the Sentinel Pass was steep, exposed and with a lot of loose pebbles. The footing was slippery: we should have taken our hiking sticks but we had done worse hikes before without hiking poles. Now I understood why there were a couple of people turned back earlier with the fear of height. As we traversed up more switchbacks, we had a great view looking back at the Larch Valley with the ten peaks: what a spectacular view (see right)! Another hiker told us that there were still patches of snow in June that made the hiking much more treacherous.
At last, we made to the pass and were greeted with a breathtaking view of Paradise Valley (see below). We came to realize why it was named Sentinel Pass. The 3 girls were going down to the Paradise Valley to meet with their boyfriends who had gone up a few days earlier to maintain trails. Luckily we picked up 4 more persons at the pass before going back down. As it turned out, we were lucky as they were the last 4 persons going up that day. During the trail back down, we ran into 3 young guys waiting on the trail about ½ miles from the trailhead. They were waiting for people to head down together so they wouldn’t get caught for having less than 6 hikers in a group: the fine was 2,000 Canadian dollars, they said. Not sure it was per person or for the whole group, a steep penalty nevertheless. I was glad that we didn’t take a chance of hiking by ourselves, not just for safety sake but also financial sake. This was a beautiful hike. We will come back next time with some friends so we can hike at our own pace. We would like to hike the Paradise Valley as well.