Imagine jumping into a helicopter and flying to some of Western Canada’s most pristine wilderness to spend the weekend. If you haven’t heard of Mt. Assiniboine Lodge and it’s Naiset Huts (which sit majestically on the shores of Lake Magog) in Mount Assiniboine Provincial park, then consider yourself lucky, because I’m about to share with you one of Western Canada’s best kept secrets.
Mt. Assiniboine is one of Canada’s most iconic peaks, most comparable to the Swiss Matterhorn. A handful of strikingly blue alpine lakes surround the base of Mt. Assiniboine, and on the shores of the most majestic lake of all is Mt. Assiniboine Lodge, which since the early 1900’s has been hosting alpine enthusiasts from around the world. It also probably offers the highest possible level of luxury that far from civilization; with afternoon tea, gourmet cooked meals, and private cabins, chances are you’ll forget you’re supposed to be “roughing it”. That being said, for those that don’t want to go full tilt on the glamping or want the price tag that comes with it, there are alternative options to staying the weekend to take in the amazing surroundings.
Also available are the Naiset huts and a backcountry campground. The half a dozen Naiset Huts are simple wood cabins, equipped with wood burning stoves, bunk beds and foam mattresses. With the centrally located cook shack (fully equipped with propane stoves, pots and pans and dishware), the huts make a weekend at Mt. Assiniboine pretty easy to pack for. Considering the hike in is at least 28km (depending on the route taken) with over 500m elevation gain and not wanting to sacrifice the amount of wine brought on the trip, our group decided to take glamping to the next level. We opted to pack our bags to their weight limit with great food and wine, and jumped in “da choppa” up to the lodge (all 20+ of us)! Then once we were done gorging ourselves all weekend we made the trek out, trying to justify our weekend of gluttony. If that sounds like a good time to you, here’s how we did it.
Trail Name: Assiniboine Lodge to the Mount Shark Trailhead via Wonder Pass and Bryant Creek. This is one of the options for hiking out/in. This one works the best if you wanted to take the helicopter in and hike out, however if you’re interested in hiking both ways, check out these routes!
Trail Head: We parked at the Mount Shark helicopter pad, which is an hour’s drive from Canmore along the Spray Lakes road (Smith Dorrien Highway). This is also one of the trail heads for hiking into the huts and lodge and where you’ll pop out if you choose to hike out. The helicopter ($150 one way) is booked through the lodge, along with reserving the Neisat huts ($25/night per person). RESERVE EARLY! Weekends fill up fast, so if you want a specific weekend with more than 2 people I cannot stress reserving early enough.
The second option for hiking in is through the Sunshine Village Ski Resort. You’ll need to park in the parking lot at the base and ride a bus up to the day lodge (about $20/pp) and start hiking from there. Both routes are about the same distance and time. This year the Sunshine trailhead was closed due to extensive damage at the ski resort due to flooding in the spring.
Elevation Gain: 205m elevation gain going over Wonder Pass then 580m elevation loss once you’re over!
Distance: 26km from the Neisat huts to the Mount Shark day use area, plus another 2km to the helicopter parking. I suggest you plan ahead and leave a car at the day use area. Trust me, some people described those last 2 km to the helicopter pad as the longest and hardest 2km of their life. Their opinion may have been influenced by the previous 8hrs of hiking and blister covered feet. For detailed trail information click here.
Time Required: ~8 hours of hiking plus rest time, allow 9 hours to be safe.
Recommended Equipment: Don’t be blinded by the helicopter ride in, you will still be required to hike 30km out with a backpack. It doesn’t matter how light your pack is (hopefully by the time you hike out you’re only carrying your clothes, lunch and water) you will NEED good, strong, broken in hiking boots. Poles are a bonus; they’ll save your knees on steep slopes. Trust me when I say that you will feel (or realistically, not feel) the effects of 30km on your feet at the end of the day. You will also need to pack the usual essential items for a backpacking trip minus a stove, pots and pans and a tent.
While up at the huts, be sure to take advantage of the many day hikes in the area; the surrounding views are absolutely breathtaking. If hiking isn’t your thing, there is lots of fishing with multiple lakes in the area.
Even if you are not staying at the luxurious lodge, be sure to partake in tea time from 4:00-5:30pm. During tea time you can purchase a cold beer, tea, cake or lemonade for a fee well justified after a fun day spent outdoors. It worked out that we were up there for a few birthdays! With a bit of planning, we were able to surprise them with some birthday cake prepared by the lovely people at the lodge.
Recommended Day Hikes: Depending on your group and how late you stay up or how much wine you drink the night before there are several hikes to choose from. Hiking up the Nublet is a scramble that can be completed within 2 hours and offers stunning views of the Mt. Assiniboine basin and lakes. You can combine that short scramble with a tour around the lakes (about an additional 1.5 hours of hiking), which on a hot day can be enticing to jump in.
A lengthier option is to hike up to Windy Pass, greater distance, higher elevation gain, coupled with more breathtaking panoramas. If you’re not planning on hiking out, another option is to hike up to Wonder Pass (route taken to hike back to Mount Shark parking lot). It is a gradual ascent through larch filled valleys and meadows, which quickly becomes clear where its name comes from. We completed this trip mid-September, (luckily we snagged the last weekend of summer weather!) which meant that a lot of the larch trees had started to turn, painting the valley gold.
Heli-hiking, it’s not something only royalty can do (Will and Kate helicoptered in to Skoki lodge a few summers ago)! Think of it as another way to facilitate a glamping backpacking weekend. I highly recommend it in the summer but also note that it is available in the winter with endless skiing!