Family-Friendly Hiking At Sunshine Meadows = Amazing!

Category: Banff Hikes, Hikes + Easy Walks

If you’re looking for a family-friendly hike, you must take your family to Sunshine Meadows! You will experience the beauty of a high alpine meadow that spans two provinces: Alberta and British Columbia. On your Sunshine Meadows hike you will admire 300-year-old larch trees and walk through valleys carved out by glaciers as recent as 5,000 years ago. Even lunch is spectacular as you sit beside spring-fed mountain lakes. Everywhere you look you will find awe and wonder. Whether it is seeing signs of new and old grizzly bear digs, admiring the panoramic mountain vistas that stretch into British Columbia or be dazzled by the abundant colourful wildflowers.

Standish viewpoint, Sunshine village in the Sunshine meadows

Gain 500 feet of Elevation – Without Breaking A Sweat!

sunshine village gondola, main village in Sunshine Meadows
No clue what I’m pointing at, and judging by my husband’s crossed arms, he isn’t listening anyway.

Your trip to the meadows starts at the Gondola Base, situated at 1659m/5442feet. After purchasing your tickets, hop on the eight-seat passenger gondola and get off in the Main Village at 2159 m. /7082 ft.

Trappers Lodge in the Sunshine Meadows
Trappers Lodge
Food, beverages, flush toilets located in this building.
Rock Ilse Road is to the left.

Our First Family Visit To The Meadows

I am really going to date myself with this – my boys were 5 and 7 the first time we visited the meadows as a family.  At that time, I had to book a departure time and four seats on the shuttle, which was a school bus. The bus ride in itself was an experience. We bounced along the summer access road that meanders under the gondola to the main day lodge, and in all honesty, my boys would have been satisfied with just the bus ride.

sunshine meadows, Banff National National Park
Yippee! We made it to Rock Ilse Lake. Picture from 2008
Five months before our visit, I tore my ACL, hence the brace. I knew my boys would make it, but I wasn’t sure I would.

When we got off the bus, we made a quick stop in the day lodge to grab a trail map. My husband encouraged (well, bribed) both boys to use the facilities while I snuck off and purchased a few chocolate bars as trail treats (bribes). Off we walked, very slowly, up the Rock Isle Road. The only expectation we had was making sure we got back for the last shuttle bus down the mountain.

rock ilse road sunshine village
The Rock Isle Road
Resting on the rock isle road in the Sunshine Meadows
Resting along the Rock Isle Road up to the Rock Isle Lake Viewpoint
My bad – I’m pretty sure these two had walked off trail for this photo.
That was 10 years ago, now I know better.
husband and wife sitting on a bench. Rock Isle Lookout, Sunshine Summer Meadows, Banff National Park.
The ski runs that lead off from the Great Divide Chair are in the distance.
Serious looking faces, because I had said for the third time, but not the last time:
“Just a few more steps, we are almost there”
us sitting on a bench in Sunshine Meadows

My husband’s first visit in 10 years. I still have the same Tilley hat but no knee brace.

The Gondola Replaced The Bus

Several years ago the bus was replaced by the Gondola. No more reservations required, just walk up to the ticket window at the gondola base and purchase your ticket. On the one hand, the gondola is convenient for those last-minute hiking plans that depend on the weather. However, the buses did limit the number of people on the trails.

two people sitting on the sunshine gondola, banff national park
Heading Up the Gondola
It looks like they don’t really know what to expect

Love Wild Flowers? – So Do I!

I love them all. Don’t ask me what my favourite one is, I don’t have one. They are all my favourite and for different reasons. There are 54 species of wildflowers that bloom in these meadows, but you will not see all of them on your visit. Different species bloom at different times. You will, however, see a majority of them.

I do love everyone’s reaction when I point out the Hippie Heads. Officially known as the Western Anemone, this comical looking flower truly stands out among the crowd. I’ve written a few informative blog posts about the wildflowers found in the Rockies, including a post on the Prairie Crocus, and Calypso Orchids. (As an added bonus – if you’re going on a hike in the mountains, download this free PDF – a tic-tac-toe for all of the wildflowers you’ll post on your hike!

Here are a few more wildflowers that you may see on your visit:

Here are a few more wildflowers that you may see on your visit:

A Fantastic Combination of Trail Options For All Hiking Abilities 

When I published my book Take A Hike With Your Children in 2011, I created a trail rating system with a child’s walking ability in mind. My trail rating system is based on my experience of hiking with my children for 18 years as well as on my six years spent on the trails as a professional interpretive hiking guide.

I created this system as a way to describe hikes suitable for families with children. FYI – this rating system also works for less avid hikers and people with mobility issues, which my husband has.

Here are a few suggestions for an easy hike to the Rock Isle Lake Viewpoint.

The following Sunshine Meadows hiking information is ideal for families with a mix of infants, toddlers, non-energetic walkers, or people with mobility issues.

Standish View Point – from the Chairlift

Distance: 1.6 Km Return/ 1mile return Elevation: 16 m/ 53 ft

  1. Ride the Gondola to the Standish Chair.
  2. Standish Chair to Standish Viewing Deck. The flat, easy trail is ideal for all walking abilities. The toughest section of this trail is the stairs down to the lower viewing platform.
  3. Seen enough? – head back down on the Standish Chair and have a snack at one of the food and beverage outlets. In addition, wander through the Interpretive Centre, which also has some fun interactive displays for children.
person on a chairlift, sunshine meadows banff
The view from the Standish Chairlift

Rock Ilse Lake Viewpoints – Two Options

These two hikes in the Sunshine Meadows are both ideal for families with competent walkers.

Rock Isle Hike Option 1: – Distance: 3.3 Km/ 2 mi Elevation: Loss

rock ilse lake, sunshine meadows.

  1. Ride the Gondola to the Standish Chair.
  2. Standish Chair to Standish Viewing Deck.
  3. From the viewing deck, take the stairs down to the Twin Cairns Junction trail. (there are benches and a lovely viewpoint here) turn left and continue down to the Rock Isle Lake Lookout.
  4. Stop for pics and lunch at the lake.
  5. To get back to the village, walk down the Rock Isle Road to the Gondola Base. There are several interpretive signs along this road that point out interesting sights and facts that you will pass along the way. One fun fact is that you actually cross the Continental Great Divide.
  6. OR – walk to the Standish Viewpoint and then take the chairlift back down.

Rock Isle Hike Option 2: Distance: approximately 2.5 km loop, it depends on how you go back down.

  1. Walk up the Rock Isle Lake Road, which we did in 2008, as the Standish Chairlift was not an option.
  2. Have a snack at the Lake.
  3. If you still have some hike left in your boots and feel that you have the trail tantrums under control, consider continuing to the South West side of Rock Ilse to the Grizzly/Laryx Junction.
  4. You can also continue a very short distance to a second viewpoint, just before you descend onto the Grizzly/Laryx Loops, which we did when my boys were 5 and 7.
  5. Had enough? Go back the way you came, or walk up to the Standish Viewing Point and then take the chairlift back down to the Gondola and main lodge, or go back down the Rock Isle Road.

When It Comes to Hiking – Take Baby Steps

You know your family’s hiking abilities best. I always encourage you to not chase someone else’s Instagram, but do what you feel is right for you.

As I mentioned, my friend was visiting from Ontario and had never been to Sunshine Meadows. Here are her remarks,

“The Standish Viewing Deck and the Rock Isle viewpoint were unbelievable, all the other trails we hiked that day were a bonus.”

So don’t feel like you are missing out if you don’t get on all the trails the day you visit.  

Are Your Children Older? Looking to Outpace You? Then Consider These Suggestions

Do you have children, tweens and teens specifically, that still want to head out hiking with you, but think it might be boring. These two trails that are ideal for families with Advanced and Experienced Walkers.

Grizzly/Laryx Loop

Distance: up to a total of 6.1 km Elevation gained: 146 m (469 feet)

Grizzly/Laryx Hike Option 1: Distance – 6.1 Km return Elevation – highest elevation gained and lost doing this options is 146 m/479 feet

  1. From the Gondola, get on the Standish Chair and ride it to the Standish lookout. After a photo, or five, continue down the stairs to the path to the Twin Cairns Junction. Turn left and continue to the Rock Isle Junction
  2. At the Rock Isle Junction continue to the Grizzly/Laryx Junction. There is a viewing platform and a set of stairs here.
  3. Continue along this trail through past some 300-year-old Larch Trees, covered in the fluorescent green Wolfsbane, over a bridge to the start of the loop. FYI – there is a well-maintained outhouse at this junction.
  4. Follow the loop counter-clockwise, as encouraged by the trail sign.
  5. There are benches along the Grizzly Lake shoreline.
  6. As you gain minimal elevation towards Laryx Lake, make sure you stop at the Simpson viewpoint, rather than going straight to Rock Ilse Lake, continue on the Trails to the Grizzly and Laryx Lake Loops.
  7. After the viewpoint, you will continue over a series of bridges, which keep you above the soft boggy areas.
  8. The Grizzly lake viewpoint, with its benches, is always my favourite place for lunch.
  9. Continue along this loop, back to the Grizzly/Laryx junction, up to the Rock Isle Junction and follow the trail signs to the Rock Ilse Viewpoint. More photo opportunities exist here.
  10. Walk back to the village via the Rock Isle Road, and stop to read the interpretive signs along the way.
laryx lake, sunshine village
Laryx Lake, Sunshine Village
a fun trek along the southwest shore of Laryx Lake

Grizzly/Laryx Hike Option 2: Distance: 6.1 km loop Elevation: highest elevation gained and lost doing this options is 146 m/479 feet

  1. Walk up the Rock Isle Road, and then continue to the Grizzly/Laryx Loop.
  2. After you do the loop, continue up the Twin Cairns Junction trail to the Standish Viewing Deck
  3. Take the Standish Chairlift back down to the main village.

Hike The Entire Sunshine Meadows Trail System

Distance: 12 km loop Elevation: Highest Gain 146 m/479 ft. and loss of 176m/577 ft.

  1. For a full day experience, walk up the Rock Isle Road to the Rock Isle Lake
  2. Continue to the Grizzly and Laryx loops
  3. At the Rock Isle junction, connect onto the Twin Cairns Junction
  4. Take a side trip to the Standish viewing platform, and then rejoin the Twin Cairns to Monarch Lookout Trail.
  5. Pop over to the Monarch Viewpoint
  6. Continue back down the Meadow park Trail and admire the ski runs of Goats Eye Mountain in the distance, and then continue to the main village and Gondola.
  7. Congratulations – you have done it all!!!! But could you keep up with your children?
  8. Have a treat at Trappers!
grizzly lake in banff
The 2017 wildfires reached the shores of Grizzy Lake.

The 2017 wildfires brushed up against the shores of Grizzly Lake. Sunshine Village was closed to the public and used as a firebase. As devastating as they are, forest fires play an essential role in creating a healthy ecosystem.

monarch view point in the sunshine meadows
The Monarch View Point, August 2018

Always be prepared when hiking in the mountains. Carry an extra layer for warmth, as well as mitts, a hat and windproof jacket. You should have these for all members of your hiking party.

The trail options are endless! Take a look at the Sunshine Meadows map and you decide which way you want to go. I will give you a hint, it is always a preference for my guests to start from the Standish Viewpoint. The view is breathtaking and they can see the lakes enticing them for a visit.

snow in banff in august 2018
If the conditions are right, snow can blanket the high alpine any time of the year.
I took this picture, August 2018.

Need to Know Before You Go Hiking Sunshine Meadows


Family tickets are $109.00 More information about pricing can be found on the Sunshine Website.

Children under 5 are free.

Child Carries Only Please

You cannot push a stroller on these trails.  They might look like you can, but they are too narrow for other hikers to pass you on the trail.

Carry Bear Spray and Know How To Use It

Sunshine Meadows can be very busy, and what self-respecting bear would want to be there with all of those people? However, this is prime grizzly bear territory, and they do frequent the area. This year, there was a fresh bear dig in a beautiful patch of Glacier Lilies, a favourite food for the bears.   As such, carry bear spray with you, and know how to use it. If you don’t have any, you can purchase or rent some at the retail outlet in the day lodge. 

Practise Proper Trail Etiquette:

This is an ecologically sensitive area, Parks and Sunshine have developed some amazing, well-maintained trails to keep you on the right track.

Stay On The Trail – The Plants Thank You

The growing season is short in the alpine, two maybe three months tops.It takes a long time for the plants and trees to grow. Stepping off-trail onto these fragile plants could kill them.  

trail etiquette in banff
trail etiquette when hiking the sunshine meadows

There are signs along the trail kindly asking you to stay on the path, and there are well-marked “trail pull-out” spots so that groups can pass one another without stepping off the trail.  

Uphill Hikers Have The Right Of Way

It takes less energy to stop and start when going downhill. If the trail isn’t wide enough to pass, stand sideways, suck in your stomach, and let the uphill hikers pass.  

hiking in sunshine meadows
The ladies coming uphill stopped for us, they said they needed the break.

However, if someone stops while going uphill to let you pass, it probably means they need to catch their breath (I speak from experience), so thank them and continue on your way.

Always Hike Single File

When passing other hikers in narrow trail sections, please hike in single file. It reduces any missteps off the trail. 

What if Mother Nature Calls On The Trail?

Don’t worry! There are two very well maintained outhouses at the Rock Isle and Grizzly Lake trail Junctions.   

Take Only Photos, Leave Only Footprints.

Trust me, you will take a LOT of photos.

lady taking a picture at sunshine meadows, Banff National Park
Looking down at Rock Isle Lake, at the Rock Isle, Grizzly Laryx Junction.

Don’t Feed The Wildlife

The Pacific Northwest is rampant with all sorts of wildlife – anything from bears to small animals can be found on your hike. While the bears won’t come close to begging (feel free to read my blog post on bear awareness and bear safety), some smaller critters in the woods will come to say hi. They will beg, hide in wait, and will approach you with those little eyes and paws – with sharp teeth and tiny little claws!

wildlife in banff and sunshine meadows
Columbia Ground Squirrel
Trying to blend in with the Hippie Heads, and also looking for a handout.

Don’t feed them, if you can, ignore them altogether. Our food is not their food, it will actually make them sick, and they will make you sick if you get bit or scratched. If that does happen, please quickly seek medical treatment.

columbia ground squirrel, sunshine meadows
My son is actually sitting on his hands in this picture, as I clearly remember him saying he didn’t want to lose a finger.

Also, it is illegal to feed any animal in a national or provincial park. Do your part and keep the animals healthy and wild.

Be Prepared

Don’t Forget About First Aid When Hiking

Yes, this is a popular spot, and chances are excellent that you will meet up with other hikers. Still, I always encourage you to carry a personal first aid kit and any extra prescription medicine needed for all members of your group just in case you need to stay a little longer on the trail than anticipated.

FYI – I have now assisted with two trail evacuations at Sunshine, they have a great system and well trained first-aid responders.

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

The air is thin and dry at Sunshine, remember you are at 2159 m /7082 ft.

If your tongue is sticking to the roof of your mouth, you haven’t been drinking enough water.: 1L of liquids for every member of your group is ideal.

I always hike with Clif Bar Shot Blocks as well, there are other electrolyte replacements on the market, this just happens to be my choice.

Be Sun Smart

Wear a Sun Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. Clothing with an SPF rating also helps.

Very Limited Cell Phone Coverage

There is no cell coverage on the Grizzly and Laryx lake loop, and spotty coverage on the Twin Cairns loop. If you have a Spot or Inreach, bring it along. Don’t have one? Not to worry, there are Sunshine Trail Hosts always out on the trail and a lot of guests on the trails. You could ask for assistance if you need it. 

lady at sunshine meadows, banff

My gear: Hat, Sunglasses, SPF shirt, Inreach, water, lunch, rain gear, first aid kit, bear spray, camera, binoculars and a smile! There is also an emergency phone on the bridge that you walk across to the Rock Ilse Viewpoint.

Book A Guided Hike!

If you are a visitor to the area or a new resident to the area, I highly recommend booking a guided hike with one of the Sunshine Interpretive Guides. Their knowledge and experience will turn your day from great to amazing – and they carry bear spray!

Don’t Forget Your Banff Park Pass

To hike Sunshine Meadows, you’ll need your Banff Park Pass. Please feel free to reference my blog post on national Parks Passes in Canada, and how and where to get one.

Pick Up A Copy Of Take A Hike With Your Children

My sold out book, Take A Hike With Your Children, is now available on Amazon as an eBook. Pick up your copy today, and begin exploring the Rockies!

Thank You, Sunshine Village

Since 2014, I have been leading hikes at Sunshine Meadows for a private company. On this occasion, I had the opportunity to visit the meadows, courtesy of Sunshine Village, as a guest. What a lovely change of pace for myself, husband and my friend, Laura, who was visiting from Ontario. 

My youngest son was supposed to join us on this day, but he has his first summer job and was asked last minute to cover a shift. Welcome to reality son.

All words and opinions are my own.
Copyright © 2019 Three Mountain Family Hikes™ All rights reserved.

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