Hiking the C Level Cirque Trail in Banff National Park

Author: Celine Brewer

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We’ve been enjoying the C Level Cirque hike for many years. It’s one of our favourite hikes in the Minnewanka Loop of Banff National Park.

The C Level Cirque trail begins in a beautiful forest up the lower slopes on the east side of Cascade Mountain. Along the way hikers will pass by an abandoned coal mine, an important piece of the history of Banff National Park.

The forested trail leads you to the bottom of an incredible Cascade Mountain cirque – a semi-circle of towering mountain cliffs surrounds you as you stand at the bottom of a giant boulder field.

C Level Cirque - Banff National Park

Many hikers will end there, but it is possible to continue the C Level Cirque hike up to where the forest meets the rocky alpine zone. From this vantage point, you can see Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake and Johnson Lake. An amazing Canadian Rocky Mountain vista for those who can manage the steep incline of this leg of the trail.

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C Level Cirque Trail – Quick Details

Trailhead: C Level Cirque trailhead

Distance: 7.8 km out and back

Elevation: 455 m elevation gain

C Level Cirque Hike Highlights

One of the best hiking trails in Banff National Park, the C Level Cirque Trail begins on a 2-person wide gravel path. The hiking trail is remarkably well maintained, with no roots or rocks to contend with. Don’t be fooled by this as the trail gets much more natural further up Cascade Mountain.

flat and easy part on C Level Cirque hike in Banff National Park

You’ll be treated to a very enjoyable hike through a mixed evergreen and aspen forest. Small meadows along the lower slopes are an explosion of colorful mountain wildflowers. Take a moment to look up at the views of the top of Cascade Mountain – they will be the last you see for the next few kilometres.

After 200 m of hiking the C level Cirque trail starts to get steep. This is the beginning of a slow and steady incline which lasts for about 3 km.

If you hike C Level Cirque in the morning, the old man’s beard lichen hanging from the tree branches will glow in the morning sun. The lichen hanging from the trees creates a special ambiance along this Banff hiking trail. As you admire the forest in the morning sun, stop and listen for the sound of birdsong filling the otherwise silent mountain air.

C Level Cirque Hiking Trail

As the C Level Cirque hiking trail winds its way up Cascade Mountain, the forest floor is largely covered by long, flowing grass. While this is normally a very pleasant forest floor, it also means that the mosquitoes can be quite vicious in mosquito season. Don’t forget bug spray!

You reach the first abandoned coal mine building at the 1.3 km mark of the C Level Cirque hike. This cement structure is a two-room building with no ceiling. Kids love a chance to explore an abandoned building – just make sure to keep a close eye on them at all times. There are dangerous mining structures nearby!

C Level Building from Bankhead coal mining town in Banff National Park

Shortly after you pass the coal mining building on the C Level Cirque trail, watch for a short spur trail heading into the trees on the right. Normally we don’t recommend going off trail, but this very short spur trail takes you to a lookout point for the building, but more importantly, will have you standing on top of a coal seam. Actually seeing coal in the ground on Cascade Mountain near the coal mining structures helps bring the whole picture together.

Between the 1.4 km and 2 km mark of the C Level Cirque hike, you’ll pass 6 fenced off coal mine shafts. Please note the very prominent ‘DANGER’ sign posted on each and heed the warning.

Most of the coal mine shafts look like they have been filled in (by man or nature, I’m not sure), but the final coal mine shaft appears to go deep into the belly of Cascade Mountain. Very interesting to look at – just make sure you stay on the right side of the fence!

Mine shafts on hike to c level cirque Banff

After the final coal mine shaft, you’ll reach the first of two switchbacks. The C Level Cirque trail surface becomes much more challenging at this stage with significantly more rocks and roots to contend with. You can get by with any old walking shoe to the coal mine shafts, but beyond the coal mine shafts we recommend proper hiking shoes with decent grips.

After 2.7 km of near constant uphill hiking, the C Level Cirque hiking trail starts to level off a bit. This is a particularly beautiful stretch of forest with many huge old growth trees growing along the trail. On the forest floor, watch for beautiful patches of Paintbrushes and yellow Columbine flowers.

The C Level Cirque hike changes significantly after hiking 3 km. The trail turns sharply to the right and you enter a new valley on the western slopes of Cascade Mountain. From this vantage point you can see distant views through the trees and even glimpses of the rocky alpine zone of Cascade Mountain straight ahead.

Views of Cascade Mountain Through the trees on C Level Cirque Hike

In this new Cascade Mountain valley, the ecosystem changes noticeably. The bushes on the forest floor are much bigger, likely because the larger trees are more sparse. With a less dense forest to contend with, the views through the trees become much better, more often. Watch for Lake Minnewanka through the trees on a clear day.

The big payoff on the C Level Cirque hike happens at the 4.2 km mark, when the full glory of Cascade Mountain is revealed in front of you. You can’t help but be in awe of the massive Cascade Mountain Cirque on display in front of you.

Stunning view of C-Level Cirque in Banff

A cirque is an amphitheatre-like valley formed by glacial erosion. Here, standing at the bottom of the C-Level Cirque, you’ll be surrounded by the rocky walls of Cascade Mountain, the summit of which is still over 1,100m above you.

At the base of the C Level Cirque on Cascade Mountain is a massive boulder field. It’s awe-inspiring (and a little frightening) to think that all these boulders were once part of the rock walls overhead. The boulder field is an excellent place to stop for a break and soak the scenery of this special place in Banff National Park.

While you rest at the base of C Level Cirque, listen for the distinctive “EEEEEP” sound of the incredibly cute pika. If you’ve never seen a pika, this is a great place to see one if you are patient.

Pika’s look like small little rabbits without the long ears. They stay under rocks for protection, but if you listen in the direction of the pika sound long enough, you’ll see them dart from one rock to another. If you’re especially lucky, the pika may stop for some sunshine, enabling you to get a good look.

Pika on c level cirque hike Alberta

Most hikers on the C Level Cirque Trail will treat the boulder field as the turnaround point, but if you have the energy you can continue hiking for another 1.2 km to the top of the tree line on Cascade Mountain.

The C Level Cirque trail continues upwards along the right-hand side of the boulder field on a singletrack gravel trail. Even if you don’t go all the way to the alpine zone, it’s an amazing experience to walk the entire length of the rock field. The massive rock walls are ever-present on your left-hand side with the 2,998m summit in clear view.

Upper section of c level cirque trail Banff

At the 4.6 km mark, the C Level Cirque trail turns right and becomes very steep and rocky, so watch your footing carefully. Here the hiking trail enters a large boulder field. Take the time to touch one of the boulders and feel how rough and jagged it is. This means that, geologically speaking, these boulders are still pretty new.

It’s easy to lose the C Level Cirque hiking trail through these massive boulders, but keep heading up and the trail will reveal itself again. Don’t worry, you shouldn’t have to do any scrambling over boulders, unless you really get off the hiking trail.

Again, listen for the distinctive call of pikas, who love to live in rocky environments like this. Hoary marmots can also be spotted amongst the rocks.

Hoary Marmot on C Level Cirque Hike

After 100 m or so, the C Level Cirque trail leaves the boulder field and reenters the forest. Be sure to have good grips on your hiking shoes as the trail becomes very steep again, with loose rock making it even more challenging. We don’t personally use them, but having hiking poles will be a big help on the descent here.

Thankfully, there are lots of tree roots on this section on the C Level Cirque trail, which help with foot traction every now and then. The forest on this section of Cascade Mountain is so interesting as there are massive boulders interspersed between the trees. This seems to indicate a much older rockslide, where the surrounding trees have regrown around the massive boulders. We love how nature always finds a way…

Boulders amongst the trees on C Level Cirque Hiking trail

At the 5.1km mark of the C Level Cirque trail, you leave the forest and enter one last rock field. The hiking trail skirts the outer edge of the boulders to provide the least steep path possible, but it’s still steep. The summit of Cascade Mountain looming overhead is so amazing.

Shortly, the C Level Cirque hike turns left for the final ascent. Although C Level Cirque isn’t renowned as a great Banff larch hike, you will start to see some really nice larch trees along the trail. Keep this in mind in the fall, when the true Banff larch tree hikes are overpopulated, you can enjoy a more modest amount here, with a pretty amazing view as well.

In addition to the surprising appearance of larch trees, you can also see over the ridge into the adjacent Cascade Mountain valley. No surprise, there’s a significant rockslide below the rocky cliffs there as well.

the view of C Level Cirque from the top of the C Level Cirque Trail (photo by Jean-Luke Noël)

As you pass the very last tree, you’ll reach the end of the C Level Cirque hike at the 5.4km mark. Cascade Mountain has thoughtfully created some spots on the cliff face where you can comfortably sit, let your heartrate return to normal and soak in some incredible Banff National Park scenery.

From this vantage point at the tree line on Cascade Mountain, you can see all three Banff Lakes in the Minnewanka Loop. Starting on the right, you can see Johnson Lake, with Two Jack Lake in the middle and the much larger Lake Minnewanka on the left.

An excellent add-on hike to the C Level Cirque Trail is a quick loop around the Bankhead Ghost Town trail. It’s one of our favorite easy Banff hikes which leads you through the remnants of the actual coal processing plant for the C Level Cirque mine.

C Level Cirque Trailhead

The C Level Cirque Trailhead is at the west end of the large Upper Bankhead parking lot near picnic table # 8. The C Level Cirque trail greets you with a sign warning about mining dangers along the trail.

C Level Cirque trailhead sign

The Upper Bankhead Day Use area is just 11 minutes from Banff and over 1.5 hours from Calgary. You reach the Upper Bankhead parking lot by taking Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive, which you exit onto from the TransCanada Highway 1.

C Level Cirque Parking at Upper Bankhead - Banff

The shortest way to reach Upper Bankhead is to continue straight instead of taking a right towards Johnson Lake and Two Jack Lake. Upper Bankhead parking lot will be on your left.

C Level Cirque Hike Stats

How Long is the C-Level Cirque Hike?

The round-trip distance of the C Level Cirque trail is 7.8 km (one-way distance of 3.9 km) from the C Level Cirque trailhead to the cirque. If you continue all the way to the ridge, the total distance will be closer to 10.5 km.

C Level Cirque distance depends on where you stop

How Hard is the Hike to C Level Cirque?

Due to the length and incline, we rate the C Level Cirque hike as “moderate”.

At 7.8 km and 455 m elevation gain, the C Level Cirque trail is more of a moderate Banff hike than an easy one.

Don’t let this scare you, this is still a relatively easy hike to the cirque but there are some sections that will get your heart pumping. The trail starts out quite smooth but it also gets to be incredibly full of roots the higher up you climb, requiring you to watch your footing more closely.

Arriving at boulder field in C Level Cirque hike Banff

It is a consistent climb on the way up, but you can always find a spot to take a break. Once at the cirque, you can choose to hang out in the boulder field and search for pikas or continue along the steep trail to the ridge.

How Long Does the C-Level Cirque Hike Take?

It should take a typical adult 2-3 hours to hike to C Level Cirque with an additional 1-2 hours to complete the steeper section to the ridge.

We did this hike with our two kids (8 and 5 years old) and it took us 4 hours. This included over 45 minutes of playing on the rocks and looking for pikas while the other parent completed the hike to the ridge.

C Level Cirque hike with Kids

C-Level Cirque Trail Map

The C Level Cirque trail is easy to follow the entire way to the boulder field and from there you can easily see where the trail continues up the ridge. If you are feeling uncertain, you can use the Alltrails app while hiking to C-Level Cirque, but you likely won’t need it.

To find the C Level Cirque trail map in Alltrails, simply search for “C Level Cirque trail”. Be sure to download your hiking maps prior to leaving.

Enjoy map downloads and many more premium features with a 7-day free trial of AllTrails+!

C Level Cirque map isn't necessary as it's easy to follow

A paper map isn’t required for this Banff hike, but if you prefer to hike with a paper map and compass as an additional safety layer, we highly recommend Gem Trek hiking maps. We own the entire set of these excellent Banff and Kananaskis hiking maps. They are exceptional 3D topographic maps which we love looking at for hiking inspiration.

The C Level Cirque trail map is found in the “Banff and Mt. Assiniboine” map. You can order it before your trip, or you can pick it up here as they are widely available.

Hiking C-Level Cirque Trail with Kids

If you are visiting Banff with kids, this is an excellent hike for the entire family. It may be challenging for some kids, with the consistent climb and rooty sections, but it’s well worth it to make it to the top. Even kids can appreciate a view like the one you get at C Level Cirque.

hiking with kids in Banff - c level cirque hiking trail

Along the way there are plenty of opportunities to stop and kids will find the mining history fascinating. Just keep them a safe distance from the fenced areas.

Our kids, who are 8 and 5 years old, are decent hikers and they really enjoy this hike. The C Level building to explore on the way up plus the chance to play on the rocks at the end make this a fun hike for them.

Pika at C Level Cirque Banff

Don’t miss these other best Banff day-hikes with kids.

Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break

The obvious place to stop for lunch is at the C Level Cirque. It’s well worth it to stop here for a break to take in this incredible scenery.

Stopping at C Level Cirque for Lunch

Alternatively, there are some of the best Banff picnic spots very nearby. You have a choice of heading to Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, Johnson Lake or even Cascade Ponds just a short drive away for a picnic and to spend the rest of your afternoon.

C Level Cirque Hiking Safety

Aside from a few sections covered in roots that you’ll need to climb over, there are relatively few hiking hazards along the C Level Cirque hiking trail. The trail is well maintained and easy to follow up all the way to the C Level Cirque.

hiking trail with roots on C-Level Cirque hike

That being said, it’s still important to educate yourself on Bear Safety in Banff National Park. This should entail carrying bear spray, hiking in a group and making plenty of noise on the way up.

Cougars also live in Banff National Park. Learn more about Cougar Safety in Banff National Park.

Chances of a dangerous wildlife encounter in Banff are very low, but you never know what will happen with Banff wildlife, so be prepared.

We recommend you check the C Level Cirque trail report (under Lake Minnewanka Area) for the C Level Cirque trail conditions, wildlife warnings and possible closures before you head out.

C Level Cirque Trail Logistics

  • On-leash dogs are allowed on the C Level Cirque hike.

  • Mountain biking is not allowed on the C Level Cirque trail.

  • There are toilets in the Upper Bankhead Day Use area.

  • Plan to pack plenty of water and snacks for this hike. Fill your hydration packs before you leave. Though you always have the option of buying lunch or a snack at the tea house.

  • You won’t get cell service for the entirety of your hike, so don’t count on it for your safety.
Banff hikes - C Level Cirque trail

What to Bring for Hiking C Level Cirque Trail

This isn’t a very long hike, so you don’t need to be as prepared with all the proper hiking gear. Check out our list of hiking essentials with the hiking gear and clothing we recommend to get the most enjoyment out of your hike, regardless of the variable Banff weather and trail conditions. The C-Level Cirque trail is a short Banff hike, but there are still a few items that we recommend bringing:

  • Bear spray is a must. Cannisters are available to buy or rent at many locations in Canmore and Banff. Carry your bear spray in an easily accessible location.

  • Water – the C Level Cirque trail is a consistent uphill climb and on a hot summer day you’ll want to ensure you have enough water. A hydration pack is an effective and eco-conscious way to bring enough water for a hard hike.

  • Bring several layers of clothing with you. The weather can be quite variable hiking in Banff National Park, no matter the season. For hiking in Banff, we typically wear convertible hiking pantsT-shirts, a fleece top and rain jackets. Bring a daybag as you can expect to put on and take off layers all day.

  • We don’t use trekking poles, but they can help with balance and to take pressure off knees on the descent.
hiking boots are recommended for C Level Cirque hiking trail

C Level Cirque Footwear Recommendation

The C Level Cirque trail is in decent shape for most of its length, but with the sections covered in roots we recommend hiking shoes or boots. This is especially true if you continue past the cirque up the steeper section.

A truly enjoyable hike in the forest with an incredible pay-off at the end.

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C-Level Cirque hike in Banff National Park is a great family-friendly hike. It has some challenging sections, but the pay-off is worth! Take your time in the boulder field and have some fun spotting pikas!
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Celine Brewer, a local Canmore resident, is the co-owner of Travel Banff Canada. She has a passion for being out in the mountains any time of year. In the summer, you'll often find her hiking or mountain biking. In the winter, she enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and winter hiking the most.

As much as she loves the mountains, she also loves travel! When she's not playing outdoors at home, she's either traveling the world with her husband and two kids or working on their other two travel sites: Family Can Travel and Baby Can Travel.