Distance: 13.5 km
Elevation gain: 1200 m View map Download GPS track
Opal Peak rises above the popular and official “Opal Hills” hiking trail to the northeast of Maligne Lake. My second hike in the Rockies had been to Bald Hills on the opposite shore of the lake and so I thought it would be nice to re-visit the area a decade later.
We used the directions in Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies to find the trailhead, located at the uppermost parking lot at Maligne Lake, and set out early to avoid the expected crowds. After contouring around a meadow we entered the trees and ascended moderately steeply on good trail, reaching a fork in the trail after a few hundred meters of elevation gain. The Opal Hills trail forms a loop and this is the branch point. We could've gone either way, but chose to head right as this would be a much more direct route to our planned Opal Peak ascent route.
We reached treeline 2.5 km from the car (about 50 minutes at a moderate-fast pace) and immediately encountered a sign directing us to head 90 degrees to the left, directly towards Opal Peak. A good trail heading straight at this point is an alternate and easier route up Opal Peak, but even if you have no intention of hiking up the peak you should at least go a short distance up to get a good view of Maligne Lake, which is hidden along the entire length of the official trail. I suspected all this at the time, but decided to continue on the official trail anyway, and a few minutes later encountered another sign directing us to turn another 90 degrees to the left to continue on the Opal Hills trail. We continued hiking straight at this point, again on good trail, crossed a minor creek, then followed the trail to a shallow gully. I’d been wondering where to start the ascent (really anywhere could work), but chose to head up the shaded gully since it was apparent others regularly used this route.
At the top of the gully the last of the vegetation disappeared and the remaining ascent was on scree. There were many boot prints and trails through the scree, contouring or switchbacking up the slope, but I chose to head straight up. I hit a few loose patches, but in general the scree was firm enough to avoid treadmilling. After just 45 minutes I reached a col below Opal Peak, then picked up a good and obvious trail heading up the peak. The weather at this point was absolutely perfect – cool, sunny, with a slight breeze to evaporate the sweat – and the views in all directions were stunning, literally! The ascent remained dead easy and I slowed down considerably to try and absorb the scenery. Any areas of loose scree had obvious switchbacked trail around them.
At a slow snail’s pace I reached the summit 45 minutes after departing the col (90 minutes from the Opal Hills trail). A huge and expertly built cairn greeted me, but even had it been made from solid gold it wouldn’t have been able to distract me from the amazing panorama! Glaciers, lakes, both lush and glacier-scoured valleys, and mountains abounded in all directions. In terms of views it was certainly in my top 10, and the ease of the ascent places it even higher. The summit register had many signatures from guides and clients and perhaps one ascent party per day had signed it this season.
After a long summit stay we headed down, plunging and skiing in the soft scree. It was by far the best scree run I’ve done in the Rockies and I ended up losing 200 m of elevation in under 5 minutes! We could’ve continued this fun along our entire ascent route, but at the col instead chose to head south along the ridge towards some grass and scree hills, for no reason other than to extend our day. A good trail went this way and we later confirmed it was an alternate and much gentler approach to the col than what we’d done (which was still easy).
We intersected the official Opal Hills trail a bit later, then followed the loop north. Many other routes up Opal Peak were apparent along here with perhaps the best one being at a drainage near the north end of the Opal Hills loop. A quick and easy descent on good trail then brought us back to the truck.