Have you wanted to climb a tall mountain with 6000 feet of vertical gain, but maybe not go all the way to the top, because f*** that? Have you wanted to step on 505-million-year-old fossils while climbing halfway up that tall mountain? Have you wanted to go into an EXCLUSIVE, restricted-access area that can only be entered with a guide? Well then let me tell you about the Mt. Stephen Burgess Shale fossil beds guided hike in Yoho National Park!
The Burgess Shale fossil beds of Mt. Stephen are a World Heritage Site and contain 505-million-year-old trilobite fossil beds. Yoho National Park offers guided hikes up to the fossil beds on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, throughout the busy season at $55 CAD per person. The Geoscience Foundation also offers guided hikes into the restricted fossil area, but uhhhhh, it’s like twice the price, so go with Yoho National Park unless you have some sort of fancy Geoscience Foundation discount.
The maximum party size is 12 people, which is what we had for our guided hike on a Sunday in late July. We met our guide at the Yoho visitor centre in Field, BC at 7am to sign our lives away and get a rundown of the day’s events. After rounding everyone up and giving out information, at around 8am, our guide, Laura, started hiking through town towards the trailhead at a “warmup” pace and explained she would slow down to a “guide” pace once we hit the actual trail.
The trail up Mt. Stephen, like all trails in the Canadian Rockies, is pretty relentlessly steep. The good news is that it was less steep and easier terrain than most of the other hikes I’ve completed in Kananaskis, Banff, etc. The “guide pace” was not particularly slow, IMHO, and was perhaps only a touch slower than my normal walking pace. Guide pace my @$$ (or uh, maybe my normal walking pace is very slow?).
Every 15 or 20 minutes we took a “cardio break” which is pretty much the opposite of my hiking style, but guided hike participants can’t be choosers, eh? These frequent cardio breaks gave everyone in the group a chance to catch up and catch their breath. Our guide, Laura, also used these 15 minute breaks to give us information about the fossil beds in 15-minute increments, which I think is a rather good tactic for providing information, since even adults can’t usually listen to someone talking for more than a few minutes at a time!
By the time we reached the fossil beds (about 3 hours after we started), we were well versed in the fossil bed creation, the Cambrian explosion, and the types of fossils we may find in the Burgess Shale. We were given booklets labeling the different fossilized critters we might find, some magnifying glasses, and some paper and colored pencils in case we wanted to do any fossil rubbings, summer-camp-style. After that, we were free to roam about the fossil beds, turning over chunks of shale looking for something cool. The Mt. Stephen fossil beds are primarily trilobite fossils, but there were a few other ancient sea creatures to be found as well.
We were given an hour to sift through the shale and take pictures of lots of trilobite fossils. If you try to take one home illegally, be warned, it could cost you $25,000! Laura explained that there were many cameras, some obvious, some purposefully hidden, waiting to catch potential fossil stealers. These folks are serious about their fossils, y’all! I only saw one obvious camera during the entire hike, and that’s because it was literally in front of my face as I walked up the trail.
Content with my 500 fossil pictures and PB&J (lunch is BYO), we started our hike back down. We had one person who was very fearful of the steep, sandy trail near the fossil beds and the guide asked everyone to walk behind her as she slowly shuffled the fearful participant down the trail. I had read previous trip reports that seemed to suggest you could walk down at your own pace if you signed a waiver, but this option was not given to us and we were told we had to stay with the group.
Luckily, the fearful participant became more comfortable as the trail became slightly less steep, and we quickened to a normal walking pace for the rest of the descent, arriving at the trailhead a little after 2pm. Laura informed us that we were the quickest group she’d had all season and that the normal arrival time is 3pm. On the way down, David and I were hiking directly behind Laura, and she gave us an awesome tidbit regarding Bugaboos Provincial Park, which, SPOILER ALERT, will be featured in the next blog post (and will be the final installment of the Canadian Rockies posts… sniff sniff).
Some random notes about the Mt. Stephen Burgess Shale fossil beds hike:
- The “guide pace” is not actually that slow, so the warning on the sign-up page about being in decent physical shape should be taken seriously (though the breaks are frequent and numerous).
- You are at the mercy of the pace and comfort of other people in the group, so patience is necessary! Our group was “fast” but apparently the excursion can take an additional hour or more depending on the participants. And apparently sometimes participants need to be helicoptered out because they freeze in terror on the descent.
- You should probably not be a bible literalist or the information about 505-million-year-old-fossils is not particularly useful to you.
- You should probably not pocket fossils unless you have $25,000 to spare.