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A Fascinating Fossil Hike to the Stanley Glacier

“You could get lucky finding something new” exclaims Claudia Herding our Burgess Shale guide who is leading us on a tour in Kootenay National Park. We are a group of seven including Claudia our guide, two women from the Red Deer hiking club including 75 year old Bertha; Alan, an English fellow living in Detroit; his 79 year old father from England, myself and a woman who has come along as a sweep.

It was a dreary Monday morning on the last day of August when we met at the Stanley Glacier parking lot – located just 15 kilometres south of Castle Junction on Highway 93. At 6°C I wasn’t sure if we’d be snowed or rained upon but no matter what we were all keen on this hike to the Stanley Glacier.

Near the start of the Stanley Glacier Trail, Kootenay National Park

Near the start of the Stanley Glacier Trail

The total hike to the fossil beds near Stanley Glacier is approximately 10 kilometres return with around 450 metres of elevation gain. It starts with a couple of kilometres of easy switch-backing through an area that was burned in 2003. There’s lots of new growth – primarily lodgepole pine – which needs fire to release their seeds and fireweed – that’s looks quite pretty right now dressed in its fall colours.

The drama of Guard Wall, Kootenay National Park

The drama of the Guard Wall

Our guide Claudia providing interpretation services along the trail

Our guide Claudia providing interpretation services along the trail

After crossing Stanley Creek the trail is gentler until it reach the talus slopes. Views open up and you can see the tongue of the Stanley Glacier in the distance.

A flat section of trail on the way to the Stanley Glacier

A flat section of trail on the way to the Stanley Glacier

Magnificent mountains in the area of the Stanley Glacier

Magnificent mountains in the area of the Stanley Glacier

Our goal was a large rock – possibly an erratic – accessed via a 200 metre section of rocky trail. In the vicinity of this rock are loads of tiny fossils that make up the Burgess Shale. Only discovered in 2008, guided tours to this area started just last year.

Charles Walcott, a paleontologist made the original Burgess Shale discovery in 1909 on a mountain ridge in Yoho National Park.  In the shale you can find soft-bodied fossils that lived in a tropical environment during the Cambrian era over 500 million years ago. Other Burgess Shale sites have been located around the world including in Greenland, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Emu Bay in south Australia and Chengjing, China. In 1981 UNESCO recognized the global importance of the Burgess Shale site.

There are loads of tiny fossils near the giant boulder - if you know what you're looking for

There are loads of tiny fossils near the giant boulder – if you know what you’re looking for

Claudia showed us some of the fossils we might find – and photos of what they probably looked like. Then we were sent off to see what we could find. For the first half hour I found nothing but pretty rocks. But once I understood the scale of what I was looking for I found loads of tiny fossils. It ended up being far more fun once I knew exactly what I was doing.

Burgess shale fossils near the Stanley Glacier

Claudia showing us fossils and photos of what it probably looked like

One of the trilobites found in the Burgess Shale - Stanley Glacier area

One of the trilobites found in the Burgess Shale

One of my fossil finds - note the tiny trilobites

One of my fossil finds

Looking for tiny fossils in one massive rock pile - Burgess Shale hike in Kootenay National Park

Looking for tiny fossils in one massive rock pile

All told between hiking and fossil hunting we were out for about seven hours. Although you could in theory do this hike on your own (whereas you can’t do the hikes on your own in Yoho National Park), you learn so much more with a knowledgeable guide like Claudia. This hike costs $55 plus $11 for a reservation fee. Go prepared no matter what hike you do – as they run rain or shine. On the website there is a list of suggested items to bring – and in late August I was very happy to have a hat and mittens.

There are two other guided Burgess Shale hikes you can sign up to do in Yoho National Park – though they are longer and more strenuous.

Have you done any of the Burgess Shale hikes in Canada?

A Fascinating Fossil Hike to the Stanley Glacier

A big thank you do Parks Canada for inviting me on this hike. 

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure – & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project – a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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