Departing Banff National Park at Ball Pass and entering Kootenay National Park was another milestone for the GDT hike. A long downhill trek from Ball Pass to Hwy 93, would lead me into the heart of Kootenay National Park and the start of the famous Rockwall trail; one of the most well known and loved trails in the Canadian Rockies. The Rockwall Trail is a 34 mile-long (55 km) thru-hiking trail which includes three stunning alpine passes, massive glaciers, sparkling alpine lakes and waterfalls to boot. The Rock”WALL” gets its name from the continuous, unbroken mountain rock-face which extends along the majority of the trail. There are several access points to get to the Rockwall trail for people completing this as a shorter backpacking trip. I entered at the Floe lake trailhead just off Hwy 93.
The gentle 7 mile hike downhill from Ball Pass to Hwy 93 along the Hawk Creek Valley was a unique sight. The area had been devastated by forest fires back in 2003 and was showing signs of regrowth. It was both interesting and encouraging to see the forest coming back to life with such vigor. Hints of green poked out of every nook and cranny. Emerging from the trail along highway 93 was startling and foreign after spending the last week in the forest without any signs of real civilization. I almost forgot to look both ways before crossing the busy road. This was my chance to stick out my thumb and hitch a ride to a giant burger and cold beer. No way. Adventure still awaits.
The hike from the Floe Lake Trailhead to Floe Lake campground is about 6 miles. Piece of cake, I thought. After having already hiked close to 9 miles that day, it didn’t seem too intimidating. Assuming something will be easy is usually the first mistake when hiking in the mountains.
It’s always further than it looks.
It’s always taller than it looks.
And it’s always harder than it looks.
-The 3 Rules Of Mountaineering-
After crossing the bridge over the Vermillion river, the first 2/3 of the trail is a gentle, gradual uphill climb. The last 1/3 of the hike is where the trail will wear you down. Switchback after switchback continue for quite some time. With no views to distract or impress you as you climb, it feels like a monster. This was by far the most difficult day for me on the entire trail. Perhaps it was my blistered feet, the hot day, or the wear of the trail on my body over the last week…but it felt darn tough. Day hikers and backpackers a-plenty were out for some adventure; from groups of women, to families with young kids. This spot seemed to draw different crowds, but everyone would have to make the haul up the giant hill to get to the campground for the night.
Earn the view is always my motto. Although I cursed the struggle up that damn mountain for the entire 6 miles, Floe Lake was a spot worth earning. It was jaw dropping. The blue lake is the forefront of a spectacular mountain backdrop. The sunlight filters in through the cracks between the surrounding peaks. Glaciers cling to the side of the mountain. Occasionally you hear the tumble of ice or rocks plummeting into the lake. I’ve never seen any place as serene but yet as intimating and aggressive at the same time.
The campground was packed and was the largest facility I would stay at during my GDT adventure. All of the campsites with lakeside views were snatched up long before I arrived. I was able to snag a site uphill with partially obstructed views of the lake. The cooking area is located directly on the lake. People would pay hundreds of dollars for a restaurant view this fantastic. I dug out my fancy dehydrated herbed mushroom risotto for dinner tonight to complement my surroundings.
Although I was completely drained by the climb and mileage of the day, I managed to grab a couple amazing photos of the sun casting its evening light over the lake and mountains here. Little did I know, that even though I had to hobble around to snap these photos, I would be glad that I did. Mother Nature had a little surprise in store for the morning.
I awoke to a heavy haze in the morning. Not fog or foul weather; smoke. The air was thick and the views were poor. Smoke from the forest fires burning hundreds of miles away (most from the US) was blowing right into our hiking path. With no views to enjoy, I made quick work of breakfast and set out on the trail to find a spot that was a bit more scenic than what I was leaving behind. I was excited to hit some of these massive passes and see the views and glaciers that everyone had been talking up at camp the night before.
With rejuvenated legs, the climb up Numa pass, although tough, was manageable. Numa pass is the highest in elevation along the Rockwall trail. It is alpine terrain and completely exposed. On a good day, you should be able to see expansive views and peer down to Floe Lake. Sadly, the views from Numa were worse than expected. It seemed like the smoke was moving in and hanging around. My hiking partners look like they are about to drop off into the abyss from the top of Numa pass.
Embed from Getty Images
How the views from Numa Pass look on a regular day.
How the views from Numa Pass looked for me.
The climb down to Numa Pass Campground is a steady decent of never-ending switchbacks. I stopped for water and a snack break at Numa Campground. The campground didn’t have spectacular views (even though I couldn’t really see anything, so this could be an unfair assessment). I would likely not choose to stay at this particular campground knowing that Floe Lake and Tumbling Creek on either side have better facilities and great views.
One last steep climb up and over Tumbling Pass, would put me at camp for the night at Tumbling Creek. To get there, the Rockwall trail heads through some great alpine meadows along the trail and passes a phenomenal glacier, Tumbling Glacier.
Tumbling Glacier on a normal day
Tumbling Glacier as I experienced it.
Tumbling Creek campground was another large camping facility and was jammed packed with Rockwall hikers. With hopes that the views would be better in the morning and the smoke would blow off, I turned in early after a lively game of Gin Rummy with my trail mates.
Tumbling Campground as it should look. I apologize I don’t have any of my own great photos of this section or campground to share.
Mother Nature didn’t bring us any strong winds overnight to blow the smoke away. In fact, the air wasn’t improving at all. I’m confident what lied behind the thick wall of smoke was a much more impressive wall of rock that I was missing out on.
One last smoke obstructed pass – Rockwall Pass – left our group feeling down and defeated by the conditions of the Rockwall trail. This was supposed to be the most scenic and challenging section of trail for us and the grand finale for our GDT hike. To say the Rockwall Trail was a disappointment for me would be an accurate but truly unfair judgement of the trail itself. It was unfortunate that the conditions were unfavorable for this section. For me, this just means that I will have to come back; and that’s not a terrible trade off at all.
Helmet Falls was a cool sight to check out further along the trail. Although I didn’t stay at this site, Helmet Falls campground was another impeccably maintained spot in Kootenay National Park. I was very impressed by the facilities in this park.
A Parks Canada snapshot of Helmet falls on a typical summer day vs. Helmet falls on this smoke-filled day.
One last climb up Goodsir Pass and into Yoho National Park would lead to McArthur Campground and the last stop of my GDT journey. The final morning on the trail was bittersweet. Only 9.6 flat (mountain flat) miles to the Ottertail trailhead stood between me and the food I spent the last 36 hours drooling over. I hobbled over the finish line with my two great hiking friends and shared a celebratory brewski to salute the incredible journey we had just taken together.
132 miles of the most scenic, rugged, breathtaking, grueling but so epically Canadian terrain. It was an experience of a life time. The trail certainly tested my strengths and my weaknesses. It taught me a lot about patience.. with myself and with Mother Nature. I learned from my fellow hikers and the people I met over this journey that no matter your age, circumstance, fitness level, or experience; the mountains treat us all the same. And most importantly, I took home a overwhelming sense of gratitude for the beautiful places I was able to experience and enjoy. We are blessed with a world busting at the seams with life and adventure. I’m grateful I was able to get out there and live it. I will, without a doubt, be back to explore more sections of the GDT, and return to some favorite places I discovered on this hike to explore some more. I hope you enjoyed taking this incredible journey with me on the GDT !
Even the best laid plans can be derailed by Mother Nature and the elements. Have you ever missed out on something amazing because of this? Please Share !
Great post! These pictures fuel my wanderlust 🙂
Thanks so much. I wish the conditions along the Rockwall trail could have been better for this hike. It truly is such amazing country. Are you thinking of doing this hike ?!
I just came across your blog and i am so IN LOVE!!!
Im looking into hiking part of the Great Divide Trail this summer, unfortunately I only have about 8 days to do it! Im wondering which part of the trail you liked the best and would recommend. I love stunning mountian views and a challenge! TIA!!
Thanks so much 🙂 You absolutely should do some hiking on the GDT this summer, it is spectacular and been, hands down, the most amazing scenic adventure I’ve ever been on. I can tell you more and give you some info from the section I hiked if you want to shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. There is just too much great info to post on here ! 🙂
I have missed out on something due to Mother Nature indeed. The Kootenays was my playground. I moved to Calgary from Ottawa and fell in love with hiking. I did Floe Lake a couple times as day hikes. The first one, I couldn’t make it all the way up the bloody switchbacks. I’m chubby
But it was my hike from Numa Creek up to Numa Pass that changed things. Again, a day hike (I’m terrified of the dark and always hiked alone with just my dog. So, no overnights). I had placed my turn around time at 1pm.
I ended up at my destination around 1:30. But on my descent back, a huge storm had come out of nowhere. By the time I reached Numa campground (and I had only seen about 3 other hikers all day) the trails were flooded. There was a brief break in the storm and I carried on, but a more fiercer one lay just behind it. Thunder and lightning took over the sky and extreme gusts of winds picked up. I remember being nervous and with 6 km still to get back to the car, I certainly wasn’t going to make it before all hell broke loose.
I remember hearing a sound that I will never forget. The winds had been so strong that many trees started to crack. I looked across the river and literally watched 200 foot tall trees fall over each other and into the stream. Then the noises began all around me. I ran to an avalanche chute, the safest spot I figured with it being more open so I could keep an eye on all the trees that were crashing down around me.
It probably didn’t last to that extreme longer than 10 minutes, but it was the scariest 10 minutes of my life. Those sounds, trees being carried down the river. No one around, save my terrified dog. And because I was an idiot back then, no one knew where I had planned to hike that day.
When the storm moved further into the mountains, I ran. I had to figure out how to climb over, or crawl under fallen trees along the path, with my dog. Mountain on one side, fast moving river on the other meant no going around. All in all, I got out with no injuries, save cut up everywhere from maneuvering over trees.
I was an experienced hiker (save my stupidity of not letting anyone know my whereabouts) that travelled with emergency & medical kits/bear spray and even a large hunting knife if necessary. But nothing prepared my mind for what might happen.
I stopped hiking after that. Every little sound, wind through the trees, made me nervous. The joy was gone. So Mother Nature kicked my ass. That was over 6 years ago. I only started hiking again this year. I now live in Vancouver, surrounded my mountains. They’ve been taunting me for years.
Sorry for the long post. But the Rockwall trail will forever be in my mind, so I’m always reading other peoples’ stories regarding it. It is the one that beat me. But I’ve always thought I would go back some day and do the whole damn thing just to get my revenge.
thanks for sharing this story. Glad you made it out safe and sound. A true reminder that these beautiful places can have minds of their own. I hope you can go back and get your revenge for sure. I certainly want to go back when the conditions are better. Its a pretty epic spot.