Canadian Continental - The Great Divide Trail

Lake Magog to Rockwall Trail
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Floe Lake and the Rockwall
Floe Lake and the Rockwall

From Lake Magog to Citadel Pass on the boundary with Banff National Park is a distance of 12 miles (19.2 km). I set out on this route after a beautiful clear dawn, turning back time after time to look back across the lake to glacier-clad Mount Assiniboine, from the top of which trailed a white, wind-blown plume of cloud. The trail leads past Og Lake where there is a campground and into the unusual Valley of the Rocks, where it takes a complex route through boulder-strewn forest. I met many people on this section as most walkers heading for Assiniboine come in via the Sunshine Village ski lift, as there is then very little ascent involved. Heading north the backpacker is faced with a long and steep climb up to Citadel Pass, at 7,740 feet (2,322m), an ascent eased for me by the wonderful display of wild flowers on the open slopes below the pass and kept cool by several showers of rain.

Once over Citadel Pass, the walker enters the vast undulating subalpine flower-filled Sunshine Meadows through which runs the Great Divide. This is vulnerable much-visited terrain, so it's important to stay on the trail, which, as the ski resort draws near, becomes a gravel walkway carefully edged and graded.

Before this developed trail is reached, Howard Douglas Lake and campground are passed. My walk here from Lake Magog took eight hours, rather a change from my ski tour over a year earlier when it had taken two of us four days to do the same journey in the other and easier direction. On that occasion bad weather, a broken ski binding and soft snow had conspired to double the time we thought the trek would take.

The view south from the higher points on this trail are excellent, with Mount Assiniboine, 10 aerial miles away now, towering over the surrounding tops. The intrusion of the ski resort of Sunshine Village is soon passed (although the inn is a nice place for some 'real' food, or as a shelter from bad weather) and a section of high passes and deep valleys is traversed, the closed-in terrain a total contrast to the open landscape of Sunshine Meadows.

Wawa Ridge, immediately above the resort, is crossed first and gives good views of the meadows, the last we'll have, and Mount Assiniboine from its crest. After descending to unmemorable Simpson Pass, named for Sir George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company who crossed it while searching for a new route for fur traders across the Rockies in 1841, the trail climbs and then runs beneath the rock spur of Monarch Ramparts before ascending Healy Pass, at 7,650 feet (2,295m), which gives good views all around including, almost inevitably, the distant Mount Assiniboine, although this is the last clear view you'll have of that peak. West of the pass can be seen the clustered Pharaoh Peaks where we are headed.

A descent leads to the highly popular yet, in my view, not very attractive forest-shaded Egypt Lake Campground, where there is a shelter. I'd intended to camp here, but there were so many people about with tents pitched everywhere that, even though it was evening, I went on to climb steeply up to the rocky 7,550-foot (2,265m) pass called Whistling Valley (named I discovered not for the wind that whips through it, but for the hoary marmots that whistle in warning from the rocks when backpackers pass by) and views of the Ball Range. Three and a half miles and 1,250 feet (375m) of descent from the pass is Ball Pass junction Campground, a beautiful, quiet, scenic timberline site featuring some picnic tables, so called because it lies at the intersection of two major trails. I had the place to myself, apart from a couple of porcupines that tried to ,run off with my pack.

Banff National Park is finally left for Kootenay National Park at Ball Pass which lies 1.5 miles (2.4 km) and 1,000 feet (300m) above the campground. The view from the pass is dominated by Mount Ball, a distinctive, bulky peak capped with a curving white glacier. I sat here awhile absorbing the view, not relishing the long 'descent to come. Some people dread ascents, personally I dislike descents more for the jarring they give the knees and back. The one down from Ball Pass is a real pounder as it takes the walker down 2,900 feet (870m) in 6 miles (9.6 km) on a rocky, dry trail. Near its foot, there is a campground just beyond which the Banff - Radium Highway is crossed and a 2,350-foot (705m) climb commenced through dense, cooling forest to Floe Lake, an ascent that took me three hours.

Floe Lake is an unbelievably beautiful timberline lake stretched out between the forest and the 3,000-foot (900m) sheer cliffs of the massive Rockwall. Beneath the cliffs lie small glaciers that in summer carve off small ice floes, hence the lake's name. A campground lies on the forested shore, a large site with many facilities, including gravel tent pads as the lake is a popular destination. From its shores starts the Rockwall Trail, one of the finest mountain trails I have ever walked, which runs along the base of the 25 mile (40 km) long limestone wall, with the Great Divide running along its crest, for nearly 20 miles (32 km). The trail is not level as it soars and dips over three high passes and down into forested canyons, past waterfalls, flower-filled cirques, hanging glaciers and magnificent alpine scenery.

Dawn at Floe Lake was impressive, as the slowly increasing light gradually lit the distant snows far to the south and then crept under a pink sky along the length of the lake to turn the gray cliffs and dull dirty snow a warm gold and brilliant white. I was to be blessed by hot, clear weather for the whole of my walk beneath the Rockwall. The trail begins by ascending to Numa Pass under the pyramid of Foster Peak, at 7,725 feet (2,317.5m) the highest point on this section of the route, and then switchbacking steeply downwards to 5,000 feet (1,500m) Numa Creek and a campground. Immediately the trail heads back up via an open avalanche slope to Tumbling Pass, (7,250 feet/2,175m) where there are excellent views back to Foster Peak, a summit that dominates views south along the Rockwall throughout the walk. Descending again, the trail drops to 6,200 feet (1,860m) at Tumbling Creek where there is a campground. Here I stopped to pitch the tent on the edge of a meadow and sat watching the evening light highlighting the curving bretes and jagged blocks of snow high up on the Tumbling Glacier. Later in the evening, a thin crescent moon rose above the darkening mountain wall.

Again my only companions in camp were porcupines, which this time tried to steal my boots, waking me in the process. Although they were smelling of stale sweat, I brought the boots into the tent. Bright dawn light on the cliffs promised another fine day as I shivered in the sunless meadow over breakfast. The steep 1,250-foot (375m) climb up to Wolverine Plateau soon warmed me up. For the next 31/2 miles (5.6 km) the trail stays high with no descents as it crosses Rockwall Pass and Limestone Summit. The views along the Rockwall in either direction are superb and I thought this the finest section of a fine trail. An extra bonus was the sight of a herd of mountain goats browsing on a low crag. From Limestone Summit, at 7,115 feet (2,134.5m) the trail drops 1,400 feet (420m) in 2 miles (3.2 km) to the Helmet Creek valley where Helmet Falls tumbles 1,200 feet (360m) down the vast amphitheater that marks the northern end of the Rockwall. As I descended through the forest I heard the thunder of the falls long before it suddenly came into view across an avalanche chute, surprisingly far away for the volume of noise.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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