Backpacking the Canadian Rockies: Nigel and Cataract Passes

By Michael Lanza

A couple of hours up the Nigel Pass Trail, after a lunch break beside boulder-strewn rapids on chalky, glacially silted Nigel Creek, we pop out of forest into sub-alpine terrain with wildflowers and the kind of dense, low brush that conceals grizzly bears better than we think—enjoying our first expansive views of the peaks flanking this valley in Banff National Park. As we make our way farther up the valley, our gentle trail turns steeper, leading us up to Nigel Pass at 7,200 feet (2,195 meters), where we drink up a 360-degree panorama of tall cliffs and treeless mountainsides of broken rock in this little patch of the Canadian Rockies.

But even this barely hints at what lies ahead.

A descent of just minutes brings us to an easy rock-hop across the shallow Brazeau River, which runs milky and emerald with glacial till—and across an invisible boundary into Jasper National Park. Several other backpackers also crossing the river all continue in the direction of the well-known Brazeau Loop in Jasper. None turn in the same direction we’re hiking.

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Backpackers hiking the Nigel Cataract and Cline Passes Route toward Cataract Pass in Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies.
Our group backpacking up the Brazeau River Valley toward Cataract Pass in Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies.

On the river’s opposite bank, we find what seems a promising indication of what our route ahead may offer: a trail sign marking this junction and a clearly visible footpath on the ground leading where we want to go. The sign points to Cataract Pass, our destination—and affirms what we already know: that this is an “unmaintained route.”

Minutes beyond that junction, a scene of alpine paradise unspools before us. In this virtually treeless valley, the Brazeau River, baring white-capped teeth, punches noisily through a tight passage between the steep slope that this use trail traverses and crumbling cliffs on the river’s other side. Mountains of archetypal Canadian Rockies pedigree, with serrated stone crowns and towering walls of heavily fractured layers, shoulder into the achingly blue sky, more of them coming into view as we march up valley.

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A backpacker hiking above the Brazeau River Valley toward Cataract Pass in Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies.
My wife, Penny, backpacking above the Brazeau River Valley toward Cataract Pass in Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

Following occasional cairns, we scramble through a jumbled, maze-like train wreck of razor-edged boulders, the going slow but not difficult through what looks like the very old debris of massive rockslides that released high above and reached the valley floor. Rocks of all sizes and sharply contrasting colors cover the ground at the bottom of the geologically complex, skyscraping cliffs forming this side of the valley. 

Five of us—my wife, Penny, our 20-year-old daughter, Alex, our longtime friends Gary Davis and his 19-year-old daughter, Adele, and I—are spending three days backpacking the Nigel, Cataract, and Cline Passes Route in the Canadian Rockies. Today, our first day, we’ll cross Nigel and Cataract passes in northern Banff and southern Jasper national parks. At Cataract Pass, we’ll enter the White Goat Wilderness, where we plan to base camp for two nights.

Before long, the valley broadens and flattens. The Brazeau meanders lazily, parting around rocky sandbars of its own making, its water even more vividly emerald here, in its calm before the storm of whitewater downstream. We stroll casually along a flat trail through meadows that, as Adele puts it, look very much like “a golf course.” But, of course, this wilderness idyll is the farthest thing from a manicured golf course.

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The Brazeau River Valley

Taking a short snack break in the Brazeau Valley, we chat for a few minutes with a backpacker heading in the other direction who mentions that he began his trek in Waterton; and when I ask if he’s thru-hiking the Great Divide Trail, he flashes a big smile, excited that I’ve heard of it. He started the 698-mile/1,123-kilometer GDT in the first days of July and plans to finish in the third week of August.

Curious about the GDT, I ask if he has favorite sections so far. He contemplates the question for a long moment, mentions Waterton and a couple of others, then finally shrugs and says, “It’s all great.”

The Great Divide Trail stretches from Waterton Lakes National Park on the U.S.-Canada border—where it connects with the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in America’s Glacier National Park—to its northern terminus in Kakwa Provincial Park. Along its winding, up-and-down course, the GDT passes through five national parks (Waterton Lakes, Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper), eight provincial parks, three wildland provincial parks, two wilderness areas, including our destination, the White Goat, and two special management areas.

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Backpackers camped in Cataract Basin on the Nigel, Cataract and Cline Passes Route, White Goat Wilderness, Canadian Rockies.
Our camp near Cataract Creek on the Nigel, Cataract and Cline Passes Route, White Goat Wilderness, Canadian Rockies.

Sixty percent of the trail lies within Canada’s Rocky Mountain National and Provincial Parks, a World Heritage Site spanning four national parks (the four above excluding Waterton) and three provincial parks (Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, and Hamber). The seven contiguous parks collectively cover more than 5.8 million acres/almost 2.4 million hectares of pristine mountain wilderness—an area nearly equal to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Everglades national parks combined.

While the Nigel, Cataract, and Cline Passes Route comprises a miniscule piece of the GDT, it seems like a good sampler of what strikes me as probably one of the most continuously scenic, wild, often remote, and just plain interesting long-distance trails in the world.

We reach the upper Brazeau Valley, where a remnant glacier hangs off a peak that stands over 9,600 feet (3,000 meters); that glacier drains into a trio of glacial lakes in this basin that forms the headwaters of the Brazeau River. We gaze up at the steep footpath ascending a slope of scree for several hundred feet to Cataract Pass, at 8,200 feet (2,500 meters). Then everyone puts their head down and grinds it out, each at our own pace, reaching the windy pass one at a time, congratulating one other’s effort.

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A backpacker hiking over Cataract Pass toward the Brazeau River Valley in Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies.
My wife, Penny, backpacking over Cataract Pass toward the Brazeau River Valley in Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies.

Crossing another invisible boundary at this pass to enter the White Goat Wilderness, we follow the path and sporadic cairns down the other side. It disappears crossing rocky ground, then reappears farther ahead, plunging down a steep final pitch with occasionally sketchy footing on pebbly trail—but with a visible trail much of the way—to Cataract Creek. Easily walking a chain of rocks across the shallow, clear, cold water, we reach a large campsite just above the creek’s opposite bank.

A twisting arc of mountains comprised of shattered cliffs, scree slopes, and jagged edges against the sky cradles the Cataract Creek basin. A chain of peaks frames the creek valley draining the basin’s mouth. Above our camp, a glacier dangles off one mountainside.

We’ll spend two nights here in the White Goat Wilderness largely because no permit is required. That fact creates a convenient situation in the midst of the Canadian Rockies national parks, where very popular multi-day hikes like the Skyline Trail in Jasper and the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay—two premier sections of the GDT—require permit reservations that are very hard to get.

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The White Goat Wilderness

The next morning, I’m out of the tent before the sun reaches our camp, wearing multiple layers in the cool morning air, walking around shooting photos of our camp surroundings and the creek and mountains in the diffused pre-dawn light. Before long, the sun begins striking the mountaintops, bathing them in golden light.

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