Best of the Canadian Rockies: Backpacking the Rockwall Trail
By Michael Lanza
A few hours into our hike’s first day, we round a bend in the trail to a sight that can stop you in your tracks: a pair of skyscraping stone monoliths rising thousands of feet above the treetops. Silhouetted by the sun arcing toward the west, the peaks resemble nothing less than a pair of El Capitans standing shoulder to shoulder. Farther along, one of the tallest waterfalls in the Rocky Mountains comes into view: Helmet Falls, plunging 1,154 feet (352m) over a cliff in two braids that recouple before the column of water crashes into the rocks at its base, spraying a fine cloud of mist into the air.
But these scenes are just a warm-up act for the majesty that awaits us on this four-day family backpacking trip.
We’re hiking the 34-mile (55k) Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, in the vertiginous heart of the Canadian Rockies. Well known among Canadian backpackers but less so among Americans and international trekkers, the Rockwall arguably deserves a place on any list of the world’s prettiest trails.
The route’s name comes from its defining geological feature: a nearly unbroken, massive limestone escarpment in Kootenay’s Vermilion Range, plastered with glaciers and towering in some locations about 3,000 feet (900m) above the trail. Backpackers follow the base of this wall for more than 18 miles (30k) of the route (although the wall extends farther than that). It’s no exaggeration to liken it to dozens of the tallest cliff in Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, lined up in a row stretching for miles.
The Rockwall Trail isn’t actually a single trail, but a U-shaped, point-to-point route that links up several trails and usually takes four to six days. It begins and ends in the valley of the Vermilion River, which flows emerald green with glacial flour, flanked by peaks rising to over 10,000 feet on the British Columbia side of the Continental Divide, west of Kootenay’s more-famous sister park, Banff. Backpackers on the Rockwall walk through larch forests and meadows carpeted with wildflowers, and may encounter wildlife like mountain goats.
Although we’re in grizzly country and the Rockwall Trail crosses three named passes (and a fourth, unnamed pass east of Limestone Peak), this is, in many ways, a beginner-friendly backpacking trip. Trails are well marked and easy to follow. The passes range from about 7,100 to 7,700 feet—elevations that rarely affect hikers more than leaving you winded. There are bridges over the creeks (we never had to get our feet wet), and designated camping areas with bearproof, metal lockers for food storage, pit toilets, and even picnic tables in the camps’ cooking and eating areas.
Shortly after 5 p.m., almost six hours after hitting the trail on our first day, we reach the Helmet Falls backcountry campground, having hiked nearly 10 miles. Most of the campsites have already been claimed, but we find an empty one in a copse of trees at the quiet edge of the campground. From here, tomorrow, we’ll begin a two-day walk along the base of the Rockwall formation, beginning with a visit to Helmet Falls, whose steady white noise reaches our campsite from a half-mile away. After dark falls, it lulls us quickly to sleep.
The Canadian Rockies can get pretty wet. See my “Review: The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
In warm sunshine and a cooling breeze, we stroll across a gently sloping alpine meadow to its high point: Rockwall Pass, at 7,264 feet (2,214m). A vast wall of rock shoots up more than 2,500 feet above where we stand, with a small glacier tucked into the shadows at its base. We drop our backpacks for lunch and to just gape for a while.
It’s our second day on the Rockwall Trail—and will be our biggest day of this trip. We’re hiking 11.8 miles (19k) with about 2,600 feet (800m) of uphill, from Helmet Falls campsite to Numa Creek campsite, including two passes: Rockwall Pass and Tumbling Pass.
Three times since yesterday afternoon, we’ve met other backpackers who look at our son, Nate, 14, and daughter, Alex, 12, and expressed astonishment that we’re hiking the entire Rockwall in four days instead of five, and hiking nearly 12 miles over two passes on our second day. I actually would have gotten a permit to stay at Tumbling Creek camp, to shorten our second day—though I still would have thought my family capable of finishing it in four days—but Tumbling camp was booked full when I reserved my permit. So we’re going all the way to Numa Creek campsite today instead.
The only people not surprised by our itinerary are my kids: They’re kind of proud of the fact that we’re hiking a distance that other people consider crazy.
Like the most popular backpacking routes in flagship U.S. national parks—think Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Grand Teton—the Rockwall’s popularity is such that Parks Canada must manage it through the permit system. And they keep backpacker numbers at a level that ensures a surprising degree of solitude on the trail. While we share each camping area with 15 or more other parties every night—most of them two to four people—for most of each day, it feels like we’re out here on our own.
Grizzly bears roam these mountains in significant numbers, we’re taking appropriate precautions, carrying pepper spray and small, powerful air horns, and walking close together. (As it turns out, we won’t see any bears over the trip’s four days.) At one point, when Nate and Penny, my wife, fall a short distance behind Alex and me, Nate calls out for us to wait. “Dad, you’re going to have to take some responsibility for making sure you don’t get ahead of us,” he scolds. Hearing your own words thrown back at you by your kids always hits your ears like an unexpected echo that’s kind of validating and only mildly annoying.
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“Oh, wow, look at that glacier!” Nate says.
We’ve reached Tumbling Pass, at 7,103 feet (2,165m), after a tough, steep hike in early evening on our second day. Looking almost close enough to hit with a stone, the severely cracked Tumbling Glacier pours down the monstrous cliff face in front of us. Between the glacier and us, four mountain goats amble along the rocky ridge of a glacial moraine.
We plop down in the grassy meadow to take a break and just soak up this scene. Penny says, “It’s a lot easier hiking 12 miles with a big pack when you have views like this.”
A couple hours later, we shuffle into Numa Creek campground at 7:45 p.m., after a 10-hour day. I expect both kids to drop from exhaustion. But instead, Nate takes the initiative to pitch our tents, and Alex helps organize food for dinner and heads across the creek to the camp’s cooking area. With more trips under their belts than any of us could remember, they’ve become a couple of fine young backpackers.
While eating dinner by headlamp light in the dark, we meet John and David, a father-son team backpacking the Rockwall together, John retired and David a teacher who’s married and has a young family.
Nate tells me later, “That will be you and me someday, Dad.” I tell him I look forward to that, though I’m in no rush to reach that age.
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Numa Pass and Floe Lake
After our late night, the kids sleep in and we enjoy a leisurely morning, not hitting the trail until after 11 a.m.—which is fine, given that we only have to hike six miles (9.7k) today. But those miles don’t come quite as easy as that sounds: The first two-thirds or so of that distance involves a long uphill slog, which begins moderately, but grows relentlessly steep. We ascend mostly through forest, in welcome shade, but also cross some meadows and pass a waterfall plunging a couple hundred feet over a cliff on Numa Creek.
Some three hours from camp, we emerge from the last vestiges of sparse, sub-alpine forest onto a sprawling meadow of grass and wildflowers. Alex hikes right on my heels, with Nate and Penny a short distance back as we walk the final hundred yards to Numa Pass. I turn to Alex and say, “That was an almost 3,000-foot climb, you know.” She says, “What?!” I add, with a grin, “Good thing I didn’t tell you that in camp, huh?”
We stop for lunch and a hard-earned break at the pass—the highest on the Rockwall Trail—an open, broad area of rocks and dirt at 7,726 feet (2,355m), almost devoid of vegetation, with gusts of wind blasting through it. Then Alex and Penny lie down on a big, flat boulder to rest while Nate and I hike up the ridge on the west side of the pass, toward the cliffs of 10,500-foot (3,201m) Foster Peak. We follow the steep ridge uphill for about 20 minutes to a ledge where we can climb no farther without venturing into serious mountain goat terrain.
From here, we have an eagle’s perspective on the chain of ice-clad peaks forming the Rockwall, and countless other sheer, jagged mountains beyond. Hundreds of feet below our perch, Floe Lake, our final campsite, lies at the toe of a dramatic cliff comprised of multiple buttresses and gullies. A small, hanging glacier dangles into the lake. Floe is not one but two long, narrow bodies of water separated by a thin strand of rocky glacial moraine. The lake closer to the cliff and the glaciers, the smaller of the two, is the brilliant emerald hue of water clouded by glacial flour. The larger lake, cut off from the pipeline of glacial flour, is a deep, almost oceanic blue. The contrast between the two is striking.
When we think about the most beautiful hikes in the world, we tend to conjure mental images of far-off destinations: Patagonia, Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, New Zealand, the Alps, Iceland, Nepal. And those places have earned that status. But just across America’s northern border, the Canadian Rockies offer mountain scenery that compares with those places. And Kootenay National Park’s Rockwall Trail is definitely one of the best. Backpack it before it gains the renown of a trek like the Milford Track or the Tour du Mont Blanc.
By evening, we’ve staked out a campsite in a quiet corner toward the back of the camping area right above Floe Lake. And early tomorrow morning, I’ll walk to the lakeshore and find its dead-calm waters offering a perfect reflection of the glacier and cliff across the lake—and contemplate that, sometimes, a trip may not feel highly adventurous or “epic.” (Not seeing any grizzly bears helps moderate the excitement quotient.) But it can still be one of the prettiest hikes you’ve ever done.
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See my stories “My 25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever,” “15 Adventures on Earth That Will Change Your Life,” “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids” and “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You,” and all of my stories about the Canadian Rockies, family adventures, and national park adventures at The Big Outside.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR moderately fit backpackers, including beginners and families. Elevations are not high enough to greatly affect most people—the three named passes range from about 7,100 to 7,700 feet—although there is significant elevation gain and loss between the passes and valley bottoms, the biggest climb being about 2,600 feet (800m) from Numa Creek Campsite to Numa Pass (if you’re hiking southbound). The trails are well marked and mostly not steep, so route-finding won’t be a problem for anyone with basic map-reading skills.
Make It Happen
Season The backpacking season at higher elevations in the Canadian Rockies generally runs from mid-July through late September or early October, when the first snows can arrive. Parks Canada does not book sites at Floe Lake campground until July 10.
The Itinerary You can hike the Rockwall Trail southbound or northbound. Two intermediate trails that lead back to the highway—Tumbling Creek Trail and Numa Creek Trail—allow you to plan a trip shorter than the full route. We backpacked the full 34-mile (54k) Rockwall Trail route from Paint Pots Trailhead south to Floe Lake Trailhead, following this itinerary:
Day one: From Paint Pots Trailhead, 9.5 miles (15.3k) and about 1,000 feet (300m) uphill on the Ochre Creek and Helmet Creek trails to Helmet Falls campsite.
Day two: 11.8 miles (19k) with about 2,600 feet (800m) of uphill on the Rockwall Pass Trail, Wolverine Pass Trail, and Tumbling Pass Trail from Helmet Falls campsite to Numa Creek campsite, including two passes: Rockwall Pass at 7,264 feet (2,214m) and Tumbling Pass at 7,103 feet (2,165m).
Day three: 6 miles (9.7k) from Numa Creek campsite to Floe Lake campsite, with about 2,600 feet (800m) of uphill from Numa Creek campsite to Numa Pass.
Day four: 6.3 miles (10.2k) and about 2,300 feet (700m) downhill from Floe Lake campsite to Floe Lake Trailhead.
Getting There Three trailheads that access the Rockwall Trail route—Paint Pots, Numa Creek, and Floe Lake—are all within a roughly eight-mile (13k) stretch of Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park, about 40 miles (62k) north of Radium Hot Springs and 12 miles (19k) south of the Castle Junction intersection with Highway 1 in Banff National Park. The trailheads have ample parking. During the prime backpacking season, it’s often easy to hitch a ride between trailheads from other hikers.
Permit A Wilderness Pass and campsites reservations are required. There are five backcountry camping areas along the Rockwall Trail. Reserve your sites up to three months in advance. There’s a fee for the pass and a nightly, per-person charge for campsite reservations (kids age 16 and under are free). See pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/kootenay/activ/arrierepays-backcountry/reservations.aspx.
Map The Rockwall map, Kootenay National Park, part of The Adventure Map series, $14.95 CAD, is available in stores in towns bordering around Kootenay National Park and at chrismar.com.
Guidebook The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, by Brian Patton and Bart Robinson, $24.95 CAD, canadianrockiestrailguide.com.
• Carry pepper spray for grizzly bears and check with park authorities about any current closures or warnings of bear activity.
• Weather can be challenging, especially in exposed terrain above treeline, with the possibility of thunderstorms all summer and snow in early and late summer.
Contact Kootenay National Park, pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/kootenay/index.aspx. Find information about the Rockwall Trail at pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/kootenay/activ/arrierepays-backcountry.aspx.