Backpacking the Canadian Rockies: Kootenay’s 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.

Helmet Falls, Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park.
Helmet Falls, Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park.

Backpacking the Kootenay Rockwall Trail

We’re hiking the approximately 34-mile (54k) 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.

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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 7,300 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.

Stay dry in the Canadian Rockies. See “The 6 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking.”

Rockwall Pass

In warm sunshine and a cooling breeze, we stroll across a gently sloping alpine meadow to its high point: Rockwall Pass, at about 7,300 feet (2,230m). 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 almost 11.8 miles (19k) with about 2,600 feet (800m) of uphill, from Helmet Falls campground to Numa Creek campground, 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 over 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.

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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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Tumbling Pass

“Oh, wow, look at that glacier!” Nate says.

We’ve reached Tumbling Pass, at over 7,300 feet (2,233m), 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.

A trip like this goes better with the right gear.
See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 10 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”

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2 thoughts on “Backpacking the Canadian Rockies: Kootenay’s Rockwall Trail”

  1. Hello Michael, I finally backpacked the Rockwall after having two previous trips aborted. One by when my father-in-law had a heart attack and the second when we awoke to 18″ of snow at Helmut Falls. Last week, August 30 – September 1, I completed the route from Paint Pots – Helmut Falls – Tumbling Creek – Numa Creek – Floe Lake – Out to the highway.

    I also hiked up to Good Sir pass on the first afternoon. Detoured up to the ridges on second day hike to Tumbling Creek being rewarded by absolutely stunning vistas to Mt. Assinaboine, Banff and further North, East and South. Day three my original plan was to set up camp at Numa Creek and day hike to Floe Lake and then hike back to my car at Paint Pots. By the time I reached Numa Creek I decided I did not want to camp in the heavy forest, deep valley at Numa so hiked the 28 km (17 miles) to the Floe Creek trailhead – with a couple small side trips to capture some more sublime views.

    I can confirm your assessment of the beauty of this small piece of Canada. But it is only one small, but spectacular gem, to be found in Western Alberta and British Columbia.

    I was extra fortunate as two grizzly bear shared the adventure with myself and the other backpackers. The first, unfortunately, was hanging around the Helmut Creek campsite but was still young enough and shy to stay on the periphery, even if that was as close as about 15 meters (50 feet). The second, at the Wolverine pass area, was substantially larger and was on the edge of the trail excavating roots or more likely a ground squirrel den. The bear trundled off when four nervous and noisy hikers came up the trail from Floe Lake. When they spotted the bear they all drew their bear spray but wisely detoured the area.

    While I spoke with them it quickly became apparent that these four, like so many others I spoke with later, were probably at greater risk because of the false security of their bear spray. None of the people I spoke with had ever used or had training with the bear spray. Most did not know the limited distance the spray is effective or how it it effective. Or how disabling it can be if you, the user, is standing down wind. May I suggest/request you dedicate an article to bear spray. It’s proper and safe use, risks, etc.

    But I digress. The Rockwall Trail is a great trip and may I suggest to your readers if they come North for this hike to stay a while and explore some other equal or better trails in Kootenay, Banff, Yoho or Jasper national parks or Assinaboine (and other Provincial parks). We are blessed with a world class playground.

    • Wonderful story, John, thanks for sharing it. I agree with you that the Rockwall Trail is only one small, but spectacular gem, to be found in Western Alberta and British Columbia. And I like and appreciate your suggestion of a story about using pepper spray.