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Best of the Canadian Rockies: Backpacking the Rockwall Trail

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.

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

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 7,100 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.”

. . .

About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    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.

    Reply
    • Michael Lanza

      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.

      Reply

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