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.