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.
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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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“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.
A trip like this goes better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 7 Best Backpacking Tents.”