By Michael Lanza
A few hours into our hike’s first day, we came around a bend in the trail to a sight that stopped us cold: a pair of skyscraping stone monoliths rising thousands of feet above the treetops. Silhouetted by the sun arcing toward the west, the peaks resembled a pair of El Capitans standing shoulder to shoulder. A little while later, one of the tallest waterfalls in the Rocky Mountains came into view: Helmet Falls, plunging 1,154 feet (352 meters) over a cliff.
After that, the scenery really got good.
My family was backpacking 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. (I included it among “My 30 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever.”)
Backpackers on the Rockwall follow the base of a nearly unbroken, massive limestone escarpment in Kootenay’s Vermilion Range, plastered with glaciers and towering in some locations about 3,000 feet (900 meters) above the trail, for about 18 miles (30 kilometers) of the route.
Over four August days, we hiked through larch forests and across meadows carpeted with wildflowers. We saw mountain goats scamper along a moraine below a hanging glacier. We crossed four passes between about 7,300 to 7,700 feet.
As I think you’ll see in the photo gallery below, 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.
Although it’s in grizzly country (we saw no signs of bears) and the passes present moderately tough climbs, the Rockwall Trail is, in many ways, a beginner-friendly backpacking trip. Trails are well marked and easy to follow. The passes aren’t so high that the elevation greatly affects many people. There are bridges over the creeks (we never got our feet wet), and designated camping areas with bearproof, metal lockers for food storage, pit toilets, and even picnic tables.
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Now is the time of year to reserve a permit to backpack the Rockwall Trail. See my feature story about that trip, “Backpacking the Canadian Rockies: Kootenay’s Rockwall Trail,” for more photos, a video, and trip-planning information.