Late Fall Hiking in the Canadian Rockies
Today is November 9, 2010. In our last blog post, we said that upon returning from northeast Italy and the French island of Corsica, we’d offer you whatever practical info we could about climbing the via ferrata in the Dolomiti and hiking the GR20.
Well, we’re back—early.
After one week of gorgeous weather in the Dolomiti, our via ferrata experience was cut short by an onslaught of snow and icy temperatures. Likewise, after one week of optimal weather on Corsica, we were forced off the GR 20 by lashing rain, obstinate wind, and low clouds (zero visibility), plus looming transportation disruptions in France due to nationwide protests (including fuel-refinery strikes) in response to the proposed retirement-benefits age increase from 60 to 62.
Still, we enjoyed the trip. We were grateful for the freedom to travel. And we learned a lot, particularly about how best to hike the GR20 unsupported—carrying a tent and your own food, thus avoiding the overcrowded huts. We’ll tell all soon, in an upcoming post.
For now, we’ll offer a brief report on some of the dayhikes we completed here in the Canadian Rockies immediately upon returning home. After all that adventure-quashing snow and rain in Europe, we arrived in Canmore beneath a blue sky. The sun was brilliant, the air calm, the temperature a relaxing 19° C, and the mountains not the least bit white. We dumped our climbing and backpacking gear, loaded our daypacks, and immediately ventured onto some of our local trails intending to fully appreciate this unexpected gift from that infuriatingly inscrutable weather demon Climate Change.
In Yoho National Park, we saw nobody while hiking the Emerald Triangle (Trip 52, page 199, Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies). The entire trail circling Emerald Lake (by way of Burgess Pass, the Burgess Shale Beds, the Wapta Highline, and Yoho Pass) was free of snow yet also devoid of hikers. Emerald Lake Lodge, usually a hive of activity, was closed for the season. No tour buses. No crowds. The parking lot, constantly teeming in summer, was empty. Ours was the only vehicle. So we urge you to keep this hike in mind for late fall, when you too might find optimal conditions yet have the trail to yourself.
Our experience in Yoho suggested anything was possible for hikers while such unseasonably warm weather persisted, so the next goal we set for ourselves was Tumbling Pass (Trip 35, page 152, Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies). Deep in Kootenay National Park, Tumbling Pass is among the scenic highlights of the famous Rockwall trail (Trip 89), which we’ve backpacked many times. On a dayhike (Trip 35) the pass is a distant yet worthy destination. But it’s next to, east of, and below the towering Rockwall. So we knew that, this time of year, it would be in shade when we arrived there at midday, and Tumbling Glacier would not be photogenic. What we’d forgotten was that, when the sun remains low on the horizon, shade = cold. We chose a sunny day, but our sacred star was unable to warm what it didn’t directly strike. So while the pass was snow-free, the air was icy. Soon after topping out, we were shivering. We snapped a couple photos, gobbled a snack, and layered up. Then we howled into the wilderness and began hiking out. It was November in the Canadian Rockies, we were carrying only daypacks, and at 4 p.m. we were crossing a frozen stream while still 11.5 km (7 mi) from the trailhead. It was exhilarating. What we saw on that hike, though impressive, was insignificant compared to what we felt. We were hyper-alert all day knowing winter was fast approaching, the sun was descending quickly, and we were utterly alone, way, way out in the backcountry. We treasure sharp-edged memories like this one just as much as we do the soft, warm ones.
Nevertheless, we sought a warmer, softer experience next time out. We hiked to Old Baldy Ridge (Trip 44, page 227, Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies). It’s an ideal late-fall hike, because the trail ascends beside McDougall Creek through a southwest-facing canyon into which the sun shines all day. And the ridgecrest affords a grand view west to the Great Divide. Even if you decline the final, steep-but-short ascent to the ridge, the basin below the ridge is sufficiently dramatic to serve as a destination. As recently as a couple days ago, the canyon and the ridge were free of snow.
Mt. Yamnuska, which is among our early-spring / late-fall favourites, is another hike we completed recently. We encountered only a little, crusty ice and a few patches of wet snow on the back side, but otherwise the route was dry. And we shared the mountain with only two other hikers the entire day.
Our most recent hike was on Sunday, November 7. With the temperature dropping, and dense clouds pouring over the Great Divide, we enjoyed striding around Upper Kananaskis Lake (Trip 46, page 235, Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies). Our friend Wood, the philosopher chef, joined us, so the conversation was as energizing as the scenery. The entire trail was snow-free. If you’re eager to get out, this 14.9-km (9.2-mi) loop is an optimal choice right now.
Though the weather appears to be returning to seasonal norms (daytime highs at or just above 0°C / 32°F), and skiers will soon venture onto the slopes at Sunshine and Lake Louise, the snowpack in the Canadian Rockies remains surprisingly light. Many hiking trails are still snow-free. In addition to those mentioned above, here are other prime possibilities:
Wasootch Ridge (Trip 43, page 223, Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies).
Mt. Rundle, South Summit (Trip 40, page 212, Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies).
From Old Baldy Ridge, we could see that even Mt. Allan (Trip 15, page 88, Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies) is still hikeable. Here’s the link to the article we wrote about Mt. Allan in our Opinionated Hiker column in the Calgary Herald: http://www.calgaryherald.com/travel/Ready+challenge+Kananaskis+Country/3443994/story.html
The crowds and bugs are gone. The scenery is as magnificent as ever. The lighting is conducive to gorgeous photography. The solitude is delicious.