|Trailhead||The Nigel Pass trailhead is 8.5 km south of the Banff-Jasper boundary at Sunwapta Pass, or approx. 113 km north of Lake Louise on the Icefields Pkwy.|
|Distance||80 km (50 mi.)|
|Maximum Elevation||Jonas Shoulder (2,470 m (8,102'))|
The Brazeau Loop is a deservedly popular 5-day backpack in the southern end of Jasper National Park. The route crosses Nigel, Jonas and Poboktan passes, and culminates with some terrific scenery on Jonas Shoulder. The trails are well-maintained and easy to follow, and all streams of note are bridged (nevertheless, check with the information office for the status of potential washouts). A map shows the route and the locations of the campsites (more detail). Campsite availablity is shown here, where one may also make reservations online.
The Loop usually begins and ends at Nigel Creek, but it's possible to start at Poboktan Creek, at the Sunwapta Warden Station, which is 31.5 km north of the Columbia Icefields Information Centre, or 71.5 km south of Jasper. The parking lot is faintly indicated and located on the south side of the creek, while the trailhead is beside the warden cabin on the north side of the creek. This option may be more convenient for those entering the area from the north who wish to avoid the traffic congestion around the Icefields. A topographic map of the western approach to the Loop is here, and the eastern portion is here. It is 6.2 km to the Maligne Pass cutoff, 7.5 km to Poboktan Creek camp, 12 km to Waterfalls camp, and 21.5 km to Jonas Cutoff camp. Add a day or two if you include a side trip to Maligne Pass.
Besides the normal route, I have included the description of a route variant - the "Super Loop" - that adds two scenic passes in the adjacent White Goat Wilderness Area, to form a loop trip of about 87 km. Parts of the variant require route-finding skills in areas with faint or non-existent trails, but the rewards include random-camping in spectacular alpine meadows and a possible encounter with woodland caribou or mountain sheep.
The Loop can done in either direction, but it is probably easier to do it counter-clockwise, with Jonas Shoulder ascended from a high camp (Jonas Cutoff), near the start of the day.
Additional photos are posted here.
13.8 km (8.6 mi.)
gain: 365 m (1,197') to Nigel Pass
loss: 280 m (918') to Four Point
From the parking lot, the trail descends to a bridge over Nigel Creek, before beginning a gradual ascent through the forest. In early Aug. 2012, this bridge was washed out, and hikers were directed to an alternate route along the old highway. In 2015, the bridge was still absent, and the diversion appears to be permanent. After a couple of kilometres, a trail splits to the right from the road and crosses the creek to rejoin the original trail, just before Camp Parker. Camp Parker was a traditional campsite during the packtrain era, ca. 1890 - 1940, and probably even before then when the only travellers were Indian hunters or fur traders. Many of the large spruce trees are "decorated" with blazes and other carvings. If you are looking for a short nature walk in the vicinity, Camp Parker is a worthwhile destination, offering pleasant views of the forest, open meadows and creek. However, the appeal of this excursion has diminished significantly since the bridge washout forces walkers to take the road.
The trail continues up the valley through forested and open sections, before making a short ascent to Nigel Pass. Looking back from the pass summit (2,195 m (7,200'), 7.1 km (4.4 mi.)), one can see Parker's Ridge and the peaks surrounding the Saskatchewan Glacier. If you are day-hiking to Nigel Pass, it is worthwhile to cross the Brazeau River (a rock hop), turn left, and follow the trail as it traverses an open slope. After a short climb, you will be rewarded with excellent views toward Cataract Pass and down the Brazeau Valley.
Backpackers will proceed from this viewpoint and make a steep descent to the open meadows on the valley floor. The trail is fairly level for the remainder of the day, and Boulder Creek campsite is 3 km beyond the Brazeau crossing at Nigel Pass (there's one more bridge just before the camp). The remaining 3 km to Four Point camp is routine, except that it includes some of the rootiest trail in the national parks. Boulder Creek is a small, attractive camp set amongst large, sub-alpine spruces, and is convenient for those hikers who started late or were unable to reserve a site at Four Point. Although it is somewhat darker and located in a lodgepole pine forest, Four Point provides a head start for the more-strenuous trip through Jonas Pass.
19 km (11.8 mi.)
gain: 405 m (1,328') to Jonas Pass, 150 m (492') to Jonas Shoulder
loss: 350 m (1,148') to Jonas Cutoff
Jonas Pass is an excellent destination for novices; it was my first adventure in backpacking. Most of the day is spent above treeline on a well-maintained trail that makes a gradual ascent through a long, broad pass with wonderful scenery, near and far. That experience alone would qualify the trip as a superior backpack, but the added feature of a panoramic viewpoint at the climax of the route makes for one of the best days in the Rockies. Plus, on three different occasions I have seen a moose, grizzly bear and caribou.
The trail to Jonas Pass begins about 200 m past Four Point camp at a signed junction. After a short climb through a typical Jasper pine forest, the trail levels out in a subalpine meadow and begins a gradual ascent through the pass. The last 5 or 6 km to the summit of Jonas Pass (2,320 m (7,610')) are above treeline, and it was in this section during one visit that I saw a young grizzly bear. I noticed it a few hundred metres away as it was digging for squirrels across Four Point Creek. For the entire time that it took to walk past, about 20 minutes, the bear appeared to pay no attention to me, although I'm sure it did sense my presence and was simply more interested in its immediate prey. It was a rare chance to see a grizzly for an extended time at fairly close range, without feeling endangered.
The summit of Jonas Pass, marked with a large cairn, offers excellent views of Sunwapta Peak on the west side of the valley and distant views of the Waterfall Peaks to the north. There are several seasonal pools just northwest of the summit that create a garden-like setting amidst the austere surroundings. Views continue to improve as the trail traverses the north side of the pass and begins its gradual ascent to Jonas Shoulder (2,470 m (8,102')). After one final grind up a steep scree slope, you will step onto the narrow summit of this high col and be rewarded with a fantastic panorama of the upper Poboktan valley. The view back to Jonas Pass is no less spectacular, and it is easy to spend an hour or two here if the weather is fine. Many trekkers on the Brazeau Loop choose to hike this leg in the opposite direction, which is certainly a less strenuous option, but I prefer to reach the scenic high point near the end of the day. Plus, since Jonas Cutoff is only about 3 km below, it is relatively easy to escape bad weather on the shoulder when the campsite is so close. In fact, shortly after beginning the steep descent to the Poboktan valley, you will notice the sandy walls of the small ravine where the campsite is located, and possibly spy a tent or two.
Jonas Pass is named after the Stoney Indian chief who provided directions to Arthur Coleman's party in 1893. The previous year, Coleman crossed Poboktan Pass and wrote:
"We named the pass and creek Poboktan, from the [Stoney word for the] big owls that blinked at us from the spruce trees"
16 km (10 mi.)
gain: 180 m (590') to Poboktan Pass
loss: 490 m (1,607') to Brazeau Lake
From Jonas Cutoff camp, the Brazeau Loop route turns east and crosses Poboktan Pass, then descends John-John Creek to the mouth of Brazeau Lake (see map). It is a 180 m (590') ascent from the camp to Poboktan Pass (2,300 m (7,544')) over approximately 3 km. There is plenty of attractive alpine scenery in the pass, but of a somewhat less grand quality compared to Nigel and Jonas passes. If you are bypassing the camp at Jonas Cutoff, perhaps by hiking cross-country directly from Jonas Shoulder to Poboktan Pass, the next available stop is John-John Creek camp, just over 4 km below the pass. Even if you are not camping there, it's well worth inspecting the enormous spruce trees around the privy. Most hikers will instead descend the creek to camp at Brazeau Lake; it is 16 km (10 mi.) from Jonas Cutoff and 490 m (1,607') below Poboktan Pass.
Instead of taking the standard trail to Brazeau Lake, there is a challenging cross-country route from Poboktan Pass to Brazeau River, via Flat Ridge. The route begins by heading to the right from the pass summit towards the dome-like formation with an orange base. The top of the dome provides good views of upper John-John Creek as well as the lower valley, all the way to Brazeau Lake. If you are hiking the standard route through Poboktan Pass, the lookout is an easy and worthwhile side trip. Crossing the right shoulder of this formation leads one into the middle reaches of John-John Creek, near treeline. Next, cross the creek and head up the valley that is right below the rockslide coming down from Flat Ridge. At the top of this valley, there is a pass (approx. 8,600') on the S ridge of Flat Ridge that provides a view of most of the rest of the route: across a barren valley and over a pass on the SW shoulder of Marble Mtn., then down a lush valley and over a forested ridge to the Brazeau River. The route intersects the main Brazeau River trail just above the bridge mentioned below that is approx. 5 km from Four Point. Some photos of the route are posted here
Meanwhile, on the standard loop, during the descent of John-John Creek, at a point that is about 4 km from the Brazeau Lake camp, the trail crosses the creek and soon follows an old moraine that offers the first views of Brazeau Lake's vivid blue waters. The lake is partly visible for most of the way even after the trail re-enters the forest.
~ 22 km (14 mi.) or 18.5 km (11.6 mi.)
gain: ~ 285 m (935') to upper Cline Creek or 105 m (344') to Four Point
The fourth day of the loop usually involves a routine ascent of the Brazeau River to the final campsite of the trip at Four Point or Boulder Creek. From Brazeau Lake camp, the trail descends the left (north) side of the lake's outlet stream, and in about 2 km arrives at the main Brazeau valley trail and another bridge over the outlet. The campsite just across the bridge here is buried in the forest and would probably only appeal to those who cannot book a night at Brazeau Lake. The main trail continues southward, skirting a canyon, and arrives at the location of what was once a bridge to the other side, but in 2014 the trail was rerouted to stay on the west side of the river (indicated on this map). The rerouted section runs between this location and a bridge over the Brazeau that is approx. 5 km north of Four Point. Check with the Jasper Information Office for the current status of bridges and routes.
In the event that the bridge at the north end of the reroute is rebuilt and it's not necessary to use the detour, cross to the right (east) side and continue on the original trail to Wolverine South camp, about 11 km from Brazeau Lake and 7 km from Four Point. While it is often bypassed by those hikers doing the normal loop, it may be a convenient stopover if the weather is poor and you decide to delay the approach to Cline Pass for a day. Plus, if you have spent the previous night at John-John Creek camp, Wolverine is a moderate distance (19 km) from there, and is a more attractive camping spot compared to Four Point. It also serves as a potential campsite for those heading eastward from the Brazeau toward Afternoon Peak.
After about 30 min. of hiking past Wolverine camp, you will arrive at the bridge mentioned above. The standard loop route crosses this bridge and follows the trail up the river for about another hour (5 km) to Four Point, the usual campsite for the final night. However, this bridge also marks the beginning of the "Super" section of the Super Loop which will appeal to experienced hikers. The Super Loop is indicated on this map, while the details of the section through Cline and Cataract Passes are shown on this map that was composed from the four topographic maps: 83 C/2, C/3, C/6 and C/7.
Before going further, it's perhaps worth mentioning a trip up Cline Creek that begins at Boulder Creek or Four Point camps. An excellent 3-4 day loop starts at Nigel Creek, ascends Cline Creek, crosses Cline and Cataract Passes, and returns via Nigel Pass. About 2.5 km below (north) of Four Point camp, on the main trail, there is a sign pointing to the east to Cline horse camp. A side trail runs down to the Brazeau, and the normal (horse) ford is just below the mouth of Cline Creek. The camp is at the mouth of Cline Creek on its east (right) side. While the direct ford of the Brazeau may be too difficult for those on foot, I did observe a party of hikers ford the river just above the mouth of Cline Creek, and then ford Cline Creek over to the campsite. However, if fording is not feasible, there's still the option to hike down to the bridge and take the route described below. Although it involves some backtracking, it is certainly safer to hike the 5 km from Four Point to the bridge, rather than attempt the ford.
From the east end of the bridge, the route to Cline Creek is more or less apparent. Having done this trip a few times, I realize it is far easier to head up the valley by staying as close as possible to the Brazeau, on the first bench beside the river. There are a few spongy sections, but even in a wet season the ground is generally good, and the occasional game trail makes travel easy. After about 45 mins. from the bridge, a tributary stream enters from the east, but it breaks into several channels before emptying into the Brazeau, and each one is an easy rock hop. (Crossing the tributary higher up on the mountainside can require a difficult ford.) About 15 mins. later, the route approaches the banks of the Brazeau on easy ground, and shortly thereafter you should meet the trail that runs along the creek to Cline horse camp; turn left. It is a bit unclear where the trail up Cline Creek resumes above the camp, but by heading up the first ridge parallel to the creek, you should soon find a fairly-well-defined trail and pass the Jasper/White Goat boundary sign,, about 20 min. from the camp. At this point, the trail ascends the lower canyon of Cline Creek before levelling out and continuing up the valley on its east side, away from the creek. When you come to a sandy area that is the result of spring overflow and the trail becomes faint, look for a large cairn to regain the trail.
Higher up, as the route parallels a second canyon, the trail becomes more intermittent as it crosses a section of dense thickets and lush sub-alpine meadows. The flower displays in these meadows, and indeed the entire upper Cline valley, are remarkable for their variety and density, and far superior to any other section of the Brazeau Loop. Finally, after 2-3 hours from the horse camp, you should reach the treeline and find a well-defined trail beside the creek. From here, there are good campsites almost all the way to Cline Pass and impressive flower meadows on the east side of the valley.
~ 6 km (3.8 mi.) or 13.8 km (8.6 mi.)
gain: ~ 215 m (705') to Cline Pass or 280 m (918') to Nigel Pass
loss: 365 m (1,197') to Nigel Creek
The final day of the normal loop retraces the trail between Four Point camp and Nigel Creek. The Super Loop continues through White Goat Wilderness Area. While it is possible to start from upper Cline Creek, cross Cline and Cataract Passes, and return to the trailhead via Nigel Pass in a day, it is well worth spending an extra day and camping in upper Cataract Creek. From a camp in upper Cline Creek, it takes about a half hour to reach the summit of Cline Pass (~2,317 m (7,600')) with its two, pristine tarns (pictures). Arthur P. Coleman, who may have been the first white man of the "modern" era to cross here in 1893 on the way to Athabasca Pass, wrote:
"Fine peaks of dark red quartzite rise on each side, with glaciers about their shoulders and feeding an indigo-coloured pond amid the snows of the summit."
Today, there is still a small glacier on the northwest side of the pass that descends to an unusually low elevation.
A possible side-trip destination in the area is the col between Cline Pass and the Valley of Lakes. The col is to the left of the prominent horn in this photo taken from upper Cline Creek. I can't say there's a pleasant route to this col; it's a moderate, nasty scramble on loose boulders, and the descent back to Cline Pass can involve traversing some exposed slopes. However, at an elevation of approx. 2,680 m (8,790'), the col offers suberb views of the Valley of Lakes and Cline Pass. Sunwapta Peak and the route to Jonas Pass are visible to the northwest. Interested parties may wish to descend to the Valley of Lakes and camp amidst the numerous tarns and barren rockscapes.
From Cline Pass, it takes about an hour of cross-country hiking to reach the west fork of upper Cataract Creek. This short section covers some very interesting and scenic terrain with numerous boulders, streams and flower patches. Most hikers will probably camp somewhere near the approach to Cataract Pass, in preparation for the final day's hike over to Nigel Pass and back to the trailhead.
~ 14 km (9 mi.)
gain: 198 m (649') to Cataract Pass
loss: 290 m (951') to Nigel Pass, 365 m (1,197') to Nigel Creek
The trip over Cataract Pass and down to Nigel Pass is only about 7 km, but like the Rockwall segment between Tumbling Creek and Helmet Falls, it features a wonderful variety of alpine scenery. If you start the day from a treeline camp in Cataract meadows, the slope leading up to Cataract Pass is just a short hop from your tent. The initial climb is fairly steep, but the surface is a firm one of scree or snow. Further up, the hiking remains easy as long as you keep to the flat ground on the right (north) side, and avoid the steep moraines in the middle of the approach. There is a huge cornice on the eastern lip of the pass, but the hiking route keeps well to the right. The summit of Cataract Pass (2,485 m (8,151')) is marked with a message box mounted on a steel pole.
The views of the peaks and glaciers of Cirrus Mtn. are outstanding. Three silt-laden lakes that form the southern headwaters of the Brazeau River make the scene even more austere. I have seen the lakes in early July with a milky-blue hue that turns to slate grey in August. When you begin the descent to the valley floor, keep to the right (north) side, as the slope below the true summit of the pass is a miserable mess of loose boulders. You may find the faint trail down to the valley, but if not, there is a good route on a scree slope that is roughly opposite the mouth of the lower lake. In most years, it offers an exciting boot ski on firm snow right down to the valley floor.
For the remainder of the descent to Nigel Pass, the route stays on the right (north) side of the creek. Despite the lack of a well-defined trail or cairns, the route is open and generally easy to find, except for a couple of sections through massive rock slides. This picture gives an overview of the route from Cataract Pass. The colours and textures of the rock formations in this valley provide some unique scenery, and the lack of hiker traffic means that there is a good chance to see the local mountain sheep. However, the junction with the Nigel Pass trail marks the end of solitude as the route rejoins a well-beaten path. Rock-hop across the Brazeau, climb up to Nigel summit, and return to the trailhead.