|Trailhead||The Berg Lake/Mt. Robson trailhead is 84 km west of the town of Jasper on Hwy. 16.|
|Distance||226 km (140 mi.), 173 km (102 mi.) for normal route|
|Time||11-14 days, 8-12 for normal route|
|Maximum Elevation||The Caribou Notch: 2,515 m (8,250')|
The North Boundary Trail in Jasper National Park is somewhat different from the other long routes in the Rockies, most of which run north-south, parallel to the Great Divide. Since the NBT originated as a west-east trail from the Smoky River to Jasper House, located at the junction of the Snake Indian and Athabasca Rivers, the country it traverses ranges from the high peaks of the Continental Divide to the aspen meadows of the Front Ranges. But the main differences are the relative remoteness and solitude of the trail. Unlike most points on the Great Divide Trail that are seldom more than a day's hike from the highway, the heart of the NBT can be a 4 or 5 day's hike from a road, and it is common to hike for several days without meeting another party. This, of course, is part of the appeal of the journey: one can experience the mountains in much the same way as the first tourists who completed the route in 1910, but with the added benefit of footbridges, rustic campsites and a well-beaten trail. However, despite these "modern" amenities, one must be physically, materially and psychologically prepared to "go it alone". Other elements that should be considered are that the NBT crosses only one pass over its 152 km length between the eastern trailhead and Robson Pass, and there may be several days of rough, muddy conditions, especially in the western half. Snake Indian Falls are probably the most spectacular natural highlight, but if you wish to add more scenic destinations, consider side trips to Blue Creek, Glacier Pass, McLaren Pass or Moose Pass.
Probably the most common type of trip in the North Boundary country is an east-to-west hike of the designated trail: the trailhead is 27 km up the Celestine Lake Road; this road begins 6.5 km beyond the Snaring Campground junction, which is 9 km north of the town of Jasper on Hwy. 16. Another popular option is to begin at Rock Lake, which is a 14 km hike from km 33 of the NBT; it can be used as a base for several loop trips that include parts of the NBT and trails in Willmore Wilderness Park. Yet another route: from the town of Grande Cache, it's possible to hike up the Sulphur River, cross Hardscrabble Pass and descend Blue Creek to the NBT. The main problem with all of these trips is getting to the trailhead, especially if one is dependent on public transportation. Therefore, when I began hiking the NBT, I followed the suggestion of a Parks Canada employee at the Jasper Information Centre and selected a route that begins and ends at the Berg Lake trailhead in Mt. Robson Provincial Park. The route follows the NBT from Robson Pass to Blue Creek, ascends Blue Creek to Caribou Lakes, traverses the divide to Twintree Lake, then returns to Robson Pass. I will describe this route as well as the normal NBT trip.
Another loop worth considering is described here. This route also begins at Robson Pass, then crosses Moose Pass and heads over to Campion Creek, a tributary of Moose River. Hoodoo Wall Pass connects the Moose valley with the Snake Indian valley, and eventually one will end up on the NBT about 6 km below Oatmeal camp. The normal continuation of this trip would be to return to Robson Pass on the NBT, but I suppose the truly intrepid could head up Blue Creek and cross the Caribou-Twintree divide as described below.
An elevation profile of the NBT can be viewed here (11 KB picture appears in a new window). This map (49 KB), based on a Parks Canada pdf brochure, shows the locations of the campsites in the northern part of Jasper National Park.
10.5 km (6.5 mi.)
elevation gain: 242 m (794')
The Berg Lake trailhead can be reached via Greyhound bus from the towns of Jasper or Prince George, B.C. There are drive-in (or walk-in)campgrounds on both sides of the highway here that serve as convenient overnight stops when your hiking schedule doesn't coordinate perfectly with the bus schedule (N.B.: Mt. Robson operates according to Pacific time while Jasper is on Mountain time). After a visit to the Mount Robson Park Visitor Centre (click here to read about camping regulations and fees, and to view a map of the Berg Lake trail), walk up the road for 2 km to the trailhead. The hike up to Whitehorn camp is uneventful; there is also a campsite at the north end of Kinney Lake, 6.7 km from the trailhead. Click here to view a map of the upper Robson Valley that is taken from a section of the Mount Robson 83/E3 topographic map.
26.9 km (16.7 mi.)
gain: 555 m (1,820') to Robson Pass
loss: 158 m (518')
The upper half of the Berg Lake trail begins with a steep ascent through the gorge formed by the Robson River. The many small cascades that decorate the sheer walls of the gorge inspired the name "Valley of a Thousand Falls", but it is probably the three major waterfalls on the river itself that form the most lasting impressions. The falls also serve as a gauge of one's progress on the trail; the climbing is mostly finished by the time Emperor Falls are surmounted and the camp of the same name is reached. From that point, the walking is easy and the scenery becomes even more impressive as Berg Lake and (if you're lucky) the north face of Mt. Robson appears. The latter presents almost 8,000' of glaciated relief in what must surely be one of the world's most awesome alpine scenes.
Robson Pass (1,652 m (5,419')), on the Continental Divide, marks an abrupt transition from the crowded, well-groomed and bug-free Mt. Robson Park trails to the North Boundary wilderness. I have always approached this point with a mix of eager anticipation and minor trepidation - and a similar feeling prevails on the return journey, but for the opposite reasons!
The descent of the Smoky River is fairly open at first as the trail crosses an assortment of willow meadows and avalanche paths. Wolverine camp, located at the edge of the forest, provides good views across the valley to Calumet Ridge, but early in the season or during periods of high runoff it is sometimes flooded by the nearby Smoky. If you are hiking the NBT in early July or if you have received reports of flooded areas, it may be advisable to bypass Wolverine and camp at Adolphus or Chown Creek where there is adequate high ground. This is a factor that applies to a few other sections on the NBT: because it is relatively low in elevation, the trail is often feasible for early-season trips, but that is usually the time when water levels are at their highest.
According to Henry Moberly, a long-time Hudson's Bay Company fur trader in the 19th century, in "When Fur Was King", the Smoky received its name from the smoke that rose from its banks, which Moberly speculated was due to smoldering subterranean coal deposits. I have not noticed this effect on the part of the Smoky that lies near the NBT, but it may have been apparent at one time, and perhaps still is today, lower down the river in areas that were traditional hunting grounds.
18.3 km (11.4 mi.)
elevation loss: 109 m (358')
This leg of the NBT features little in the way of scenery, but it is a relatively short and easy day that may be welcomed following the rigours of the previous day's hike. The hiker's trail leads west from Wolverine camp (follow the orange blaze), crosses a small footbridge and traverses an open, slippery slope before it rejoins the horse trail further down the Smoky. The first 11 km to Chown Creek are rather tedious, but the scenery becomes more interesting once you cross the hefty Chown bridge and look up the creek to the snow-capped peaks on the divide. The next few kms feature some attractive lakes and an irksome ford or deadfall crossing of an energetic stream. After passing a signed junction with the trail to Short Creek and the lower Smoky, the NBT crosses the Smoky at an impressive canyon and continues for less than 3 km to Donaldson Creek. The campsite there is quite functional, but it is one of the few NBT camps that is buried in the forest and provides no views.
20.5 km (12.7 mi.)
gain: 274 m (900') to Twintree ridge
loss: 122 m (400') to Twintree Creek
gain: 244 m (800') to Byng camp
Day 4 involves a climb over a ridge of Twintree Mtn. to the Twintree valley, followed by an ascent of the creek to a camp in subalpine meadows below Snake Indian Pass. Although the first part of the trail from Donaldson Creek includes some corduroy platforms (designed for horse, not hiker, traffic), this day features the roughest and wettest conditions on the entire NBT, especially in the Twintree drainage. There is no better place to demonstrate the value of trekking poles on muddy trails!
Views are absent during the ridge traversal, but once the bridge over Twintree Creek is reached it is only another 2 km to the mouth of Twintree Lake. The tiny islands with their stunted pine trees that give the lake its name are a charming reminder of the original 1910 expedition, although I seem to recall that one of the trees has disappeared over the last century. About halfway along the 7 km-long lake, the trail veers away from the shore and begins a gradual climb to the upper valley and Byng camp.
Just before the campsite there is a footbridge over Twintree Creek. In July 1997, a hiker slipped from the bridge, was swept downstream and drowned. Her partner attempted to call for aid by using the radiophones in the nearby warden cabin and the one at Twintree Lake, to no avail, and was forced to hike the 50 km alone to the Mt. Robson warden station. The accident occurred because the combination of spring runoff and heavy rainfall had raised water levels so that the stream was flowing over the footbridge, although when I arrived about 4 days later the levels had receded and the bridge was safe. If you visit this spot under normal conditions it will seem to be an unlikely scene of a death, but the accident illustrates the potential hazards of even a routine-looking creek crossing.
24.9 km (15.4 mi.)
gain: 252 m (827') to Snake Indian Pass
loss: 435 m (1,427') to Three Slides camp
Scenery begins to improve markedly soon after leaving Byng camp. Snake Indian Pass (2,020 m (6,626')) is similar to Jonas Pass in that the trail makes a gradual ascent through mostly open country for about 4 km up to the pass. The green, park-like scenery in the pass is very pleasant on a sunny day, and seems all the more so after the four-day approach. During one visit, I was lucky to watch three caribou trot from the Twintree side to the Snake Indian valley.
The descent on the Snake Indian side of the pass is gradual and fairly open for a few km, and features the first alpine flowers on the trail. Less than 3 km below the summit, the trail crosses the Snake Indian - and then recrosses about 30 m lower down. Both fords are easy, but if you want to avoid the nuisance it is easy to scramble over the steep embankment on the left (north) side of the creek and rejoin the main trail. After Oatmeal camp, the route is mainly confined to the forest, and with the exception of one more easy ford of a tributary stream, the trail makes a routine passage to Three Slides camp. The campsite is situated beside a shallow lake and offers a good view of the glaciers on Upright Mtn. If you camp there alone, you may see or hear the moose that frequent the area.
20.1 km (12.5 mi.)
elevation gain: 183 m (600')
This section of the NBT includes some rewarding views of the peaks and overflow lakes along the Snake Indian River. At one point about 7 km from Three Slides, it is possible to look back and see the white, northeast face of Mt. Robson. This face, the site of the classic mountaineering route on the peak, is also visible from the Snowbird Pass trail. Just over 14 km from Three Slides, the trail to Blue Creek enters from the left at a signed junction. (Click here if you are continuing on the NBT.) The trail is in good shape, due partly to the fact that most horse parties use the trail on the other (left) side of the creek. Upper Blue Creek is one of my favourite campsites on the trip. The trees and ground here give it a unique appearance, and the sight of the grey, serrated peaks across the valley, reminiscent of the Sawback Range in Banff, is quite striking in the late afternoon light. Even if you don't intend to hike further up the valley, Upper Blue is highly recommended as a short side trip off the main NBT. Beside it being a much more attractive campsite than the one at the mouth of Blue Creek (ugly ground, high flood risk), you can get a superb view of the upper valley by crossing the suspension bridge that is just below the camp. The morning light reveals the vivid red rock of the peaks on the west side of the creek.
19.4 km (12 mi.)
elevation gain: 61 m (200')
To continue up Blue Creek, follow the trail past the campsite as it descends to the creek and crosses a suspension bridge to the left (north) side. A hand-carved sign points downstream to the McLaren Pass trail. The trail up Blue Creek from this point is very scenic, as it is open most of the way and offers excellent views of the colourful range across the creek. Despite the obvious attractions for hikers, it seems that an equal number are drawn by the trout fishing in Topaz and Caribou Lakes. Between Topaz and Caribou camps there is one minor ford of a tributary stream; the trail stays on the same side of Blue Creek until almost the head of the valley. Within about 3 km of Caribou Inn campsite, the Caribou warden cabin appears across an open meadow, and there is a point where the Natural Arch is visible to the east. However, if you miss it, this rock formation can also be seen from the front of the warden cabin, which is just across the Blue Creek bridge at Caribou Inn.
20.4 km (12.7 mi.)
gain: 777 m (2,550') to Caribou Notch
loss: 957 m (3,140') to Twintree Lake
The traverse from Blue Creek to Twintree Lake via Caribou Lakes is a challenging route that features an exciting variety of waterfalls, meadows, glaciers, lakes and peaks. Since there is no trail for most of the way, and some heavy bushwhacking at both ends, the trip is recommended for well-conditioned, well-equipped and experienced route finders who can navigate with map and compass. The route is shown on this map, which combines the relevant sections of Twintree Lake 83 E/6 and Blue Creek 83 E/7. If you feel that the weather is too poor to attempt the route on the scheduled day, or if you simply wish to explore further, a day hike to Azure Lake and Hardscrabble Pass at the head of Blue Creek is an excellent option. There is also a variant of the traverse that heads south from Caribou Lakes to Snake Indian Pass; it also requires some moderate scrambling, but appears to involve an easier, bush-free descent on the Snake Indian side.
To start, walk across the footbridge over Blue Creek and find the trail that begins at a blazed tree about 30 m southwest of the Caribou Inn warden cabin. When the trail becomes faint around the lower lake, continue in the same direction until you reach the inlet creek at the western end of the upper lake; it is the first significant stream that you will encounter. As you start up the creek, try to find the game trail; it is fairly well-defined near the beginning but becomes sporadic higher up as it crosses marshy spots and some avalanche debris. At some point on this bushy section there is a tendency to seek higher, more open ground to the right, but the result can be a miserable scramble through a boulder field. A prominent reference point to aim for in this section is the peak at grid reference 673172. This peak is visible in the picture below, taken from beside the creek near the treeline.
After about 4 hours from camp, the game trail ends in alpine meadows, just above a beautiful set of waterfalls on the creek. A short climb from this point brings one to a large, level meadow with several bivouac options. Looking across to the far end of the meadow, you will see two headwalls (grid ref. 662179). The first of these is an easy scramble; from the top, walk around to the left until the creek reappears as a steep stream flowing down the second headwall. The second climb is harder, but at the top you will be rewarded with a view of the next objective, the "Notch" - a high, corniced col (grid ref. 647194) that resembles The Notch on the Skyline Trail. The two pictures below were taken from this point and show the route from Caribou Lakes and the way up to the Notch.
The basin below the Caribou Notch contains a small lake and good camping options, but if you are heading higher, walk past the lake toward the Notch on a broad ramp of fine scree. In August, the ramp holds an impressive display of tundra wildflowers, in sharp contrast to the otherwise austere landscape of rock and snow. The safest and least steep approach to the Notch is right up the middle of the gully, towards the low point of the col. Other lines are more exposed to rockfall, I found. Depending on the conditions, you may have to hack your way through the cornice when you reach the top. In any case, an ice-axe or hiking pole is highly recommended, even if conditions are drier than indicated in the photo (taken in July). When you finally step onto the summit of the Caribou Notch (2,515 m (8,250')), after about 6 hours from camp, you will surely feel a great sense of exhilaration. Unfortunately, the weather has not been clear enough on my 3 visits here for me to describe the entire vista, but there is an excellent view of the glaciated peaks that flank Snake Indian Pass.
After a well-deserved rest, the next phase of the route begins with an exciting descent of about 1,200' down the left side of a creek bed, on snow or fine scree. When the creek makes a sharp turn to the left, it's easier to hop across to the other side and travel over level alpine meadows. Good campsites are available here within view of a fine waterfall. For those interested in alternate routes, it appears to be possible to reach these meadows from Azure Lake via the col at grid ref. 652210. Continuing down the meadow to the treeline, I recommend that you try to stay on the high (right) side of the meadow until you reach a tributary stream entering from the right. The stream is only a rock hop, but for much of its short course it flows through a difficult, steep-sided gully.
Once you are across the tributary stream, the only remaining obstacle is the forested slope above Twintree Lake. There doesn't seem to be an easy way to negotiate this section, but you can probably lessen the ordeal by keeping well away from the steep ground near the main stream. After about 2 hours from the Notch, and much deadfall-jumping, you should arrive at the North Boundary Trail, and from there it is 1-1½ hours to the campsite at the west end of Twintree Lake. So ends a long but rewarding day.
16.5 km (10.2 mi.)
gain: 122 m (400') to Twintree ridge
loss: 274 m (900') to Smoky River
If you have managed to reach Twintree camp in decent shape, the next two days of hiking back to Robson Pass should be a sprint. If not, take consolation in the prospect of once again experiencing the magnificent scenery and comfortable facilities along the Berg Lake Trail. This part of the route has been described above (Days 3 and 4), but if you did not camp at Chown Creek before, it is recommended as one of the more scenic campsites on the NBT. There are actually two camping areas: the hiker's camp is on an open gravel flat, east of the bridge, on the left (north) side of the creek, and there is a horse outfitter's site on the same side, just west of the bridge.
26.9 km (16.7 mi.)
elevation gain: 219 m (719')
For the final day on the NBT, most hikers will make the easy ascent to Robson Pass and camp at the site that is 300 m beyond the B.C.-Alberta boundary. If you are arriving at Mt. Robson Park from the NBT, it is not necessary to reserve a campsite for the first night; the park keeps a few tent pads available for NBT walk-ins. Robson Pass camp is the last site on the Berg Lake Trail, and I have never had any problems finding a space there. The evening alpenglow and morning light on Mt. Robson are inspiring sights. However, if you prefer the rustic solitude of the NBT, Adolphus camp is 2.6 km north of Robson Pass. Adolphus Lake, the headwaters of the Smoky River, is just north of the pass, and was named for Adolphus Moberly, who guided Arthur Coleman's party up the Moose River in 1908.
Another option worth considering is a side trip to Moose Pass. The trail to Calumet Creek begins at a signed junction that is 21.2 km south of Chown Creek or 5.4 km north of Robson Pass.
21.6 km (13.4 mi.)
elevation loss: 797 m (2,614')
If the weather is good and your food bag is not empty, a day hike in the Berg Lake area is an excellent way to conclude the trip. One such hike is Snowbird Pass. By descending the Berg Lake Trail in one day, you may be shocked by the number of people you meet heading in the opposite direction. Unlike the NBT, where you stop and chat with almost every hiker, the BLT can be like walking through a mall! Also, it seems that practically everyone you pass is freshly perfumed - a perception that is probably not mutual.