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Great Divide Trail - Caribou Section

Trailhead The Sunset Pass parking lot is 16.5 km north of Saskatchewan River Crossing on Hwy. 93
Distance 165 km (102 mi.)
Time 9-11 days
Maximum Elevation The Notch: 2,510 m (8,233')

The Caribou section of the Great Divide Trail runs parallel to the Icefields Parkway from the northern end of Banff National Park to near the town of Jasper.

Extended Trips in the Rockies
Extended Trips

In contrast to the southern sections of the GDT, the alpine meadows here are characterized by the distinct absence of larch trees (there are no larches north of Bow Summit) and the occasional herd of woodland caribou. Several points of entry or exit make it possible to hike parts of this section, and two in particular are known as The Glacier Trail and The Skyline Trail. Scenic highlights include Cataract Pass, Jonas Pass and The Notch.

The Caribou section consists of three distinct stages: the first one, from Norman Creek to Poboktan Creek, crosses four high passes and includes part of the Brazeau Loop route. The second stage, from Poboktan Creek to Maligne Lake, crosses one pass through the rugged and less-visited Maligne Valley. The third stage, from Maligne Lake to the end, is the popular and scenic Skyline Trail. Therefore, if you prefer solitude to scenery, skip the third stage, and if you're mainly interested in the high passes, omit the middle stage.

An elevation profile of the trail is displayed here (12 KB picture appears in a new window). This map (70 KB), based on a Parks Canada pdf brochure, shows the locations of the campsites for the Jasper National Park part of the route. The section between Norman Creek and Jonas Pass, as well as the Brazeau Loop, are shown on this map (156 KB), which is derived from the Parks Canada 1:200,000 map. The Brazeau Loop usually begins and ends at the Nigel Pass trailhead and crosses Jonas and Poboktan Passes.

Day 1: Trailhead to Norman Lake camp

4.2 km (2.6 mi.)
elevation gain: 560 m (1,837')

The Caribou section begins with a short but steep climb up Norman Creek to a campsite (No 5) set in a beautiful subalpine meadow, with good views of Mt. Coleman and Mts. Amery and Saskatchewan. The campsite is conveniently located if you are being dropped off by a Brewster bus: one bus leaves Banff and one leaves Jasper each day, both arriving at the trailhead in the late afternoon. Note that there is no sign on the highway before the parking lot, but there is a message board there and usually a few cars. If you start the hike early in the day, it may be preferable to camp the first night at Pinto Lake. There is no water on the trail until the campsite. Click here to view the portion of the topographic map, Cline River 83 C/2, that includes the first part of the route.

Day 2: Norman Lake camp to Cataract Pass meadows

27 km (16.7 mi.)
gain: 165 m (541') to Sunset Pass
loss: 415 m (1,361') to Pinto Lake
gain: 537 m (1,761') to Cataract Pass meadows

From the campsite, the trail crosses a mainly level, open meadow and arrives at Sunset Pass (2,165 m (7,101')) after just 4 km of hiking. The only obstacle on the way is a small stream that is too deep to cross with boots on, but can usually be surmounted with a running leap. The best scenery is on the far side of the pass, and day-hikers are urged to continue for about 1 km to the Pinto Lake lookout. From that point, the trail becomes quite steep as it plunges to the valley floor. Shortly after the trail levels out, it arrives at a clear, slow, shallow stream that is the lake's outlet and the start of Cline River. I have never camped at Pinto Lake, but it appears that you can reach it by either fording the stream and turning right, or by walking up the left (west) side of the stream to the west side of the lake.

Another route to Pinto Lake involves a spectacular cross-country hike from upper Owen Creek via Michele Lakes and Waterfalls Creek. It starts on the David Thompson Highway, no. 11, and is described here and here. (A report of a trip taken in the opposite direction, from Pinto Lake to Owen Creek, is here).

By all accounts, Pinto Lake lies in a very scenic amphitheatre. In 1893, a party consisting of Arthur Coleman, his brother Lucius, the surveyor L.B. Stewart and the packer Frank Sibbald, ascended the Cline River and Cataract Creek, crossed Cline Pass and Jonas Pass, and then descended Jonas Creek to the Sunwapta River, eventually ending up at Athabasca Pass. Pinto Lake and Sunset Pass were visited during a brief side trip. A. Coleman wrote:

"Though he was more trouble as a packhorse than all the others put together, we immortalised him by giving his name to an exquisite lake near the head of Cataract [Cline] River. ... The mountains on either side of the lake rise to ten or eleven thousand feet, and if it were not so far from a railway, this romantic pool among the woods and hills should be as attractive to mountain lovers as Lake Louise."

For those heading down the Cline, there is a path that heads left from the main trail, just before the lake outlet. The trail is faint at first, but it becomes better defined as it continues down the rapidly-widening Cline. Within the next km, you will pass a sign marking the White Goat Wilderness Area boundary, and a rough footbridge that connects to another trail on the other side of the Cline. Approximately 1½ km along the trail, the milky-blue Huntington Creek enters from the left. Although you may find some deadfall spanning the creek, it's probably safer to ford at a point where the creek splits into two channels. It is a short, mid-thigh crossing that should be routine. Across the creek, look for flagging and a faint track that continues down the valley at the edge of the forest. Within about another km, clear-coloured Cataract Creek enters from the left. This creek is usually not more than mid-thigh deep, but the ford is longer and the current is stronger than at Huntington Creek.

The White Goat Wilderness map that is published by Alberta Recreation and Parks, and available at some national parks' information offices, shows a trail heading up the left (north) side of Cataract Creek, beginning about one km below the Cataract ford. However, it is possible to start up the creek directly after the ford and eventually merge with the main trail, which remains on the left side throughout. About half way up, there is an easy ford of a tributary stream that is just barely higher than your boots, and at one point it is easy to lose the trail temporarily as it crosses an open meadow. Otherwise, the trail is well-defined and the deadfall is not too bad.

After about three hours on the Cataract trail, you will come to a creek that enters from the right through a shallow ravine. This is the tributary that flows from Cline Pass, and it joins the main branch a short distance to the left. From this point, the best way to approach the upper valley is to rock-hop the tributary and follow it on its right (west) bank. It is fairly easy to find open ground on this route, instead of continuing up the main branch and bashing through some impenetrable thickets. The country opens up rapidly as you ascend the valley, sparking the kind of anticipation that is felt near the end of a long hike. As you approach the treeline and survey the surroundings, continue in the same direction for Cline Pass (misplaced and with the wrong elevation on my version of the WGW map), or turn left and head in the direction of Cataract Pass.

Route to Cataract Pass on left
Upper Cataract Valley (154 KB)

There are many excellent campsites along the creek that runs by the foot of the pass. For those interested in further exploration, it is possible to hike up to Cline Pass or over to the Valley of Lakes at the head of McDonald Creek (pictures). The White Goat map correctly indicates routes to both of these objectives, and although the brochure rates the section between McDonald Creek and Cline Pass as "dangerous", hikers have told me that it is a rough, but routine scramble. Click here to view a detailed map of the upper Cataract Creek area. This map is made from the four topographic maps that cover the area, 83 C/2, C/3, C/6 and C/7. Some excellent photos of the area by Eric Fredine are displayed here.

View towards Mt. Stewart
Upper Cataract Creek (127 KB)

Day 3: Cataract Pass camp to Four Point camp

13.6 km (8.4 mi.)
gain: 198 m (649') to Cataract Pass
loss: 290 m (951') to Nigel Pass
loss: 280 m (918') to Four Point camp

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 and not too much strenuous hiking. If you start the day from an above-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 view of the peaks and glaciers of Cirrus Mtn. is 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 bottom.

Cataract Pass
Brazeau valley from Cataract Pass (98 KB)

The Brazeau River is named after a notable employee of the Hudson's Bay Company. In February, 1859, Capt. John Palliser recorded these notes as his expedition included a visit with the chief trader at Rocky Mountain House:

"Mr. [Joseph] Brazeau had been for many years in the American fur trade; was a wonderful Indian linguist, and spoke Stoney, Sioux, Salteau, Cree, Blackfoot, and Crow, - six languages, five of which are totally distinct from one another. Being of an old Spanish family, and educated in the United States, he also spoke English, French, and Spanish fluently."

Cataract Pass visible on left
Nigel Pass from Jasper side (104 KB)

For the remainder of the descent to Nigel Pass (2,195 m (7,200')), 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 one section with large boulders. 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 resident mountain sheep. However, the junction with the Nigel Pass trail marks the end of solitude as the route joins the popular Brazeau Loop and Glacier Trail. The junction is just north of the summit of Nigel Pass, and if you are day hiking to Nigel Pass (7.2 km and 365 m elevation gain) it is worthwhile to cross the creek, 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.

View from Nigel Creek
Nigel Pass (79 KB)

After a steep descent to the open meadows at the head of the valley, the trail is fairly level for the remainder of the day. Boulder Creek campsite is three km past the Nigel junction and just past the Brazeau River bridge. The remaining three km to Four Point camp is routine, except that it includes some of the rootiest trail in the national parks.

Day 4: Four Point camp to Jonas Cutoff camp

19 km (11.8 mi.)
gain: 405 m (1,328') to Jonas Pass
gain: 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 choice backpack, but the added feature of a spectacular 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 and caribou.

Photo by S. Vachon
Caribou near Jonas Shoulder (19 KB)

This section of the Glacier Trail has historical significance in that it was an important route during the fur-trade era in the early 1800s. Michael Klyne, a Hudson's Bay Company employee, initiated an annual trading and hunting trip from Jasper House, near the mouth of Snake Indian River, to the Kootenay Plains via Maligne River, Maligne Pass, Jonas Pass, Cline Pass, Cataract Creek and Cline River. The return journey skirted the eastern edge of the range where game was more plentiful.

The trail to Jonas Pass begins about 200 m below 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 the creek that flows from the pass. 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.

View towards Sunwapta Peak, Jonas Creek
Jonas Pass (70 KB)

The summit of Jonas Pass, topped 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. Sometimes, early in the season, there are several small pools near 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 easier to schedule time 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 sides 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"

Additional photos of the section between Nigel Pass and Jonas Cutoff are posted here.

Click here if you are continuing on the Brazeau Loop.

Day 5: Jonas Cutoff camp to Avalanche camp

20.1 km (12.5 mi.)
loss: 360 m (1,181') to Poligne Creek
gain: 340 m (1,115') to Avalanche camp

This part of the route is essentially a connector day to approach the Maligne valley trail. If the weather is good and you can manage an extra 7.5 km of hiking, it is worth crossing Maligne Pass and camping at Mary Vaux camp.

The descent of Poboktan Creek is uneventful, except for the attractive cascades at Waterfalls camp. This campsite seems to be relatively unused, but if you are interested in a day of easy backpacking and camp lounging, the pools and gray slabs of Waterfalls might be hard to resist. It is certainly a far more appealing rest stop than the Poboktan Creek camp that is 4.5 km further down the valley. Upon reaching the latter, continue through the campsite and hike for just over 1 km to the signed junction with the Maligne Pass trail. Over the next 5 km, the trail crosses Poligne Creek five or six times. Each crossing is bridged, but expect one or two to be either partially or completely washed out. As an alternative to fording, it may be possible to bushwhack along the creek to the next bridge. Poligne Falls are just a few steps off the trail, about 1 km before Avalanche campsite. The camp is located in a subalpine meadow on the right (west) side of the creek; turn left just after crossing a footbridge.

Note: in 2012, the trail on Poligne Creek and the rest of the Maligne Pass trail to Maligne Lake was designated as "decommissioned" by Parks Canada, which means that it will not be maintained. However, in Aug. 2015 all the bridges on Poligne Creek were intact; conditions north of Maligne Pass are unknown. An alternative to the Maligne Valley trail is the Endless Chain or Six Passes Traverse, which runs between Maligne Pass and Bald Hills or the Skyline Trail. Some photos of the southern section of this route are posted here.

Day 6: Avalanche camp to Mary Schaffer camp

17.8 km (11 mi.)
gain: 140 m (459') to Maligne Pass
loss: 440 m (1,443') to Schaffer camp

Maligne Pass (2,240 m (7,347')) is 4 km and a short climb from Avalanche camp. The trail to the pass crosses a boggy meadow that is a preview of the rough and muddy conditions that persist for virtually the entire trip down the Maligne valley. Scenery in the pass is somewhat subdued, at least from the trail, compared to Jonas Pass or even Nigel Pass, and the sense of remoteness here is deeper than at the other, more popular locations. You will probably encounter no other hikers. However, on a bright day when the flowers are in bloom, the walk through Maligne Pass is rewarding. If time permits, scrambling up the east side to Replica Peak is an option, and the west side of the pass is well worth exploring, with numerous tarns and good views of the Maligne Range. There are at least nine tarns in the pass, four of which are fed by glaciers, and Elusive Pass is an excellent day-trip destination from Avalanche camp. See this site for information on Replica Peak and a tour of the Maligne tarns.

There are a couple of streams on the north side of Maligne Pass, but they are usually either spanned by a solid bridge or crossed by an easy rock hop. Once on the right (east) side of Maligne Creek, the trail stays there for the remainder of the hike to Schaffer camp. [Due to the Maligne trail being "decommissioned", campsites and bridges may be in disrepair or totally missing.]

Photo by S. Vachon
Mule Deer near Schaffer camp (39 KB)

Day 7: Mary Schaffer camp to Little Shovel camp

27.2 km (17 mi.)
loss: 110 m (361') to Maligne Lake
gain: 420 m (1,378) to Little Shovel camp

Day 7 takes the hiker from the seclusion (and mud) of the Maligne valley to one of the busiest (and best-maintained) trails in the Canadian Rockies. The first part, the final leg of The Glacier Trail, is a routine descent to Maligne Lake. Approximately 8 km past Schaffer camp, Maligne River is crossed on a sturdy suspension bridge. There is an unofficial campsite here if needed, and an official one is less than 6 km ahead at Trapper Creek. The trail ends at the Bald Hills Fire Road, and by turning right and walking a few hundred metres you will arrive at the Maligne Lake parking lot. Since the lake is not visible from the Maligne Pass trail, you may wish to stroll over to the boat launch. Otherwise, look for the Skyline Trail sign at the west end of the parking lot.

Maligne Lake, photographer unknown
Maligne Lake 1986x560

The Skyline Trail is a spectacular high-level route on a well-built and easily-accessed trail, over half of which is at or above treeline. It is a highly rewarding endeavour, most of the time, but it must be said that I have had more negative experiences here than anywhere else in the Rockies. The trail attracts a large number of novice and inexperienced hikers, a fraction of whom behave rudely in the campsites. Therefore, you may wish to schedule your hike during an off-peak season, or plan to camp at as few sites as possible (there are six camps on the 44 km trail). Also, try to avoid the camps that are closest to the roads (Evelyn Creek and Signal Mtn.), since they occasionally attract rowdy overnighters with no camping permit. (Refer to the maps at the top of this page.) A photo gallery of the Skyline is provided here.

Little Shovel camp has several tent sites near its entrance, but there are more places a bit higher up at the east end of the camp that offer good views of Maligne Lake. I have always found the water supply here fascinating - it is a clear spring that appears from nowhere beside the trail.

Day 8: Little Shovel camp to Tekarra camp

22.6 km (14 mi.)
gain: 220 m (722') to Shovel Pass
gain: 190 m (623') to The Notch
loss: 450 m (1,476') to Tekarra camp

The day begins with a gradual ascent to Little Shovel Pass (2,240 m (7,347)), followed by a short descent and crossing of Snowbowl meadows. Up until a few years ago, the meadow trail was a quagmire during wet conditions, but recent renovations have resulted in an excellent, all-weather track. While I would not rate these meadows as among the most scenic in the Rockies, the trip is quite pleasant and presents some excellent flower patches on the way to Big Shovel Pass.

Big Shovel Pass (2,320 m (7,610)) marks the transition from the lush Snowbowl meadows to the desolate landscape around Curator Lake. The pass is a good place to contemplate the challenging climb to The Notch, which is the cornice-clad col that looms above the lake. On my last visit here I was crouched next to a rock, just north of the summit, when I heard hoofbeats from behind. Four or five caribou were crossing from the Snowbowl side and only noticed me when they crested the pass. I was lucky to have a long, close look as they galloped by.

From Big Shovel Pass, the trail contours around the east side of the basin, passing a side trail to Watchtower valley and a junction with the trail to Curator camp. Winds in this section can be fierce and relentless; it is the only time I can recall being almost blown off my feet. Be sure to carry good windwear no matter how calm and warm it is in the valleys. At Curator Lake the trail begins its steep ascent to The Notch. Novices may find the final steps across the cornice a bit unnerving, but there are usually plenty of solid footsteps to follow. Views from The Notch (2,510 m (8,233')) are superb: the mountains around Maligne Lake, the peaks along the Athabasca valley and, on the northwest horizon, the thumb of Mt. Robson protruding above the surrounding sea of peaks. If you have the time and inclination, a scramble up the east side of The Notch will provide an arresting view of The Watchtower.

Photo by S. Vachon
Skyline Trail north of The Notch (71 KB)

For the next 5 km beyond The Notch, the trail maintains its elevation as it runs along the southeast ridge of Amber Mtn. The descent to Tekarra Lake is fairly steep at first, but it may be a welcome relief from the previous hour's wind-lashing. I had an amusing experience one year on the open, level meadow that the trail crosses for the last few km before the lake. A group of five or six hoary marmots were sunning themselves right beside the trail, with complete disregard for the hiker traffic. Usually, these rodents are skittish in the presence of humans, so I was quite surprised when one of them scurried over, clutched my boot and began licking the mud off as if its life depended on it - which it may have! It is not unusual for porcupines to be attracted to the salt residue on sweaty boots, and mineral licks are common destinations for sheep, goats etc., but it was the uncharacteristic boldness of the critter that amazed me.

Day 9: Tekarra camp to Maligne Lake Road

13.7 km (8.5 mi.)
elevation loss: 900 m (2,952')

The last section of The Skyline Trail begins with a rock-hop crossing of the Tekarra Lake outlet stream, followed by a fairly level traverse of the meadows on the north side of Mt. Tekarra. Views across the Maligne valley of the slate-coloured, serrated Colin Range add another dimension to the route's scenic variety. After about 5 km, the trail joins the Signal Mtn. Fire Road and descends through mostly closed forest to the parking lot. There is a campsite (Signal) just past the point where the trail joins the fire road, but it is the least attractive of all the Skyline camps. Views are limited and the water supply is a disappointing dribble of a stream.

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This page was modified on Apr. 5, 2016