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Great Divide Trail - Larch Section

Trailhead The Floe Lake/Hawk Creek parking lot is 22.5 km south of the Banff-Kootenay boundary (Vermilion Pass) on Hwy. 93
Distance 97 km (60 mi.) to Moraine Lake
Time 6-8 days
Maximum Elevation Wenkchemna Pass: 2,605 m (8,544')

The Larch section of the Great Divide Trail runs through the best hiking area in Kootenay National Park. Some of the finest flower meadows in the parks are found in Rockwall Pass and Goodsir Pass, usually during the first three weeks of August. Other highlights include The Rockwall, Helmet Falls, Mt. Goodsir, Wenkchemna Pass and Moraine Lake. This map indicates the general location of the Larch section of the GDT,

Extended Trips in the Rockies
Extended Trips

and this map (102 KB picture appears in a new window), extracted from the Parks Canada 1:200,000 map, shows the trails and campsites (red triangles).

An elevation profile of the Larch section can be viewed here (9 KB).

Before 1993, the northern part of the Larch section extended from Goodsir Pass to McArthur Pass, via McArthur Creek, and on to Lake O'Hara. The main advantage was that one could end a long backpacking trip with an exciting but relatively easy day trip (the Alpine Circuit), based at the Lake O'Hara campsite. However, due to the determination by Parks Canada that the McArthur Valley is an especially sensitive grizzly bear habitat, with a heightened risk of bear-human encounters, access to the valley is now restricted (details here). Therefore, I have provided only a brief description of that option and have included an account of an alternate route via Prospector's Valley and Wenkchemna Pass.

Larch
Larch in late September (139 KB)

Day 1: Trailhead to Floe Lake

10.5 km (6.5 mi.)
elevation gain: 715 m (2,345')

The hike up to Floe Lake is one of the few trips in the Rockies that I dread. The trail is well-maintained and easy to follow, but it seems that most of the elevation gain is spread over about half of the distance. Plus, there are many avalanche paths to cross that can be stifling on a hot day, there is no scenery to speak of, and for all the effort, the trail does not even reach the treeline. The lake itself is very scenic, but unless you are continuing to Numa Pass, I would not recommend this trail as a day trip. There are other destinations that offer a better reward-to-effort ratio.

Be sure to fill your bottles at the bridge over Floe Creek at km 1.7, as there is only one other stream on the trail, just over half way up. After what seems like an eternity of switchbacking, the trail levels out and approaches the lake. Water is available from the stream next to the warden cabin at the far end of the campsite. The sprawling campsite at Floe Lake is popular with weekenders and mosquitoes alike. Since the tent pads, cooking areas and the stream are widely separated, you may walk some distance just by attending to routine camp chores. Some of the largest larch trees that I have seen can be found along the lake shore.

Day 2: Floe Lake to Tumbling Creek

17.4 km (11 mi.)
gain: 315 m (1,033') to Numa Pass
loss: 830 m (2,722') to Numa Creek
gain: 685 m (2,247') to Tumbling Pass
loss: 320 m (1,050') to Tumbling Creek

The Rockwall Trail (the trail from Floe Lake to Helmet Falls - map) is one of the most scenic and popular sections of the GDT. If you wish to hike only a portion of the trail, access is available from any of the trails that run from Hwy. 93 up Floe, Numa, Tumbling or Ochre Creeks. Since the southern half, from Floe Lake to Tumbling Creek, is the most strenuous part, the easiest 3-4-day trip would be a loop that begins at the Paint Pots and ascends Ochre Creek, returning via Tumbling Creek (or the clockwise variant). Tumbling Pass or Wolverine Pass can be visited on a long day trip. Photos of the loop, as well as Goodsir Pass, are available here.

From Floe Lake, the trail makes a gradual ascent through a small meadow and quickly reaches the treeline. Views from the summit of Numa Pass (2,355 m (7,724')) are excellent in both directions, especially if you walk up the west side of the pass towards Foster Peak. Tumbling Pass is visible to the northwest, and Mt. Temple and the Ten Peaks around Moraine Lake appear on the north horizon. Of course, the classic view of the sheer face that rises 1,000 m above Floe Lake will astonish hikers who climb to the pass from Numa Creek. Although I have never done it, it's possible to scramble up Numa Mtn., the east flank of the pass. The peak is rated as a "good viewpoint" in the climber's guide. I recall a herd of 8-10 mountain goats that suddenly appeared just below the pass during one visit, and watching them walk across the meadow for half an hour. The best views of animals often occur when you are sitting still in a pass, undetected, or ignored, by the local residents.

Floe Lake
View of Floe Lake from Numa Pass (76 KB)

The trail drops steeply from the pass and quickly enters an enclosed forest. However, once you reach the part that traverses a number of avalanche slopes, there is a nice view of a nearby waterfall. Plus, on two occasions, I have encountered a bull moose in the area munching on the lush vegetation. The only other feature worthy of mention is the single-log bridge over the stream flowing from the waterfall. If the log looks too slippery or wobbly, it is usually easy to find a place to rock-hop across the stream.

Numa Creek camp is located about 7 km below Numa Pass. There are sites on both sides of the bridged creek that intersects the main trail. Continue on the trail for about 500 m below the campsite until you reach a signed junction, then turn left for Tumbling Pass. The elevation that was so quickly surrendered on the descent from Numa Pass must now be regained: almost 700 m in less than 5 km. Although the climb through the avalanche slopes can be exhausting on a hot afternoon, it is definitely more rewarding than the comparable hike up to Floe Lake. The forested section of the trail is not too long, and the upper part crosses a number of streams (easy fords) on open slopes that offer good views of the Ball Range. Finally, the reappearance of larch trees promises some relief from the endless switchbacks, and the trail emerges at the edge of a beautiful, level meadow. The summit of Tumbling Pass (2,210 m (7,249')) is approximately 1½ km further ahead after a short climb.

The cover of the Parks Canada map shows the view of Tumbling Glacier from a point near Wolverine Pass, but the view is equally impressive from Tumbling Pass summit. From there, a campsite is less than 3 km away at the end of a steep descent and the bridged crossing of silt-laden Tumbling Creek.

Day 3: Tumbling Creek to Helmet Falls

12 km (7.4 mi.)
gain: 350 m (1,148') to Rockwall Pass
loss: 320 m (1,050') to Limestone meadows
gain: 250 m (820') to Limestone Summit
loss: 410 m (1,345') to Helmet Creek

The northern leg of the Rockwall Trail is packed with all the elements of classic mountain scenery: glaciers, meadows, lakes, larches, wildflowers, waterfalls, and dramatic views of nearby and distant peaks. On a perfect August day when the paintbrush are in full bloom, I doubt that there is a more rewarding hike in the Rockies. The meadows below Wolverine Pass are reached in less than an hour's hike from the campsite, and shortly thereafter you will arrive at a signed junction with the side trail to the pass. It takes just a few minutes to walk to the summit (2,207 m (7,239')), and by scrambling up the north side of the pass one obtains a fine view of the spires in Bugaboo Glacier Provincial Park, B.C., and Stanley Peak to the east. There are some good pictures of the Rockwall country on Tomas Blazek's page and David Wasserman's site. A trip report with many pictures of golden larch trees is posted here.

Wolverine, photographer unknown
Wolverine (98 KB)

The main trail skirts the base of Mt. Drysdale as it heads toward Rockwall Pass (2,240 m (7,347')). If the flowers are in bloom, you may wish to pick a route that is a bit lower and passes through the meadows to the east (the route of the old trail). Looking south from the pass, you can see the Wolverine warden cabin dwarfed by the jagged peaks and glaciers of the Rockwall, while to the north the sheer 2,000' face of Limestone Peak extends for 5 km. The descent from Rockwall Pass is somewhat abrupt, and it can be a little surprising to find such impressive wildflower displays in the steep terrain. Off to the west, you can catch glimpses of the milky blue lake that is fed by the Rockwall glaciers, and near the bottom of the descent the trail crosses the outlet from the lake. After the crossing, the trail weaves through an open moraine dotted with emerald tarns. This short but scenic section was built in 1995 and adds another distinctive element to the trip.

Limestone
Limestone Peak (71 KB)

After the moraine excursion, the trail begins its final climb of the day through open meadows to Limestone Summit (2,170 m (7,118')). The summit, which is really the NE shoulder of Limestone Peak, is the site of some massive larch trees and is an excellent spot to review the day's progress.

Rockwall
Rockwall Pass from Limestone Summit (54 KB)

As soon as you begin the descent to the campsite, be sure to look for an arresting view of Mt. Goodsir and Sentry Peak to the west; it is easy to miss if you are hiking in the opposite direction. Soon, the low roar of Helmet Falls announces the next scenic highlight. A clear view of this spectacular, 365 m cascade and its surrounding amphitheatre is obtained lower down the trail.

View from trail to Limestone Summit, photographer unknown
Helmet Falls (185 KB)

Just before the trail arrives at the campsite, there is a side trail that leads to the base of the falls in about 15 minutes. If, from that vantage point, you look high up and notice some white specks moving about on the grassy benches to the right of the falls, it is merely the resident goats out for an afternoon graze. The Helmet Falls campsite has been maintained in a relatively natural state, compared to Floe Lake and Tumbling Creek camps, and the perfectly clear, cold stream flowing right through the camp adds to its appeal. The best view of the falls is from the stream, right beside the tent sites at the west end of the camp.

Day 4: Helmet Falls to Helmet-Ochre camp

16.6 km (10.3 mi.)
gain: 450 m (1,476') to Goodsir Pass
loss: 660 m (2,165') to Ochre Creek

For those who are not planning to continue on the GDT, the itinerary for Day 4 will probably consist of the routine, 15 km descent of Helmet and Ochre Creeks to the Paint Pots parking lot. However, since the scenery on that route is fairly mundane and the trail has an annoying up-and-down profile, I would rather retrace Day 3's route and then descend Tumbling Creek to the Paint Pots, an option that is only 7 km further than the Helmet Creek route and far more scenic. Whichever route you choose, a side trip to Goodsir Pass is highly recommended if the weather is good. Since the pass is an easy half-day trip from the Helmet Falls camp, one could hike with a day pack to Goodsir Pass in the morning and then, in the afternoon, either hike to Tumbling Creek campsite or down Helmet Creek.

The main trail down the valley begins in front of the Helmet warden cabin, which is just across Helmet Creek from the campsite. After 600m, the trail to Goodsir Pass branches off to the left and climbs steadily to the summit in 4 km. Goodsir Pass (2,210 m (7,249')) is in a pleasant, flower-filled larch meadow, and offers fine views of Mt. Goodsir and the rest of the Ottertail Range in Yoho National Park, but the real attraction is the rounded ridge on the NE side of the pass. After about 30 minutes of easy scrambling, it is possible to gain the top of the ridge (~8,000') and enjoy a truly spectacular panorama that extends as far as Mt. Assiniboine and includes the 6,000' NE face of Mt. Goodsir, glaciated Mt. Vaux, Odaray Mtn., the Rockwall, Mt. Ball and the Ten Peaks at Moraine Lake. A less strenuous, but equally worthwhile option is the small lake that is nestled against the side of Sharp Mtn.: from the summit of the pass, head in the direction of Mt. Goodsir until you see the lake, which is less than a kilometre away.

Following a visit to Goodsir Pass, it is a routine 8 km hike from the Goodsir junction to the campsite at the Helmet-Ochre junction. At one end of the campsite there is a little-used trail that heads up to Ottertail Pass.

As mentioned at the top of this page, it is possible to descend Goodsir Pass on the Yoho side to a campsite near the junction of McArthur Creek and the Ottertail River. From there, one can either hike 15 km down the Ottertail Fire Road to a point on the Trans-Canada Hwy. that is 8.5 km west of Field, B.C., or, if a permit has been obtained, hike up to McArthur Pass and on to Lake O'Hara. I have never hiked the fire road, but it may be worth mentioning that the trail between Goodsir Pass and McArthur Pass is quite steep and unscenic. In fact, the only decent view is of the Goodsir Towers. They are visible from the picnic table in front of the McArthur Creek warden cabin, which is just 200 m from the campsite. The campsite itself is located in a dark and dreary 'doghair' pine forest. If you do hike up McArthur Creek, instead of crossing the pass on the main trail, look for a spur trail that branches to the right and leads to Lake McArthur. The lake is one of the most remarkable colours of blue that I have seen in the Rockies.

Day 5: Helmet-Ochre camp to Kaufmann Lake

24.2 km (15 mi.)
loss: 60 m (197') to Marble Canyon
gain: 570 m (1,870') to Kaufmann Lake

The next leg of the Larch section is really only of interest to those who feel up to the challenge of hiking the off-trail route from Kaufmann Lake to Wenkchemna Pass. Starting from the Helmet-Ochre camp, the trail continues down Ochre Creek, passing the junction with the Tumbling Creek trail after about 2.5 km. There is a small campsite just 500 m along this trail at the Tumbling-Ochre confluence. Six km from the camp, and 1.3 km from the Paint Pots, a side trail branches to the left and leads to Marble Canyon in 3.2 km. From Marble Canyon, the trail up Tokumm Creek proceeds at a fairly moderate grade and only becomes steep for the last kilometre to the Kaufmann Lake cirque (2,060 m (6,757')). Camping sites are located in the forest at the west end of the lake and in the open along the lake shore.

Day 6: Kaufmann Lake to Moraine Lake

16.7 km (10.4 mi.)
gain: 545 m (1,788') to Wenkchemna Pass
loss: 720 m (2,362') to Moraine Lake

The hike up to Wenkchemna Pass from the Tokumm Creek side requires a bit more experience than most other trips in the parks because there is no trail, the area is seldom visited and the country is quite rugged (see the topo map). However, the rewards include some unique scenery and a real sense of accomplishment - and relief - when you reach the pass. This is one of those days when you get a taste of the kind of adventure that was experienced by the first tourists in the Rockies who arrived in the 1890s.

The first obstacle is the forested ridge on the west side of Kaufmann Lake. Walk along the lakeshore trail until you see a reasonable way up the slope to your left. The scrambling is steep in places, but the bush is not too thick, and soon you will reach the crest of the ridge and have a dramatic view of Opabin Pass at the head of the valley. The pass is another point of entry to the Lake O'Hara region, but glaciation on both sides requires that one have mountaineering equipment and experience. The approach to Wenkchemna Pass is also visible on the east side of the valley. From this point, you may be tempted to maintain your elevation by traversing the mountainside above treeline as you head up the valley, but I found on my first trip here that that approach leads onto steep, rocky and difficult ground. On my second trip, I made a gradual descent from the ridge to Tokkum Creek and found the travel much easier, and faster, despite the added elevation loss and gain. There are some fine cascades on the upper creek and attractive larch meadows for much of the way. On one trip, I did get a brief, but unmistakable glimpse of a small grizzly bear, so the usual precautions apply, especially when your footsteps are muffled by the rushing stream.

Eventually, the treeline and the Kootenay-Yoho boundary is crossed and the rock pinnacles known as Eagle's Eyrie come into view, rising from the valley floor. Keep to the middle of the valley for as long as possible until you are directly opposite the approach to Wenkchemna Pass. The grind up to the pass is very strenuous because the rocks are too large to allow one to kick steps, as on fine scree, but too small to support one's weight without rolling: it's a two-steps-up-and-one-slide-back ordeal. However, if this is your first visit to the pass, the thrill of finally staggering up to the summit cairn on the Continental Divide (2,605 m (8,544')) will be magnified by the sensational view of the Valley of the Ten Peaks. On the other hand, if you hike to the pass from Moraine Lake, be forewarned that the view of the B.C. side is unexceptional. Nevertheless, I would rate the hike to Eiffel Lake and Wenkchemna Pass as one of the best day trips in the Rockies because the scenery on the way to the pass is outstanding.

Moraine Lake, photographer unknown
Moraine Lake - 188 KB 1024x768

Most backpackers will finish the Larch section by hiking the last 10 km to Moraine Lake, but if you have the time and energy, it's possible to extend the trip into Paradise Valley via Wastach Pass and end at Lake Louise. The start of the route to Wastach Pass is marked with a cairn on the main trail near Eiffel Lake, approximately 4 km below Wenkchemna Pass. The gully is fairly steep and requires a bit of scrambling, but the summit of the pass (2,514 m (8,246')) is reached in less than 30 min. The descent on the Paradise Valley side is steep at the beginning and travels over loose rocks, but again, the difficulties are short-lived and you will soon emerge on a bench that overlooks the upper part of the valley and the Horseshoe Glacier. Pick an easy route from the bench to the valley floor and weave through the larch meadows until you meet the main Paradise Valley trail. The distance from Wastach Pass to the main trail is about 3 km, and the campsite (Pa 8) at the head of the valley should be easy to find by turning left onto the main trail. Click here to view a map of Larch Valley that is taken from a section of the Lake Louise 82/N8 topographic map.

From the campsite, a number of options are available: after a side trip to the Giant Steps waterfall, descend the valley on the highline trail that passes Lake Annette. Just below the lake, the highline trail rejoins the main trail, and within 2 km another junction is reached: keep right for the Paradise Valley parking lot, or left for the trail to Sheol Valley and Lake Louise, via Saddleback. If you choose the trail to the parking lot, there is yet another trail that branches off from it and heads to Lake Louise. Finally, another very scenic option is to hike up to Sentinel Pass (2,605 m (8,544')) and then descend to Moraine Lake via Larch Valley.

Larch Valley, photographer unknown
Sentinel Pass from Larch Valley 3611x540

Sentinel Pass by itself is a popular day-hike destination, but if you are interested in a more challenging variant, I highly recommend the day trip that begins at Moraine Lake, climbs to Eiffel Lake, crosses Wastach Pass to Paradise Valley, then crosses Sentinel Pass and returns to the lake. Total distance for this loop is about 18 km.

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This page was modified on July 26, 2012