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Great Divide Trail - Sawback Section

Trailhead The Fish Creek parking lot is in the Lake Louise Ski Area, east of Lake Louise Village.
Distance 91 km (56 mi.) from trailhead to the Icefields Parkway at Crowfoot Glacier
Time 5-7 days
Maximum Elevation Helen Lake Ridge: 2,500 m (8,200')

Summary

The section of the Great Divide Trail between the Larch and Caribou sections is usually designated as the Glacier section. It follows a route through Yoho Park to Amiskwi Pass, re-enters Banff Park at Howse Pass, and emerges on the Icefields Parkway at Saskatchewan Crossing. The Glacier section is a natural extension of the Larch section if the latter extends to Lake O'Hara or the Ottertail Fire Road. However, as explained on the Larch page, hiking restrictions in the O'Hara region have prompted alternate routes that end at Lake Louise, Moraine Lake or the Paint Pots. The Sawback section, described in an early edition of The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, is suggested here as an optional route between Lake Louise and the Icefields Parkway or the David Thompson Highway. Highlights of the route include Skoki Valley, Fish Lakes, Pipestone Summit and Dolomite Pass. "Sawback" refers to the jagged, gray peaks of the Front Ranges that the route follows. A schematic of the route is displayed in this map:

Extended Trips in the Rockies
Extended Trips

An elevation profile of the Sawback section can be viewed here (8 KB picture appears in a new window). This map (75 KB), based on a Parks Canada pdf brochure, shows the trails and campsites in the central region of Banff National Park, including the Sawback section.

Route Options

The Sawback section begins in the Skoki Valley region east of Lake Louise. After the initial hike to Boulder Pass, there are three options for travelling from the Baker Creek drainage to the Pipestone valley: 1. Deception Pass (most popular), 2. Packer's Pass (most scenic) and 3. Cotton Grass Pass (lowest, fewest hikers). Since there are many scrambles and side trips to scenic lakes in the area, an itinerary can be designed to match one's interests and schedule. However, because of the maze of hiker and horse trails in some areas, and the lack of trail signs on all but the main routes, a good map or guide book is recommended. Gem Trek publishes an excellent map of Lake Louise and Skoki Valley, and Don Beers's The World of Lake Louise is one of the best guides to the area. Click here to view a map of the Skoki Valley that is made from sections of the Hector Lake 82 N/9 and Lake Louise 82 N/8 topographic maps.

Lake Louise, photographer unknown
Lake Louise - 216 KB 1024x768

From Pipestone Summit, the route descends the Siffleur River to its confluence with Dolomite Creek. One can then either continue down the Siffleur and exit at the David Thompson Highway, 30 km east of Saskatchewan River Crossing, or ascend Dolomite Creek to Dolomite Pass and hike to the Icefields Parkway on the Helen Lake trail. Although I have not hiked most of the route between Pipestone Summit and Dolomite Pass, the option that includes the latter would be much more scenic.

Goats, photographer unknown
Mountain Goats - 188 KB 1024x736

Day 1: Trailhead to Baker Lake camp

11.8 km (7.3 mi.)
gain: 640 m (2,099') to Boulder Pass
loss: 135 m (443') to Baker Lake

The one drawback with any hike into Skoki Valley is the initial 4 km walk up the ski area access road. It would be bad enough if vehicles were prohibited during the daytime, but in fact the road is regularly used by ski resort staff and construction workers, so be prepared to eat some dust. However, once the route leaves the road and follows a wide trail, it soon enters an attractive larch meadow with fine views of the surrounding peaks and the ones around Moraine Lake. Just over 7 km from the trailhead, a sign points to Hidden Lake campsite (Sk 5), 100 m to the left. Hidden Lake, the starting point for several scrambles, is just over a kilometre past the camp and is well worth visiting. Another 1.5 km of easy hiking on the main trail past some cabin-sized rocks brings one to the summit of Boulder Pass (2,345 m (7,692')) and a superb view of the Ptarmigan Lake valley. As you might expect, it is not unusual to stumble upon a flock of ptarmigan here as these friendly birds scour the ground for edible morsels. Day-hikers who are interested in an additional side trip can scramble up to Redoubt Lake, which is about 1 km from the pass and nestled against the east side of Redoubt Mtn.

Some excellent photos of the Skoki area, taken during a scrambling trip to Pika Peak, can be viewed here. Here is another site with fine pictures of the Ptarmigan valley, including a panorama from the summit of Mt. Anthozoan. Additional photos are posted here.

View from Lake Louise Ski Resort, photographer unknown
Peaks around Moraine Lake and Lake Louise - 229 KB 1949x414

The main trail continues around the north side of Ptarmigan Lake. About halfway along the lake, a grassy slope and possibly a cairn indicate the beginning of the route to Packer's Pass, and 2.2 km from Boulder Pass one arrives at the signed junction with the trail to Deception Pass. From the junction, the trail makes a gradual descent to the campsite (Sk 11) at the east end of Baker Lake. At an elevation of 2,210 m (7,249'), the campsite is one of the highest in the national parks, and provides excellent views in all directions.

The Skoki Valley, with its many lakes and easy peaks, is a scrambler's paradise, and one of the best options from the Baker Lake camp is the short trip to three scenic lakes that are south of the campsite, along the side of Brachiopod Mtn. There are a few ways to reach the area, and one route begins by crossing the Baker Lake outlet stream on a precarious set of stones and walking around the south side of the lake. About halfway along the shore, you will notice a grassy gully to the south (left) that leads up to a low saddle. Little Baker Lake is visible from the top of the saddle, and to reach Tilted Lake, head around the east shore of the former and cross the low ridge that separates the two. The third, and highest lake, Brachiopod, can be reached by walking around the west side of Little Baker and heading south up the easy slope. The original name of Brachiopod Lake, Pinnacle Lake, refers to the prominent rock spike that shoots up from the water, about 10 m from the shore. In late summer the lake dries up, but it is a scenic destination nonetheless. All three lakes present distinctive scenery, despite being only about a 5 minute hike from each other. Plus, despite being an easy objective from Baker Lake camp, the lakes seem to be visited by relatively few of the many hikers in the area.

Day 2: Baker Lake camp to Red Deer Lakes camp

5.8 km (3.6 mi.)
loss: 105 m (344') to Cotton Grass Pass
gain: 140 m (459') to Heart Lake

This leg of the Sawback section may be hiked on the first day if you don't wish to camp at Baker Lake and visit the three nearby lakes, or Heart Lake or Oyster Lake. The trip to Heart Lake adds about 5 km to the Day 2 distance and involves some basic scrambling. There is no trail, but its location on the north side of Tilted Mtn. is easy to determine from the Baker Lake camp. Tilted Mtn. is about 3 km southeast of the camp, across the Baker Creek valley, and you should be able to see the waterfall that is formed by the Heart Lake outlet. Failing that, simply take the trail from Baker Lake down to the Baker Creek trail and head down the valley until the waterfall is visible. At that point, head left from the trail and start up the forested slope, keeping the falls to your right. You may encounter a few steep cliff bands, but these can either be ascended directly or avoided by choosing a route further to the left. After about a half hour from the trail, you will crest the final ridge and be greeted with a classic alpine lake set in a larch meadow. It is another one of the many seldom-visited gems in the area. For the return trip, one can either retrace the route back to Baker Creek or head north along a high bench and in about half an hour reach Oyster Lake. I noticed on one trip in late September that Heart Lake was almost dry, so one should try and do this trip earlier in the summer.

Cotton Grass Pass is less than 2 km from Baker Lake, and although its summit is barely perceptible and is much lower than the other two options, Deception Pass and Packer's Pass, it is located in extensive larch meadows that provide good views of the surrounding peaks. Red Deer Lakes camp (Sk 19) is 4 km north of the pass. Although it is the least-visited of all camps in the area, it is situated amongst a stand of large, attractive spruce trees and may provide a more peaceful environment than the other, more popular campsites.

Day 3: Red Deer Lakes camp to Fish Lakes camp

~21 km (13 mi.)
loss: 290 m (951') to Pipestone River
gain: 410 m (1,345') to Fish Lakes camp

The first objective on this day is to reach the trail that descends Little Pipestone Creek. Due to the absence of clear signs and the many horse trails in the area, it may be a confusing task. From Sk 19, head north on the trail and within a few hundred metres head left and walk around the north side of the largest of the Red Deer Lakes. (If you end up at the Cyclone warden cabin, you're going in the wrong direction.) The trail becomes better defined at the far end of the lake and continues on the right (north) side of the Little Pipestone. Along the way, you may notice unmarked side trails that branch left and cross the creek, heading towards Skoki Lodge.

After approximately 8 km from Sk 19, the trail arrives at the Little Pipestone warden cabin. Walk past the cabin to survey the next obstacle, the Pipestone River. (If, by mistake, you take the trail to the nearby Little Pipestone ford you will see that it flows from your left, whereas the Pipestone flows from your right.) Depending on the conditions, the Pipestone ford ranges from moderate to difficult. On the one occasion that I crossed there, I was fortunate to hitch a ride from a horse party that arrived just as I was preparing to make the ford.

Once across the river, a good trail heads up the valley on the west (right) side. Approximately 6 km after the ford, the trail enters an area known as Singing Meadows. At the north end of the meadows, just before the main trail crosses the river, there is an unmarked junction with a trail that branches left and heads towards Fish Lakes. For hikers who are planning to camp at Fish Lakes, this trail will save at least two fords of the Pipestone. There is an unofficial camping spot just north of this junction (between the Fish Lakes branch and the river), but even if you intend to bypass Fish Lakes camp, I recommend the branch trail because it connects directly with the highline route to Pipestone Summit (see below). The branch trail contours around Molar Mtn. and climbs up to the lower of the Fish Lakes, and a few minutes later arrives at the campsite (Mo 18) beside Upper Fish Lake (2,225 m (7,298')). Click here to view a portion of the topographic map (Hector Lake, 82 N/9) that includes the Fish Lakes/Pipestone Pass area.

Day 4: Fish Lakes camp to Siffleur River camp

~20 km (12.4 mi.)
gain: 245 m (804') to Pipestone Summit
loss: ~400 m (1,312') to Siffleur River camp

Fish Lakes are a popular 2-3 day backpacking destination that is usually accessed via the Mosquito Creek trail and North Molar Pass. If you plan to use that trail to exit from the Sawback section, consider a side trip to Pipestone Summit. The highline trail is a very scenic route that is above the treeline for most of the 8 km from Mo 18, and is worth doing even on a rainy day. To reach the trail, start down the main trail towards Pipestone River, and just before crossing the upper lake's outlet stream, head left at the signed junction and walk towards the warden cabin.

Fish Lakes Trails

Before describing the highline trail, there is a short hike available in the area that may be of interest to those camping at Fish Lakes. The Hector Lake topo map, (82 N/9) shows a pair of lakes nestled against the slopes of Molar Mtn., about 3 km SE of the camp. To reach them, hike down the main trail as above, cross the Lower Fish Lake outlet and continue until you arrive at a set of trail signs. At this point, leave the trail and head across the obvious large meadow, keeping to the right side. Near the far end of the meadow, look for a trail that turns right and heads uphill through the forest. This trail leads right to the lower lake, and by walking around its west side, it's possible to scramble up the connecting stream and visit the upper lake. The map reveals another, higher lake in the vicinity; access is unknown.

The highline trail begins directly across the stream that flows behind the cabin, and is indicated by another sign. Depending on water levels, this crossing may be a simple rock hop or require a ford. To avoid the latter, hike up the stream about 30 m to where it divides into two parts that are easy to jump across. After a few switchbacks, the trail emerges from the forest and levels out in a grassy meadow. At this point, the path may become faint, but by continuing in the same direction you will soon pick up a well-defined trail that runs along the highest bench on the mountain slope. At about 2.5 km, the trail crosses the outlet of Moose Lake and continues to the northwest, passing another sparkling lake before it traverses the spine of a prominent ridge (ridge trail is visible in this picture) that divides the upper valley. Navigation is fairly easy, as the high col of Pipestone Summit on the right-hand side of the valley is visible for most of the way. You may notice, especially in late September, that the number and size of the larch trees decreases as you head up the valley; this is the northern limit of this species in the Rockies. Eventually, the highline trail merges with the valley trail right at Pipestone Summit (2,470 m (8,102')), a scenic viewpoint that you will likely enjoy in complete solitude. On the return trip, the descent of the ridge is also a very pleasant hiking experience with continuous, open views of the upper valley, Cataract Peak and Drummond Glacier. Additional photos may be found here.

The west shoulder of Pipestone Summit is an easy, 15-min. scramble that provides excellent views of the upper Pipestone and the Siffleur valley, including the entrance to Clearwater Pass.

For those travelling south on the highline trail, it's perhaps worth pointing out one potentially confusing part of the route. Just after crossing the Moose Lake outlet, you will notice a well-defined trail on your right that starts up the hillside. This trail does head in the direction of the Fish Lakes camp, but it eventually peters out and you will probably need to make a steep, cross-country descent to reach the stream behind the camp. However, by continuing through the meadow at the same elevation, you should be able to pick up the correct trail and stay on it all the way to the warden cabin.

Bull Elk, photographer unknown
Bull Elk (100 KB)

Clearwater Pass and Devon Lakes

As for the route down the Siffleur valley, I cannot provide much first-hand experience, but it is described in The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide. See also this trip report, with many good photos, of the entire Pipestone-Siffleur-Dolomite circuit. Apparently, there is a campsite 12.2 km below Pipestone Summit, and the next campsite is 10.4 km further at the south end of Isabella Lake. However, if you are day hiking to Pipestone Summit from Fish Lakes, the extension to Clearwater Pass is quite feasible and highly recommended. The Siffleur trail makes a moderate descent from the summit, and after about 3 km or 45 min., an unmarked trail heads to the right. After just 15 min. of easy climbing, the side trail arrives at the western edge of Clearwater Pass (2,330 m (7,650')). The pass is a long and broad alpine meadow that offers plenty of options for off-trail rambles. Continuing along the trail, one finds a colourless body of water that could be mistaken for Upper Devon Lake, but in fact the actual lake is a striking sapphire colour, and appears after about 1 hour of hiking from the edge of the pass. View a map of the area here.

Clearwater Pass
Clearwater Pass (90 KB)

The trail remains level as it goes around the upper lake, and gradually begins to descend near the lake's outlet. Campsites are available beside the upper lake, but the treeless surroundings offer little protection from the elements. In just a half hour, it's possible to hike to the lower lakes that are equally scenic but somewhat less exposed: cross the outlet of the upper lake (an easy rock hop as the stream is practically subterranean) and hike SE over the easy, low ridges towards the glaciers on Devon Mtn. After about 15 min. from the outlet, the milky blue colour of the upper of the two lower lakes will appear; proceed and descend to the N shore of this lake. A primitive campsite is located beside the stream that empties the upper lake into the lower one.

Clearwater Pass is also accessible by a more direct route over Quartzite Col. About 3.5 km up the Mosquito Creek trail, head up the tributary creek that enters from the north, and eventually reach the treeline and the cross-country route to Quartzite Col. Descending the east side of the col will bring one to the upper Siffleur valley, opposite Clearwater Pass. See this web site for details and photos, as well as this report and this one.

Day 5: Siffleur River camp to Dolomite Creek camp

~18 km (11 mi.)
loss: ~270 m (886') to Dolomite Creek
gain: ~400 m (1,312') to Dolomite Creek camp

From the campsite on the Siffleur River, it is another 7.1 km to a major junction: turn right to descend the Siffleur for 29 km to the David Thompson Highway, or turn left to ascend Dolomite Creek. The Province of Alberta publishes a good map and brochure for Siffleur Wilderness Area that describes the Siffleur route as "monotonous with restricted views", and includes descriptions of other more scenic and challenging routes. According to The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, there is an old campsite on Dolomite Creek, 11.1 km above the junction, but random camping is permitted between Isabella Lake and Dolomite Pass.

Day 6: Dolomite Creek camp to Helen Lake trailhead

~14 km (8.7 mi.)
gain: ~300 m (984') to Helen Lake ridge
loss: 550 m (1,804') to Icefields Parkway

The Sawback section concludes with a steep ascent to the meadows of Dolomite Pass (2,395 m (7,856')), the summit of which is 5.6 km beyond the Dolomite Creek campsite, followed by a short climb to a ridge above Helen Lake, and then a 7 km descent to the Helen Lake trailhead on the Icefields Parkway. Although the pass is probably visited more often by day hikers, the combination of lakes, meadows and rugged peaks makes it an ideal spot for off-trail exploration. Adventurous scramblers may be interested in a route that heads southeast from the summit of Dolomite Pass and crosses a col to a creek that flows into Mosquito Creek, approximately 4 km up the North Molar Pass trail.

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This page was modified on July 13, 2015