PART SIX: BACKPACKING MOUNT ROBESON PROVINCIAL PARK
We began our final week in the Canadian Rockies with a 3-day backpacking trip to Berg Lake in Mount Robson Provincial Park. Berg Lake sits at the foot of Mount Robson, which is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. The hike to Berg Lake is a demanding one. The trail covers 12 miles and gains 2600’ along the way. However, it is also one of the most spectacular hikes in the world. The hike begins in an impressive rain forest along the Robson River, before climbing up through the Valley of a Thousand Falls (an exaggeration, but only a mild one) to Berg Lake at the base of Mount Robson. Our plan was to hike all the way to Berg Lake on the first day. We’d spend the second day hiking from our basecamp before returning by the same route on the final day.
The French word of the day is “chutes”, which translates to “waterfalls” in English. As in, “We passed dozens of spectacular chutes on our hike to Berg Lake.”
I made Christy get up early that morning. We were still car camping in Jasper, so we had to break camp, drive an hour to Mount Robson Provincial Park, pick up our permit, and then hike 12 miles. Considering our agenda, an early start seemed like a good idea.
We left Jasper at 7:15 and ate bagels on the way. We reached Mount Robson Provincial Park headquarters at 8:15, which seemed ideal, since the visitor center opened at 8. We parked out front, but the building looked closed. What, were they running late this morning? I walked to the door, where I discovered that they do in fact open at 8. Pacific Time. We were on Mountain Time. Oops. We were 45 minutes early. I had to return to the car and explain to Christy that, yes, we could’ve slept in another hour. This didn’t go over well.
Christy took a nap. I loitered around the parking lot, admiring the view of massive Mount Robson towering over the visitor’s center. In planning this trip, my biggest concern had been the weather. Robson is so large, it creates it’s own weather. This is usually not a good thing. Storms coming from the west encounter Robson first, and tend to hang around. Because of this, the western slopes of the mountain are covered in a rain forest that would seem more appropriate on the Pacific coast. My guidebook warned that it’s not unusual to spend several days at Berg Lake without actually seeing the mountain. Well, I was seeing it this morning. The sky was crystal clear, and the peak was radiant in the early morning light. The only remaining question was how long this wonderful weather would last. I was ready to get on the trail!
Around 8:30 a tour bus arrived, and discharged several dozen Asian tourists. Their feet had barely touched the ground before they were taking pictures of everything in sight – the mountain, the visitor’s center, the bus, the other people hanging around the parking lot, and of course each other. I actually observed one family of 5 take photos of all of the above with every possible combination of family members in every conceivable pose. What was this, a wedding? Eventually they must’ve run out of film or memory or whatever, because the photography stopped. However, they continued to mill about the parking lot. What were they up to? Shouldn’t they get back on the bus and hurry off to the next photo opportunity?
Shortly before 8 I moved closer to the door and struck up a conversation with a friendly couple from a nearby town. They were hoping to do the same hike, but had their dog with them and weren’t sure if they’d be able to bring her. While we were talking, the ranger opened the front door. I heard a roar, and turned to see a horde of screaming Asian tourists barreling down on me. What the hell was going on? I half expected to see Godzilla in the parking lot. Briefly, I feared for my life. Then the rush passed by, and we followed the stampede into the visitor’s center. I was annoyed, because I really didn’t have time to wait in line behind all of those tourists. Surely they hadn’t been waiting for backpacking permits.
I didn’t need to worry. The flood of tourists went straight into the bathrooms. There were literally 50 or 60 of them crowding into the facilities. I went to the counter, where I picked up my permit (I had made reservations in advance) and paid the fee ($5 per person per night). Then Christy and I endured a 13-minute safety video before returning to the car for the 1-mile drive to the trailhead.
So much for the early start. It was 9:50 (Mountain Time) when we finished loading our packs and got on the trail. We crossed a bridge over the frothing Robson River and followed a wide, hard-packed trail into a gorgeous rain forest. We hiked under thick stands of hemlock and cedar draped with abundant moss. Occasional openings in the forest provided views of the mountain, and the roaring whitewater river was our constant companion.
1 hour and 3 miles later we reached a bridge over the outlet of Kinney Lake. We had a snack break there, before resuming the hike along the wooded shore of the lake. A couple of places provided views of Kinney Lake with surrounding peaks reflecting in the calm water. We climbed and then descended back to the lakeshore, where we found a pleasant campground. Beyond, the horse trail diverged from our path as we climbed to a rocky cliff above the lake. The horse trail stays along the shore, and we seriously contemplated going that way to avoid some PUDS (pointless ups and downs). I was afraid that the horse trail might be wet and muddy though, so we endured the PUDS before descending to the river above the lake.
The Robson River is braided into many channels here, and we crossed it on a series of footbridges. It was sunny and hot out on the river plain, so it was a relief to re-enter the woods, even though the climb resumed. A moderately difficult section of trail followed as we climbed high above the first of many waterfalls we’d pass along the way. A short descent brought us to a high but sturdy suspension bridge. We crossed and arrived at the Whitehorn Campground at the bottom of The Valley of a Thousand Falls. We st
opped for lunch on the riverbank, where we had a great view of dozens of waterfalls. The surrounding mountains have many glaciers, and the runoff from each cascades over the cliffs and into the valley.
We were making good time, so we took over an hour for lunch before resuming the hike at 1pm. We continued upstream, passing multiple waterfalls before reaching another bridge over the river. From the bridge, the lowest drop of White Falls on the Robson River is visible. The waterfalls cascading down the cliffs were elegant and pretty, but the falls on the river itself were something else altogether. The river is powerful, and its waterfalls are awesome.
We began the hardest climb of the day as steep switchbacks led out of the valley. After a few switchbacks, we passed a side trail heading towards the river. I explored it, and after some scrambling over slippery rocks, found a great view of White Falls. The view from the bridge had been impressive, but this was even better. Little did I know the best was yet to come.
We resumed the climb, which covered 1500’ in 2 ½ miles. Fortunately there was plenty of great scenery to distract us from the pain. We passed an overlook that gave us a view south down the Valley of a Thousand Falls. A little later, we reached a higher vantage point for White Falls. Beyond that overlook was an even better viewpoint for the Falls of the Pool.
The grade eased, and soon we were treated with distant views of Emperor Falls. The vistas continued to improve as we got closer, before we lost sight of the falls in the woods. We reached a junction, where a sign told us that the Emperor Falls campground was straight ahead. This is also the main trail, while the obvious path to the right leads directly to the base of the Emperor. I hiked down to the falls, and was stunned by what I saw. The Robson River leaps off a massive cliff with a tremendous roar. Beyond, the spire of Mount Robson towers over the scene. The waterfall creates an incredible amount of spray, and it’s impossible to explore near the base of the falls without getting soaked. It’s worth it though. I stood as close as I could get to the froth, and the ground was actually shaking. I made some careful attempts at photographing the falls before returning to the trail.
Christy had gone ahead, and I followed in her wake, passing the pleasant Emperor Campground. Just beyond, I found her taking a break on the riverbank. It was a great spot to enjoy the river and soak our aching feet.
We resumed hiking at 4pm with the worst of the climb behind us. A relatively flat trail continued to the follow the river. We curved around a ridge, and gained our first view of the Mist Glacier tumbling down the flank of Mount Robson. We crossed a glacial stream on a series of footbridges, and entered a forest of spruce and fir. It was here that we had our most unusual wildlife sighting of the trip. Gnomes! It could be that we were just exhausted from our hike, but this time I have the photo to prove it. Then again, we were in an enchanted forest, and what’s an enchanted forest without gnomes?
We passed the Marmot Campground, and pushed on the final 2 miles. This section followed the shore of Berg Lake, where there were absolutely no icebergs. This was disappointing, but the jaw dropping view of Mount Robson and the Mist and Berg Glaciers across the water more than made up for it.
We reached the campground at 5:30. The Berg Lake campground is large, and I wandered around for some time before selecting a site. We claimed a nice, private site in the woods not far from the cooking shelter. We set up camp, and relocated to the meadow in front of the shelter for dinner. We had come a long way, and wanted to soak in the view of Mount Robson for as long as we could. That’s exactly what we did while we feasted on pizza and salad. After eating, we were treated to superb alpenglow as Robson’s summit turned gold and then red by the setting sun. I slept well that night, despite the occasional roar from the glaciers calving.
WON’T YOU STEP INTO THE FREEZER?
The French word of the day is “neige”, which translates to “snow” in English. As in, “The hike to Snowbird Pass was tough, but it rewarded me with a view of miles and miles of neige, only interrupted by occasional jagged peaks.”
I was up early the next morning. The weather forecast we had gotten the day before had warned of afternoon rain, and I wanted to get a hike in first. Christy had gotten enough exercise the day before, and was planning on a day off. I had a tough time deciding on a hike. There are several options from Berg Lake, but ultimately I couldn’t pass on the chance to visit Snowbird Pass. Snowbird Pass is a narrow notch featuring a view of Mount Robson in one direction and the Reef Icefield in the other. The Reef Icefield is a 6-mile long swath of snow and ice that feeds several glaciers. I wanted to see that.
The hike to Snowbird Pass is somewhere between 13 and 17 miles roundtrip, depending on the source of your information. There’s also a significant elevation change, so an early start is a good idea, regardless of the weather. I woke to partly cloudy skies, but breezy conditions and a cloud obscuring Robson’s summit warned of change to come. I had breakfast burritos (made with fresh eggs) and hit the trail, setting a brisk pace for the pass.
A mile of easy hiking got me warmed up. I reached the Rearguard Campground, and picked up the obvious route leading along the Robson River towards the base of Robson Glacier. Just below the glacier I encountered a tiny lake featuring a handful of small icebergs. For the first of several times that day, I wished that Christy had joined me. She had been disappointed about the absence of icebergs in Berg Lake. Apparently they were all hiding from her up here in this little pond.
I only spared a few minutes for iceberg spectating before beginning the climb in earnest. I didn’t have a topo map of the area with me, but I quickly discovered where most of the elevation gain would occur. I began climbing steep, rocky switchbacks on the cliffs above the long tongue of the glacier. There was no vegetation to speak of, and the view of the glacier tumbling down from the high peaks was stunning. Unfortunately, clouds were moving in, seemingly from every direction. I was still a long way from the pass, and there was barely a hint of blue sky to be seen. I’d never make it there before the rain.
I decided to give it a shot anyway. I picked up the pace again, and a few minutes later passed a group of Japanese hikers heading the same way. I was a little surprised to see them there, but I’m certain they weren’t the same people that we’d seen on the tour bus the day before. We nodded and bowed and waved, and I pressed on, wondering if I’d see them again.
Just when I seemed to be making some progress I encountered a steep, slippery descent and then another climb. This time though, the trail leveled out on an open ridge high above the glacier. I strolled along the catwalk, with a sheer thousand-foot drop a few steps to my right, and admired the view. Despite the clouds, the peaks and glaciers were all still in sight, with the exception of Robson’s summit. I didn’t hold out much hope of seeing that again.
At the end of the traverse I began switchbacks out of the valley. This climb led to a bench, where I followed an alpine valley through expansive meadows. I dodged marmots and ground squirrels as I headed up the valley towards the pass. As I climbed, the path split into two and occasionally three routes. Despite the exercise I was getting, I was actually cold. At some point I realized that I no longer needed to be concerned about rain. If any precipitation fell, it would be snow. Considering the building clouds, that seemed more and more likely. Finally I conceded, and stopped to put on a hat and gloves. I’m sure I made quite a fashion statement, in shorts, t-shirt, hat, and gloves, but only the marmots could see me, and they didn’t seem to care.
One final climb brought me to the pass. The pass was still snow-covered, but the foot of snow there seemed wildly insignificant compared to the view ahead. I was looking out at the Reef Icefield, which is a 6-mile stretch of pure snow and ice. Jagged peaks crowded the horizon under a steel-gray sky. The view was forbidding, yet awesome. My favorite aspect of the vista may have been a single spire of rock jutting up out of the snowfield. From my vantage point, it looked like the fin of a shark in an ocean of snow. Behind me, the bulk of Mount Robson towered over everything. That view was quite simply one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. And all that snow and ice and those spectacular mountains seemed to sum up our entire experience in the Canadian Rockies.
It was still before noon, but I was famished. I was also half-frozen. I had gotten cold on the way up, but standing at the edge of all of that snow and ice was like walking into a freezer. I climbed up the ridge on my right a short distance to an even better vantage point. I found a rock to sit on and added a couple of layers of clothing. Then I attempted to eat lunch. This was difficult, since my pita was frozen, and the peanut butter wasn’t much better. I didn’t care.
The weather continued to hold. After lunch, I couldn’t bear to leave. I was getting cold just sitting there though. I considered climbing down to the edge of the icefield, but doing so looked dangerous, and actually walking out on the icefield was probably a bad idea, too. So, I headed up. I climbed steeply up a talus slope towards the summit of Lynx Mountain. Eventually I reached a minor nub with an even better view. I wasn’t far below the summit, but the last stretch would be a steep climb on loose rock. I was totally alone in a truly hostile environment. It was no place to take chances. After a lengthy break I scrambled back down to the pass.
At the pass I met the Japanese team, who had arrived more than an hour after me. I congratulated them on their hike, but secretly I was glad that I’d had the pass to myself. Then I began the long hike back. Along the way I passed a few other groups of hikers still heading up. As I hiked, I watched the clouds and wondered how long the weather would hold. I was convinced that I’d never make it back before the rain started. Then I was back at the lake at the base of Robson Glacier. Maybe I could make it. The race was on.
I heard a rumble that I took for thunder, but decided it was just one of the glaciers calving. Still, I knew that time was running out. I was practically jogging by the time I reached the campground. I found Christy in the tent, and joined her shortly before the sky fell. Somehow I had made it. I made the roundtrip to the pass in a little over 9 hours, with 2 hours spent at the pass. We relaxed for a while in the tent before the rain eased. Then we headed over to the cooking shelter for dinner.
The shelter was packed. I think everyone in the campground must’ve been in there. Despite the cramped conditions, it was quite cozy. It was a wonderful feeling to be inside as the rain pounded on the roof. The wood stove was blazing, and before long both of the doors were open to let some of the heat escape. We found a place at one of the picnic tables and quickly became the envy of the campground with Christy’s burritos.
After eating we met some of our camp mates. One family lived on a farm in the next valley. They had literally hiked out of their backyard, up the valley, and over a pass into Jasper National Park. Now they were looping back down the Robson River Valley. We also met Steve and Valerie from Toronto. They had flown to the Rockies for their summer vacation. We taught them how to play spades, and stayed up for a couple of hours playing cards as the rest of the crowd gradually trickled back to their tents. Eventually we braved the rain and raced back to the soggy tent for the night.
The French word of the day is “biere”, which translates into “beer” in English. As in, “Christy and I were really looking forward to cheeseburgers, fries, and biere after hiking out from Berg Lake.”
It was hard to leave the next morning. I could have easily spent another day or two at Berg Lake, hanging out or doing other hikes in the area. It was cloudy, windy, and cold that morning though, and that helped motivate us. We broke camp, wolfed down some oatmeal, and hit the trail at 9am. It was cold enough that we set a brisk pace, and we covered the first 3 miles to Emperor Falls in an hour. This time Christy joined me for the short side trip to the falls. The Emperor was as impressive as I remembered it, but we couldn’t get close to it. It was way too cold to get wet.
A long tedious descent followed. Our feet were aching by the time we reached Whitehorn Campground. It was still cloudy and cold, so we only stopped briefly for lunch. Peanut butter wasn’t very fulfilling anyway, since we knew burgers, fries, and beer were waiting for us in Jasper.
By the time we reached Kinney Lake the sun was starting to show, and it had finally warmed up. We reached the car at 3:30, and drove back to Jasper. We returned to the Wapiti Campground, where we had reservations. Our campsite was better this time, but we’d only be staying one night. We set up camp, dried out our gear, and took showers. Then we headed into town to feast.
We decided to try a different restaurant this time. Eventually we chose the Ded Dog Brewery. We walked in and ran into Steve and Valerie. We had seen them on the trail heading out that morning, but somehow they had made it to the brewery ahead of us. We joined them for a great meal that featured everything we had been fantasizing about. They declined a rematch at spades, and eventually we parted ways. Christy and I attempted to play scrabble in the tent that night, but we fell asleep in the middle of the game. We needed some rest, as we’d be starting our final backpacking trip the next morning.
Editor’s Note: In case you were wondering, the trip report title, ALLIZDOG, is GODZILLA backwards. We chose this title because the hike was the same as the first day, in the opposite direction. Luckily though, we didn’t see a horde of screaming Asian tourists in the parking lot this time.
The trip in review:
Starting trailhead: Berg Lake trailhead (1 mile from the visitor’s center off highway 16).
Ending trailhead: Same.
Day 1 – Berg Lake trailhead to Berg Lake. 12.5 miles, 2600’ climb.
Day 2 – Snowbird Pass dayhike, 13+ miles, another big climb.
Day 3 – Berg Lake to Berg Lake Trailhead. 12.5 miles, almost entirely downhill.
The campsite ratings (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being paradise):
Kinney Lake*** Nice spots right on the lake
Whitehorn** Near the river in the Valley of a Thousand Falls. Picnic shelter.
Emperor Falls*** Nice spots along the river, but not very close to the falls.
Marmot*** Small, quiet. One or two nice spots right on the lake.
Berg Lake**** Scenic, but large and busy. Nice picnic shelter and toilets.
Rearguard*** Quiet, still nice views of the mountain.
Highlights: Waterfalls (especially White Falls and Emperor Falls), Berg Lake, views of Mount Robson, glaciers, Snowbird Pass, and the Reef Icefield.
Low Points: Crowds, weather on days 2 and 3.
If I had it to do all over again – I would do it the same way, but I’d spend at least one extra night at Berg Lake, if not two. A return trip to Snowbird Pass would be a must.
Official Pest of the trip: Horseflies. Oh yeah, speaking of horseflies…Christy and I resumed our competition. I don’t recall the final score, but Christy beat me like a drum.
Continue reading about our adventures in the Canadian Rockies as we backpack the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park.
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Please remember to Leave No Trace!