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Wapta Highline Trail

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Wapta Highline Trail

Postby Hobbes » Sun Aug 23, 2015 11:29 am

Like the Sierra Nevada, the Canadian Rockies have an international reputation for beautiful lakes, high alpine meadows, soaring mountain peaks and incredible vistas. Unlike the Sierra, the Canadian Rockies are home to hundreds of massive glaciers, the most significant being contained within the Columbia Icefield (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbia_Icefield). As it turns out, the CI is the source of 3 major rivers - the Columbia, Athabasca & Saskatchewan - that lead to 3 different oceans: the Pacific, Arctic & Atlantic (via Hudson Bay), respectively.

It's the "rock flour" contained in the glacial snow melt that feeds the rivers which in turn creates the remarkable water colors of opaque jade, emerald & blue seen in the region's lakes. The most famous of these are lake Louise, Moraine & Emerald. Like trying to decide which Yosemite waterfall is more spectacular - Yosemite, Bridal Veil or Nevada - it's futile to compare; they are all incredible.

Lake Louise & Moraine are located in Banff national park in Alberta, which is both closer to the town of Banff and very easy to access, which makes the area similar to Yosemite valley in terms of tourist impact. That is, super crowded, over-flow parking, large tourist buses, the whole enchilada. Emerald is another 25 miles, but it's located in Yoho national park in British Columbia - west of the continental divide and down the wild Kicking Horse pass (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kicking_Horse_Pass).

The net effect is perhaps a 75% reduction in tourism. But perhaps even better, there's only one single (small) lodge, with the nearest town being 10 miles away, so after the day trippers are gone, it's really quiet. We first stayed at the Emerald lake lodge 12 years ago, then returned 5 years ago while on a round-trip car trip from Seattle. Since this was our 3rd visit, I had a pretty good idea of the trails and hikes available, having done portions during our previous trips. But, since we're always rushing, I never had a chance to have a day available to do a longer hike. Not this time, however; this time I was going to do the Wapta Highline, which is one of the marquee hikes in the Canadian Rockies.

All of the major trails in the Canadian Rockies are 120-130 years old, resulting from the earliest scouts searching for routes through the Rockies for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). When the scouts & surveyors where resting horses, waiting out weather, etc, they would take short fishing/hunting trips with native American guides who led them to some of the secluded - and soon to be very famous - rivers, lakes & passes. These sites were so astounding that word got back to CPR headquarters, which in turn realized they could promote the Rockies as a tourist destination once the railway was completed (in 1885).

One of these sites was Takakkaw Falls, which due to restricted access down the very narrow Yoho valley canyon, resulted in the development of an alternative path via either Emerald lake or Burgess pass. Since Emerald had already developed a celebrated reputation, going to Takakkaw falls via Yoho pass became a popular horse camping trip. One thing that should be noted is that early tourism in the CR was distinctly high class. Europeans would take a steamship across the Atlantic, board a train, and be transported to wonderland. Trips often lasted weeks, and the resulting lodges (one built at each lake by the CPR) were tailored around this kind of clientele.

Burgess pass offered an alternative route to Tak falls that originated in Field, a CPR staging station located at the bottom of Kicking Horse pass, where pusher trains would be added to get up and over the grade. The Burgess pass route contoured under Wapta mountain directly for Yoho pass, making it both shorter & quicker. It was on this route that Charles Walcott, then the director of the Smithsonian Institution, discovered the Burgess Shale field (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burgess_Shale) in 1909.

Soon enough, guides & travelers realized that linking Yoho & Burgess passes could create a triangular route around Emerald lake that passed right through the Burgess field while providing spectacular views of the surrounding mountain scenery. This is the hike I did on 8/21.
Last edited by Hobbes on Mon Aug 24, 2015 7:02 am, edited 3 times in total.



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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby Hobbes » Sun Aug 23, 2015 11:30 am

The Wapta Highline, or Emerald lake triangle, is a 12.6+ mile hike that gains & loses 3k feet in steep & rocky terrain. In fact, the initial climb out of 3k is done in the first 4 miles, giving it an avg of 755' per mile rise. For comparison, the N Fork trail to Iceberg lake along the Whitney mountaineers route is 945'/mile over 4.5 miles, whereas Shepherd pass is 620'/mile over its 10 mile run.

Having gone clockwise to Yoho pass before, I chose to go counter-clockwise to Burgess pass in order to get the climb out of the way early in the morning, and also to enjoy the long hike back down as I traversed high above Emerald lake. I should note that even though these trails are quite old and developed, they still resemble more of a Sierra use trail in that switchbacks are still pretty much straight up.

The counter-clockwise trail from Emerald lake to up Burgess pass climbs through a primordial rain forest that is rocky, wet, muddy, rooted and steep. However, once you finally reach the top and pop out under Mt Burgess, the whole scene opens up:
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Looking across the valley, you can see one of the glaciers feeding Emerald lake:
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Looking back over Burgess pass towards Mt Vaux and the Selkirk range in the far distance. (Location of both Glacier & Revelstoke national parks. Canada 1 - the route we took from Vancouver via Seattle 5 years ago - travels right through the middle of this region.)
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While you can hike through the Burgess field, you must stay on the trail. Only officially guided trips (originating out of Tak falls - a 3 mile hike) are allowed actual entry into the main field:
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Here's what the Burgess field looks like - you can see the entire ridge line collapsed next to Wapta peak, exposing the shale encrusted fossils. The trail follows along right at tree (bush?) line:
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Last edited by Hobbes on Sun Aug 23, 2015 11:47 am, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby Hobbes » Sun Aug 23, 2015 11:38 am

Even though you aren't allowed to enter the main field, there is so much debris that the rocks right on the trail contain plenty of fossils:
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Trilobite?
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Walking further along through the shale field, Emerald lake finally comes into view:
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This image shows the extend of the rock fall that the trail weaves through for around 2 miles:
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Once you pass Yoho pass, the trail quickly descends, going by this waterfall draining one of the tributary glaciers to Emerald lake:
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Getting closer back to lake level - that's Mt Burgess to the left. Burgess pass is just off frame - you can see the forested terrain for the 3k initial climb out:
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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby Hobbes » Sun Aug 23, 2015 11:39 am

Returning back to lake level for the last section of the trail back to the Lodge - the incomparable Emerald Lake:

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Stock photo of the lake from the Lodge - yes, it really does look just like this - no photo retouching necessary. (Yoho pass is the low point in the saddle.)

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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby windknot » Sun Aug 23, 2015 9:02 pm

Neat report and awesome photos. Thanks for the history of the park and trail, too. Fascinating stuff.
A few backcountry fishing pictures: http://wanderswithtrout.wordpress.com/
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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby Hobbes » Mon Aug 24, 2015 7:24 am

The Canadian Rockies are one of the few places where a someone used to the Sierra will still be impressed.

With the Canadian dollar trading at 1.30 to the US dollar, everything is essentially 30% off. We had purchased r/t tickets for $300 to Calgary, then rented a car for $180 for the week.

As might be imagined, their summer season is even shorter than the Sierra - July-Sept. August is prime time, yet the day we left the temperature was falling to below freezing due to an incoming storm.

Every prominent peak has a standing glacier(s) - one of the most impressive is Mt Edith Cavell, which dominates the Jasper skyline:

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What's extra cool is you can hike right up to the glacial pool under the north face (Yvon Chouinard summitted it in 1961 http://www.summitpost.org/north-face-main-summit/649044) and do goofy tourist things like this:

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It's probably pretty clear that I'm a major fanboy; we're already planning on returning to Emerald in 2 years.
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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby maverick » Mon Aug 24, 2015 2:22 pm

Wonder why they call it Emerald Lake? :p
Beautiful place Hobbes, thank you for sharing. Did you see any signs of grizzly while on the trails? Always think of the movie "The Edge" when I see the Canadian Rockies, beautiful place.
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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby Hobbes » Tue Aug 25, 2015 8:23 am

We were in Jasper for a few days where I got to hike up to Watchtower basin on the way to the Skyline trail. It's a known bear area, so the concierge at the lodge lent me a can of bear spray. I didn't see any bears, but did get to enjoy a steep mud bath bushwhack - I had on long pants, full length gaiters (OR), Goretex mountaineering boots (Scarpa Charmoz), rain jacket, etc - and finally stopped after mile 5 as the trail completely disappeared. (It's no longer maintained by the park.) If I had been in my 'normal' gear*, I would have turned around within 50 yards of the TH.

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If I had somehow continued on a little further into the basin, this is what it would have started to look like. (The river was running much higher when I was there.)

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Anyway, I returned the bear spray and had a little chat about bear sightings in the local area. Later that afternoon, my wife and I started out intending to just take a short stroll around the property. However, we came across a sign for trail 7, which loops behind the golf course, so we decided to head that way. Now, trail 7 is probably the trail that has the most Grizzly bear activity (and had been closed to the public back in spring), but of course I had already returned the bear spray! I wasn't too worried, because they hadn't had any sightings since spring, but still, just walking around there until we got back to civilization had us both on high alert.

When I left early morning for the Wapta highline, I wasn't really thinking about animals since it's a little more popular. Head down, I was trying to make time part way around the lake to where the trail forked to begin the climb out. I'm in my own world when I hear this shuffling snorting sound - I must have jumped a foot! It was a moose sow with her calf feeding in the water around 10 yards from me:

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Both of us looked at each other, realized neither was a threat to the other, and went back to our business - she feeding, me hiking. Whew. Other than that, it was a low animal sighting trip. On our previous trips, we've had to stop on the highway to let a herd of mountain sheep cross the road, and watched a bear ramble by 10' from our car by lake Louise. Definitely a lot of wildlife.

* Speaking of normal gear, I'm putting together a SUL (super ultra light) kit that I might be able to take up to Ediza while you guys are there.
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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby maverick » Tue Aug 25, 2015 9:41 am

* Speaking of normal gear, I'm putting together a SUL (super ultra light) kit that I might be able to take up to Ediza while you guys are there.


It would be great to see you again Hobbes. Moose is supposed to be more dangerous than bear.
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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby Hobbes » Tue Aug 25, 2015 12:17 pm

maverick wrote:Moose is supposed to be more dangerous than bear.


That's why I jumped. I was pretty relieved to not see any antlers - I might have climbed a tree if it was a bull. As it was, I stayed still so the mother didn't get anxious with her calf nearby. When she went back to feeding, I resumed walking.

The last time I was this close to a moose was on a previous car trip over Teton pass (looping back from road trip to Zion, Yellowstone & Tetons). It stood in the middle of the road (the beginning of Teton pass from the Jackson Hole side is narrow & slow), so we had to wait until it slowly mosied off into the brush.

Right now my schedule is looking pretty good to hit Ediza on Thurs, 9/10. Probably won't have any extra time to climb around the Minarets, put perhaps I can pack in some party treats. :drinkers:
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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby Jimr » Tue Aug 25, 2015 12:39 pm

Look forward to seeing you Dude.
What?!
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Re: Wapta Highline Trail

Postby Hobbes » Thu Aug 27, 2015 8:10 am

There's a hiker finishing the CDT this year who ended up in the Canadian Rockies after the trail through Glacier was closed due to fires. Here's his account:

***

So we went with plan B, and rented a car for 5 days and headed up to the Canadian Rockies. A terrible option, I know. But it was either that or sit on our hands in a fire…

I could go on, and on, and on about the Canadian Rockies. I’ve heard from so many people that they’re the most beautiful mountains in North America. That’s all opinion, but still, they must be nice. And hot damn, were they ever! Rather than rattle off about them, I’ll simply tell you what we did, and let the pictures do the talking.


https://stevenjshattuck.wordpress.com/2 ... n-rockies/
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