What is the best hike in the Canadian Rocky Mountains? That’s a rhetorical question. I’ve hiked many a mountain pass and backpacked the famed West Coast Trail in BC as well as the Chilkoot Trail in the Yukon Territory. Mount Robson Provincial Park’s Berg Lake Trail is probably the most popular trail in Rockies and I’ve hiked it twice. I’ve canoed Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park and the Bowron Lake Circuit in BC’s interior. Each was a unique trip and each was much different from the rest. For day hikes where I return to a basecamp, trailer or hotel at night there are too many to list here. Certainly the Crypt Lake Trail in Waterton Lakes National Park ranks as one of the more dramatic hikes and I’ve been there twice. But if pressed to identify one park that provided the most incredible sense of satisfaction for me, it must be Glacier National Park. To be certain, this is not the the Glacier National Park in Montana, USA. which is part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. That parks well known for the Going-to-the-Sun Road which is probably the most spectacular drive in North America. Today I’m talking about Glacier National Park in British Columbia.
Don’t feel bad if you can’t quite place Glacier National Park in BC. Before my family camped at Glacier I couldn’t point to it on a map either. Thousands of vehicles pass through it each day but most will remember it not by the name of the park but rather by the name of the pass, which is Rogers Pass. Rogers Pass was named for its discoverer, Major A.B. Rogers, Engineer-in-Chief for the railway. Most people in western Canada will recognize the name of Rogers Pass and have probably driven through the pass because it’s part of the TransCanada Highway. So yes, Glacier National Park is both a real place and a hidden gem that’s right off the TransCanada Highway. Now let’s check it out.
We camped at Illecillewaet campground and I highly recommend this be your base for further exploration. This is the only park campground I’ve ever visited that has granite counter tops in the public washrooms. We don’t even have granite counter tops in our home washrooms! Washrooms aside, this is a beautiful campground. It doesn’t matter if you arrive with a tent, tent trailer or holiday trailer, this campground provides the epitome of a national park mountain camping experience. The incredibly tall trees make it feel like the west coast.
There is plenty to explore right from the campground including the ruins of an old chalet. Glacier House Lodge was a superb example of railway chalets not unlike those in Lake Louise and Banff, albeit smaller. This was a destination lodge for those seeking adventure. However the maintenance, such as snow clearing and maintaining snow sheds, was an ongoing burden for the railway. Rogers Pass took 200 lives over 30 years, due mainly to avalanches. The Canadian Pacific Railway constructed an eight kilometre tunnel under Mount MacDonald in order to bypass Rogers Pass (Connaught Tunnel). The original line that stopped at Glacier House Lodge was abandoned in 1916. The lodge tried to ferry people from the start of the new tunnel to the hotel but this solution was unpopular which resulted in fewer guests so the Glacier House Lodge closed in 1925 and was demolished in 1929 leaving nothing but the footings and an occasional boiler or other structure. This park and Roger Pass in general were rarely visited until 1963 when the TransCanada Highway opened and campgrounds were built in place of the lodge. These ruins are the starting point of the Asulkan Valley Trail that became our first hike in the park.
Asulkan Valley Trail
The 14km return Asulkan Valley trail gains 870 meters but is listed as “moderate” in the downloadable hiking guide. I suggest that “moderate” is true for a fit 20 something hiker. For the rest of us it’s a tough hike, especially after the first 4km.
The return trip was much easier on our hearts and lungs (but harder on our knees) as it was all downhill. We enjoyed this hike for the views and variety of terrain. It was also the first time I’ve hiked to an ACC hut.
This is an easy trail along an old Canadian Pacific Railway line. It’s mostly level except for the occasional drop down to a creek. There are some views of old trestles but the main attraction to us was to give our bodies a rest before the next day’s hike.
Balu Pass Trail
The Balu Pass trail is similar to Asulkan Valley in length and altitude gain but strangely the park trail guide recommends 4 hours to Asulkan’s 6 hours. I would say give yourself more time for Balu as there are more places to explore up top on the alpine meadows. Balu Pass is 12.8 km return with altitude gain of 788 meters. The views up top are extraordinary in all directions. This was my favourite hike in the park. I recall that we spent a lot of time up top just sitting and taking in the splendour of it all. The trailhead is a short drive from the campground and on the opposite side of the TransCanada Highway.
According to a website called Golden Hikes, “Balu” means “bear” but they did not specify in which language it means “bear”. That website also said the trail passes through some of the finest bear habitat you’ll ever find. The trail will be closed at times by the park wardens. I remember on a subsequent day we noticed that the trail was indeed closed due to bear activity. When we hiked it we passed a group of people returning and they said that there’s a bear ahead. I asked if they saw the bear to which they responded, “no, another hiker told them”. We concluded that a bear crossed the trail and this triggered a series of hikers warning hikers about the bear. We moved on, bear spray in hand, and a little more cautious, but we did not see the bear. I had already attached a longer lens on my camera just in case there still was a bear in the area. When it comes to bears, larger groups always means greater safety. If you are hiking this trail solo, or as a group of two, be bear aware. This is their backyard, or should I say kitchen.
Somewhere along the trail, or perhaps just beyond it, there should be a junction to another trail that leads to the the Nakimu Caves. We didn’t see the junction but it wouldn’t really matter as they are kept locked so the general public can’t enter them.
“First explored by Charles Deutschmann in 1904, the caves were part of the Glacier House hotel era where early park visitors were escorted by Deutschmann, working as the first ever interpretive guide hired by a Canadian national park. A carriage road up Cougar Valley and a teahouse near the cave entrance were well used through the 1920’s, but visitation declined with the closure of Glacier House.”–Parks Canada Website
There is a biffy up at the top of the Balu trail. It’s not quite up to the same standard as the one at the end of the Asulkan Valley trail. It’s what they call an open air facility. You need not worry about unpleasant odours but it’s not ideal for shy or modest hikers.
There are many more hikes in Glacier National Park. Some are easier and some more difficult such as the Abbott Ridge hike with one kilometer of altitude gain over nearly 14 km return of distance. I hope I can someday return and hike in Glacier again although I do notice that these hikes get more difficult the older I get. Don’t put it off if you want to see Canada from up high. Just remember that if you do plan a trip to Glacier National Park, don’t go to to the park with the same name in Montana (although that park is also wonderful to visit).