Articles tagged with: backpacking

Canadian Rockies: Great Vacation Destination

What characteristics make for a wonderful vacation destination? I suppose the answer might vary depending on the person, but the Canadian Rockies has a lot to please just about anyone.

My wife Mary and I spent nine glorious days camped there this summer, and I think it was the best choice for us. We’d planned to visit Italy, but we came up short on frequent flyer miles. Our next thought was to hike a 74 mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail. A drought brought forest fires and water shortages to Washington’s high country, so two weeks before departure we switched our plans to Banff and Jasper National Parks, along with Mt Robson Provincial Park.

Not knowing better, we scheduled our trip to start during Canada’s busiest camping weekend, Civic Holiday or “August long weekend.” We figured it out when we couldn’t find a camping reservation anywhere near Banff. Lucky for us, our time freed up and we departed a couple of days early, just in time to grab one of the last first come first serve campsites at Castle Mountain Campground. Those that weren’t so lucky got to pitch their tents a few feet from each other on the edge of a big gravel parking lot (overflow camping).

Moraine Lake, Banff National Park

Moraine Lake, Banff National Park

Mountain Thrills and Dangers

For thrill-seekers, the Rockies have mountains to conquer, rock faces to climb, and whitewater rivers to raft. Even backpacking in the mountains holds a number of dangers. There are cliffs to fall off, storms that can move in quickly, potential for getting hypothermia, getting lost, and of course, there are bears. We camp regularly in the North Cascades, which has lots of black bears but few grizzlies. The Rockies have a lot more grizzly bears, and grizzlies can be big, mean and ornery. In fact, Banff and Jasper National Parks have frequent trail closures, an electric fence around the Lake Louise campground, and lots of bear boxes for food storage. I kept bear spray close by and heard from a fellow backpacker at Mt Robson that he actually used his. If you’re going to Banff and want to see bears, try the Lake Louise Gondola.Grizzly bear warning sign

We never got around to riding the Gondola, but we did see a couple of bears. They left us alone and seemed far more interested in doing their own thing. The biggest danger we actually faced was our long drive across British Columbia on Highway 1, the major east-west truck route across Canada. We’d left in early afternoon, and I was road weary and still driving past dark, on a section of Highway 1, that winds through mountains with only two lanes. This meant temporary blindness as semi headlights came at me at a combined speed of over 220 kilometers per hour. To make matters even more exciting, we came across plenty of warning signs for deer, elk, moose, and bighorn sheep.

We were very relieved to reach the Husky Travel Centre truck stop in Golden, BC, where we found semis, and a few smaller rigs, parked for the night in every available spot for blocks in both directions. Eventually, we found an opening, crawled into the back of our pickup, and slept until 6 am.

Canadian Rockies: International Destination

I think we heard just about every language and encountered nice people from all over the world. If you’d like to practice your language skills, this could be a good place to do so.

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Our Luxurious Accomodations

French seemed to be almost as common as English. I realize French is the other official language of Canada, but I thought most French speakers were in Quebec. At Lake Louise, we encountered a teenage daughter yelling at her dad about a picture of her he apparently had threatened to post on Facebook. She started her tirade in English then switched over to French, when things really got heated. I chuckled and was glad my youngest of three daughters is now 20 and past that stage.

We also heard a good deal of what I suspect was Chinese (Mandarin), especially while camped in the Lake Louise campground. Our campsite sat in very close proximity to the neighboring site, which held two large tents and lots of young Asian children. The weather continued to drizzle, so we didn’t bother setting up any gear. We just sat in our truck and listened to our neighbors chattering, joking in Mandarin and laughing loudly until long after we’d climbed in the back to go to sleep. I actually thought it was great that they were having so much fun, and exhaustion put me to sleep quickly.

Toyota Tundra

Home Away from Home

The next morning, the neighboring kids started in again early, until their parents noticed us climbing out of the back of our truck. Up to that point, since we had no tent, they must’ve assumed it was just an empty truck sitting next to their campsite. When we wished them good morning, they just smiled nervously and waved. Until we left that morning, they kept shushing their kids.

World Class Hiking and Scenery

People come from all over the world to see some of the best scenery in the world. We love to hike, and there is some fantastic hiking in the Canadian Rockies. I have to admit though that there is an awful lot of spectacular scenery that can be enjoyed without getting far from your car.

Curt at Lake Louise

Curt at Lake Louise

Our first day in Banff, we had clear blue skies, so we decided to cover lots of ground and shoot lots of pictures. We visited Lake Louise then travelled up the Icefields Parkway to Bow Lake, Peyto Lake and finished off the day with a stop at Moraine Lake. That’s a lot of alpine lakes in one day, but each is unique, with a different shade of water, varying from deep blue to milky turquoise.

On our second day in Banff, we got up early and headed back to Lake Louise for a 10 mile hike that brought us high into the mountains above the lake with stops at two teahouses. The Lake Agnes teahouse is a solid log and stone structure sitting at the edge of the lake’s outflow, with a babbling creek on one side and a cascading waterfall dropping off behind it.

Lake Agnes Tea House

Lake Agnes Tea House

At the second teahouse, Plain of the Six Glaciers, we spent $30 (including tip) on two pieces of blueberry pie and a “mocha coffee,” which tasted like a mixture of instant cocoa and coffee. The price almost seemed worth it when we considered employees had to haul ingredients in by backpack and prepare everything without electricity. Besides, the glacial view was fantastic.

During the trip, we hiked a variety of trails and covered more than 60 miles with elevation gains of over 10,000 feet, a good deal of hiking for a sight-seeing trip. We chose our hikes carefully, with exceptional scenery as the highest priority. I do like to take good pictures. The most scenic hikes are also the most popular, so there can be a lot of people on these trails. To escape the crowds, we got up early (5:30 to 6:30 am) and hit the trail hours before the less serious hikers. Less serious hikers also don’t tend to hike more than a few miles, so you lose much of the crowds by choosing longer hikes.

Johnstone Canyon, Banff National Park

Johnstone Canyon

Our Hikes

  • Lake Agnes, Big Beehive Mountain, Plain of the Six Glaciers and Lake Louise Lakeshore (combined together)
  • Johnston Canyon – This unique trail winds up a canyon past waterfalls and pools, with catwalks over much of the creek. The trail is only 3.4 miles round-trip to the upper falls, and it is one of the most popular day hikes in Banff.
  • Lake Minnewanka – The entire lakeside trail is 18 miles long. We only did a small section of this, since we came to a place that requires hiking in a group of four, due to grizzly bears, or face a $5000 fine. Coincidentally, another hiker told us a grizzly bear was on the trail just ahead of where we turned around. The lake and trail looked quite scenic, but there’s boat noise and you may need to have a group of at least four.
  • Bourgeau Lake and Harvey Pass – We felt out of shape as a group of young Banff employees and a number of serious hikers passed us by on this steep, very scenic trail.
  • Bow Summit Lookout – There is a network of trails here, in the vicinity of Peyto Lake. I’m not sure we we’re on the right one, because where we ended up doesn’t look anything like the guidebook photo. Looking down on Peyto Lake is stunning!
  • Parker Ridge – The trail climbs to a high, extremely windy ridge with excellent views of Saskatchewan Glacier.
  • Moraine Lakeshore – As far as I’m concerned, this short hike ranks amongst the most scenic I’ve ever seen.
  • Mt Robson and the Berg Lake Trail – This trail is reported to be one of the most popular backpacking trips in the Canadian Rockies, and I now know why. We’ll be back to do this one again sometime.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel

Banff Springs Hotel

Banff Springs Hotel

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Banff Springs Hotel

We decided to take a break from hiking and drive our truck, which also served as our home, into Banff to see how the other half vacationed. At $600/night, the Banff Springs Hotel was a bit beyond our budget, but it was well worth wandering around in. It was built in 1887, in the Scottish Baronial style, and looks more like a castle than a hotel. The interior has an old elegance that definitely reminded me of The Shining or Titanic. Extensive patio areas to the rear provide wonderful places to enjoy the mountain views. In fact, a wedding was taking place there.

Mt Robson

Rangers cabin in Valley of 1000 Waterfalls

Rangers cabin in Valley of 1000 Waterfalls

Our backpacking trip to Berg Lake, in Mt Robson National Park, brought us deep into a very beautiful and rugged wilderness area. We departed early, in a light rain, and the rain kept up all day. This turned out to be a great opportunity to learn of the shortcomings in our gear, which managed to get very wet. We now have new hardshell jackets, gloves, and a tarp. At Berg Lake, we reached a crowded day use building with a woodstove and lots of wet gear hanging from the rafters, nails, and anywhere else you could put wet clothes. We leisurely cooked dinner while our gear dried.

Mt Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, towers over the lake. Unfortunately, low clouds and fog blocked the view our first day. The next morning we woke to more low clouds, so we packed early and were on our way back out. A brief break in the clouds and a message from a spirit guide told us to stick around for a few hours, so we turned around and made our way further up the valley. The low clouds lifted and a little sun broke through, making for a stunning 14 mile hike out past Berg Lake, down through the Valley of a Thousand Waterfalls, alongside Kinney Lake and the Robson River.

Mt Robson, British Columbia

Mt Robson, British Columbia

What Makes a Great Vacation Destination?

Like I mentioned, it may depend on the person, but here are some of the things that people look for in a wonderful vacation destination:

  • Luxurious lodging and fine dining – Like we discovered at the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise, you can find it here, but we were perfectly content in our truck.
  • Lakes and Beaches – There are beautiful lakes, but the water is cold.
  • Things to do – There is plenty to keep you busy, especially if you like to hike.
  • Opportunity to learn about another culture – You may have to be outgoing and make an effort to talk to some of these fascinating people from all over the world.
  • Spectacular mountain scenery – The Canadian Rockies are amongst the best in the world!

We had a great time in the Canadian Rockies, and I’ll bet you would too.

A Weekend Trip on the Pacific Crest Trail

Backpacking in Washington’s North Cascades

by Curt Remington

The short section we backpacked, on the Pacific Crest Trail, climbs up to Cutthroat Pass and follows alpine ridges through some spectacular mountain scenery. My wife Mary, Riva our dog, and I started at Washington’s Rainy Pass trailhead and headed north, on the last section of trail before the Canadian border.

Pacific Crest Trail with North Cascades Mountains

Pacific Crest Trail & North Cascades, Washington

We climbed gradually through fir and cedar forest and reached our camp at Porcupine Creek, at the head of a valley, by late afternoon. Mosquito Creek might be a better name for that insect infested campsite. Mosquitoes swarmed around our heads and gave us a strong incentive to set up camp quickly, so we could escape from the bugs.

Before we’d cooked our dinner, the sky clouded over and thunder rumbled nearby. Next hail pelted our heads and buried itself in Riva’s coat. Our experience has been that western Washington hail usually passes quickly, so we stood under a tree, waiting for it to pass. Not this time! The hail kept up and was soon accompanied by lightning along with an absolute deluge of rain. We hadn’t bothered to put rain pants on or crawl into the tent. All three of us were almost instantly soaked.

Mary and Riva in the tent.

Mary & Riva in the Tent

Later I learned from the National Park Service website that “a large and powerful storm cell triggered a massive mud and rock slide” that night. The slide was 10 miles to the south, but we sure felt the effects of the storm. After a cold, quick dinner, we three very wet campers huddled in our very wet tent and listened to rain and hail drum on the tent while lightning flashed and thunder echoed in the valley. Riva, our Australian shepherd, looked especially pitiful with her fur soaked, wearing Mary’s fleece vest, and squeezed between us for warmth.

During the night, both Riva and I slid downhill, off my Thermarest and onto my wet pile of clothes along the edge of the tent. As you might’ve guessed, I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep that night. But, sometime during the night, the storm moved on, and the rain stopped. The next morning I discovered that Riva had dried and looked reasonably comfortable. Mary slept soundly, so I quietly crawled out and started hanging wet gear in the surrounding trees.

We decided to leave our tent and sleeping gear at Porcupine Creek and hike light for the day. By the time we were organized, the sun actually came out. In half a mile or so, we found beautiful campsites with views down the valley. Enough of a breeze blew up the valley to minimize insects. These campsites are very close to the ridge though and would have been much more dangerous in the prior night’s thunderstorm.

Not far beyond the camps, we reached Cutthroat Pass, with panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and Cutthroat Lake, far below. Warm sunshine provided quite a contrast with our camping experience the night before. Heading north, we continued on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking above the tree line, with a new view of the North Cascades mountains around each corner. The trail traverses steep mountains, so parts of the trail had sustained significant damage in the prior night’s storm.

Curt, Mary & Riva at Cutthroat Pass

Curt, Mary & Riva at Cutthroat Pass

We covered less than ten miles round-trip, returning to camp with plenty of time to gather firewood and have a leisurely dinner. The fire did a wonderful job of keeping mosquitoes at bay, and the weather stayed clear. Riva climbed into the tent early, apparently exhausted. Mary and I sat outdoors and talked until dark, reminiscing about some of our many camping experiences over the years.

Breaking camp early the next day, got us to the car with enough time left over to add in a short hike to Rainy Lake, on the way home. The North Cascades hold countless beautiful hikes. Each year we visit some of our favorites and try to add one or two new ones. This section of the Pacific Crest Trail is a hike we’ll undoubtedly come back to, and maybe someday, we’ll take on a much longer section of that 2650 mile trail.
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Copper Ridge Trip, North Cascades National Park

Hiking Copper Ridge:  North Cascades, Washington

by Curt Remington

According to Hiking the North Cascades, Copper Ridge is “one of the few trails in the North Cascades that stays above timberline for a significant distance, and along its length are superb mountain views.” Those words were enough to convince me that I needed to make this 27-mile roundtrip trek deep into Washington’s North Cascades National Park. Snow stays late and comes early to the high sections of the Cascades, so there is a short hiking season. Lucky for me, a clear trail, free time, and wonderful weather all fell on the same weekend. The only thing missing was a high demand camping permit. There are only eight campsites spread out over the 10-mile long ridge. My wife, who’d opted not to go due to dog-sitting issues, did drive two hours to the Glacier, Washington ranger station to grab one of the last two permits. She’s very sweet, or else she really wanted to get rid of me for three days. Just kidding! She really is very considerate.

North Cascades from Copper Ridge

North Cascades from Copper Ridge

Anyway, I set out alone on September 14th, starting with a steady climb through sparse silver fir woods towards Hannegan Pass. The trail parallels Nooksack Ridge, with occasional glimpses of a variety of peaks, including ones I’ve hiked on or near for years. For some reason, I’d never hiked to Hannegan Pass, so this trail was new to me, as was the whole area in the direction (east) I was headed.

Marmot Along the Trail

Marmot Along the Trail

Once I dropped over the pass and descended to the headwaters of the Chilliwack River, it felt like I’d really left civilization behind. The terrain there is dry, a real contrast to some of the rainforest on the west side of the pass. Along with the scenery change, fellow hikers became scarce. More than anything, what I noticed was the absence of civilization. Hours would go by with nothing but step after step on a dirt trail that skirted Hell’s Gorge then climbed steadily through mountain hemlock towards Copper Ridge. By afternoon, the thinner air and my heavy pack led to a noticeable pulse pounding in my temples. I reminded myself repeatedly to slow down and drink more water.

Egg Lake, North Cascades National Park

Egg Lake, North Cascades National Park

By late afternoon, the trail leveled, and I broke through the trees to the alpine meadows of Copper Ridge. The views were so beautiful it almost moved me to tears. In every direction mountain after mountain extended as far as I could see. What surrounded me seemed so much a part of the spiritual realm and so far removed from the civilization that I’d left behind.

The trail continued, winding back and forth across the ridge, until it dropped down to  shallow, turquoise-colored Egg Lake, my home for the next two days. I picked a campsite on a knoll with views of the lake, Copper Mountain and the Silesia Creek valley to the north. After setting up camp and cooking dinner, I had just enough time to climb back up to the ridge for sunset.

In the middle of the night, I stepped out of the tent into a clear, moonless night. Bright stars extended from horizon to horizon. A vast wilderness surrounded me, nothing compared to the vast universe that extends out for billions of light years in every direction. Rather than feeling small, I felt connected to everything around me. It also stirred my hope that Earth will soon join the Galactic Federation, and I might visit some of those distant places in the galaxy.

My Campsite at Egg Lake, North Cascades

My Campsite at Egg Lake, North Cascades

The next morning, I crawled out of the tent again, this time with a pink glow on the horizon. Camping at Egg Lake for two nights allowed me to leave most gear behind, as I setout along the ridge towards Copper Lookout and Copper Lake. At the lookout, I met a friendly ranger that offered me water. She also suggested I continue beyond Copper Lake, to a small, scenic waterfall.

Beyond the lookout, I reached a cliff with views of deep-blue Copper Lake, and a whole string of mountains across the Chilliwack Valley, like Mineral, Indian, Bear, and Redoubt. Copper Lake’s three campsites sat empty, including one that includes a small island you can reach by rock hopping.

Copper Lake, North Cascades

Copper Lake, North Cascades

For lunch, I sat on a granite slab overlooking the waterfall the ranger had suggested. By dinnertime, I’d covered many miles, with lots of climbing and descending. My fettuccini with tuna tasted delicious, probably much better than it would’ve at home. The stars put on another wonderful display that night.

I broke camp at dawn, wolfed down some oatmeal, and started the long trek out. As I got closer to the trailhead, I started dreaming about my next trip into the area. The park’s network of trails provides many options, and I definitely plan to visit this area again.

Mt Redoubt

Mt Redoubt

If you go, you’ll need a permit from the National Park Service, which you should be able to get at the Glacier ranger station. These permits are in high demand, so you may need a backup plan. There are plenty of beautiful backpacking trips nearby, but outside the park, which don’t require a permit. Glacier, and the Hannegan Pass trailhead are east of Bellingham, Washington on Highway 542. Be sure to check the trail conditions, as this area is buried in snow for much of the year.

My book, Simple Meditation, includes a chapter on walkabouts and vision quests, like the trip I made to another part of the North Cascades. Copper Ridge would be a wonderful place to do such a trip.