We climbed and climbed, keeping a good distance between us in case we let loose rock… we should have had our rock helmets with us! In the photo below, Bill is up above me, balanced on the top of the moraine.
And here’s the really neat thing… a moraine like this has a very pointy top… it’s really a lot like a 3D triangle with a rectangular base, so the top is quite sharply, steeply shaped. As I emerged up onto the moraine, it was quite steep… and as my head came level with Bill’s feet I saw the reason for his, “Oh MY! You have GOT to see this!” As my head came up, THIS is what I saw!This is the top of the moraine. We had to actually descend it a bit to get down to the lake. (If you are going to try to repeat our adventure, be sure to go up the moraine from that rock-arrow photo, instead of coming the way we came… it will be easier, faster… and despite the steepness of the moraine sides it is solid footing).With a cold wind coming down off that ice, a beautiful waterfall at the end of the lake cascading down from the toe of the glacier, and the rock flour (that sort of grey looking cloud in the water at the forefront of this photo that gives the lake, as if by magic, its startling beautiful colour!), it was a brilliant setting.We poked about for a bit, our boots sinking into the very soft shores of the lake. The fine, powdered light grey sand mixed with little rock fragments, ground into existence by the action of the glacier, were lapped gently by the icy waters of the lake, before overflowing over the cliff band and becoming the powerful, pounding, loud and raucous waterfall that became Bow Glacier Falls, at the end of the lake.The lake drained over the lip of the cliff band here, so we followed it to what would be our lunch spot. We bundled up to keep the chill off and settled in for our lunch. Somehow, a sandwich just tastes so much better outdoors, in a place like this!
Time for the next stage of our adventure: heading up the moraine again, over to the base of the rock feature known as “The Onion,” and then heading out a long alpine valley to meet up with the trail to Bow Hut.One last look at Iceberg Lake.Then it was time to climb that moraine again and head toward The Onion.Being up high on a moraine is like being on top of the world! I love it!Where the moraine meets the cliff, it dips down somewhat, making it easy to pass through and into the valley on the other side (being mindful of rocks falling from the cliff above).Next up: making our way down this valley toward the waterfall coming off the cliff to the right of the end of the arrow. There is no path. You just poke your way, wherever you want to go, keeping the gully by the trees on your left and the cliff on your right. Down, down you go… and it’s a lovely alpine romp!
When we got to the end of the valley, we were met with this site! What a thunderous roar! With icy waters coming from the Bow Glacier above, we knew we were in for a treat, tracing this to its source. But crossing it was going to be a bit tricky! That was some volume of water cascading down! Yikes!What better to do then just get on with it! So we wandered downstream a bit, trying to find a ribboned, shallower spot to cross. BUT, it went up to my thigh in one place and was very powerful! The water wanted to wrench your poles away and carry your feet out from under you. But cold temps mean no algae, so the rocks were grippy, thank goodness! No matter, it was wet feet for both of us from then on!Next up: where was the trail and how were we going to get up the tall cliff band? From a distance, looking back, it looks like there’s absolutely no way you can get up there! But those crafty, mountaineering trail builders made a way up a rocky crevasse between two waterfalls.It’s like so many things we’ve learned in these mountains… things often look far worse and far steeper from farther away. Get up close, and the way becomes apparent. It becomes do-able.After we mounted the cliff band, crossed two more streams and passed the alpine club hut, we went off in search of the glacier toe. I was going to touch it! We hiked up past rock scoured and scratched by the retreating glacier. Up and up we hiked over sculpted rock, mini waterfalls and little stremlets. Though the sun was hot and bearing down on us, the wind coming off the surface of the ice left us chilled and putting on more layers.Then finally, we were there! We were at the toe of Bow Glacier. (One of her magnificent toes, anyway!) We decided to keep exploring up there… the sculpted rock, the little water channels, the waterfalls, the scouring marks, the views…. they were all so incredible. Rather than push on up to the onion, we stayed put, poking about and taking it all in.There were lots of little puddles that reminded us of tidal pools.Some of the little ponds had that rock flour in them so that they caught the light in ways that brought out that startling, glacial blue colouration.You could You could see the ways that the weight of the glacier dragged little rocks across the surface of the underlying rocks, making really interesting marks across their horizontal surfaces… they were like the formations you’d see dripping down vertical cave walls. This landscape was off kilter!There was a larger lake up there, catching some of the run off from the melt water, spreading its tentacles out into what looked like ancient, prehistoric mud flats.Up close, those petrified mud bubbles were really something! And big, too!
It was an incredible place.
We followed these layered rock steps to a good viewpoint for the rest of our tea and cookies.And what a viewpoint it was!Then we headed back toward the glacier to go explore a cave we’d seen.The wrinkles of the glacial ice, like aged skin… it’s fascinating to see.We headed out over the mud bubble rock… it was the best playground.We jumped from ridge to ridge over clefts of water and digested rock rubble.We passed water oozing out of cracks in strangely coloured rock bands.
And then we got to that ice cave! It was like peeking under the toe nail of the giant glacial toe! When you got up close and peered inside, the ice was so dense and incredibly blue! The drip line of surface ice melting over the lip of the cave made this little rain curtain across its opening.
Sadly, it was time to start heading down. We had a long hike out ahead of us on what would be a good 12 hour day. So we followed this orange band of rock, knowing that the stream that flowed alongside it became one of the waterways we had to cross to hook up with the trail once again.We hiked down the cliff below the Alpine Club hut, enjoying the coolness of the lengthening shadows of the day. We’d be following this stream out until it ultimately hit Bow Lake, where our journey began.Our trail out took us up high, as the water soon rushed through a deep canyon that grew ever deeper as it worked its way across the landscape. Looking back, we could see the hut, the thunderous waterfall, parts of the glacier, and the heights to which we’d climbed.The canyon lay below our trail out (can you see the trail to the left?). Can you see the beautiful fall colours coming out in the plants?Our trail passed through and beneath many rockfall areas, with the sound of the rushing river flowing up from the canyon. The water levels are higher now, with the heat of the day’s melt powering it through the rock crack.At times our trail climbed higher! (What the heck… we’d had a lot of climbing in the day already!)And then we were back at that boulder canyon crossing, with the waters rushing below.
This was a BIG day with lots of elevation gain and steep slopes, but it is one we highly recommend. It had a little of everything: the ledges of the Lake O’Hara area, the lofty moraine walks of a good ridge walk, a number of drop dead gorgeous gorges and canyons, pristine mountain water crossings, tight little alpine forests, BIG high alpine meadow romps, incredibly powerful waterfalls, little scrambles, lofty viewpoints and high peaks. Seriously. It was amazing!
A word of caution: While you most definitely need to have experience in these types of alpine environments and features to do this adventure (as you’re going off-trail for some of it) nothing is too difficult, from a technical standpoint. You need stamina and endurance, and a healthy respect for heights. You need experience on scree and a bit of five-fun climbing experience. A good set of warn in hiking boots and gaiters, of course.
And you need water & high energy food!
Remember, too, that though we had a good weather window, this is the mountains and weather can change on a dime, so bring layers. You’ll need warm clothes for those breezes coming off the glacier (and a toque) and some strong sunglasses meant for high alpine environments as the sun is intense up there. Don’t forget the sunscreen and sun screened lip balm. And have a blast!!
Many thanks to On Top for inspiring us to try out these ledges and to the Rocky Mountain Ramblers for motivating us to connect the Onion and the Iceberg Lake in this way.
This was a BIG day. Because we weren’t working from official trail guide recommendations, I can only hazard a guess based on our Gem Trek map (Bow Lake and Saskatchewan Crossing) and my step counter. Distance: approximately 18-20km. Elevation gain: about 600-700m.
Click here for more terrific hikes in Banff National Park. And check out more hikes from Canada and our adventures around the world here.
The wind, the wind, the wind blows high, the rain comes scattering down the sky….”
This week saw us doing quite a neat adventure in Banff National Park. We went up Wolverine Creek Canyon to its source, the Bourgeau Lake basin, and its upper reaches, with Harvey Pass and its three gorgeous alpine lakes. Attaining the peak of Mount Bourgeau (at 2931m, or 9614′) involved a long slog up a scree ramp. Battling the wind up that rocky rubble, we eventually found ourselves standing on a very large, wide peak, with views all around, having climbed 1500m on the 23km trail to get up there… that’s a long hike that includes climbing one and a half kilometres straight up into the sky!
The trail began with a long hike up through a cool forest on well-maintained switchbacks. It passed this beautiful waterfall, after about an hour of hiking.
A few days ago, we went out on an awesome adventure up a small peak in Kananaskis Country. Locally referred to as Smutwood Peak, it lies between Mount Smuts and Mount Birdwood (and that’s how it gets it’s name…. smut-wood).
With mountain peaks cresting like waves all around us, picture perfect alpine lakes and wildflower meadows far below us, snow patches for our dog, Seamus, to roll in, a bit of scramble on rock added in for fun, and moody skies all around, it was both a challenging and a super fun day!
The hike began as a double track trail along a fire road, giving us a chance to stretch our legs, visit side by side, and warm our muscles up. Eventually, it veered off and became a single track trail that followed the beautiful Commonwealth Creek. Read More
Wanting to explore a little more of Kananaskis country, we set out for Rae Lake on Canada Day. A busy day in the mountains, July 1st tends to be when Canadians come out in droves to celebrate one of the things they love best about our country: its great open spaces, its wide tracts of wilderness and its unparalleled natural beauty.
We chose to explore the popular trail that cuts through Sheep River Provincial Park, a place we’d never been before. A multipurpose trail, it takes you into a beautiful, wide open valley. Lots of people tend to go there on foot, horseback and bike and do a little back country camping, but it’s easy to get away from the crowds if you get off the main trail and head to one of the hidden gems, like Rae Lake.
The trail sets off from its parking lot alongside highway 40 and cuts steadily uphill through the forest on a wide, multiuse trail, until, quite quickly by mountain standards, you reach the shores of Elbow Lake. This lake is the headwaters of the Elbow River that ultimately runs through Calgary. (There are established backcountry campsites at this lake.) From that point on, your trail is relatively flat. Read More
Spring has been a long time coming in the mountains around Canmore this year! Rain, snow, rain, snow. Would it ever make up its mind and dry up?!?
Finally, a rainless weather forecast with warm temps was upon us, and we had a free day… so that could mean only one thing… it was most definitely time for a good, long, soul satisfying, heart stopping ridge walk! Mist Ridge, deep in K-Country fit the bill perfectly.Mist Ridge involves a long hike in and out… a little over 23km when all is said and done. So it is a BIG day. But I wouldn’t let that stop you. Its ups are not grueling. Its downs are not knee pounding. It IS long… but when you have to work for something, it seems that much better, doesn’t it? Reach out to your inner masochist. Take lots of food and water. And then enjoy the views when they finally come, and you’ll love it!
Our trail started off in the forested depths of an alpine valley bottom, just south of Highwood Pass (highway 40 is the road that goes through Kananaskis Country, and as it goes over that pass, near the trailhead, it earns its cred as the highest elevation road in Canada). Read More
“Stop!” I barked out, startling Bill… who at that point had no idea what was on my mind. “Park over there, by that car on the other side of the road.” With an eye roll (I’m sure of it), Bill passed by the cliff, did a u-turn, and then pulled over in the spot I’d indicated. Read More
Having to turn back on Day One of riding in Moab, separating from the group, was disheartening. Nine kilometres into our ride, I was hacking away with my upper chest in a lot of pain whenever I breathed hard on uphills. Only a third of the way through the route, I was seriously holding things up. So Bill took one for the team and slowly rode out with me, back to the trail head and our car while the two other couples we were with rode on.
I’d fallen sick with a brutal cold that was fast developing into bronchitis. Day Two I sat out. Day Three, I wanted to ride something… anything. Surely it was just a bad cold, and that’s it. So Bill took me out to Dead Horse State Park, a place with some relatively flat trails that wouldn’t get me breathing too hard. Little did I know it’d be the last ride for me of the trip. Read More
At one time, riding horses in the Moab area, shod with metal shoes, was a treacherous thing. The horses would slip like crazy over the surface of the sandstone. And so the rock earned its name, “slickrock.”
Today’s modern steeds are sleek, two wheeled, wide tired, well treaded, swift, rugged awesome beasts with wicked suspension. Yup, I’m talking about mountain bikes.
Believe it or not, bikes take to the slickrock like geckos to an adobe wall, clinging to its impossible angles like no one’s business. The rock is abraded, like sandpaper, and so its grip is incredible.
Riding on the slickrock is such a fun experience.
The riding can be fast, with punchy ups and very steep downs, when you’re riding on the petrified sand dune shapes of the upper cliffs.
The riding can be dusty as you wind through cacti and snake through sand patches, created where erosion smooths the sandstone and gets trapped in ditches and gullies. Watch out for those sand traps! They get riders that are clipped into their pedals in spectacular, slow motioned, soft-cushioned falls.
The slickrock riding can be breath-taking as you struggle up long inclines… and breathtaking in an entirely different way as you take in views of mesas rising up out of a desert plateau or the Colorado River, like a snake, winding through a canyon far below you.
For every up, there is a super fun down. And so the trails can have tremendous drops and bumps that have you rolling over big rocks and ledges, and rattling down rocky inclines, thankful for the cushioned travel in the suspension of your trusty steed.
We’ve been to Moab twice now, to ride its fun and technically challenging trails. And we will be back again. Each time we return as better, more skilled riders, and so the fun that we have is different, and better.Sadly, I developed bronchitis during our Moab week and had to cut my riding short, so I need to return again. I will. Me and my swift fox (my trusty steed) will be back…
“Hey dude! How’s the desert treating you?” asked our friendly neighbour, looking a little like Bon Jovi meets a wizened 1960’s flower child. He looked us carefully up and down, sussing out just what type of Moab visitors we might be. Read More
With my fingertips missing their defining ridges, my legs covered in a bevy of happy bruises, and my heart light from a week spent outdoors, playing on rock, we headed toward Moab Utah for the next stop on our holiday.
It was a long drive and my mind wandered through what I’d seen and experienced in the Nevada desert, and what I was seeing before me, now that we were passing once again through a similar landscape in Utah. The crazy sandstone shapes: fingers, pinnacles, chimneys, columns, rounded mounds and arches. The strange colouring in the golds, pinks and reds. The striping and spotted, measle-like dimpling of red through rock. The cacti that lived and thrived through extremes of hot and cold, dry and flooded. The power of rainstorms that could create washes, the size we’d seen and hiked through. The power of the tectonic forces that can thrust sandy sea bottoms skyward, transforming what was once flat, soft and shifting into hard, near-permanent mountains. The power of water and wind, those erosive forces that wear rock into sand, only to be foiled by geologic forces that turn it back into rock, only to be eroded once more into sand…. Read More