Whether you want to see firsthand how glaciers help carve the distinctive jagged peaks and wide valleys of the Canadian Rockies or you’re simply interested in a hike with a heavy dose of high-impact scenery, Iceline Trail is a serious contender.
- “There and back” to the Iceline Trail high point (12.8 km return, 690 meters elevation gain);
- Iceline Trail/Celeste Lake/Yoho Valley Trail (17 km loop, 700 meters elevation gain) – this is a great (last-minute) option if the weather turns bad and you need to get down into the tree line;
- Iceline Trail/Little Yoho Valley Trail/Yoho Valley Trail (21.3 km loop, 715 meters elevation gain) – can be done as a long day hike or as an overnight with backcountry camping at Little Yoho or Laughing Falls campgrounds (additional fee applies) or an overnight stay at the Alpine Club of Canada Stanley Mitchell Hut.
Regardless, access to the Iceline Trail is from the Takakkaw Falls parking lot at the end of Yoho Valley Road (well-signed exit approx. 3 to 4 km east of Field along the TransCanada highway). NOTE: Yoho Valley Road is usually snowbound and closed to vehicular traffic from early October through late June each year. Be sure to check the road status with Parks Canada if you’re thinking of hiking the Iceline Trail during one of the transition months.
Those who have planned a stay at Stanley Mitchell Hut or one of the backcountry campgrounds will most likely head north along the Yoho Valley Trail, overnight and then return to the parking area via the Iceline Trail on day 2. If you know in advance that you’re going to day hike one of the loop options, traveling counterclockwise (starting with the Yoho Valley Trail) would mean a more gradual rise in the morning with a steeper descent to end the day.
We, however, took the more usual clockwise route, which begins at the Whiskey Jack Trailhead. Within minutes of starting, we were gaining altitude via a series of switchback corners through sub-alpine forest. Fortunately for me, the water drops hanging from wildflower leaves provided a ready excuse to stop for photographs (and to catch my breath).
Other opportunities to pause include checking the signage at trail intersections (keep right at 1 km, 1.2km and 2.5 km where you finally reach the Iceline Trail; left takes you to Hidden Lake, Yoho Lake and Yoho Pass) and regular views of Takakkaw Falls. With a 254 meter free fall, Takakkaw Falls is the third highest falls in Canada and the topic of an earthcache we put together back in 2009 after hiking to the Wolcott Quarry in the Burgess Shales.
At around 4 km, there’s a switchback that includes a short, steep climb up stone steps. The top of the steps offers the first, impressive view of a long, narrow glacier covering the shoulder of Michael Peak. We spent quite a bit of time here studying the retreating ice and observing signs that the glacier covered the trail here just a hundred years ago: striations, glacial debris and even lines of glacial moraine. If you’re interested in a quick primer on glaciers, please consider Becoming Water by Mike Demuth.
After crossing one of the many creeks draining the glacial meltwater, there’s another set of (more roughly constructed) stone steps. From the top, it’s a short distance to a lovely waterfall and tarn.
We stopped for a bit to photograph the waterfall, and then carried on, noticing pyramid-shaped piles of glacial moraine and interesting patterns of snow accumulation on the glacier before passing the high point on the trail, where four other hikers were stopped for lunch.
We pressed on from the summit, finally reaching a second waterfall and two tarns (one on either side of the trail) where we stopped for lunch around one o’clock. Our fourteen year old son was pretty hungry by this time, so we deliberately picked a spot where those of us with smaller appetites could finish eating and then do some photography while he continued eating. This is also the spot where we saw two families hiking out after a night in the backcountry – four adults and five children under the aged ten and under (by my estimate).
About ten minutes from our lunch spot, the trail turned a little bit east and then ducked over and around a long line of glacial moraine. At that point we lost our view of the Emerald Glacier and had to content ourselves with views of glaciers across the valley.
Then, within about 15 more minutes we were on the Little Yoho Valley Trail. It was easy walking through the forest except for a couple of steep spots between the Whaleback Trail intersection and Laughing Falls, where we stopped for some more long-exposure photography.
It’s an easy 2.1 km final stretch along the Yoho Valley Trail. And it’s easy to see the appeal of the Takakkaw Falls Campground, with the impressive Takakkaw Falls visible from pretty much every campsite. The trail grew increasingly busy as we neared the parking lot. Over the course of the day, we saw about fifty people on the trail (a Tuesday in July).
We were back at the parking lot a bit before 4 o’clock, for a total hiking time of just under 7 hours, including lots of stops for photography plus a reasonably long lunch break. My only regret? That we didn’t bring along both the Lake Louise/Yoho and Bow Lake/Saskatchewan Crossing maps by Gem Trek, so that I could have properly identified the names of the half-dozen (plus) glaciers we saw from the trail.
Total hiking distance = 21.3 km
Total elevation gain = 1007 meters (711 meters net)
Total hiking time = approximately 7 hrs including an hour for lunch and photography
Recommended for anyone with an interest in glaciers, geomorphology or amazing scenery. Go hike this trail before the ice is all melted!!