Cooler autumn temperatures and a bit of precipitation finally put out most of the forest fires in BC and Alberta. As the skies cleared and the summer crowds thinned out, we closed out the 2017 conventional hiking season with an up and back hike to the high point along the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park. The majority of the trail is across barren landscape that was covered by glaciers just a hundred years ago. Pioneering alpine shrubs added touches of warm, fall colour to the rocky terrain – a beautiful contrast to the icy pools of turquoise glacier melt.
From Alberta, continue west on the TransCanada/Highway 1 at Lake Louise to the exit for the Monarch and Kickinghorse Campgrounds/Yoho Valley Road. Enjoy the scenic and challenging drive along the Yoho Valley Road to the Takakkaw Falls parking lot. The Iceline trailhead is a short walk back down and across the road, just off the parking lot for the Whiskey Jack Hostel.
NOTE: Trailers are not allowed on Yoho Valley Road; they may be parked in the designated lot across from Monarch Campground. Motorhomes will have to back up to make the worst switchback. And the road is closed in winter, generally from mid-October through late June.
From the Takakkaw Falls parking lot, follow the signs for Takakkaw Falls. Keep right at the bridge, making a stop at the washrooms, if needed. Within a few minutes, you’ll reach a pair of strategically placed, red Adirondack chairs that are part of Parks Canada’s #sharethechair initiative. Continue another 400 meters or so, across the road and past the parking lot for the Whiskey Jack Hostel. The trailhead is marked with a sign.
First Ascent Stage
The first 1.5 km (1 mile) is a steep ascent through the forest, aided by switchbacks. There are a few peek-a-boo views of Takakkaw Falls, across the Yoho Valley. Trail intersections are posted with signs. The trail emerges from the forest right around the Yoho Lake trail intersection, and the grade eases slightly. Once clear of the forest, it’s worth taking the occasional look back along the trail and across the valley.
The route gains more than half the total elevation before surrendering a glimpse of the receding glacier that hugs the northeast slope of Michael Peak.
Traversing the Plateau
The trail flattens out as it skirts a short ridge of glacial till. A faint trail up the ridge beckons hikers eager for a closer look at the ice. Mr. GeoK heeded the call.
Meanwhile, I continued a few minutes along the trail, searching out pools of glacier melt and bits of fall colour.
Then, looking back to Mr. GeoK on his elevated vantage point, I noticed another hiker had followed the same trail a few minutes later. In the way of hikers meeting on the trail everywhere, Mr. GeoK took control of the other hiker’s camera just long enough that she headed back down with a not-a-selfie shot.
The glaciers along the Iceline Trail are all shrinking. The trail is roughly 200-300 meters away from the forward edge of the ice. To get a closer look at the ice while sticking to the established trail, a zoom lens is essential.
The flat stretch across the plateau is about 1 km. Keep an eye out for striations and other signs of glaciation.
Most of the way across there’s a huge, flat-topped boulder about 2 meters tall. Carefully stacked rocks on one side make it possible to clamber up – an interesting spot for a quick rest stop and snack.
We didn’t linger here long, as the next glacier beckoned. But we did pause long enough to photograph the seasonal waterfall just upstream of where it plunges off the plateau.
Second Ascent Stage
From the plateau, another glacier is visible above and beyond a second ridge of till.
The trail switchbacks a few times and then slowly gains elevation as it roughly parallels the tongue of the glacier. A few hardy shrubs are gaining a toehold on the otherwise barren land.
Shortly after the trail flattens out again, the first of several tarns along the trail comes into view. It’s tempting to stop here and it would be easy to burn a lot of time. We opted to carry on, but did end up stopping on the way back down. In addition to the waterfall and tarn, there’s a great view of the Daly Glacier across the valley.
There’s a great viewpoint along this section of the trail, which includes the bit of forest on this side of the valley that seems to have escaped glaciation.
We continued to the tarn right beside the Celeste Lake Trail intersection before stopping for lunch.
From there, another half an hour along, past another large tarn, we reached the high point on the trail. Like several other hikers in the area at the same time, we couldn’t resist taking the boot beaten path up the drumlin beside the trail to take a remote-controlled photo of the two of us, plus compose a few panoramas that show the lay of the land, including some long eskers.
Departing the high point, it was time to retrace our steps. We made a few photo stops along the way; the sun angles were quite different compared to when we started out.
The largest tarn (between the high point and the Celeste Valley Trail intersection) was a particularly vibrant blue in the early afternoon sunshine.
Other brief stops on the way down (click on any photo to view full size):
We were hiking mid-week, at the very end of September and encountered a few dozen other folks over the course of the day. Some were up-and-back dayhikers, like us. But the majority were taking the Iceline Trail down, after spending the night at the Stanley Mitchell Hut or the Little Yoho backcountry campground. We particularly noticed the father/daughter pair hiking out from an overnight camp because the young daughter asked “how much further?” at least 3 times in the few minutes they were in hearing range of our lunch spot!
As we headed down the last incline before entering the forested stretch, we were talking about what an amazing day it had been!
We tempted fate…and fate responded! Not in a really terrible way, but just enough to remind us not to start categorizing a day until you’re back home.
The switchback trail through the woods was treacherously slippery. We’d slide and flail every time we stepped on a large rock disguised by a thin slick of mud, despite using trekking poles. I ended up in shoot the duck position a couple of times before we remembered we’d packed MICROspikes; they’re meant for ice, not mud, but they made all the difference. No more slipping and sliding!
Back at home, I discovered that my arm flailing must have knocked my 20+ year-old sunglasses off the neck of my shirt where I’d hung them so I could better watch for mud-slicked rocks in the shady forest. For me, it was a sad ending to an otherwise amazing day. Those sunglasses traveled with me to more than 15 countries around the world; I had them longer than I’ve had kids! So if you happen to hike this trail and happen to spot a pair of dark-brown, wire-framed Maui Jim sunglasses along the way, I’d love to get them back, even if they’re in lousy shape.
Total distance = 15 km (this is a little longer than the 12.8 km published in popular guidebooks & maps)
Total elevation gain = 860 meters (715 net)
Total time = 7 hours, including 2 hrs 20 minutes for lunch and photography
At 15 km (return), the this option is quite a bit shorter than the 21 km loop we opted for in the summer of 2014. There are pros/cons to the two options.
- Great views almost the entire way
- With a morning start/afternoon return, you can photograph the views in both directions without shooting into the sun
- Steeper, with the descent through the woods particularly challenging
- Much more gradual descent
- At 21+ km, a truly full-day hike
- Few scenic highlights past the campground: you get to see glacial eskers up close, there are a couple of waterfall photography possibilities and there are a few good views of the Yoho River along the Yoho Valley Trail. But the Yoho Valley Trail is mostly a wide, flat trail through the woods.
Which side are you on? Up-and-back? Or loop?