The Rockwall Trail is one of the premier backpacking trails in the Canadian Rockies. Located in British Columbia’s Kootenay National Park, adjacent to Banff National Park, the trail is named for the sheer limestone wall that is the hiker’s companion along much of the 55 km (34 mi) route. Three mountain passes with an elevation gain of 2600 m (8530 ft) and loss of 2250 m (7382 ft) test cardio and knee joints. But the dramatic scenery and gorgeous wildflowers are totally worth the effort. Our group had an outstanding time on this trail July 20-24.
Trail and Campground Overview
The Rockwall Trail is actually a series of trails that combine to form a 55 km route between Paint Pots trailhead and Floe Lake trailhead. The shape of this point-to-point hike is such that there is only 13 km between the two trailheads (an “almost loop”), making car shuttling along Highway 93 very quick. There are options for shorter backpacking trips that are detailed on the Kootenay National Park backcountry page.
The optimal direction to hike the Rockwall is up for debate. We enjoyed our north to south route, starting at Paint Pots trailhead and ending at Floe Lake trailhead. This direction involves a less gruelling uphill hike on day one, provides head-on views of the Rockwall, and saves the most beautiful campground for the last night.
Most people hike the trail in 4 or 5 days; some trail runners even complete the whole route in one day. Our 5 day/4 night, described below, worked well for us—enough challenge and plenty of time for photo-taking and rest stops.
There are five backcountry campgrounds along the route that need to be reserved through Parks Canada. This year, reservations opened on April 16, and sites were gone in a flash. Check the Parks Canada page early and regularly.
The campgrounds all have pit toilets, food caches, picnic tables and water sources (though water should be filtered or treated with tablets).
We were impressed with the design and maintenance of the trail. Many sections could have been far more demanding were it not for the well-designed switchbacks and smooth path. Signage is generally good and the Hiking in Kootenay National Park visitor map is all that most people require.
Frequent readers may remember my Chilcotin backpacking trip that I did with an awesome group of friends. Six from that group accompanied Mike and me on the Rockwall, plus two of their adult kids. You’d think 10 people on a backpacking trip might be unwieldy, but we got on great, and it was fun adding a little youthful exuberance. Not surprisingly, we didn’t encounter any wildlife except for mosquitoes. Be aware/prepared though as there are frequent grizzly and black bear sightings.
Frontcountry Marble Canyon campground, only 3 km from the Paint Pots trailhead, makes a good pre/post hiking base.
Day 1: Paint Pots Trailhead to Helmet Falls
15 km, 350 m elevation gain, 50 m loss
From the Paint Pots trailhead, we follow the easy Orchre Creek trail and soon get to an eye-pleasing muddy section. That sounds weird, but the orange-hued earth, stained by iron-rich mineral springs, makes a lovely contrast to the forest greenery.
The next few kilometres is a pleasant, if unexciting, walk through the forest. We come to a trail junction showing Tumbling Creek campground to the left. Don’t use this trail as a shortcut on your journey south (bypassing Helmet Falls) because you’ll miss my favourite part of the trail: Rockwall Pass. It does, however, provide a terrific loop option of 36 km for those with less time or inability to secure needed campsites. We continue straight to Helmet Falls.
We take a break near the Helmet/Ochre Junction campground, at km 6.5. It doesn’t look like many hikers camp there, but it provides a good option if starting out late in the day.
I’m lulled into peaceful daydreaming as the trail travels first high above Helmet Creek and then closer to its bank. The shorts-wearing members of our group aren’t quite so relaxed as they continuously swat blood-sucking deer flies.
After the suspension bridge, around km 13, the views are more open with pretty patches of wildflowers. We’re thrilled to catch our first glimpse of Helmet Falls, and soon after, the Ranger Cabin that marks the entrance to Helmet Falls campground.
The campground is nice, with good access to the clear, crisp water of Helmet Creek. We enjoy dinner at the camp’s eating area that has a peek-a-boo view of the falls. After dinner, we muster the energy for the 1 km walk to Helmet Falls. It’s worth it!
Day 2: Helmet Falls to Tumbling Creek
12 km, 640 m elevation gain, 500 m loss
We leave the verdant valley, bracing ourselves for the hefty elevation gain that will take us to the Rockwall Pass. The first 3 km is through thick forest where we gain about 400 m. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel too difficult. I suspect the excitement and the excellent trail are key to our spryness.
We emerge onto an open area and get our first views of the Rockwall’s expanse. It’s stunning! A gentle downhill section travels through pretty meadows where we meet a couple of trail maintenance folk and ask them about the wildfire situation that is plaguing much of the province. One of them launches into a condescending monologue about how close the fires are, that we’ll likely be evacuated in the next days, and that there are thunderstorms in the forecast. We’re well aware of the dangers, but she makes us feel like idiots.
We’re a quiet bunch as we ascend the gravely path over a moraine field. Lunch at a large, unnamed glacial lake about halfway through the day’s hike is a good distraction.
Mike is feeling sluggish after lunch and it’s a slow plod uphill from the lake. Fortunately, the scenery is out of this world and the elevation gain mellows as we reach the beautiful ridge over Rockwall Pass (2214 m). This section, all the way to the meadows of Wolverine Pass, is my favourite part of the entire trail.
The descent to Tumbling Creek campground comes all too soon. The final 2 km of switchbacks through the forest are very steep and seem to go on forever.
At camp, we barely have time to put up our tent before the skies open. We huddle in our tiny abode while Mike irritatingly counts the seconds between lightning and thunder clap. I try not to think about the fire threat. During a momentary lull, we use our hiking poles to dig water trenches (there’s a river running under our tent). Another short lull allows us to grab a quick dinner under a thick tree canopy. The rain continues for what seems like hours before I finally manage to drift off to sleep.
I wish I had photos of our wet experience at Tumbling Creek camp, but it wasn’t a priority at the time..
Day 3: Tumbling Creek to Numa Creek
8 km, 340 m elevation gain, 700 m loss
We wake up to overcast skies. It’s hard to tell what’s smoke haze and what’s regular cloud, but at least it’s not raining. Like the day before, we climb out of a valley on a forested path. The 340 m gain over about 3 km on the Tumbling Pass trail is less challenging than expected, and soon we’re back on the ridge with spectacular vistas.
The higher we climb, the windier and colder it gets. There’s even a short burst of snow showers. Add in the smoke haze, and this section wins the prize for drama. It would be nice to hang out here and gaze over enormous Tumbling Glacier, but the cold keeps us moving.
From Tumbling Pass at 2165 m, the remainder of the day is almost all downhill—only in elevation that is. The views from the path, which travels between meadows and rocky terrain, is outrageously dramatic. Wildflowers and cool-looking rocks line the edge of the trail.
As we continue to descend, crossing a number of creeks, we’re sheltered from the wind and it immediately warms up. One of the creeks provides a good lunch spot.
The final 2.5 km downhill, mostly through thick forest, feels tedious. It’s a joy to get to Numa Creek campground. We secure a glorious spot for our tents on a grassy area overlooking the creek. The sun has come out and we’re quick to spread our dampish gear. We’re all in fine spirits and enjoy a few hours of reading, chatting and napping.
Day 4: Numa Creek to Floe Lake
10 km, 850 m elevation gain, 300 m loss
Given the significant elevation gain today, Mike and I depart camp a bit earlier than the rest of the gang (we’re the slowest). For the first 3 km along the Numa Pass Trail it’s easy going through the forest. Our group catches up to us at a sketchy log crossing over a fast-flowing creek. Some of us aren’t too graceful, but we all make it across.
The grade steepens and we’re thankful for the forest shade. Near 6 km, the views open up and we can see the trail winding up over the scree to Numa Pass. Another kilometre and we’re at the top of the pass—at 2355 m, it’s the highest point on the route.
We stop to celebrate on the wind-swept ridge. The mighty Rockwall is on full display and the bucolic meadow path that we can see snaking down to shimmering Floe Lake fills us with excitement for our final camping night. The wildflowers meadows enroute to the lake are the best we’ve seen on our trip.
Floe Lake campground is sublime with sites spread over a large, undulating area above the turquoise lake. We spend the remainder of the afternoon on one of the lake’s pebbly beaches. Some of us are brave enough to swim in the icy water (not me). The only problem in paradise are the mosquitoes, but we’re well-prepared with our bug suits and even manage a post dinner card game.
Day 5: Floe Lake to Floe Lake Trailhead
10 km, 30 m elevation gain, 730 m loss
Over a leisurely breakfast, at the edge of Floe Lake, we admire the mirror reflection in the water. It’s a wonderful ending for our last day on the trail.
My expectations for the hike down to the Floe Lake trailhead aren’t high. I think of it mainly as a walk-out to the car. Yet, nature is full of surprises. Most of the steep downhill journey is through forest that suffered a major fire in 2003. The trees that remain standing are lifeless, but the forest is regenerating. Shrubs are thick and glossy, blueberry bushes hang heavy with fruit, and showy fireweed covers the meadows. It’s strangely beautiful.
As we continue downhill, smoke haze and smell get nastier. Will this area succumb to yet another fire before it has even had a chance to regrow?
Just before the Floe Lake trailhead, a large bridge crosses over the Vermillion River. We soak our tired feet and celebrate our five wonderful days in nature.
In this crazy summer, where British Columbia has a tenuous grip on COVID-19 and is struggling with wild fires, drought, and unprecedented heat waves, I’m grateful that we were able to do this hike, let alone under reasonable conditions. We had a wonderful time, but I’m feeling a lingering anxiety about the fragility of our incredible nature under siege of climate change.
For more multi-day hiking in British Columbia, check out:
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