The Rockwall Trail: Kootenay National Park, British Columbia

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:

South Chilcotin Provincial Park

Berg Lake Trail, Mount Robson Provincial Park

West Coast Trail

Next Post: Hut-to-Hut Hiking in Wells Gray National Park

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57 thoughts on “The Rockwall Trail: Kootenay National Park, British Columbia

  1. A challenging hike but the view is just stunning! I can’t get my eyes off the photos of Floe Lake, from the flower fields to the mirror-like lake 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Floe Lake is stunning and I especially enjoyed our approach, coming at it from higher elevation where we had the amazing views and wonderful excitement of getting closer and closer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! Epic hike indeed Caroline, such loveliness in every frame. I imagine it was even more breathtaking in reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so glad the hike worked out for you in this crazy summer. Looks like the smoke didn’t spoil the views too much in the high alpine. Walking along the Rockwall is one of my favourite parts, I’m glad you saw it with a blue sky not smoke. I love your early morning shot of Floe Lake. We hiked up just to Floe the year after the fires and it was so sad to see the freshly burnt trees, but you’re right now the regrowth shows the resiliency of the forest. I hope all of BC’s damaged forests are able to rebuild and revitalize. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, very happy we managed to get this hike in though by the end I could feel the smoke in my chest. Our drive home, in parts, looked like Armageddon—very scary. I think you guys were smart to head east. Hope you had fun in Atlantic Canada…assume you’re back in Golden?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Uncool Cycling Club

    Looks amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. AndyG

    I’ve been looking forward to reading this 🙂 What a great trip – now I want to hike it again to see the flowers and to have less smoky views. The fireweed on your last day is spectacular! I think it’s worth taking 5 full days as you did, it allows more time to take in the surroundings. Interesting to read how it felt to hike north to south – your descents were our ascents and vice versa. I remember thinking that the descent into Numa Creek campground would be a brutal ascent. Wolverine Pass was one of our favourite areas too – that stretch that had all of our group enraptured! Those meadows were stunning even in the Fall; they look amazing when the flowers are at their best!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A couple of times along the trail I wondered what it would be like travelling the opposite direction–definitely pros and cons to each. As I mentioned, the ascents weren’t as bad as I expected. It helped that we did most of them in the morning and it wasn’t hot. The descents were worse for me, especially the one into Numa Creek. I’m not a downhill fan to begin with, and at the end of a long day when I’m anxious to get to camp, I lack patience and energy. That said, the entire journey, while challenging, wasn’t nearly as demanding for me as the Chilcotins (I think part of that is due to the mental fatigue of route-finding). I love looking at my photos; the Rockwall and the meadows really are grand. I’m so glad we got to do this hike. I can imagine the fall would be lovely too.

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  6. Absolutely stunning and riveting images, Caroline. I was picturing you all hunkered down in the rain counting lightning and thunder. Thankfully, you had good weather generally and experienced such a variety of terrain. Thanks for taking me on this celebration of nature and a reminder of its fragility.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jane, I’m glad you enjoyed our journey along the Rockwall. Yes, thankfully we only had the one evening of really bad weather and things could have been far worse if we’d arrived at camp even 30 minutes later trying to put our tent up in the pouring rain. I can laugh now at my hubby counting in his alarming, monotone voice.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m once again in awe of the incredible beauty of the place you call home, Caroline. It seems you had a wonderful summer hiking in BC. The bug suits made me giggle. What a fantastic solution to those pesky mosquitoes, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never thought I’d wear a silly-looking bug suit, but when the mosquitoes are really bad, it’s a life saver. It makes me giggle too and we had a good laugh playing cards like that. I’ve had a great summer of hiking and hope I can fit in a few more.

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      • I also hope you can fit in a few more, Caroline. They are such wonderful little escapes for me. And yes, I would not hesitate to wear a suit like that either – what a joy to be able to see humour in life.

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  8. Wonderful photos Caroline. I so wanted to be there with you! Despite those pesky mosquitoes this sounds like a heavenly trip, and truly rejuvenating. Such stunning scenery. BC truly is a magnificent place. may it stay that way!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alison. It has been a great summer of exploring B.C. for us. As I’ve mentioned several times before, I have a newfound appreciation for this beautiful province of ours.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. ThingsHelenLoves

    Oh my… the colours, the scenery. Wonderful. Even the place names get the imagination going, Wolverine and Tumbling Pass.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s true; the place names are very intriguing and expressive. I was hoping to see a wolverine at Wolverine Pass, but no luck. Thanks for reading and your comments.

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  10. Wow, Caroline, this may well be the very first blog post I’ve read about Kootenay National Park – and what a visual treat it is! I can see why the stretch between Rockwall Pass and Wolverine Pass was your favorite on the entire trail. It is just stunning. Those sheer rock faces draped with sheets of ice make for a fabulous contrast to the lush wildflower meadows. I could barely believe it when you wrote that there were snow showers on Day 3… and in July, no less! The photo of the sketchy log crossing, plus the part about some of the hiking crew being “not too graceful” in reaching the other side, made me smile. My balance isn’t great so I reckon I’d just sit astride the log and shamelessly scoot across. Your various hiking posts remind me just how little I’ve seen of B.C., and how little I’ve seen of Canada in general.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lots of people, even around here, have never heard of Kootenay National Park. I think it may get somewhat overlooked as most people head to popular Banff and Yoho national parks. The snow showers caught us by surprise too. You have to be prepared for all kinds of weather in the Canadian Rockies. No shame at all butt-scooting across a log, James. I’ve certainly done it. It’s weird how our mind plays tricks on us. I’m sure the same log would pose no challenges with a cushy mat underneath. Hope you’ll get back to Canada and explore more one of these days.

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  11. another incredible hike. magnificent!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow, what a beautiful hike and what a beautiful place to explore on foot, Caroline, but then again, I think I say that about every single place you write about, especially if it’s about Canada. And when I look at the dense forests and stunning fjords, flowing rivers and mountain peaks, I can clearly see they are the most beautiful in the world. I am in love with the untamed wilderness and Helmet Creek Ranger’s Cabin! Also – your photo of early morning at Floe Lake is simply out of this world! Thanks so much for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know how much of a nature-lover you are, Aiva, so I’m glad I could get you excited about the natural beauty on this hike. The ranger cabin in the meadow, with Helmet Falls as a backdrop, is very special. I could definitely hang out there for some time! It was a bonus experiencing Floe Lake at different times of the day with the sun working its magic. Hope you have a great day too.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. This hike looks absolutely amazing ! Love all the gorgeous landscapes and the wildflowers especially the lavendar fireweed. Wow what a treat! Totally with you re the fact that the new climate reality is now upon us all and we can only do our best to adjust and adapt and slow down further deterioration. But clearly we are here. The latest repost from the UNPCC is beyond sobering!

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were lucky to do this hike at what appeared to be the height of wildflower season—early this year due to the abnormally high temps. The realities of climate change have totally hit home this summer. We’ve travelled across British Columbia and into Alberta three times over the last few months and it was just devastating seeing the fires burning everywhere and feeling the heat like we’ve never experienced even in our travels to places that are typically hot. Very scary.

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  14. Wow! Another place for my to-do-list. Once I lived in the Kootenays and now I wish I had done more hiking (though the backcountry skiing was great). Fabulous photos and text.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. A great landscape, and those flowers, so charming. But what stands out the most in your photos is the atmosphere of the group; it’s rare that a group of this size works well on a multi-day hike. Great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great observation. I agree with you; it’s rare that travel/backpacking with a group of this size works well. I was skeptical last year when we backpacked with most of this same group, but was pleasantly surprised. It helps when everyone has good-natured and empathetic personalities.

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  16. Your hiking posts are the main reason for me to look up hiking options around Jakarta, Caroline. And when I found a few that I think would suit me and James, Indonesia entered its second wave of the pandemic which forced the government to impose tougher restrictions. Basically the best option for us is to stay in the city for the time being, although not knowing when the strict measures will be lifted can be really stressful. It’s crazy how wildfires rage in many parts of the world, including in Siberia! Scientists have been warning us that we might be approaching the tipping point sooner than we think. But recent events make me wonder if we have actually reached it. I’m still cautiously hopeful that governments across the world will act soon because the economic impact would be far too great if nothing’s changed (and the economy is what they usually care the most).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m happy that I’ve been an inspiration for hiking, even if it’s just in the research stage for the time being. I feel for you not being able to leave the city and continuing to live under tough (but necessary) restrictions.Throughout the pandemic, being able to get out into nature has been a real stress-buster for me. I’m lucky that even at the worst times I was able to access some of our local hikes. I hope things improve for you guys.
      I share your cautious optimism (as does Bill Gates) that it is not too late to stop climate change, but it’s such a daunting challenge. Seeing what’s happening here, firsthand, with wildfires and extreme heat has really shaken me.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Five days in a beautiful wilderness. Your group had a good amount of time to soak it all in. That log crossing doesn’t look friendly. It takes good balance to navigate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not a hike to be rushed and I’m glad we took our time. The log was a tad scary; it had a slant to it and it was wobbly. Some of us old folks took off our packs and let the young ones take them across.

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  18. Oh my gosh, beautiful! I feel like I say that about every one of your BC hikes. I couldn’t possibly pick my favorite photo here, it’s all just so rugged. I too worry about the increasingly severe weather and what it means for the future of these lovely places (and the world as a whole). We’ve had the opposite problem in Colorado this year… very little fire, because we’ve gotten so much rain… so much that there have been dozens of giant mudslides causing a lot of road damage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Crazy, isn’t it! Apparently our B.C. temperatures exceeded the records set in Las Vegas. Like you guys, my German relatives and friends have struggled with record amounts of rain that has caused severe flooding. I’ve been super lucky with the timing of our big hikes this summer, managing to avoid the worst of the heat and smoke.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. WOW! WOW! WOW! This walk is the stuff of dreams.The views and nature are simply breathtaking. How lucky are you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • VERY LUCKY! This and the other B.C. hikes I’ve done this summer have totally blown me away. As I’ve mentioned before, the pandemic has had a silver lining in that it has “forced” me to explore in my own province. It has been really awesome discovering some of our great parks.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Wow, this looks like a wonderful hiking trail!
    Your view of Helmet Falls were spectacular as well as the reflection of the mountains at Floe Lake. And how amazing beautiful were the wild flowers … there’s really much to like about this trail … well, except for the river running under your tent 😉 and those irritating mosquitoes!
    Great post, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The hike has a lot of variety and we were lucky to hit the wildflowers at their peak. The few annoyances like rain and bugs weren’t too bad in the grand scheme of things (though easy for me to say now in the comfort of my dry house). Thanks for your lovely comments.

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  21. Monika MacNeill

    What an epic trip you all had!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Wow… beautiful!! Gorgeous Helmet Falls!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. I’ve hiked along the Paint Pots trail a number of years ago when we took a day-trip to Kootney while staying in Banff. It’s such a beautiful area and I wish we could have stayed for longer. Sounds like you mostly had fabulous weather for your hike along the Rockwall Trail, minus the whole having a river running underneath your tent! But hey, at least you managed to set up your tent before the rain!. Your pictures are gorgeous!! Floe Lake looks stunning. Not sure I would have gone for a swim either!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kootenay National Park is amazing. In addition to the Rockwall, there are many great day hikes including the one you did at Paint Pots. You can also hike into Floe Lake as a day trip, albeit a long one. Yes, the rain/thunder storm could have been far worse. It would have been horrible to set up in the middle of the deluge. And, despite the river under our tent, we managed to keep our gear relatively dry. I’m super impressed with our MSR tent. By morning, the bottom of our tent was almost dry.

      Liked by 1 person

      • All the more reason for me to come visit Kootenay again! We have the same tent as you and I continue to be impressed at how it holds up against the wind and rain.

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  24. CK Grasset

    Spectacular photos🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  25. An enjoyable read which was beautifully set-up by that stunning first photo!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Stunning! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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