Crowsnest Highway 3: The East Kootenays
In the rugged East Kootenays, Hwy 3 is the link to three great backcountry and hiking sites that hold their own in any claim-to-fame competition. Elk Lakes Provincial Park is about 30 miles (50 km) north of Elkford and borders the south side of Alberta’s Kananaskis Park, nestled above the tree line in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. The scenery is breathtaking – there’s just something about lakes set against massive cliff faces, headwalls, waterfalls, craggy summits, and hanging icefalls that makes you stop in your tracks and say a profound ‘wow.’ You’ll need to stop, anyway, to rest – most of the hikes in Elk Lake justify the adjectives ‘strenuous,’ ‘demanding,’ and ‘very demanding.’
The one exception is the 0.5-mile (0.8-km) walk from the parking lot to Lower Elk Lake. Muscle-taxing hiking trails lead from the park entrance to Elk Pass, along the shoreline of Upper Elk Lake, and to Petain Creek Falls, and mountain climbing is also quite challenging here. Horseback riders will enjoy this park – there are extensive, well-established, and durable trails. However, winter recreation is somewhat curtailed here, due to the park’s remote location and unfavourable weather conditions. There are three areas of wilderness camping, located at the park entrance, at Lower Elk Lake, and at Petain Creek. To reach the park, take Hwy 43 north of Sparwood for 22 miles (35 km) to the town of Elkford. From Elkford, travel well-marked gravel roads on west side of the Elk River for about 27 miles (44 km) to where the road crosses the river and joins the Kananaskis Power Line Road. It’s 26 miles (43 km) from this crossing to the park.
British Columbia’s Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park, together with Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana, form the ‘Crown of the Continent,’ a combination of biological, geological, and climatic factors that occurs nowhere else in North America. And if that weren’t enough, these parks are home to one of the densest grizzly bear populations in North America and the only specimens of Wyoming (Yellowstone) moose in Canada. Add unique geological features and the highest peaks in the Clark Range of the Rockies – Starvation and King Edward, clocking in at 9,301 feet (2837 m) and 9,186 feet (2802 m), respectively – and you have a royal park system indeed.
It’s likely that up to half of all the rare and endangered plant species in British Columbia occur in Akamina-Kishinena. To protect this delicate ecosystem, no motorized transportation is allowed in the park. Backcountry campsites are available, and the area is good for horseback riding and some fishing. Exercise caution: There really are many very big bears around here. Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Recreation Area is located in the extreme southeastern corner of the province, close to the Alberta and US borders. The only road to the park in Canada is gravel, south from Hwy 3 at Morrissey Provincial Park, or from the town of Michel south to Kishinena Creek Logging Road. There’s also trail access over Akamina Pass from the roadhead at Cameron Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta.
Height of The Rockies Provincial Park is a new, undeveloped site. One of its key characteristics is its variation of elevation – from 4,265 to 11,315 feet (1310 to 3474 m). It’s a great place for hiking and horseback riding but, like the two wilderness parks mentioned, should be attempted by experienced hikers and mountaineers only. The 167,960-acre (68000-hectare) wilderness area is located in the Rocky Mountains and stretches northwest along the Continental Divide between the Elk Lakes Provincial Park in southeastern British Columbia, and Banff National Park and Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in southwestern Alberta.
Great hiking is available in Kootenay National Park. Two trails in particular are worth mentioning: Floe Lake/Hawke Creek (6 miles/10 km) leads west to a glacier-fed lake; Stanley Glacier Trail is a short, strenuous, 3-mile (5-km) hike that leads to a hanging valley and glacier.
There are many rewarding and beautiful hikes on the recreation trails throughout the Revelstoke, Golden, and Invermere Forest Districts. For a detailed map of trails and recreation sites in these areas, call the local BC Forest Service office, toll free (800) 665-1511.
Top of the World Provincial Park receives top marks as an alpine region of sublime beauty. Mount Morro (elevation 9,553 feet/2914 m) is the highest peak in the park. Many archaeological sites are located here, in what was once the traditional home of the Upper Kootenay First Nation. Forest cover is mostly spruce, pine, and some fir, and most of the plateau is carpeted with alpine flowers. Small populations of large mammals inhabit the park, and an abundance of birds live around Fish Lake. This lake is noted for its cutthroat trout and dolly varden fishery, but you must have a valid British Columbia fishing licence and a copy of the park’s fishing regulations before casting a line. There are backcountry campsites available and rustic cabins. You’ll find the access road to Top of the World Park on Hwy 93/95, just past Skookumchuk. Follow Sheep Creek Road. It’s very rough and not recommended for low-clearance vehicles. Alternatively, turn east off Hwy 93/95 about 3 miles (4.5 km) south of Canal Flats and travel southeast for about 32 miles (52 km) on the Whiteswan Forest Road. Both routes are well marked.
Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Park is in a class of its own. Earl Grey, then Governor-General of Canada, crossed the Purcell Mountains from Invermere in the Columbia Valley to Argenta on Kootenay Lake. His route followed a trail up Toby Creek and down Hamill Creek over a 7,401-foot (2257 m) pass. This route, later named the Earl Grey Pass Trail, had already been well defined by the Shuswap Indians. Despite Grey’s urging to set aside this magnificently scenic area as a park, not much was done until the 1970s, when the area was designated as a ‘roadless tract’ in which the natural environment would remain undisturbed by any development. Consequently, there’s no road access, and all forms of mechanized access are prohibited, including helicopters. Over 85 miles (137 km) of hiking trails, challenging mountaineering, horse riding, and winter recreation await backpackers in the five biogeoclimactic zones spread throughout this central portion of the Purcell Mountains. Use the western trailhead at Argenta on the northeast shore of Kootenay Lake, or Toby Creek Trail from Invermere on the east.
Bugaboo Provincial Park is a first-class mountaineering region; its challenging peaks in the northern extremity of the Purcell Mountain Range have attracted climbers from around the world since the late 1880s. Particularly, the North Howser ‘Tower’ and the South Ridge of Bugaboo Spire are considered very difficult. It’s certainly breathtaking, but you shouldn’t attempt to hike or climb this region unless you’re experienced, well-equipped, and in good physical condition. The Bugaboos lie 28 miles (45 km) west of Hwy 95 at Brisco. There’s good gravel road access, but the roads are used by logging trucks, so check with BC Parks regarding road use and condition before embarking.
Another park requiring experience and self-sufficiency, but offering many heavenly rewards, is Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, located 30 miles (48 km) south of Banff and about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Radium Hot Springs on the British Columbia – Alberta border. To get into the park you have to take one of four major hiking-access trails. Two of these originate in British Columbia. Most hikers take the Lake Magog Trail (strenuous; 12 miles/20 km return) from Hwy 93 in Kootenay National Park. The trailhead is located at the junction of the Simpson and Vermilion Rivers. An infrequently used route to Lake Magog leads about 9 miles (14 km) east from Hwy 93 along Settlers Road in Kootenay National Park, then connects with the Cross River Forest Road for another 15 miles (24.5 km) as it follows the Cross and Mitchell Rivers. Be particularly careful of mining trucks along the Mitchell River portion.
From the trailhead beside an ore-mining operation the 18.5-mile (30-km) trail leads along the Mitchell River to Wedgewood Lake, and then Lake Magog. Visitors are strongly advised to pick up a park brochure and the National Topographic Series (NTS) map #82J/13 before going into the park. Once you’re in the park, there are a number of trails to choose from, ranging in difficulty from easy to strenuous. There are also several undeveloped routes that lead to some of the most scenic areas in the park; ask a ranger for advice. Wilderness campgrounds, four alpine cabin shelters, a group-camping area plus other backcountry tent sites, climbing shelters, and ranger stations are available.
This region offers a rugged wilderness hiking experience and kilometres of backroads that lead to alpine trails and spectacular mountain vistas. Top hiking trips include the moderate 5.5 km Silent Pass Trail to McMurdo Cabin and Silent Lake on Silent Mountain (2,621m/8,600ft), reached via Spillimacheen FS Road and McMurdo Creek FS Roads (55 km) from Parson. This is a great day hike or 2 to 3-day backpack. The Columbia Valley Hut Society requires reservations for overnight use of McMurdo Cabin – contact the Invermere Forest Service. A day hike is possible from Silent Lake southeast to the lower reaches of the Spillimacheen Glacier.
Spillimacheen FS Road also provides access to the steep Caribou Creek Trail and the lakes and alpine tarns in this fabulous alpine area. At the end of the logging road turn south on the Caribou Creek road – a 4×4 vehicle is required for the last 6-km stretch. From the Caribou Creek alpine tarns, experienced backpackers can continue toward Glacier National Park for great views of Beaver Creek Valley and the many glaciers visible across the valley: Duncan, Beaver, Grand and Deville Neve Glaciers.
South of Parson is the 16-km (8-hour) Warren Creek Trail, a hike along an old mining road and unmarked routes along Warren Creek to the alpine, and hikes on Bugaboo Creek. Northwest of Parson are hiking trails that lead from the Spillimacheen Valley northwards to Bald Mountain and the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park.