A superb hike pretty much from start to finish, even in the smoky and hazy conditions. The combination of high mountain passes filled with meadows and yellowing larches, sheer rocks faces, tumbling creeks and waterfalls make this a spectacular trip. Popular but deservedly so. The Rockwall itself is a jaw-dropping spectacle that photos simply cannot capture. A must-do hike! The grandeur of the Rockies never loses its ability to inspire awe.
We hiked from south to north, beginning at the Floe Lake trailhead and exiting at the Paint Pots. We had a group of five and left one car at Paint Pots to enable a shuttle at the end. Parking wasn’t an issue, but it looks like the Floe Lake parking lot fills up quickly on weekends.
Our trip took 5 days, camping at each of the main campgrounds along the route. Floe Lake is a lovely campground set in open forest with views of the lake and the cliffs on its far shore. By comparison, Numa Creek is set in lush forest by the creek with little in the way of views. Tumbling Creek was nicer again, with camping among the trees and dining areas in the meadows with views up towards Tumbling Peak, while Helmet Falls was also nice, set between two creeks, although many of the tent pads were very close to the trail through the campground and close to one another, so you may experience some noise from your fellow campers. The falls are visible from the dining area. Each campground had multiple metal food lockers and two outhouses (wrapped in porcupine-proof wire). Take a headlamp when using the outhouses: most have only a single small window! Only Floe Lake had a campground map, though it was of dubious accuracy. The only other campground we passed was at Helmet/Ochre Creek junction. It looked okay, but the tent pads were close to one another and right on the trail. We met no park rangers in the backcountry and our camping permits were never checked.
Water access is easy in all cases: the lake itself at Floe Lake (though there is a creek at the far end of the campground near the warden cabin), Numa Creek, Tumbling Creek (silty from glacial runoff, with one small clear-running side creek that won’t clog water filters), and Helmet Creek (a little bit silty but not too bad – the other creek was clear). Camp fires are only allowed at Numa Creek and Helmet/Ochre, but of course that doesn’t stop people. I mean, really, who the hell cuts the top of a live larch to use for a stupid little campfire? In another example of idiocy, a campfire at Tumbling Creek was placed right on top of a mossy patch, killing it forever. At the very least, it could have been built on the stony flats by the creek, just a couple of metres away. Ridiculous. Anyway, rant over.
The trail was in excellent condition and easy to follow the entire way, mostly a well-defined, single-track footbed, sometimes carved into a shallow trench by the passage of so many boots. All trail junctions were clearly marked with signposts. There were bridges over all major creek crossings, with all but one intact and easy to cross. We encountered only a handful of minor, shallow (literally a couple of inches deep) creek crossings that were no obstacle at this time of year. Ascents and descents were mostly on well-graded switchbacks but the trail sometimes took a more direct path, albeit usually for only a short distance. Apart from that, the trail was a joy to hike.
Some flowers were still hanging on, refusing to believe that summer was over. Paintbrush, arnica, purple mountain daisies and asters, pearly everlasting, and fireweed were still blooming in places, with even a few optimistic strawberry flowers on display. Autumn gentian was blooming in profusion in the high meadows, perhaps the most extensive blooms we’ve ever seen. This tiny lilac flower is so easy to miss, so tread carefully if you have to venture off trail for any reason. Signs of flowers past were typified by the many, many moptops along the way and the pungent scent of decaying valerian. Autumn colours were nearing their peak, with crimson fireweed, willow and rhododendron glowing yellow, and berry bushes varying from yellow to orange. And of course, the larches. They were just beginning to turn, with many still green or a yellowing-green. But a significant number were turning gold, and they were a stunning sight. (Based on photos seen a week later, the colours reached their peak the week after we hiked the trail.) It was a joy to walk through these golden larch forests again.
Wildlife was sparse, with ground squirrels already gone into hibernation. We saw a number of marmots near Wolverine Pass, and pikas in several rocky areas. Birds were mostly heard rather than seen, including chickadees, juncoes, kinglets, the occasional flicker, raven, and varied thrush. We did get a couple of good varied thrush sightings: they’re bigger than I remember. We saw two raptors: one looked like an eagle, soaring on thermals near Tumbling Peak, and the other was a small hawk that flew past us and landed in a tree high in the alpine. We saw only a single grouse (or was it ptarmigan?), right next to the trail, one golden-mantled ground squirrel, and had one fairly close black bear encounter. Thankfully, the bear was happily feeding on berries about 10 m off the trail and was content to continue doing so as we walked past. Surprisingly, there were a few mosquitoes and black flies still around, though they were few in number. But still, I picked up a couple of unwelcome bites!
Distance: 55 km + 9 km return to Goodsir Pass + 3 km to Helmet Falls
Elevation gain: 2475 m + 460 m to Goodsir Pass + 130 to Helmet Falls
Time: 5 days, typically 4-5 hours per day.
Route on AllTrails
- 🙂 The larches!
- 🙂 The bear encounter!
- 🙂 Floe Lake with its yellowing larches and imposing cliffs.
- 🙂 The Rockwall itself, a massive 4-km long and 900-m high cliff.
- 🙂 The high alpine meadows at every pass were simply sublime.
- 🙂 Watching a family of marmots scamper across the rocks near Wolverine Pass.
- 🙂 The height of Helmet Falls were (somehow) a complete surprise to me – a really impressive waterfall!
- 🙂 Having Goodsir Pass all to ourselves for a silent half hour.
- 🙂 Having a few hours every day to relax and absorb our surroundings, time to relish being outside and in the mountains.
- 🙂 A starry night at Tumbling Creek, Venus in the sky the next morning, and seeing the frost on the fireweed sparkle by the light of my headlamp.
- 🙂 The smoke and haze made breathing and exertion uncomfortable at times.
- 🙂 Rain and wind at Numa Pass (thankfully the only rain we had).
- ☹️ The final day was a bit tedious, with long periods in the forest without a view.
- 🙂 Irritating campers who put their tent on the pad next to ours, while talking about how loudly they snored… Really? You couldn’t have occupied the tent pad a few metres away instead?
To be honest, those minus points are really so minor that it feels a bit churlish to even write them down.
This is another trip write-up that will have to be split into separate days, and may or may not be completed this year… Here’s our itinerary over the five days of our trip with estimated distances and cumulative elevation gains and losses (times in hours:minutes in parentheses):
- Floe Lake trailhead to Floe Lake: 10 km, +760 m, -65 m (4:00)
- Floe Lake to Numa Creek: 10 km, +305 m, -800 m (4:05)
- Numa Creek to Tumbling Creek: 8.4 km, +690, -375 m (4:25)
- Tumbling Creek to Helmet Falls: 12.3 km, +570 m, -680 m (5:50)
- Helmet Falls to Paint Pots trailhead: 14.5 km, +150 m, -440 m (4:00)
No day was too long, although day 4 took longer partly because it was just so scenic! The hike out on the last day felt longer than it really was, but that’s not unusual for the last day of a multi-day trip!
Our side trip to Goodsir Pass on day 4 (well worth doing, though it’s better as a morning destination) was 9 km with 460 m of gain and loss, and took us exactly 3 hours. Allow about 90 minutes for the detour up to Helmet Falls. It, too, was well worth doing.
6 thoughts on “The Rockwall, 14-18 Sep 2020”
Lucky you to get in another backpacking trip! This looks so beautiful and the emerging fall colours are just another bonus. This is now the second time I’ve read a recent blog post raving about this trek. As I recall, the other folks did it the opposite direction and over less days. I prefer your five day itinerary—why rush such beauty. This is definitely a trip I’ll be looking into for next summer. But first, I hope to sneak in a couple of days at Manning Park to see the larches later this week.
We’re always looking to go on one more backpacking trip! We booked this in January when reservations opened, and couldn’t get our first choice dates but the beginning of larch season is always worth a try. I highly recommend this hike and we’d have no hesitation in going again. It seemed to us that most people were hiking N-S, and I’ve read a couple of blog posts that claim that direction is better. I’m not so sure – either way works and I’m happy with our approach. I think the gentler first day when going N-S appeals to many people. I look forward to your larch report – despite seeing them in the Rockies I’m quite keen to revisit Frosty in larch season as it’s been a while!
This is on my hiking bucketlist and I have to plan for back country hiking next year. Love your key moments, this is the reason why I hike. Planning to hike Floe Lake again…hopefully before the freeze.
Thanks Jane – I only recently added them as an item to the report when I realized they’d be a good way to quickly summarize the best and worst of any trip, and give me an at-a-glance memory of the highlights, which was why I started keeping a blog in the first place. It was a superb trip that exceeded any expectations I had before. Floe Lake would be beautiful with a bit of snow!
I loved re-reading this now we have visited the Rockwall Andy (I was just writing up a summary of our trip, so I was planning to link back to here if people fancy reading what it is like in the other direction.)
It still blows my mind that people who enjoy spending time outside and backpacking could do something as stupid as cutting down a larch tree for a campfire. That is totally bonkers.
Thanks Josy! Yes, I know what you mean – I also enjoy reading trip reports and especially descriptions after the fact. I always enjoy seeing someone else’s perspective, and it’s always interesting to compare what you see with what’s written in a book.
Yeah, I simply don’t understand that mentality… :-(