Marmot Ponds to Upper Paradise Creek: 6.5 km, +330 m, -385 m, 4h 30m
As I shifted from one side to the other around first light, the gentle song of hermit thrushes drifted into my ears. I peeked out of the tent and could see the beginnings of alpenglow on the distant peaks, the sky above them a pale blue in the pre-dawn light. I closed my eyes and drifted for another hour or two until the sunshine lit up the top of our tent around 6:45 am. Although we weren’t in a hurry, I started packing up before stepping into my cold damp boots and out into the chilly morning air. It was a beautiful sunny morning and it felt so good to wake up here in this quiet alpine meadow, the only sound the soft gurgle of the tiny creek, its banks decorated with a thin layer of frost.
We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the sun and were packed up ready to set off just before 9:30 am, excited for the day ahead. After yesterday’s long slog, we had less than half the distance and much less elevation gain ahead of us, plus we’d be hiking in the alpine the entire way. The first decision of the day was to decide whether to follow the map or the obvious trail that led up the hill. (Spoiler: we should have gone with what we could see in front of us, rather than the map.) It soon became apparent that the route we were intending to follow (on the map) was not the one flagged ahead of us and so we backtracked to where we first entered the meadows yesterday and picked up another trail. This led us to some very interesting rocks with a superb view over towards the mountains, where we also found a few wolf prints in the mud. It then descended slightly and promptly petered out. With a bit more exploring we picked up a different trail through the trees into a small meadow where we found evidence that a horse group had camped here, but that too soon vanished and we were left scratching our heads wondering where to head next.
I dug out the photocopied trail descriptions from the Trail Ventures BC guide book only to find that I’d packed the wrong sheets: I had the description for our alternative itinerary. D’oh! Instead, we laid out the map and checked the GPS, deciding that we needed to make our way up a short but steep boulder field into the trees at the top. A mixture of imaginary and game trails encouraged us to keep climbing, though none of us could agree on which was the ‘right’ way. We split up and each pushed through the dense pines and spruce until one of us found some flagging, then some more, and even a bit more. There was absolutely no sign of a trail but at least we had something to guide us, and it was leading in the right direction.
It was maybe only a hundred metres or so of bushwhacking through the trees before we emerged out onto the next expansive meadow, but our exploration had slowed us down substantially: it had taken 50 minutes to end up barely 200 m from our campsite! A little frustrating but we learned a lesson: the map clearly marked that part of the trail as a route and we hadn’t noticed so the lack of a trail caught us by surprise. Also, sometimes it’s better to read the landscape rather than fixate on the map.
But now we were out in the open once more and enjoyed an easy walk across flower-filled grassy meadows. Well, I say easy but in actual fact the ground was really lumpy with many small yet deep (30-ish cm) dry stream channels to cross, making it difficult to maintain any rhythm. We didn’t care, though. We had views all around us and sporadic flagging tape was leading us onwards exactly where we planned to go. Fortress Ridge loomed over us to our right, looking a forbidding sight in the morning sun. From this angle it looked aptly named.
As we neared the far side of the meadow we reached some marshy ground marked by low willows and a multitude of blooming globeflower. More flagging tape kept us on course and, just like yesterday, a trail suddenly appeared before us. This sounds like magic but it really did just start out of nothing in the grass! We paused for a quick snack break and listened to the neighbouring hermit thrushes sing their plaintive song.
We caught our first glimpse of Castle Peak and it looked magnificent; a castle keep atop a fortified mound, the layers of basalt like carefully-laid stonework
We hiked over easy terrain through more open tree cover, mostly small-to-medium sized pine trees, before entering another vast meadow below the western end of Fortress Ridge. We ascended gradually, the trail disappearing again before starting up once more as the ground levelled off. Over the ridge-line ahead of us we caught our first glimpse of Castle Peak and it looked magnificent; a deep red peak looking for all the world like a castle keep atop a fortified mound, the layers of eroded basalt like carefully-laid stonework.
Ahead of us lay a red earthy ridge that rose from a deep V-shaped gully carved into the dirt. We imagined that the trail would avoid this and lead us on a more gentle approach, but no: it headed straight into the gully. A faint track barely a couple of boots (or bike tyres) in width led across the steep earthen slope into the narrow V, where a trickle of water ran, and then up again. From a distance it looked like the domain of mountain goats but it turned out to be fairly straightforward walking, though I wondered how it might be a different story when wet.
We found ourselves walking through small pines and an ankle-high forest of tiny flowers. Such sublime hiking!
Back on more level ground, we soon found ourselves crossing another huge grassy slope on a narrow path, through small pines and an ankle-high forest of tiny flowers. Such sublime hiking! We climbed gently to a small col and were greeted by a jaw-dropping view of Castle Peak again. We dropped our packs and took a short break. A few metres up the slope was a wonderful line of rocks, like a giant backbone sticking out of the ground, covered in orange and greeny-yellow lichens with flowers growing in every crevice: yellow cinquefoil, white fleabane, and dryas to name a few. Even a tiny pine tree. It was such a photogenic spot and we spent a good few minutes enjoying the view and taking photos.
We crossed a small slushy snow patch edged with boot-slurping quick mud, spotting wolf and mountain goat tracks, and picked up the trail again through yet another large grassy meadow. Flowing water had eroded many small channels down the slope, now lined with dozens of fresh western anemone in bloom. Castle Peak loomed large ahead of us, and the pass still looked some way off. We traversed below the western end of Fortress Ridge on a trail of packed dirt lined with purple sky pilot, thistles, and what we think was false Solomon’s seal, and soon reached a shallow col where we caught our first view of the flat-topped Cardtable Mountain. Now we started to climb again towards Castle Pass.
I noticed something small and furry down by my feet: it was either very old poop or perhaps a pellet coughed up by a bird of prey. Poking at it with my hiking pole I could see the tiny white bones of a rodent, too small for a marmot but perhaps a vole.
On and up we climbed across steep earthy slopes full of deer and wolf prints, some of which were more recent than the tyre tracks of the mountain bikers we’d met yesterday. Castle Pass is clearly a major crossing point for wildlife! No bear prints though. The views to the south were immense: we could see Spruce Lake and the long ridge on which Mount Sheba perched, which looked very snowy and made us glad we had opted for our current route.
Eventually we crested the pass, nearly three hours after setting off. It had been three hours of wonderful hiking across open countryside and, despite the chilly breeze, we stopped to take in the fruits of our morning’s effort. What a vast landscape! Not as viscerally dramatic as the Rockies, perhaps, but every bit as wild, maybe even more so. And it wasn’t just the mountains we admired, the flowers had been our companions the entire way, blooming in profusion. At the pass a huge patch of buttercups shone a sunny yellow beneath a melting patch of snow.
We pored over the map, admiring the beautiful valley that lay before us, scoping out the ridges we hoped to hike in the coming days. It was big country and bore no signs of human presence.
We turned to face our destination and descended slightly to get out of the worst of the wind, before dropping our packs and feasting on a well-deserved lunch. We pored over the map as we ate, admiring the beautiful valley that lay before us, identifying the named peaks, and scoping out the ridges we hoped to hike over the coming days. It was big country alright and bore no signs of human presence save for the pencil-thin line of the trail across the slopes.
As the saying goes, it was all downhill from here, and we began our descent on soft earth then scree before traversing more steep slopes lined with flowers galore. The trail levelled off in another grassy meadow where movement caught our eye: marmots! We spotted a young one browsing the meadow, not particularly bothered by our presence. After another section of steep side-hilling the trail disappeared in the grass of the next meadow. More marmots scampered over the flowery ground, one of which had a mouthful of hay for its den.
It was a blissful experience, the only sounds being our footsteps and camera clicks, plus frequent exclamations of wonder and appreciation
It may have been downhill but the trail wasn’t exactly easy: a narrow path that crossed steep earthy slopes (some of which were almost vertigo-inducing), narrow rills and gullies carved into sharp v-shapes by flowing water, and over snow patches still clinging to the mountainside. My ankles were beginning to ache from walking on consistently sloping ground. And yet it was still a blissful experience, with only the sounds being our footsteps and camera clicks, plus frequent exclamations of wonder and appreciation.
As we descended, the creek grew louder and louder, a wonderfully busy yet soothing rushing sound. At last the terrain levelled off as we neared Paradise Creek, the trail leading us to the silty water’s edge where we were left wanting for an easy crossing. The creek was flowing fast in the warmth of the afternoon and there were no dry rocks to hop across. While not very wide, it was too far to leap, especially with a heavy overnight pack. Brenda opted to wade, and three steps later she was across. My boots were still damp but I didn’t want to undo the day’s drying off time so Maria and I picked our way across a handful of partially-submerged rocks, and made it without getting too wet.
Naturally, the trail promptly disappeared on us and we found ourselves picking our way through a damp meadow filled with willow bushes and globeflower. On reaching dry ground, we picked up a faint trail and found ourselves at the edge of a huge open meadow, perfect for camping. This was going to be home for the next four nights! We took our time seeking out good flat tent sites, as far from any evidence of camp fires as possible but still reasonably close to the few trees for a little bit of shelter, real or imagined. A short time later and our tents were pitched with our sleeping bags and mattresses ready for the evening. It was only 2:30 pm and we had a whole afternoon in which to relax.
We took our food bags and cooking gear down to a sheltered flat spot next to the creek, which proved to be a welcome little sun trap to bask in for the afternoon. The only downside was that the mosquitoes found us quite quickly, though they were never more than an irritation. We set about restocking our water supplies, as we had run out just as we reached the camping area, scooping the silty water from the creek into our little pack bowl and allowing as much of the sediment to settle out before filtering. We filled our two collapsible water bottles (one for the tent, the other for electrolytes) and promptly drank a whole one between us before filtering more for cooking and then refilling our water bladders.
Rehydrated, we washed our faces and feet in the freezing water – so refreshing but oh so cold! – and luxuriated in pulling on dry socks before relaxing in the hot midsummer sun. Maria read while I just sat revelling in our surroundings. It’s sometimes a daunting feeling to be two days’ hike away from the car but right now it felt like the perfect place to be.
Time passed slowly, the flowers tracking the sun
Time passed slowly, and I noticed it more by the way the flowers tracked the sun than by checking my phone. We made a hot drink and savoured an afternoon snack. My boots and socks dried quickly in the warmth of the day, though it didn’t take long for the temperature to start dipping again. We ate dinner around 6 pm and had everything packed away by 7 pm, finding a couple of good trees on which to tie our food bags. Despite having nearly two hours of daylight to go, we all were ready to crawl into our tents by 7:30 pm, the evening chill descending as the clouds rolled in. We made ourselves comfortable and relaxed some more, though I kept checking the sky for signs of a promising sunset.
About an hour later I looked out to see Castle Peak lit up by the evening sun and I couldn’t resist stepping out to capture the sunset. I spent much of the next hour watching the shadows creep up the slopes of Castle Peak, the red rocks of its flanks aglow in the evening light. Looking around I noticed Teepee Peak similarly illuminated, as were the clouds to the west. I had high hopes for the last hurrah of the sunset, but the clouds in the east dissipated while the clouds in the west snuffed out the sunshine and with it my hopes for a colourful sunset. The light faded around 9:30 pm leaving the first quarter moon shining in the southern sky.
Now ready for sleep, we crawled back into the tent and settled down at the end of a beautiful day of hiking, the prospect of a peaceful moonlit night ahead of us.