Day 3: Cerulean Lake, Elizabeth Lake, the Niblet, and Assiniboine Lodge: 12 km, 285 m, 6 h 23 m
- Magog Campground to Cerulean Lake: 3.0 km (1 hr 28 min; +25 m, -15 m)
- Cerulean Lake to the Niblet via Elizabeth Lake: 4.25 km (2 hr 5 min; +220 m, -40 m)
- The Niblet to Assiniboine Lodge: 2.5 km (56 min; +0 m, -205 m)
- Assiniboine Lodge to Magog Campground: 2.25 km (1 hr 54 min; +40 m, -25 m)
Weather to hike
It rained in the night. A lot. Pausing occasionally but always returning; sometimes light, often heavy, even sleety. But the tent held up with just a few drips of condensation where the inner was touching the fly (a persistent issue with this tent). As we stirred I thought of a way to pull the mesh away from the fly, and I attached a little safety pin with a small weight (our little tent turtle light) to the mesh. It worked perfectly. We dragged ourselves out of our comfortable sleeping bags around 8 am, pulled on our rain gear, and wandered down to the shelter under light rain.
We enjoyed a hot breakfast and drinks out of the rain, watching the clouds drift past the nearby peaks and chatting with a few of our fellow hikers. Mount Assiniboine itself was, of course, completely hidden. The water source at the shelter was a push-button tap fed by pipe directly from one of the nearby lakes, and was therefore untreated. Boiling that water for drinks and food was fine, but we didn’t want to risk drinking it. However, we weren’t sure how we’d be able to treat or filter it; using a water filter in a running stream from a tap seemed ridiculous and inefficient. This was where our wonderful collapsible pack bowls came into their own. We filled up one to the brim and then filtered water from there into our Platypus bladders. It worked like a charm! I highly recommend adding one to your backcountry kit.
With our drinking water sorted, we packed up our cooking gear and food and pulled together our sustenance for the day. Our timing was good as the rain eased off slightly and the sky even began to brighten. We decided that we should go for a walk anyway even if there was no chance of views. After all, what else was there to do? Our vague plan was to explore the trails around the nearby lakes and time our visit to Assiniboine Lodge to coincide with the Hiker Tea-time. The rain was very light now and we set off in the direction of Sunburst Lake. We walked northwest through the campground and into gorgeous pocket meadows, burnished and glistening wet from the rain, dotted with bedraggled purple asters. Was it our imagination? Did the larches look yellower than yesterday?
It wasn’t long before we reached Sunburst Lake and we followed a side trail to the lake shore. A rainbow greeted us, low across the lake to our right, the sun breaking through to our left and lighting up a group of already-golden larches. To top it all off, the larches were reflected in the lake, and Sunburst Peak looked to be shedding its cloak of grey cloud. It was a moment of real beauty. Rejoining the trail, our attention was diverted by more golden larches. They were irresistible!
Our next diversion was Lizzie’s Sunburst cabin, a small cabin owned by Elizabet (Lizzie) von Rummel in the 1950s. It’s in a beautiful spot on the shore of Sunburst Lake, and would be a great place to sit and soak up the view. We made a mental note that its covered front deck would also make a great spot for lunch on a rainy day. Back on the trail, it was only a few minutes before we stopped again at the far end of Sunburst Lake where Sunburst Peak was reflected in the calm water, disturbed only by raindrop ripples. Across the lake, and still mostly hidden in cloud, were hints of Mount Magog and Naiset Point.
Passing more larches, we came to Cerulean Lake and walked the trail along its edge to the western end of the lake. Fresh-looking elk hoof prints were visible in the mud, our first sign of larger wildlife (the words “charismatic megafauna” popped into my head as I thought about seeing elk). Occasional sunshine lit up the larches on the opposite side of the lake a dazzling bright yellow, and I was excited to try and get some golden larch photos, even though they were distant. At our feet were a yet more flowers still blooming: asters, arnica, harebells, and strawberries. We even found some real strawberries! It was simply wonderful easy walking and we were so glad to have made the move rather than sitting waiting for the rain to stop.
At the far end of Cerulean Lake, the trail began to descend, and we took that as our turnaround point. We explored a side trail that looked like it might lead us to the patch of golden larches we’d seen earlier but we were stopped by a small fast-flowing creek that we didn’t fancy wading and whose single log crossing looked altogether far too slippery to risk on a wet day. No matter. We were happy to turn back and admire the views again. In the distance, Mount Cautley was dusted with fresh snow while we caught our first sightings of Mount Magog, Terrapin Mountain, and Naiset Point. When we reached the next trail junction, we found a bench and decided that it would make a good lunch spot, especially in the welcome sunshine. A couple of hikers occupied one end of it and we chatted with them as we ate.
Onwards and upwards
Refuelled and rested, we continued on, taking the trail towards Elizabeth Lake, climbing initially through the usual glorious meadows and larch forest before descending to the lake. We made our presence known as we hiked as it seemed we had the trail to ourselves. Some of the larches we passed were enormous! The lake was beautiful with occasional sunshine bringing out its amazing green colour. We’d seen the lake from above on our 2009 visit as we walked the ridge to Nub Peak so it was nice to be at its shore looking up the steep slopes to that trail. We could even see a few hikers making their way along the ridge. We found more elk prints along the edge of the lake, but still no signs of the animals themselves.
To our surprise, the trail continued on over the outlet creek into more stunning larch forest. A signpost pointed us to Chuck’s Ridge, which looked like an alternative approach to Nub Peak. We briefly considered it and ventured along the trail for a few hundred metres before recognizing that we knew nothing about the route and that we might not have the time to make it up there and back to the lodge before the end of Hiker Tea at the lodge. (You can tell where our priorities lay…) Instead we turned back and enjoyed being surrounded by so many larches. We took the left fork that led up towards the Nublet and its lower neighbour, the Niblet. I’m sure that name has only come into use in the past ten years, possibly only since Instagram became a phenomenon, as I don’t remember anyone ever referring to something called the Niblet.
As we climbed up through meadows and forest, the weather closed in on us and it began to snow lightly. Our chances of getting a view at the top seemed to have disappeared and we wondered about just heading back down, but figured that we had nothing to lose by continuing uphill. A pika startled us as it squeaked loudly at one of the switchbacks, disappearing quickly before we could catch a glimpse. The climb was brief and it wasn’t long before we emerged above the trees onto open slopes where we were pleased to find the snow was easing off. A few metres further and we reached the Nublet junction. We turned right today and dropped down slightly to the viewpoint now known as the Niblet.
Remarkably, the showers passed and the clouds lifted allowing us a clear view of the lakes below us. The north summit of Sunburst Peak made its first appearance and we were treated to the classic view from this area of Sunburst Peak above Cerulean and its namesake lakes. Looking back at Chuck’s Ridge we could now see that the climb was considerably more than we first anticipated so we were very happy with our decision to leave it for another time. To the east we could see Assiniboine Pass and our route in yesterday. We looked up to see a bald eagle soar overhead before it disappeared down the slope behind us. More showers moved in again over the mountains and the summits were soon hidden from view as we began our descent.
This was a new trail for us, and we enjoyed the easy (if steeper than expected) descent through open forest and small meadows. Within twenty minutes the trail levelled off and emerged into even more expansive meadows that must surely provide an exceptional view of Mount Assiniboine on a clear day. We made more noise as willow thickets were all around us and we’d already passed one small grizzly excavation. We spotted two more raptors, a pair of hawks cruising the meadow for a meal. The hiking was easy and it wasn’t too long before we reached the lodge at about 4:30 pm. We dropped our packs and pulled off our boots before heading inside to order (what we felt was) a well-deserved beer and some cake.
Beer and a view
We checked in with the ranger and inquired about whether we’d need to move. After a few tense moments while he checked the bookings he gave us the thumbs up and said that we could stay put. This made us so happy and we moved into the dining area to celebrate with our cold beers. (I’m happy to say that the quality of beer has improved since 2009!) We chatted with some of our fellow hikers and noticed that the clouds looked to be clearing around Mount Assiniboine, tantalizing glimpses of its profile showing through the clouds. Out on the deck we noticed the vast array of cameras on show, which we guessed was a photography workshop. Someone mentioned that this was the best view of Mount Assiniboine they’d had in ten days as sunlight played on the slopes and touched the larches on the lower slopes of Terrapin Mountain so that they glowed.
As we left the lodge and re-laced our boots, we pored over the weather forecast printed out and stuck to the outside of the lodge. It looked promising and far more optimistic than the forecast I’d obtained on my InReach Mini. The prospect of more sunshine buoyed our spirits as we took a leisurely walk back to the campground, again enjoying the sunshine as it lit up the landscape: the meadows before us, Magog Lake, the slopes of the Nublet above us. The clouds around Mount Assiniboine looked like they might just clear and we could make out even more of the profile of the mountain.
We arrived back at the campground around 6 pm, dropped off our packs at the tent, and walked backed to the shelter to make dinner, pausing for a moment to watch a snowshoe hare that was grazing near one of the outhouses. Tonight would be a new meal for us: chicken teriyaki. It was okay but had a really odd smell, especially to our backcountry-sensitized noses, which was quite off-putting. Not sure we’ll have that one again. We sat around and chatted with some of the new arrivals, sipping our welcome sleepytime tea, followed by a generous nightcap that finished off the smaller of our two hip flasks. Although it teased us, Mount Assiniboine never did clear, but we did get a nice view of the glaciers on Mount Magog. There were enough gaps in the clouds to suggest we’d be in for a chilly night.
The light had faded by 8:30 pm and we returned to the tent, crawling into our sleeping bags to warm up once again. Maria read for a bit while I made more notes but my eyelids became too heavy and we turned out the light. We drifted for a while and were instantly awakened by the sounds coming from behind our tent. A loud high-pitched nasal squeak that we immediately recognized as elk calls! Normally when I hear unfamiliar noises at night I get a surge of anxiety as I try to work out if it’s a threat. But this time not even a flicker despite the fact it had been probably 18 years since we last heard elk (our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in 2001), and instead we felt a wave of joy as the sounds reached our ears. We listened for a while longer, but heard no more. We’d seen their prints earlier in the day, and now we’d heard them calling at night. It felt reassuring to know they were around. Maybe we’d see one soon?
Not long after, another familiar sound caught our attention, this time the patter of snow pellets or sleet on the fly sheet. That too didn’t last, and the skies cleared to reveal a bright moon. It was all so very peaceful and we both decided that earplugs would not be necessary (unusual for us if we’re not camped by a creek). Sleep took us soon after. We heard a few more snow showers in the night, and as I stirred every so often I could see the moon track across the tent until it disappeared behind Sunburst Peak. Did I mention how peaceful it was?