Day 6: Magog campground to Marvel Lake campground: 15 km, +260 m, -635 m, 6 h 0 m
- Magog Campground to Wonder Pass: 5.1 km (1 hr 40 min; +210 m, -35 m)
- Wonder Pass to Marvel Lake/Marvel Pass junction: 3.2 km (1 hr 10 min; +10 m, -380 m)
- Marvel Lake/Pass junction to east end of Marvel Lake: 5.2 km (2 hr 20 min; +20 m, -210 m)
- Marvel Lake to campground: 1.4 km (50 min; +20 m, -10 m)
We stirred around 7:30 am and began to pack up our gear in readiness for the beginning of our hike back to the car. It was going to be difficult to leave this place. I’d slept a little better overnight; alas Maria hadn’t so she wasn’t keen on moving before she really had to. Can you blame her? :-)
The shelter was quiet this morning as many campers had left in the past day or two. That suited us as we sat with our breakfast and hot drinks with a view of Mount Assiniboine playing peek-a-boo with the clouds. Some blue sky promised a fine day, or at least had us hoping for one. We sorted out our food bags to remind ourselves of what we had left and redistributed the food between us before returning to the tent and finishing the job of packing our backpacks. The overnight rain had soaked the fly and we showered ourselves in icy cold water as we shook it. There’s only so much you can do, and shaking the fly only removes the worst of the moisture so it inevitably gets packed away while still very wet.
With our bags packed by 10:30 am, we hauled them onto our shoulders and took one last look around the campsite before saying goodbye to our peaceful home for the last four nights. We set off back towards the lodge, taking the direct route we’d walked in on last night that took us through the burnished willow meadows, a great way to begin the day! It must’ve been cold overnight as the tadpoles in the shallows of a small pond were very sluggish and barely reacted to our presence. At the lodge, we checked the forecast again and it was still looking promising: a small chance of showers today but improving after that.
The clouds had rolled in over the mountain by the time we left the lodge and we took a moment to savour the view over the meadows and Magog Lake towards Assiniboine, saying our farewells and beginning the hike up towards Wonder Pass again. We passed the Naiset Huts again, setting ourselves a steady pace over the boardwalk and taking in the meadow views, fresh snow dusting the slopes of Wonder Peak and Cautley Peak.
We drank in the beauty of the larch forest again as we climbed. At one point I exclaimed “My eyes are filled with yellow!” That’s how it felt, this golden larch extravaganza, this larch wonderland. Our spirits soared: it was such uplifting and joyful hiking. “Love it, love it, love it, love it, love it, love it, love it, love it, love it, love it!!”
The larches thinned and we emerged from the forest into open meadows just below Wonder Pass, where we took a short break to catch our breath and to look back for one last time. We could see all the way back to Citadel Pass on the Sunshine Meadows route where a golden spotlight shone on patch of larches. And with that we turned and continued on, now in Banff National Park again, and started the gentle descent through the meadows, passing the flowers and rocks we’d admired on yesterday’s hike, revisiting some of the scenes of that trip. We passed the turnoff to the viewpoint and let our feet carry us onto new ground with that air of excitement and anticipation brought on by stepping onto a trail we hadn’t hiked before.
Our route meandered as it descended, crossing a small creek before turning at a point where the terrain dropped away sharply, revealing an exceptional vista ahead of us. The western end of Marvel Lake came into view and we paused to admire what lay before us. A fast group of young guys caught up with us – one with two cameras attached to his backpack straps – stopping long enough to fire off a few photos before continuing on their way and soon disappearing from sight. At least we didn’t need to worry about making noise to alert any bears with them in front of us…
We craned our necks for one last view as we dropped below the treeline, leaving the larches behind, and began to traverse back and forth on a series of descending switchbacks. Occasional peek-a-boo views kept tantalizing us, the clouds looming over the mountain tops and glaciers, while above us a raptor soared past pursued by a pair of cawing ravens. Although we had left behind the colour of the larches, the huckleberry and blueberry bushes were now beginning to make up for it showing off their reds and yellows.
Down and down we went, eventually emerging into an intimidating rocky gully that swept down from the ridge we’d explored yesterday, continuing our descent at its edge and soon reaching a signed junction where a faint trail led down more steeply. Curiously, the sign pointed to Marvel Lake and Marvel Pass in one direction, and back to Wonder Pass in the other but had no information on the direction that we were heading, despite it being the more popular and obvious route. Someone had filled in the information gap for hikers, with directions written in permanent marker to point the way to the Bryant Creek campground. For a moment we contemplated following the trail down to Marvel Lake to check out the view but we didn’t fancy the steep climb back up to the trail. Later we checked the map and eyed up a way to explore the Marvel Pass area, filing it away for a future trip.
Instead we followed the faint rocky path, beaten flat in the scree by the passage of many hikers, as the trail rounded the flank of the mountain, leaving the gully behind and emerging onto vast, sparsely forested scree slopes where aspen leaves fluttered in the breeze. We had spoken with a couple on their way in to the core area who’d said that there were no views along this stretch of the trail but they were spectacularly wrong! The trail stayed quite high on the slopes, mostly above the thickly forested shore of the lake, and we had amazing views of Marvel Lake and its namesake peak across the valley, and back towards Mount Gloria where patches of sunshine lit up the larches on its slopes. Across the lake, a ribbon waterfall cascaded a few hundred metres straight down the slope and into the lake, reflected almost perfectly in the calm water.
This was excellent hiking! So much better than we expected. We’d been on the move for a few hours by now and set about finding a lunch spot. This was harder than anticipated on the very steep slopes and in the end we found a patch of trees where we could lay down our packs without them rolling away downhill and walked back out onto the open slope to perch on the least uncomfortable rocks we could find to sit on while enjoying the view. It didn’t help that the trail was really narrow, literally only one hiker wide, so we had a stand up a couple of times as other hikers passed by. While we could’ve stayed there all afternoon, our bums were more than happy to not spend another moment on those rocks!
Moving on we breathed in the immense vistas all around us. The rocky slopes we were traversing plunged down from the base of a line of sheer cliffs, sprinkled with small trees and colourful shrubs such as Saskatoon berry, stinking currant, juniper, soapberry, vine maples, cottonwoods, and aspen. It was clear that these slopes were swept clear by avalanches in the snowy months with deeply-carved gullies and splintered trees dotting the slopes. Below us to our right, the lake was a gorgeous deep blue tinged with paler shades towards the edge, especially where silty beaches had formed at the bottom of the slide paths. Afternoon sunshine lit up the golden larches on the opposite side of the valley, in stark contrast to the mass of grey rock.
The rocks were beginning to feel hard on our feet (although it was a relief to sense that our packs were feeling lighter) but the views were stunning and far more impressive than we had been led to believe and we walked on with our spirits high. We crossed several gullies. washouts, and slide paths, thick with small shrubby bushes and occasionally grassy patches. These were undoubtedly colourful meadows earlier in the season but it was now well past flowering even as a few harebell and paintbrush hung on. One gully in particular was quite a challenge to get through. It must have been 10 metres across with a 2-3 metre drop to get into it and – of course – a 2-3 metre climb up loose dirt and gravel to get back out. Looking uphill we could see its source far up the slope, while the path downhill showed a large swath cut through the trees and meadows, huge boulders at the extent of the cleared forest, almost reaching the lake. We looked at each other and decided that this was not a hospitable place, and we quickly moved on.
As we neared the eastern end of the lake, the trees gradually regained the upper hand over the efforts of avalanches and slides to stop them growing. We walked a narrow path through dense spindly trees, making some noise as we went to alleviate the feeling of claustrophobia after spending so much time out in the open. The one plus point was that the ground was much softer in the trees, and our feet were thankful for that. Just as we reached the forest again, the sun came out to light up the whole slope around us.
Into the forest we went, the warmth of the sun now adding to the fatigue that had been building over the last hour or two. After some time quietly walking through the trees, we came to a trail junction. Consulting our map, we turned right and began to descend towards Marvel Lake to cover the final 1.5 km to the campground. On our way we met a grouse on the trail and stopped to get a picture or two. To our surprise, it kept walking towards us like we weren’t there, passing by almost close enough to touch before it hopped up the slope. Soon after, just as we levelled off near the lake, we spotted a female although it was decidedly more skittish and wanted nothing to do with us.
We reached the shore of the lake, emerging into hot, dazzling sunshine. Even though we were only 15-20 minutes from the campground, we felt the need to take a break, dropping our packs and finding a log to sit and take in the view while devouring a Mars bar. It was peaceful with the only sound being the waves gently lapping at the grassy shore. From here we could see all the way up to the cliffy summit of Wonder Peak. Mount Gloria peeked out from the clouds at the end of the valley while Mount Assiniboine remained firmly hidden.
With some reluctance, we pulled on our packs again to cover that final kilometre to the campground. A short and very unwelcome climb greeted us as we walked on before we passed through quiet forest lit up by the afternoon sun. Down to our right lay a small bright green pond but we were too tired to consider checking it out. We met two more grouse along the way before the welcome sound of the creek reached our ears, soon crossing on the narrow bridge to enter the campground. We dropped our packs at a decent looking spot and took ourselves on a tour to check out the other sites. In the end we were happy where we were and set about putting up the tent. This was definitely a nicer campground than the first one of the trip, so we felt that this would be a good place to end the week.
The sunshine fooled us into setting up the tent without the fly, which we spread out to dry using our poles and some spare guy lines. Oops. Barely five minutes later a sharp rain shower passed over sending us scrambling to retrieve the fly and cover the tent. That’ll teach us, I guess! On the plus side, our makeshift safety-pin repair seemed to be holding up well. We chatted with a few of our fellow hikers about the trail and the day, one of whom we’d spoken with at the Magog campground. We walked the few metres to the creek, near the footing of a former bridge by the look of it, and filtered some water for dinner and to top up our Platypuses.
Sitting by the creek was so lovely! We hadn’t been near many creeks on this trip so it was very relaxing to sit and let the sound of the creek fill our ears. Movement caught our attention and we stopped what we were doing to watch a dipper work its way up the creek, bobbing and hopping from rock to rock, totally unconcerned at our presence. It was a magical moment as we watched the small grey bird poke its head under the water, dive down, emerge at another rock to devour what tasty morsels it had caught. There was no thought in my mind about going for the camera: this was a moment to sit and be 100 per cent present and just observe. For about two minutes we were transfixed before the dipper bobbed far enough upstream to be out of sight. We finished filtering water and returned to the tent.
It was time for dinner, and we took our food bags, water, and cookware to the cooking area, a nice big picnic bench in a small clearing with more metal lockers for food storage. Half-a-dozen others were already there – four on their way out from Magog and two German hikers on their way in – and they made space for us at one end of the table. We enjoyed a relaxed and sociable last dinner on the trail, happy to lighten our packs some more by eating up our remaining food. The hikers on their way out felt similarly and we pooled our leftovers to share for dessert. We had saved enough whisky for our last night and shared that too, which went down very well!
The evening wore on and the sun dipped below the mountains, the temperature dropping quickly and encouraging all of us to head for the warmth of our sleeping bags. We took our Thermos of hot water and sat on the bridge for 15-20 minutes to absorb the sound of the running water. It was so wonderfully therapeutic to sit by the creek. One of our fellow hikers did the same, sitting in the middle of the bridge with his own thoughts. There was no need to talk.
We crawled into the tent, continuing to enjoy the sound of the creek, now a little more muffled and easier on the ears. It was bliss, and Maria used up the last charge in the battery pack to read her Kobo. We had briefly contemplated hiking all the way out in one day, but right now we were glad we’d hung on in the backcountry for one more night. On a fine evening such as this, we couldn’t think of a better place to spend our last night. It was a fitting way to finish our trip, and felt like a bit of a wind-down after all the dramatic scenery of Mount Assiniboine and its neighbours.
With our flask now empty, we pulled on our boots for a final bathroom break before walking back to the cache to store the sanitizer. Let me tell you, that 280 m felt like a very long way in the dark! Walking just by the light of our headlamps felt eery and claustrophobic and the distance meant we constantly wondered if we’d missed a turn and had walked away from the campground, so it was with some relief that we recognized a piece of flagging tape and turned onto a side-trail to reach our tent again. Looking up for one last glimpse of the night sky, a few stars shone brightly between the clouds.
Then it was time to settle down. It rained for a short time around midnight but was otherwise peaceful with only the sound of the creek and the light of the Moon to keep us company. Yes; definitely a fitting way to end the trip.