Egypt Lakes, 24-29 Jul 2022

Opinion:

A stunning area that showcases the grandeur and beauty of the Canadian Rockies, with many beautiful lakes and expansive views, not to mention the sheer profusion of flowers. Allow several days (minimum 3-5) in order to get the most out of exploring this area. Our six-day itinerary is not the easiest, given the big climbs on the first and last days, although we thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the trails in both directions. For such a popular destination, we spent most of our time alone on the trail so don’t be put off by reports of it being crowded. But – and there’s always a but – the mosquitoes at this time of year can be numerous and hungry, which may put a serious dent in your enjoyment.

Fact

Start planning early! Getting reservations at the backcountry campgrounds required joining the hordes of other hopefuls early on a January morning. Check the Parks Canada website (or social media) for the opening dates for reservations. We based our itinerary on a trip description in Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies by Craig and Kathy Copeland. Unfortunately with only a single car we couldn’t do the “through-hike” version they describe but to be honest we didn’t mind retracing our steps as the hiking was so good. Of course, national park entry fees apply: given the length of this trip, an annual pass was the best value for us.

The trailhead parking at Vista Lake was smaller than I remembered and filled up quickly. I didn’t like the idea of leaving our car at the roadside for a week (officially it’s illegal anyway), so I was glad to squeeze into a spot between a couple of badly-parked cars. (Ten minutes later and there would have been no space for us at all.) Surprisingly, there was no outhouse at the trailhead.

Trail conditions
The trails were mostly in great shape, and we were pleasantly surprised to find how narrow they were in many places, often just single-track. A few areas suffered badly from braiding, undoubtedly the muddiest ones. Thankfully the trail was dry for our visit with very little mud, just a few patches between Shadow Lake and Haiduk Creek. The upper portion of the first/last section from/to Vista Lake was quite steep with a loose gravelly surface. The Redearth Pass trail was surprisingly faint, and it wasn’t obvious when we joined from the Talc Lake trail. The worst section was between Shadow Lake and the crossing of Haiduk Creek which was uneven, rooty, and muddy. But that was definitely the exception as most trails were a joy to hike.

We encountered a significant number of fallen trees between Twin Lakes and Shadow Lake. Thankfully, Parks Canada work crews began the job of clearing them on the day we hiked out. A single fallen tree on the shoreline trail at Haiduk Lake required a short detour into the forest – pay close attention when heading northbound as the way into the forest is hard to spot. Other than that, the trails were clear of deadfall (the section between Sunshine Meadows and Simpson Pass had recently been cleared by park crews).

Most creeks had good bridges for crossing. The exceptions were: the outlet from Scarab Lake where we had to pick our way over a sketchy log (I understand there used to be a bridge there but it is no more), the outlet creek from Upper Twin Lake just had stepping stones, while the outlets from Pharaoh and Black Rock Lakes required careful rock-hopping over slick boulders. At other times of year I expect the water level to be lower which would make these crossings much easier. One other creek without a bridge was one flowing in to Haiduk Lake. Thankfully it was shallow and easy to step across on rocks and small logs.

Be aware that the unofficial trails and routes near Healy Pass and Sunshine Meadows listed on crowd-sourced maps (and in many hiking/mapping apps) have been closed by Parks Canada to protect the sensitive alpine environment (and improve grizzly bear habitat). Check the Banff National Park website for which trails are open and cross-reference with maps and apps before planning your trip. There were a couple of signs warning of the steep $25,000 fines if caught ignoring the closures. We had plans to hike a few of these but in the end decided not to risk it and we stuck to the official trails.

Camping
We camped at the Shadow Lake and Egypt Lake campgrounds. Both had numbered and well-defined tent pads with a bed of bark chips that was dry and comfortable. Despite their size, they were only just big enough to comfortable house a two-person tent (such as our MSR Hubba Hubba NX). Shadow Lake had 5 sites and Egypt Lake 15. Each campground had metal food lockers which were numbered so you know which locker is yours. Nice! The outhouse at Shadow Lake was, um, full (despite the appearance of a new-looking structure); those at Egypt Lake were the replaceable barrels that Parks Canada flies in and out.

Egypt Lake was fully occupied on all three nights – the campground attracts a mix of backpackers and thru-hikers on the Great Divide Trail. Despite being reservation-only, at least one group had to camp on the meadows because someone occupied a site that they shouldn’t have. By contrast, we had a single companion group at Shadow Lake on our way in and none on our way out – some other hikers we spoke to said they had tried to book Shadow Lake but it was full, which suggests there were more than a few no-shows. Please cancel your reservation so someone else can book it! The Shadow Lake campground is very close to the Shadow Lake lodge (I wondered if it had been moved as my impression was that it was further away). I don’t know if the lodge does a “hiker tea” like some of the other backcountry lodges but it would be a nice place to sit back with a beer. The downsides were the generator noise from the lodge and the helicopter traffic – thankfully only a single flight while we were there but it was extremely loud and the smell of aviation fuel was very strong as it took off. Yuck.

We passed by the campgrounds at Upper Twin Lake and Ball Pass Junction – both were small with only half-a-dozen tent pads but they were in nice locations. There were campers at Upper Twin Lake on our way in, but Ball Pass Junction was empty both times we passed by.

Flora
The stars of the show were undoubtedly the extensive meadows of paintbrush that varied in colour from vivid red through orange to pale pink and white. It was, without doubt, the greatest display of paintbrush we’ve ever seen – absolutely stunning and I could’ve spent all my time there cataloguing all the different shades of paintbrush. Playing a supporting role were: glacier lilies, western spring beauty, western anemone, cut-leaf anemone, globeflower, alpine buttercup, western meadowrue, bunchberry, pink wintergreen, one-sided wintergreen, pipsissewa, marsh marigold, Sitka valerian, arnica, woolly pussytoes, alpine pussytoes, rosy pussytoes, white bog orchid, pink, yellow, and white heather, dryas, moss campion, golden fleabane, sweet coltsfoot, alpine bistort, Rocky Mountain columbine, alpine mitrewort, leatherleaf saxifrage, Alaska saxifrage, spotted saxifrage, mountain saxifrage, Davidson’s penstemon, mountain bells, twin berry honeysuckle, alpine daisies, elephant heads, slender cinquefoil, shrubby cinquefoil, twayblade, field locoweed, kalmia, white violets, yellow stream violets, dandelions, orange agoseris, foamflower, wood betony, Menzies’ larkspur, strawberry, death camas, alpine forget-me-nots, (Alaska?) rein orchid, fireweed, fringed grass-of-Parnassus, twinflower, clasping twistedstalk, Labrador tea, white rhododendron, speedwell, plus at least three flower varieties that we’ve yet to identify

Fauna
Mostly pikas and marmots with Columbia and golden-mantled ground squirrels for variety, plus a few chipmunks and a vole. We saw bear prints in the mud on the descent from Gibbon Pass towards Shadow Lake. The hikers we met at the Shadow Lake campground said their dog barked a couple of times in this area. Birds we saw or heard included: loons, harlequin ducks (female with brood), white-crowned sparrows, Clark’s nutcrackers, Swainson’s, hermit, and varied thrushes, robins, pine siskins, mountain chickadees, dark-eyed juncoes, bald eagles, ravens, a flycatcher or two. There were trout in Pharaoh Creek. And so many mosquitoes 🦟. Near Banff we saw elk and deer.

Distance: 100 km
Elevation gain: 4400 m
Time: 6 days

Key moments

  • 😀 The quality of the hiking was exceptional – there were so many sublime moments hiking through meadows, over passes, and among larches
  • 😀 Sitting cooling our feet in the stunning Lower Twin Lake while watching and listening to a nearby loon
  • 😀 Standing at the shore of so many stunning lakes, each one a glorious new surprise
  • 😀 Admiring the grandstand view of the surrounding lakes and peaks from the slopes and summit of the Sphinx
  • 😀 Peaceful hiking in vast scenery, we had long stretches of trail when we were the only people around
  • 😀 Being surrounded by extensive meadows full of paintbrush of every shade of red and pink
  • 😀 Enjoying our last dinner on the trail next to a mirror-like Shadow Lake
  • 😀 Cooling my feet in the creek at sunset at the end of a long day of hiking and trying not to disturb the trout
  • 🙁 The mosquitoes were ravenous and incessant – there was simply no escape until after dark
  • 🙁 Tripping and falling face-first with my overnight pack – twice! (Thankfully I escaped with just a few grazes each time.)
  • 🙁 Picking our way over a pile of large, razor-sharp boulders near Mummy Lake was not fun
  • 🙁 Wondering if we’d ever reach the parking lot on the last kilometre of uphill back to the car while hoping the thunderstorm wouldn’t drench us!

Summary

As ever with our marquee multi-day hikes, this post will just summarize the trip, leaving me the job of filling in the details with posts for each day at some point in the future. We spent six days/five nights on the trail, with a night at Shadow Lake campground on our way in and out, and three nights at Egypt Lake. Our route went from the Vista Lake trailhead on Highway 93, via Arnica and the Twin Lakes and Gibbon Pass to Shadow Lake, then past Haiduk Lake and over Whistling Pass. We had two full days to explore the area while camped at Egypt Lake, which we completely filled with exploration! Here’s a breakdown of our itinerary:

  1. Vista Lake trailhead to Shadow Lake: 14 km, +940/-795 m, 6 h 35 m
  2. Shadow Lake to Egypt Lake campground: 14 km, +520/-350 m, 7 h 5 m
  3. Healy Pass, Simpson Pass, and Monarch Viewpoint: 21.5 km, 900 m, 9 h 45 m
  4. A day of many lakes: Pharaoh and Black Rock Lakes in the morning followed by Egypt, Scarab, Mummy, and Talc (Natalko) Lakes in the afternoon: 17 km, 820 m, 10 h 55 m
  5. Egypt Lake to Shadow Lake: 14 km, +350/-520 m, 7 h 30 m
  6. Shadow Lake to Vista Lake trailhead: 14 km, +795/-940 m, 7 h 20 m

As you can see, this trip seems to have been all about lakes, although our route took us over three stunning – and very different – mountain passes: Gibbon, Whistling, and Healy (with the somewhat less impressive Simpson Pass thrown in for good measure). But let’s not forget the flowers: the extensive meadows were more-or-less at their peak, overflowing with paintbrush and all manner of other flowers, and were some of the best displays we’ve ever seen. And then there was the scenery…

What also strikes me about the numbers above is how long our days were – we spent most of our daylight hours on the move, though those times include all our breaks, some of which were quite substantial and leisurely! Our moving average pace was about 3 km/h with our overnight packs, testament to how good the hiking is in the Rockies compared with the usual Coast Mountain slog.

To sum up: what do I think of the trip? It took a long time for us (well, me) to process what we’d experienced and to truly appreciate where we’d hiked. In retrospect (a few months later) I think the heat and mosquito situation meant that it was hard to savour the experience as much as we normally do. I also think that the fact we saw so much and covered so much ground (even though we did most of it twice) overwhelmed our senses a bit: I felt like my brain was so full that I had a hard time remembering everything we did and saw. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy it at the time – we did, but I think we got to the end feeling a little dazed! Only now when I re-read my notes and scan through the photos can I appreciate just how exceptionally beautiful this hike was, and I highly recommend visiting this area. It must be spectacular in the fall when the larches turn. Hey, that gives me an idea…

Prologue: road trip to Banff

Getting there is always the first hurdle, but I’m quite partial to a good road trip and we’ve done the drive through to Banff enough times that we know how to break the journey into manageable chunks. We overslept and ended up leaving later than planned, driving in heavy traffic through the Fraser Valley to Chilliwack, which – thankfully – thinned out as we approached Hope. Driving the Coquihalla Highway was sobering as it was our first glimpse of the damage wrought by last winter’s storms, and our first chance to see how the areas burned by last year’s fires were faring. Between the charred and silvered trunks lining the hills, the carpet of fresh, bright green looked distinctly incongruous. We noticed that the fences had been repaired too, no more burned partial posts hanging on to the wires.

Our first stop was in Kamloops for a late-morning hot drink before continuing on following the South Thompson River upstream to Shuswap Lake. The surface of both the river and the lake shone blue as they reflected the sky. We called in at De Mille’s in Salmon Arm (which required a circuitous detour thanks to the Highway 1 upgrades) for lunch – a decent burger from the Yukon Smash food truck followed by ice cream. Yeah, that’s healthy…. Road-tripping is a good excuse to eat what you fancy or what’s convenient with the promise of doing better later, especially when about to embark on a week of backpacking. At least we picked up some blueberries…

Beyond Salmon Arm lay my least favourite part of the drive – to Sicamous and up Eagle River – but it passed quickly today, undoubtedly thanks to the sunshine and surprisingly light traffic. The greenery was soothing, the lakes near Three Valley Gap were bright blue, one of which was a perfect mirror, and we were soon pulling in to Revelstoke for more refreshments. The intense and oppressive heat hit us as we opened the car doors – a quick check of the weather told us it was 32 C in town – and we ambled slowly in search of a cold drink. The lines were long at the cafes but the iced tea and coffee and mini-doughnuts were very welcome.

We were soon back on the road in the comfort of the air-conditioned car, admiring the stunning peaks of Glacier National Park. Driving through Rogers Pass, where scores of purple flowers lined the verge, we craned our necks upwards to see the avalanche paths extending all the way to the high alpine, several on the north-facing slopes still choked with snow. Where the snow had melted, streams cascaded down the mountainsides. Construction meant we had to keep our speed down which allowed us more time to ogle the sheer slopes around us.

The descent into the Rocky Mountain Trench is another of my less favourite sections but today it, too, passed quickly. The green Columbia River was full to its banks with meltwater, and flat calm with barely a suggestion of movement. I always take a peek at the Blaeberry River as we cross its bridge; normally a pale turquoise, today it was silty grey with meltwater and runoff. We stopped in Golden long enough to pick up a cold drink for now and some cold drinks for later (courtesy of Whitetooth Brewing). Next up was one of our favourite sections as we entered the Rockies at last, the Kicking Horse canyon leading in to Yoho National Park. At one point the road heads directly towards a series of towering mountains and I usually find myself wondering how we’re going to cross that range, only to have the road bend abruptly north to follow the Kicking Horse river as it meanders through the now broad valley. We were soon in Field, passing long freight trains heading for (or exiting from) the Spiral Tunnels, then the climb up to Wapta Pass where we crossed from BC into Alberta and from Yoho into Banff National Park.

Now we had just under an hour of our journey remaining and I eased off the accelerator, hit the cruise control button and let the car do the work while we admired the now-familiar mountains of the Bow Valley. Mount Temple looked striking and intimidating as usual. Broad-leaved willowherb festooned the gravel bars and banks of Bath Creek, the pink flowers contrasting with the milky colour of the water. Ahead of us lay ominous dark clouds and we remarked that it would be typical to have had such a fine, dry day to drive only to get soaked as we try and put up the tent. We drove by Castle Mountain, then the Sawback Range, before reaching Vermillion Lakes with the familiar wedge-like profile of Mount Rundle behind.

Just before our exit, I looked left into the open aspen meadows below Cascade Mountain and spotted two deer, then excitedly pointed at a small herd of elk just visible among the pale trees. We turned off the highway and wound our way up to the Tunnel Mountain campground, the smoke from campfires filling the stagnant air – yuck. Our timing was impeccable: as we pulled into our campsite the heavens opened and it poured on us, thunder echoing around the valley. Well, we weren’t putting up the tent in that, so we sat back and ate our sandwiches accompanied by a refreshing cold drink, listening to the rain pelt the roof of the car.

Eventually the rain eased off and we stepped outside to pitch the tent. We were duly greeted by a cloud of a different kind – a horde of hungry mosquitoes – and we hurried to finish setting up our home for the night before diving back into the car to escape the ravenous insects. Well, that was unwelcome – and a taste of things to come, though we didn’t know it at the time. With everything sorted, there was nothing to do but sit back and relax, and watch the daylight fade before our eyes, eventually crawling into the tent to fall asleep to the sound of the train whistles.

3 thoughts on “Egypt Lakes, 24-29 Jul 2022

  1. What a post! I would looove to copy you Andy – this looks like a truly spectacular adventure (and I always love that road trip…although we tend to break it up with mini hikes along the way!)

    Have you considered getting a backpackers thermacell? I bought one last year and it really helped along the rockwall when the mosquitoes were attempting to eat us alive! It plugs into the same gas can that you use for cooking…but doesn’t use up much gas.

    1. Thanks Josy! Yes, you should totally go for it! The approach from Healy Creek or Sunshine Meadows is easier but then you don’t get to pass all the amazing lakes.

      Yeah you were on the Rockwall at the same time as this trip so no wonder you were being eaten alive too! No I must admit we haven’t thought of getting one but I think we’ll look into getting one for next year knowing that they do help.

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