Planning the South Boundary Trail

2,416 words · Alberta, General topics, Rocky Mountains, Trip planning

This time of year, people talk about their backpacking plans. The luckiest souls plan to be out most of July and August, and I cope and seethe for like most of us, I get at best one good backpack a year. So naturally I plan it out to avoid being hosed by the booking gods, running down my list of must-do hikes every January and finishing on one can-do for August that’s as fun as I can make it. Moreover, this year I felt a hankering to get as close to the all-summer hiking crowd as I could, to make my one trip a real marathon.

My Western Canada backpacking bucket list goes something like:

  1. The North Coast Trail. The trailheads are reachable by the Cape Scott Water Taxi; unfortunately, hiring them out for a solo hiker costs a fortune. I’ve looked in the past at joining others, without success. Maybe someday.
  2. Jasper’s North Boundary Trail. The Berg Lake Trail, at the west end, is closed until 2025 thanks to 2021 flooding. The North Boundary’s lost two more important bridges and, at the rate Jasper National Park works, might be closed indefinitely. This one is probably out of the question for a while.
  3. Banff Sunshine Village to Mount Shark via Mount Assiniboine. I had this booked in 2020, but COVID. White Mountain Adventures may or may not be running their shuttle to town from the south trailhead in 2022; if they don’t, you can actually hike this out all the way to Canmore along the Spray Lakes Reservoir, which sort of sounds like fun, but it just didn’t get me this year compared to…
  4. Jasper’s South Boundary Trail. I’ve never had as deep a bug for the South Boundary, somehow. But it’s still two weeks in the woods, two weeks of solitude and challenge, route-finding and river-fording and rain and maybe snow, and above all the beautiful Rocky Mountains.

So it’s the South Boundary for me in 2022, because I want to do the North Boundary and can’t.

Update: I made it, and if you want to read how the adventure went, I’ve posted separate diaries on the Fiddle River and South Boundary segments. But read on to see what I expected beforehand.

I’ve spent at most five nights on the trail, in 2017 when I did the West Coast Trail and last year on the Rockwall Trail. And, weird thing, in my memory the West Coast Trail went on forever, it’s a Greek poem, but the Rockwall… it was amazing, tremendous, I loved it, but it felt nothing like as long. Rockwall’s a scootch easier. It’s got to be as beautiful. Yet the West Coast Trail felt like a chapter break in my life while the Rockwall was an enormously pleasant thing I did. The urge to stretch my limits is therefore strong.

Moreover, as the North Boundary shows, these trails are endangered. Parks are getting worse like everything else. The South Boundary is not one of Jasper’s most-cherished trails and, for reasons avoidable and otherwise, has been falling gradually into rack and ruin for decades. The keystone is the Southesk Suspension Bridge, which through 2021 has survived fire, wind, rain, and flood to remain in service at 25 years old. It looks like a horrifying rickety thing and will scare the pants off me, but someday soon it’ll wash out and won’t be replaced. That leaves a dangerous ford that threatens to cut the trail off entirely, as the North Boundary Trail is cut off now, for four years at best. If you have the option to do one of these trails now do it, because next year may be too late.

South Boundary Trail 2022 Itinerary
Day # Description Mileage Gross Ascent
1 Miette Hot Springs to Slide Creek 8.3mi 1,509ft
2 Slide Creek to Fiddle Pass (Whitehorse Wildland PP) 8.2mi 1,839ft
3 Fiddle Pass to Whitehorse Creek 7.2mi 539ft
Fiddle River trail subtotal 23.7mi 3,887ft
4 Whitehorse Creek to Rocky Pass trailhead (road) 10.7mi-ish 1,642ft
5 Rocky Pass trailhead to Medicine Tent (Jasper NP) 6.9mi-ish 902ft
6 Medicine Tent to LaGrace 5.7mi 916ft
7 LaGrace to Cairn Pass 6.2mi 1,189ft
8 Cairn Pass to Cairn River 8.0mi 319ft
9 Cairn River to Southesk 5.3mi 441ft
10 Southesk to Isaac Creek 7.9mi 755ft
11 Isaac Creek to Arete 8.4mi 642ft
12 Arete to Brazeau Lake 9.1mi 1,228ft
13 Brazeau Lake to Four Point 10.2mi 727ft
14 Four Point to Highway 93 8.3mi 1,102ft
Total 110.4mi 13,750ft
All numbers theoretical.

One great thing about the South Boundary is that, being so less-visited than others, the Parks Canada reservation opening is less of a big deal and most campsites are available whenever you’d like. But the end of the trail goes through the much-busier Brazeau so I got up on opening day just in case, and naturally this was the year I was randomly drawn at the front of the line. Every campsite in Jasper National Park was just a click away. “Maybe I’ll do the Brazeau Loop while I’m there! Maybe I’ll re-do Skyline on my way back! I’m drunk with power!

Getting to Jasper is usually easy. I’m taking the train, and if that gets canceled the Sundog bus from Edmonton should work. You can just about count on the Canadian having a multiple-hour delay from Vancouver to Jasper and that means spending a night in town which, given how well I sleep in day coaches, is probably a good idea anyway. Reaching the South Boundary’s western trailhead is something to allow time and energy for.

The “classic” South Boundary Trail started from the Maligne Road in Jasper National Park, passing through Jacques Lake: reaching this trailhead is, thanks to all the traffic and the Maligne Adventures shuttle, close to trivial. But the trail north of Jacques Lake was annihilated by a wildfire in 2003 and in 2015 Rogier Gruys, whose name you’ll recognize from just about every single official photo of the Jasper backcountry, described the route as “a lot worse than we thought.”

It is extremely difficult to get through, and it will only get worse in the coming years. There are thousands of trees down, and thousands more that will fall down in the coming years. And there are equally many young pine trees, willow, alders and buffalo berries crowding the trail as well…. And since the bridge is out, it can only be completed in the fall when the Rocky River is low.

The new starting point is over Rocky Pass from Alberta’s provincially-managed Whitehorse Wilderness Area, truly in the ass-end of nowhere. The closest settlement is Cadomin, a hamlet of about fifty souls, along a brutal road where a 4×4 is recommended. The closest town where you might be able to find a cab is Hinton, a further thirty miles away, and those taxis won’t take you down the coal mining roads.

What most people do is hike in a group, drop a vehicle at the south trailhead, drive a second 170 miles to the north trailhead, hike, and repeat the drive ten days later. I’m hiking by myself and I don’t drive so that’s not for me. My plan, therefore, is to hike to the north trailhead.

Jasper’s Fiddle River trail starts at Miette Hot Springs, which is an almost-reasonable taxi from Jasper. The trail leads you up, and further up, through mud and over roots to Fiddle Pass, then down to the Alberta provincial front-country campground at Whitehorse Creek south of Cadomin. From there it’s in the range of a 10.7-mile hike along the coal mining road to the Rocky Pass Trailhead. With a few easily-avoided exceptions, random camping is permitted here; you can therefore camp out near the trailhead and hike the South Boundary proper after only a few days’ detour.

The joke is that my access strategy will probably be the worst part. The Fiddle River Trail has its fans but it features thick mud, a multitude of unbridged creek crossings, and plenty of elevation gain. According to the map all three of my highest-elevation days on this hike will be spent reaching the South Boundary trailhead, which is sort of funny. Apart from that enforced detour there’s really no more elevation gain on any given day of the South Boundary than you’d make banging out a day hike on Vancouver’s North Shore.

Still, it’s not a bad plan viewed from the office chair. The elevations are objectively modest, I’m not afraid of mud, and if I’m going to do the South Boundary difficult fords are a thing to get used to. There’s just a chance I might be able to hitchhike some or all of the 10.7 mining-road miles, which depending on the weather will probably either be very dry or very wet; this is not a thru-hike, there is no “continuous footpath” requirement. There is, moreover, something pleasing about putting some boundary back in the South Boundary, at skating along the edge of the park a little further and reclaiming some of the difficulty the Rocky River fire took from us.

After the Fiddle River leg both distances and elevations moderate. You could certainly do this trip faster. But in my planning I’ve been motivated by several factors:

  1. I will probably never be back there, and time savouring the wilderness is never time wasted. Why not hit every campground and enjoy a few days where I’ll probably have my tent set up by 1 PM and can sit by the creek reading, writing, and breathing clean air?
  2. 110.4 miles is a long way, more than twice as far as I’ve ever backpacked in one trip. Having a few days short enough where time spent making and mending can be made up while keeping to the schedule is comforting.
  3. Trip planning resources suggest that some of the mileage is tougher than it looks. The 5.3 miles from Cairn River to Southesk can be… emotional.

Trip planning in the Canadian Rockies usually means The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide but their entry on the South Boundary was written before many important changes and weather events. However, being the good guides they are, Brian Patton and Bart Robinson maintain a hiking blog with relevant trail updates, where the comment sections are almost as valuable as the post. That’s the place to start.

Everyone researching this trail for years to come will probably watch Stuart and Evelyn Howe’s South Boundary Trail video, a two-and-a-half-hour epic of a man and his daughter discovering this trail. You see them enjoy the sights and endure the rain and pick their way patiently through blowdowns, eroded trail, seemingly endless fords, trail infrastructure that’s generations old but has held up to a greater or lesser degree, and learn more than you ever will from the outdated guides in print. Stuart also generously posted the link to their Gaia GPS map, which will never be totally accurate but beats having nothing. This video’s linked to by everybody, and you notice I linked to it too. It’s got over 10,000 views, which for a feature-lengh GoPro-shot video that’s a story rather than aspirational lifestyle clickbait feels like a lot. It’s informative, entertaining, and endearing.

There’s also Marc of the Trail‘s nearly-eight-hour playlist documenting his 2020 trip. It is a lot-less viewed, probably because have I mentioned it’s nearly eight hours. I would compare it to my own backpacking diaries: people seldom finish them, the creator puts a lot of effort into presentation and would clearly prefer they were more popular, but for mainstream success they really need to be 80% shorter and recording all the memories is too fun for that to ever happen. But being so in-depth, and filled with side trips (Marc has a passion for old camps and warden’s cabins) they are of great use.

The hike will be anything but straightforward. The trail is burned, lost, or overgrown in places for miles at a time. It’s not unmaintained1, but expectations should be kept pretty low. There are few bridges, many creeks, several spots of routefinding, and a bunch of questionable campsites on bear highways surrounded by dead trees killed by pine beetles. Even perfectly prepared it must be an interesting, and above all isolated, time.

Until I reach the Brazeau, on lucky day 13. Then the “crowds” start to come back. A crowd in the Jasper backcountry has nothing in common with the crowds I’m used to in British Columbia. When I liked Skyline in 2020 it was “crowded,” meaning the campsites were booked solid and there was lots of day use, but I was still alone, or nearly-alone, most of the time except at camp. The Brazeau Loop, along with Skyline, is one of the two backcountry trails that draw crowds and are more-or-less permanently well-maintained with bridges, graded trail, picnic tables, and thrones to crap on. I will have company. Very well; by then I’ll probably want it, stinking and dirty and chatting up a storm to a mom and her kids who wanted a few wholesome days in the woods but are now confronted by a garrulous mountain man. The South Boundary is reputed to be dead quiet, and as of this writing mine is the only tent booked in four of seven nights on the South Boundary proper.

Then one more piece of entertainment at the end, when after three more days of hiking, I hit the Nigel Pass trailhead off Highway 93 without a car waiting for me. The trailhead is almost equidistant between Jasper and Lake Louise, and there’s land transport to Vancouver from either, so I get to decide: go north to Jasper? South towards Banff? Stick my thumb out? Make friends with someone at Four Point? Last summer, Sundog Tours ran a bus between Banff and Jasper that would have been perfectly good, if they’d agree to pull onto the side of the highway and pick me up, and if they don’t mind the smell.

Whatever; I’ll figure it out. People hitchhike on the Icefield Parkway all the time and you can’t actually see camping stank from inside a passing car. It’s such a small problem after all the work to get there that I dismiss it by instinct: sufficient unto the two weeks of hiking are the evils thereof.

EDIT, September 12, 2022: this article was edited to add an actual picture of the South Boundary Trail rather than the old one of Skyline that had always bothered me. Spoiler alert, I made it.

  1. Since writing this article I saw another YouTube video by JJ in the Mountains showing a good deal of obvious deadfall-cutting sometime in the summers of 2020 and 2021 almost as far northwest as the Cairn Pass.

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6 replies on "Planning the South Boundary Trail"

  1. Lukas says:

    Hi Ben,
    I am going to hike the trail in the opposite direction starting the 15th of July. I let you know how it goes. Main two reasons I do it the other way around, I want to end the trail at the hot springs and it seems easier from an evalation perspective.

    1. Ben Massey says:

      That’s great! Best of luck and definitely let me know how it goes.

  2. Anne says:

    Hi Ben,
    I just found your side while doing research for a newspaper article. I just came back from the South Boundary Trail a week ago. We did it as a horseback riding group in 10 days. We had three chainsaws with us to clear the trails. It was such an incredible experience! I am going to create a little movie about our trip. I’m happy to share it on youTube pretty soon.
    Kind regards, Anne

    1. Ben Massey says:

      Great! I heard there was a horse party heading out there so I guess you guys lived. Looking forward to seeing the movie when it’s ready!

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