Ben Massey. Backpacking enthusiast, creator of this site, former writer of sports articles for several websites and one magazine, all-round handsome guy, and writer of his own blurbs.
They say if you never bail out on a hike you’ll eventually regret it, but they don’t say that when you do you’ll regret it anyway.
Even when I sprained my ankle hiking to Norvan Falls a few years ago, I finished going to Norvan Falls (though when it happened I was almost there anyway). But after four days of lousy weather, failed gear, and a sleepless night before a steep and dangerous-seeming day far from help having just seen somebody else hurt himself, my nerve failed me and I went home early. As a result this is not the full Sawback Trail, from Banff to Lake Louise; just a lot of it.
One can’t A-B test these things. No Control Ben pushed on to either hurt himself or be fine, so I shall always wonder. Writing up my diary for the trip I found I was justifying the decision to myself. The humble reader is welcome to judge, and I am actually interested in your judgement if you do, but the Inner Adventurer forever remains unsettled.
It was a real hike. Four days towards my goal before finishing up at Badger Pass Junction and returning. 43 miles, mostly short days, and a great deal of spectacular country. The Sawback Trail is recommended, but my luck was out: every day it rained hard. I lost my Kindle and broke my phone, which meant that I had heck-all to do while pinned in my tent.
I’ve been rained on in the Rockies plenty, but I’d never had a trip where it was just always raining; apart from the electronics problems I managed well, and that was good too. Failure can be as interesting as success. Right?
Never miss a ramble
Ben will hike to your inbox! New posts and nothing else.
An easy out-and-back hike beside an artificially-dammed lake. Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park is very popular, but not a glamorous spot for the hardcore hiker.
Most backpackers like a little struggle to give them that sense of achievement when they eat a freezedried meal and hide out the storms in their little nylon shanty. All else being equal they’d rather be alone, and out-and-back hikes are a chore. Since there’s no trail around the south side, Lake Minnewanka is popular, easy, and an out-and-back by definition unless you shoot the Devil’s Gap and come out pretty far from anywhere, near the South Ghost Recreation Area. Plus, though it’s an ideal shoulder-season hike, the Minnewanka trail is restricted to groups of four or more most of the summer to mitigate against the many, many, maaannnyyyy bears that congregate in the abundant and convenient berry bushes to get their feed on. So it’s a logistical hassle too!
I went because I was curious and because, since I had a few days at the beginning of July, it seemed like a good one to check off the list. I’d planned to do the whole thing, out and back, as far as the Ghost Lakes, but I didn’t. Too bored. So there’s an anti-recommendation.
However, dull though the hiking is, the camping is lovely. The easy trail, too, makes this probably the single best beginner’s backpack I’ve ever seen. Curious about this Rocky Mountain lark but understandably reluctant to brave bears and lightning when you don’t really know what you’re doing? Come to Lake Minnewanka! It’s so, so easy to get to, it’s as easy as hiking gets, and it’s rewarding! The hike is anything but a waste of time, especially when you’re in camp, sitting on the beach with your food and your book, watching the sun play across that vast lake. Want to bring the kids? They’ll have places to play and splash around, and the days can be almost as short as you want them to be.
I don’t usually hike big trails twice, but 2023 is shaping up to be a major backpacking year. Therefore I wanted to do something in May, to see where I was at and get my legs under me in advance rather than relying on classic Ben Massey hiking-myself-into-shape-in-the-Rockies. May means no mountain backpacking, or at least none I wanted to deal with. So hey, why not the West Coast Trail again? Besides, I had unfinished business from last time. I had taken safe, boring forest routes when I did the trail for the first time in 2017. I wanted to see Tsusiat Falls in their glorious full flow rather than the September trickle. I wanted to do more beach stuff, in particular the nasty route around Owen Point from Thrasher Cove to Camper Bay. I wanted to see a little more of the coast, in particular the ferry from Bamfield to Port Alberni, which I missed last time out. I wanted to not get my tent flooded out from under me. I wanted to have a little less anxiety, and a little more time to experience the beauty. There were even some souvenirs that I have started collecting since 2017 that I wanted to pick up.
Things did not go entirely according to plan.
In September 2017 I was in some of the best hiking shape of my life while in May 2023 I was flabby and not physically ready for a harder trip. I had forgotten some of the difficulties of the trail and neglected all pre-trip training and preparation. Whereas in 2017 I reached Pachena Bay in perfect condition, in 2023 I finished bruised and battered, but luckily not broken, with torn-up pants and chastened pride.
Which does not mean for a second it was not a wonderful, entertaining experience. Just a different sort from what I expected, and very different from 2017.
The South Boundary Trail. To some those words are instantly evocative. They mean history, grandeur, self-reliance, and solitude.
Jasper National Park has beautiful backcountry, from Skyline to the Brazeau to the Tonquin Valley; the South Boundary’s isn’t the same. The scenic highlight is Nigel Pass, which is also a day hike and easily backpacked on the Brazeau. Otherwise, there are wonderful moments but not constant stimulation. No 3,000-foot climbs, no camps above treeline.
The South Boundary just feels different. The ninth Earl of Southesk put it on the map in 1859 when, recovering from injury, illness, and the loss of his wife, the 32-year-old peer explored the Front Ranges, defined a great Rocky Mountain backcountry trek, met legends of the Canadian West, read Shakespeare and Bulwer-Lytton, and wrote his account with a personality that any fan of obscure backcountry content will recognize. The hunters with him had hardly the vaguest idea where to go: they were experts, not guides, and the earl pioneered this route.
As Jasper matured the South Boundary became popular until, around 1994, the parks began their long retreat from the backcountry. Wildfires in 2003 and 2006, and a flood in 2013, decimated the trail, and little was repaired. Reports discussed how difficult the path could be to find, let alone hike.
Then, in 2019 Stuart and Evelyn Howe recorded a two-and-a-half hour video of their hike. They found Rocky Pass, navigated the washouts, made it to the old paths above the Southesk burn, then got down to the bridge. They showed what victory looked like, posted their GPS tracks, and more would-be hikers were inspired to follow them. In the years since the trail’s been better-marked by cairns, markers, and flagging, and the park has made a couple maintenance trips. One hesitates to call a 75-mile trail with chancy fords, multi-mile route-finding, primitive campsites, unbrushed trails with six-foot willows, and one thoroughly remote trailhead “easy.” But it mostly is.
This was the second part of a 14-day, no-resupply hike that I started at Fiddle River. There’s a synopsis of my earlier adventure ahead but start there if you want the full story.
Hiking Jasper’s Fiddle River trail in mid-August had a simple object: to reach the South Boundary Trail without a three-hour taxi ride.
Living a long way from the Rocky Mountains, I get at most one hike out there a year and the Fiddle River would never make the cut. However, it suited my South Boundary goals perfectly: take a taxi to Miette Hot Springs, hike for three days, cross Fiddle Pass and emerge on the Grave Flats Road less than eleven miles from the Rocky Pass trailhead. It made for 14 days on the trail and about 111 miles (179km) of hiking, with a garbage bin en route but no resupply.
Thus the Fiddle River was not really a “trail” to me: it was an approach. Every niggling inconvenience—and there were a few—wasn’t part of my adventure, but part of my commute. I didn’t realize what a difference that would make mentally until I was at Medicine Tent campground four days later and magically felt better. Carrying a pack with two weeks of food and fuel didn’t improve my mood.
For all the frustration the trail did create some fond memories. Fiddle Pass is lovely, the rivers and creeks are distinct pleasures, and if you want backcountry nights that are private and rugged but not too “out there” I suggest Utopia and Slide Creek campgrounds. It’s just thru-hiking it with a big pack was the wrong way to go, when you could experience the parts you’d like on a less frustrating out-and-back. When you tie the whole trail together, trying to get from one end to the other, Fiddle River is a hassle.
This trip was a single 14-day hike to me, but as it covered two trails at Jasper National Park, joined by a half-road-walk half-hitchhike, I’m dividing it into two posts for readability. The South Boundary Trail post, which will be much longer, is on the way.
Parks Canada’s new reservations system is fun. Used to be you’d log in 7 AM on opening day, the database server would crash, and you’d refresh, and the database server would crash, and you’d have a couple browsers open to get one as far as the cart, and the database server would crash, but you’d check out, and then the payment server would crash, and you’d repeat this ten times until your credit card had been overcharged a few hundred bucks and, because you were high-agency, you’d get your campsites. I wrote about it! It worked for me, which is not the same as saying that it worked.
Now you log in opening day and are randomly assigned a place in line. The website hardly crashes at all but, no matter how on-the-ball you are, you cannot advance more quickly than the luck of the draw. When I visited on Banff, Kootenay, and Yoho backcountry day there were 14,715 people ahead of me taking the good campsites. 14,715. I wrote it down.
I had planned two hard and fast weeks through three parks, from Field, British Columbia to Canmore, Alberta, a hike to be proud of, one you have to train for. But 14,715 people made that impossible. So I had to gear down and hike Kootenay National Park‘s Rockwall, one of the crown jewels of the Canadian Rockies, the one they put on the cover of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide for seven out of ten editions, a beautiful and popular destination I was truly lucky to get into. I even found myself obliged to stop at every campground along the way, a relaxed itinerary that would allow me to spend the summer sitting and getting tubby rather than grinding the Grind.
It was amazing: five of the best nights of my life. You should go.
After two years of frustrated would-be backpacks in the Rocky Mountains1 2020 would be a winner. A half-dozen early mornings, scoring opening-day reservations for some of Canada’s most-coveted campsites. Jasper frontcountry, Banff frontcountry, Jasper backcountry, Banff backcountry, provincial parks: processing and stress, HTTP 503s and duplicate credit card charges: all worth it to see great trails in peak season.
Take the train to Jasper, one night in the frontcountry, then two on the famous Skyline Trail. Bus to Banff, and three more nights up the Sunshine Village gondola, through the Assiniboine Pass, and down to the southeastern corner of Banff National Park via legendary Lake Magog. A trip worth the wait.
Then the virus came. VIA Rail, Canada’s passenger rail provider, suspended transcontinental service for the year. So I had to fly into Edmonton, with associated problems moving fuel and bear spray, and bus to Jasper on Sundog. This meant a needless night at Wapiti, watching elk and ordering pizza.
On the Banff side Sunshine Village announced they, including the gondola leading to Assiniboine Pass, would not open for the summer of 2020. So an already-long day would be lengthened by a sketchy cab ride and a boring uphill walk. Then, in July, the bombshell: a nice lady from Brewster called and said that due to “extreme low demand” their Jasper–Banff bus would not run until September at the earliest2.
It was disappointing but one cannot be angry at small businesses trying to survive in a time of panic. Every thwarted booking, every reservation canceled, was refunded promptly and without hassle. Everybody was very polite, and the reputation of the Rocky Mountains’ little transport companies and outfitters has only improved. But now I could either go to Banff and do Assiniboine Pass, or go to Jasper and do Skyline, but, with no connection between them, not both.
I chose Skyline. A mistake was made.
Until this past Labour Day Garibaldi Provincial Park was one of the many obligatory outdoors spots in British Columbia which I had not visited. There’s always some more exciting way to spend scarce vacation time, always some reason to go elsewhere. For non-drivers it’s certainly accessible, but a bit of a hassle. It’s notoriously crowded, of course, and you can see quite a lot of it any given sunny weekend by searching Instagram. The real outdoorsmen swear by its true backcountry, and the cross-country skiing is said to be excellent, but I lack the game (and the 4×4) for those. So it stayed vaguely on my “I’ll get around to it” list for a long time.
This year I finally knocked quite a lot of it off. Parkbus offers service to the Rubble Creek trailhead, access point to Garibaldi Lake, Panorama Ridge, and the Black Tusk, every weekend. From there one can do a day hike, or even an overnight there-and-back (this, I believe, is the only Parkbus destination out of Vancouver with both Saturday and Sunday service). But if you want to experience more of the park then you can hike out the Cheakamus Lake exit and down the access road to the #20 Whistler city bus run by BC Transit, and from there ride into Whistler itself, from which, even in the post-Greyhound era, any of several intercity buses can whisk you back to downtown Vancouver in touristy comfort. It looked too practical to allow of any excuses.
I don’t think I’ll be back, at least not to Rubble Creek. I hear people say that the West Coast Trail is crowded, well, I liked it a lot. They’ve had to slap stiff overnight quotas on the Chilkoot Trail and I liked that too. So the crowds didn’t scare me, even when I got up at 5 AM the first day campsite reservations were open and saw that, of the 50 sites at Garibaldi Lake itself, half were already booked. Maybe they should have. There were plenty of compensations but it turns out that, after all, there’s such a thing as too busy a backpack for me, and Garibaldi was it.
Skagway. I can’t believe I’m back in Skagway.
I have visited three times, which is two more than you should. In 2017, an aborted backpack to Kluane National Park (our river disappeared) turned into a week pottering around anywhere you could bus from Whitehorse. Thus a bus trip to Carcross, the most boring town in the world, and a transfer onto the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad down to Skagway. In my spare time I am a train nerd, and like most western Canadians I’d always nursed a modest, Pierre Berton-level interest in the Klondike Gold Rush, a grand tale of human irrationality, hubris, greed, glory, triumph, and despair. Skagway was one of the main Gold Rush towns, these days preserved almost as a memorial, and the railway had been built to convey prospectors and equipment through the early days of modern mechanical mining.
En route the train stopped at Bennett, British Columbia, the near-ghost town that is the northern terminus of the Chilkoot Trail1. From the station you can see a sign for the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site of Canada. Saint Andrews Church, a rare surviving Gold Rush-era building, looms between the mountains above. You get off the train with the other tourists and ramble briefly around Bennett, looking at the interpretive signs and enjoying the scenery. It is extremely pretty. Some people camp there for a night or two and take the train back without hiking, and you see why.
Then you get back aboard and ride to Skagway through the White Pass, which is stunning. I swore, on that train in 2017, that I would someday hike the Chilkoot, the 33-mile route from sea level by the Taiya River, through the kilometer-high Chilkoot Pass, and back down to Bennett, where Gold Rush prospectors took to their boats and the hiker to his train.
The Long Trail in Vermont is held to be the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the United States. Running 273 miles long, experienced backpackers can finish it in about a month through the mountains between the Massachusetts and Quebec borders, plunging deep, deep into the forest where no civilized man would go. Though not the most famous patch of track the Long Trail is regarded as a must-try for the ambitious backpacker.
While I did not have a month to spare, my hiking partner Carolyn and I arranged to do six days of it, nearly fifty miles from the Appalachian Gap to the resort town of Stowe, before gorging on ice cream and beer. However, while I was en route Carolyn noticed that we were in for the most appalling weather in recent history: temperatures always around 35° Celsius1, humidity in the nineties, and three days of lightning storms while we would have been crawling across the top of Mount Mansfield. It appeared to make travel ill-advised.
A late-night Skype conference from a shitty hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania produced a plan. The news was grim but even in such hostile conditions the Long Trail could be conquered.Thirst and privation would be our constant companions, the heat our implacable nemesis, and death our only friend, but should we succeed the adventure would define the rest of our lives. Generations not yet born would feel their blood quicken as they thrilled to our tale. The price would be immense; perhaps greater than we could pay. But it is not given to everyone to carve new tracks out of the wilderness: sometimes you simply persevere when the weaker, and perhaps the wiser, would long ago have turned back. The prize for all this pain? Trivial, local, but real immortality.
But it was really hot so we went glamping in Ontario instead.
I have a bad head for heights. Earlier this year, in the Sooke Potholes Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, I got to show it off spectacularly. On the second day of a backcountry backpack through an area with no official trails, I found myself walking atop the Sooke Flowline, an abandoned water main that once provided drinking water to the people of Victoria. This was intended; missing my turn was not, and with the trails obscure and sometimes unmarked I was lost in spite of my GPS. I didn’t worry at first; I knew the Flowline led to the highway, from which I could not be far, so I stuck to the route rather than bushwhack in an area of valleys and cliffs.
This was a mistake. The pipe soon turned from nicely winding along the ground to perilously perched increasingly high above the forest. Fewer people come this way (because it’s wrong), so the slippery moss growing atop the old concrete was becoming more hazardous. Where there was no moss it was only because a falling boulder had punched a hole in the pipe. It was uncomfortable but not actually dangerous, until suddenly it really, really was.
I don’t clearly remember the context. The ground had been getting further and further away, then it was gone. Replaced by cliffs and the Sooke River, with the pipe that had suddenly turned aquaduct crossing at a height of about a trillion miles. It was definitely far enough. There was no escape save across the concrete pipe, which was say four feet in diameter, slippery with moss, full of holes, and, as pipes tend to be, round. I was already tired from a long day, it had been wet, I of course had 40 pounds of camping stuff on my back, doing a pirouette to turn around with so little traction and absolutely fatal consequences for a slip seemed more dangerous than proceeding. But if I crossed that river I better find something good on the other side or I’d never find the courage to cross it again.
The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is a 47-kilometre back country backpacking trail, along the south coast of Vancouver Island between China Beach (west of Sooke) and Botanical Beach (a 45-minute walk south of Port Renfrew), paralleling British Columbia Highway 14.
No, you’re thinking of the West Coast Trail. The West Coast Trail is half-again as long, filled with vertiginous ladders, cable cars, and boat rides, and about ten times more famous. The Juan de Fuca Trail is the West Coast Trail’s misshapen bastard brother. You can do them both in one huge trip, connecting through Port Renfrew, but there’s no doubt who the alpha dog is.
At time of writing I had never done the West Coast Trail. So I did the Juan de Fuca Trail, and my choice was pure practicality: the three-day August long weekend was already coming, and I’d worked enough overtime to win a fourth. The recommended time to spend on Juan de Fuca is four days; for us ordinary Joes the West Coast Trail takes seven. So on Wednesday I was booking buses and a night in Victoria, on Thursday I was on the move, and on Friday I was hiking.
About the Author
Ben Massey. Backpacking enthusiast, creator of this site, former writer of sports articles for several websites and one magazine, all-round handsome guy, and writer of his own blurbs.
Unless otherwise noted, all content copyright 2016—2023 Benjamin Massey. All rights reserved. Any icons or trademarks used are the sole property of their respective companies. Powered by Wordpress.