The Rockwall Trail Part 1
If you call British Columbia home you might not know this, but there is a large contingent of outdoorspeople just south of you that consider your backyard to be the promised land. I’m one of them. For the last 20 years or so I have lived in Oregon or Washington, and I love it. The culture, food, drink, and most importantly, the outdoors of this corner of the continent make it unequivocally my favorite region in the U.S.
But in much the same way that a bright-eyed, would-be starlet from the south longingly languishes over the gossip and trends coming out of Hollywood, we gawk in amazement at magazines and Instagram feeds that showcase a landscape that looks like ours, but that must be enhanced through some sort of bullshit filter: higher mountains, bluer water, greener trees. Everything we have, just a little extra. So much so that I regularly proclaim, “Oh come on, that’s fake!” So when some guide friends of mine invited me to do a test run backpack trip of the Rockwall Trail with a handful of guests a few summers ago, I cleared my calendar and waited out that spring like a toddler waits for Christmas morning.
The 35-mile Rockwall Trail extends along the eastern edge of the Vermillion Range in the Canadian Rockies. For roughly half of that distance, the path traces the nearly 3,000-foot high limestone feature that is the trail’s namesake. “Imposing” might be the best word for it, and that’s still laughably inadequate. Along the way, hikers will be tested by a handful of mountain passes, treated to sprawling technicolor meadows of wildflowers, camp near one of the tallest waterfalls in the entire country, and stand dumbfounded before massive hanging glaciers. It is a must-do trail for those that track such things, and it is the pride of the Kootenay National Park.
My knees aren’t quite what they used to be and neither is my resolve under less-than-ideal conditions. So after careful consideration, we chose to take the longer 5-day journey, as opposed to 4 or 3 days to complete the trek and to also go in late July. The rationale being that the weather should be good, and we might get wildflowers at their peak while missing the mosquitoes at theirs.
So on a picture-perfect summer morning last July, we arrived at the Paint Pots trailhead, made last-minute pack adjustments, and started hiking. I instantly felt good about our decision. After the first few miles worth of additional modifications and getting past the initial pack weight shock, things opened up and we were treated to our first wildflower meadow. After lunch at the Helmet/Ochre Junction Campground, the day’s final stretch paralleled Helmet Creek before the big reveal just shy of camp for the evening. At 1,150 feet, Helmet Falls is a monster by any standard. And the campground that nestled up to the creek downstream from the thundering cascade was a welcome sight and home for the evening.
Day two started off just as glorious as day one. After breakfast with waterfall accompaniment, we began the climb toward the Rockwall Pass. We gained elevation greedily through stately stands of larch beset by colorful Indian paintbrush and shaggy Western Anemones. Eventually, we reached the pass and before us, the trail began down toward an unfolding horizon of endless, towering escarpments.
We had reached the northern end of the Rockwall proper, and it was magnificent. Slowed mightily by photo ops, it became increasingly more difficult for me to keep eyes on the trail. This would be a problem for me for the rest of the trip. Another issue was, how much do I want to slow down the group, vs my need to get the shot. After a dip and a rise in elevation, the terrain leveled and the next few miles were arguably the most scenic I had taken in from a hiking path - for the time being, anyway. Flowers of every conceivable hue competed for my attention with craggy, distant peaks being actively etched by prehistoric glaciers.
That’s when “John” from Victoria asked, “That camera must be getting pretty heavy, eh? Seems to be slowing you down quite a bit.” It would appear that all my stopping and shuttering had finally crossed the line. If you haven’t traveled much with Canadians, they can be quite the pragmatic, dry-humored lot. Anyway, The long set of switchbacks leading down to the Tumbling Creek Campground ensured that I would both sleep well and require some ibuprofen in the morning.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of British Columbia Magazine.