Monday, September 14
Day 3 - Yoho National Park
Early morning in Covid-emptied Banff was a weird and surreal experience. Apart from a few spaced-out residents and local town workers, the place was pretty empty. After checking out of the King Edward (now officially closed forever), we took a few Instagram-my photos for Julian, and we thought about how we were going to get our Rockies trip back on track, after our flight northward from the smoke.
So, about that smoke. It wasn't really gone, unfortunately. It *did* seem a little bit less thick than what we'd had down south in the Crowsnest Pass area, but still, it was there, muting the views, obscuring the clear northern beauty of the Canadian Rockies.
We saw no reason not to continue a little ways further north, and along the way discuss what we wanted to do next. So, we hopped onto the Trans-Canada highway and once again headed north.
The smoke didn't really seem to be decreasing as we drove along, and we began to realize that we should probably cut our losses and organize an outing before it got too late in the day. Our thoughts began to turn to the idea of a backpack; something with an overnight in the backcountry. Although the general premise of the trip had been day-scrambles to interesting peaks, the lack of good views (and maybe also the lack of enthusiasm from Gino on the whole scrambling thing in general) meant that maybe an overnight backpack in lower country might be more suitable. We stopped in world-famous Lake Louise to get things organized. We were in search of maps, bear spray, and backcountry permits.
Yoohoo, we're heading to Yoho
Armed with a bunch of maps from Wilson Mountain Sports (where we also rented our bear spray), we sat in the car, poring over the possibilities for an overnight - something with a not too long approach for today, maybe a campsite with a lake, and maybe something that would allow us to do one of our scramble objectives the next day. Then came calling the National Park service backcountry reservation line (the in-person desk at the Lake Louise visitor center was closed due to Covid-19). Although several of our initial choices were already booked for tonight, we eventually came across a free site in nearby Yoho National Park, in a forested pass and even with a little lake. The approach was pretty reasonable and we'd easily be able to do it with the remaining time we had today.
Our trailhead in Yoho National Park was a short drive from Lake Louise (Banff National Park and Yoho National Park butt right up against one another). Continuing west on the Trans-Canada highway, over the Kicking Horse pass we went, down past the CN railway spiral tunnels, and down to the little town of Field, deep in the bottom of the Kicking Horse Valley. We turned right onto the Emerald Lake Road and headed back north, soon arriving at the fairly busy environs of Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park.
Emerald Lake TH
Our itinerary for the day was pretty simple: saddle up and hike along the Emerald Lake Loop trail (flat, essentially) until we reached the Yoho Pass trail on the far side of the lake. Then, we'd take that trail up to Yoho Pass and very shortly therafter, arrive at our backcountry campsite on the shore of tiny Yoho Lake. Total distance maybe 7km, and total elevation gain not much more than 1,500 feet (460m). Compared to a lot of our hikes, it was a fairly modest task.
A flurry of unpacking and repacking in the parking was the next order of business. Shortly after noon, our overnight packs were full of everything we'd need for a two-day, one-night backpack, and we were ready to go.
I wasn't sure if it was because we were now on the western side of the Continental Divide, or if it was simply the fact that ill winds had blown a fresh wave of US forest fire smoke our way, but the intense smokiness of the Crowsnest Pass had managed to find us again. A dark, heavy pall of smoke hang silently over the lake, wafted through the branches of the trees, obscured all but the faintest outlines of the massive peaks that we knew surrounded us. As we began our hike along the lake's loop trail, I stopped to take a few truly weird shots of rental boaters on the still lake, seemingly floating in flat grey air (there was no discernable waterline with the smoky air). Once again (and although it was technically a clear day), the sun had been reduced to an impotent, pale dot.
Burgess Shale Interpretive
Still, it was good to be out on the trail, and even though we weren't going to be climbing any peaks today, it was fun to be moving again, heading out to a (hopefully nice) backcountry campsite to spend the night.
The lakeside trail soon began to cross the gravelly outwash flats of the drainage coming down from the high cirques and glaciers of the President Range, which was somewhere off to our left but basically hidden in the smoke. Most of the small braids and channels of the outwash flats were dry at the moment, given the time of year.
We veered off left at the Yoho Pass trail junction, and after more flat outwash plain hiking, we finally began to incline upwards a bit. Ahead in the smoky distance, we could see the low forested saddle of Yoho Pass. We were moving at a very rapid clip, and already we had come half of the distance from trailhead to our camping location.
The trail finally started to climb in earnest, becoming a bit rocky but otherwise allowing us to maintain a good pace. We were now right up close and under the huge dropoffs and cliffs of the President Range, and we could see them soaring up into the mist (er, smoke). At various lookouts, we could trace the rushing creek coming off of the Emerald Glacier and down over several waterfalls, as it made its way down to the outwash flats and ultimately, to Emerald Lake.
Climbing below the President
For some reason I felt like pushing hard on this ascent, and together with Julian and Gino in tow behind me, we powered up the 1500-foot ascent to Yoho Pass in no time. Although we passed through some sub-alpine terrain on the way up, the pass itself was thickly forested in mature trees.
Junction with Burgess Highline
Once at the pass, our toils were basically done. We quickly came to the junction with the Burgess Highline trail (which we planned to take tomorrow), and then soon after that, we descended slightly and came to a few prominent outhouses, then the grassy open area and facilities of the Yoho Lake backcountry campsite. The lake itself, clear azure water and all, was just beyond.
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Emerald Lake to Yoho Lake - click map to view
Emerald Lake to Yoho Lake - Hike Data
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain:
Total Elevation Loss:
* : +/- 75 feet
Backcountry campsites in Yoho National Park (actually, in all of the NPs in the Rockies) are pretty well outfitted, as far as my ranking of backcountry campsites is concerned: There are flattened off tent site squares, multiple sturdy and modern outhouses, little mini picnic tables for food prep and eating, and a very effective, very ingenious food hanging apparatus, which I'll talk about later. We also discovered that at this site, the park service had placed two bright red Adirondack chairs at a beautiful little point on the nearby lake. So that one may sip their chai latte in the morning while contemplating the lake's waters and the mountains rising behind, no doubt.
Arrival Snacks, Yoho Lake
Our rapid hike from Emerald Lake meant that we had arrived nice and early in the afternoon, and we had plenty of time to lazily set up our tents, check out the lake (and the cool Adirondack chairs), and in general chill out. Point of note: Julian was trying to do this entire trip on a keto-style diet (no carbs at all), and his solution for tonight's backcountry dinner was a fine brew of boiled jerky and chopped up celery. His overall verdict: "could be better". Yeah, I'll say.
Clear Waters of Yoho Lake
Pre-dinner Jerky and Mayonnaise
After dinner, we decided to take a leisurely little walk evening walk - a passeggiata, you could say - around Yoho Lake's modest circumference. The lake was deathly still and very very clear, giving us amazing colors and reflections of the surrounding landscape. And although the immediate environs were forested, there are a number of big alpine peaks quite close by, and very visible from various points along the shore, namely and most principally the pointy spire of 2701m / 8862' Michael Peak to the west and the brooding, bulky 2778m / 9114' high Wapta Mountain to the east.
As we walked around the lake, we noticed that it seemed like the smoke had cleared away somewhat. Overhead, I could actually start to make out the texture of some higher clouds, and - gasp - even a little bit of blue sky (we pretty much had not seen a naturally-occurring blue for several days now). So, that was heartening. Maybe the winds of change had started to work in our favour, and the next few days would see a gradual improvement in seeing conditions....
Ultimately, still very pretty
As is typical in backcountry camp settings, we hit the sack with the end of the evening light - which at this time of year was somewhere around 8pm. Since Julian had discovered that the downmat that I had given him wasn't holding air very well, I swapped with him and gave him my newer (and more airtight) Neoair mat (since I'd very much like Julian to not hate camping, I felt it important that he be as comfortable as possible).