Wednesday, September 16
Day 5 - The Icefields Parkway and Norman Lake
Ok, so day five of our trip. Our two-day backpack in Yoho had gone well, with the only caveat being the bad air conditions. We were still determined to continue heading north, towards Jasper, with the aim of escaping beyond the northern fringes of the smoke. To that end, I spread my topo maps over my motel bed and pored over them, looking for suitable itineraries, backcountry campsites, and scramble-able peaks.
Upon exiting the motel and while packing up the car, we chanced to look up and noticed some peaks we hadn't seen before. Specifically, the towering form of Mount Temple
, one of the most prominent peaks in the Lake Louise area, was now visible -- clearly -- and against a *gasp* blue sky! Could this possibly mean we were finally going to be rid of the dastardly smoke?
Lake Louise Prep
With renewed enthusiasm, we began our drive north from Lake Louise. We were about to experience one of the world's most scenic highway routes - the magnificent Icefields Parkway, which stretches for 230 kilometres between Lake Louise and the town of Jasper. It parallels the continental divide for pretty much the entire way, with rugged, high elevation peaks on either side -- especially the higher terrain to the west, which is frequently heavily glaciated and draped in icefields.
The sudden clearing of the smoke was a revelation. No longer hidden behind a dull grey filter, the beauty of the Rockies finally was fully revealed. In the cool early morning, the hollows, basins, and lakes were covered in ground fog. Up above rose crisp, towering peaks, snow fields and hanging glaciers clinging to their sides. The parkway itself was quiet, free of heavy traffic, and very nicely paved and tidy, gently undulating up and down and back and forth. Julian and Gino were suitably impressed. Now, the question was - could we arrange to get ourselves up and into this amazing scenery that scrolled by outside our windows?
Colossal Pyramid of Mt Chepren
Magnificent Parkway Scenery
The Park Service has done a very good job keeping the lands between Lake Louise and Jasper as undeveloped as possible. There is only one real non-park facility along the parkway's entire 230km length, at a place called Saskatchewan Crossing, where a motel/gas/store exists as a remote waystation for travellers.
Magnificent Parkway Scenery
We decide to drive to the northern end of the parkway, in Jasper National Park, and see if we can reserve a backcountry site somewhere in the vicinity of something easy we can scramble. To that end, we continue north from the Saskatchewan River Crossing, soon surmounting Sunwapta Pass, at which point we cross from Banff National Park into Jasper National Park. This pass is also the north-south continental divide, separating arctic ocean-flowing waters from atlantic-flowing waters. We stop briefly at the Columbia Icefield center to take in the edge of the massive Columbia Icefield (the largest icefield in the Rockies). From here it is "downhill" towards the town of Jasper, which is very Banff-like in feel, although perhaps more compact in layout.
Although very enjoyable, it had taken quite a long time to drive from Lake Louise to Jasper, and it was now late morning. The day was beautiful and relatively un-smoky and we needed to get our butts in gear. We hastily did some re-supply shopping, then sat down at a local Timmy's to plan.
Looking back and forth over the maps of the Jasper area, it wasn't immediately apparent what we should aim for. The backcountry campsites and itineraries were spaced further apart up here, meaning that our options for getting to a site in the remaining daylight we had were few. My thoughts then turned to nearby Mt Robson provincial park, just a half-hour to the west across the border in BC. Mt Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and there is an interesting and well-used backpacking route up to an iceberg-filled lake right at the mountain's base. We were keen on the idea, and I was well through the process of trying to book backcountry campsites along said route. Well along, that is, until I came across the notice that non-BC residents were not being permitted to use backcountry campsites in the province at this time, on account of Covid-19. In other words, we were persona non grata.
So, that put the kaibosh on that, and we were back at square one. I started scanning further back south on my topo maps, and I rang up the National Parks backcountry reservation line again and started to go through my list of suitable backcountry sites. One by one I was told they were booked, until we came down to some of the less-attractive looking spots on the map. One of these, along a small creek in Northern Banff National Park, actually had two consecutive nights free. A quick look at the map of the area and it looked like it would work for us - it involved a short approach from highway to camp (meaning we could hike up to it during the remainder of our day), and I could envision a nice day of exploration and activity in the nearby terrain during the middle of our 2-night stay.
Time was flying by and we wanted to get moving, so we went with the 2-nighter at this little nondescript-looking backcountry campsite. Norman Creek NO-5 - that was going to be our backcountry site for the next two nights.
Since this backcountry campsite was in Banff National Park, and we were way up north in Jasper, that meant a large backtrack, back down the Icefields Parkway, for more than a 100 kilometres. Fortunately, it is a wonderful drive, so we didn't mind too much. What we did mind as we drove back south was a re-emergence of our nemesis, the US forest fire smoke. Yes, folks, the dastardly smoke started to drift back in as we headed back south. By the time we arrived back at the Columbia Icefields, things were looking pretty hazy. By the time we pulled into the Norman Creek trailhead at 3pm, blue sky was hard to find. It didn't help matters to notice a local fire burning in a nearby valley. Great. Just Great.
In all fairness, the conditions weren't nearly as bad as they had been in Yoho or at the Crowsnest Pass. At least we could still get the sense that it was sunny out.
Heading off towards Norman Lake
Given that the afternoon was getting pretty late, we really wanted to get going and avoid having to find and then set up camp in the dark. Fortunately we were now getting pretty polished at whipping together our packs, and we were ready to head off just before 4pm. That may seem pretty late in the day (and it is), but considering that we only had to hike about 4 kilometres, we figured we were still in pretty good shape for a decent arrival time.
Off we went into the warm, hazy afternoon. Immediately the trail entered tall forest and started to ascend, at first moderately and then fairly steeply and with switchbacks. At the eastern end of the lower switchbacks the trail came out at the edge of a steep gorge with a small, rushing creek in it. Norman Creek, no doubt. Unfortunately the trees were always a bit too thick for us to get a clear view of the gorge and/or waterfalls.
Great. Local fires now...
Apart from the few semi-views of the gorge, it was pretty non-descript uphill forest hiking, with only one solitary view out towards a local fire burning in the valley of the nearby Alexandra River. After about an hour of sweaty toiling, we came to a junction with a long sidetrail to a lookout. Skipping the lookout, we continued upwards, and the grade soon lessened. We were nearing the floor of the upper basin of Norman Creek.
So... 5pm and we had levelled off, finished with the elevation gain of our approach. And we had come 3+ kilometres as well, which meant we had very little ground to cover before reaching our campsite. We would definitely be arriving well before sunset, and we'd be able to leisurely set up, maybe even get a fire going (assuming fires were allowed).
I was still in the mindset of having chosen a second or third-rate nondescript backcountry campsite, of having succeeded at booking the dregs of what Banff had to offer. In the next few moments, however, my mindset was completely changed. The trees soon abruptly ended, and we emerged into a high meadow. Now, this wasn't just a little clearing in the forest - this was a huge expanse of open meadow, stretching off kilometres to our left, and ringed by forest. And beyond the forest on both sides of the drainage, imposing peaks. The meadow was filled with all manner of low plants and bushes, all blending into the most gentle shade of autumn gold. Winding through the meadow in front of us was Norman Creek, not a rushing torrent at this point, but a pleasant, clear little flow of water.
In the late day light, the scene was incredibly beautiful. If our backcountry campsite was indeed in this meadow, or on the edge of this meadow, then I had no cause for complaint. This was an incredibly beautiful area.
The Norman Creek trail led through the open meadow and crossed Norman Creek on a small log bridge. Immediately afterwards the path split, and although it wasn't clear to me and Julian, the rightmost path led uphill slightly to the signed NO-5 backcountry site. It was, as we'd hoped, situated right at the edge of the open meadow, facing north. the firepit and eating area were situated underneath the final trees at the edge of the meadow, and we could look out over an expanse of gold with a towering mountain in the far background. And, to top it all off, there was no one else camped here. We had it all to ourselves.
The campsite was equipped much like our Yoho backcountry campsite had been, with flattened-out tent squares, little mini-style picnic tables, a metal campfire circle and grill, a sturdy, well-ventilated outhouse, and another of those ingenious food hanging pole systems.
I started boiling water on the stove for dinner, and at the same time Gino got a nice little fire going in the nearby fire circle. There was a sign clearly indicating fires allowed, so we figured we were good.
Chilliing around a warm fire
It was quite calm out, and with the assistance of a warming fire, it was quite pleasant to stay out and watch the light fade over the nearby meadow and mountains. The smokiness level wasn't actually that bad right now, and we were hopeful for a nice clear today tomorrow, which we intended to spend exploring this beautiful basin, and possibly - if we could find something suitable - one of its adjacent peaks. In fact, it was clear enough that we even spent a few minutes after deep dark had settled to wander out into the nearby open meadow to do some sky watching. The sky clarity was good enough that we could actually see the milk way.
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Hike to Norman Lake BC Campground - click map to view
Icefields Parkway to Norman Lake BC Campsite - Hike Data
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain:
Total Elevation Loss:
* : +/- 75 feet