The Great Divide Trail Revisited

Healy Pass GDTBackpackers following the proposed Great Divide Trail route over Banff’s Healy Pass, September 1970.




An article in the March 24th Calgary Herald brought back long-ago memories of efforts to establish The Great Divide Trail from Waterton to Mount Robson and beyond. Entitled “Official Status sought for 1,200-km Great Divide hiking trail”, it detailed efforts by the recently reestablished Great Divide Trail Association and its chairman David Hockey to put that dream back on the map.

GDT guide


The Great Divide Trail was an idea proposed by various individuals and groups in the 1960s. After studying route possibilities, Jim Thorsell published a brochure-style guide in 1970 “Provisional Trail Guide and Map for the Proposed Great Divide Trail.” The guide presented his ideal route from Palliser Pass at the southern end of Banff Park to Mount Robson utilizing existing national and provincial park trails. With his permission, we published an edited version of the guide in the first and four subsequent editions of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.


Long-distance trekkers as well as weekend backpackers were immediately drawn to the route, and Parks Canada gave initial approval to the project. But despite its objective of establishing the trail by 1975, the agency soon waffled and abandoned the idea. In 1976, the Great Divide Trail Association was formed and work undertaken to establish the trail between Waterton and the southern end of Banff Park, but the Alberta government eventually withdrew its support for the project.

There’s been a lot of politics involved in stifling the Great Divide Trail. As someone who lived through it all and watched support wax and wane, it’s hard to be confident that Mr. Hockey and the GDT Association will find a solution.

Parks Canada initially withdrew its support in the mid-1970s because it forecast numbers of backpackers that would have been very difficult to manage. But the figures were totally out of whack. One GDT supporter examined Parks Canada’s projected usage and waggishly suggested that a traffic light would have to be installed where the trail crossed the Trans Canada Highway at Field, BC. “A backpacker would be crossing the highway every minute throughout the summer.”

A similar situation arose with the Alberta government during their negotiations with the GDT Association. Some rather lame roadblocks were imposed on the trail builders, but the general sense was that Alberta didn’t want anything running across Crown Lands that might compromise resource exploration and development or private enterprise.

Judging from comments by Mr. Hockey, the Alberta government is still dragging its feet and blocking trail establishment. “We would need to make sure all stakeholders’ needs are considered before putting an actual policy in place,” says Minister of Tourism, Parks and Recreation Bill Anderson.

And Parks Canada has just decommissioned a 42-km section of the GDT route over Jasper Park’s Maligne Pass, ostensibly to reduce impact on wildlife. No other trail exists in Jasper Park or on the British Columbia side of the Divide to replace that vital missing link.

In the Herald article, Mr. Hockey admits that he and his association have their work cut out for them. “This is going to take us 15 years at the rate we’re going. I’d like to get this done before I die.”

I wish him luck.

For a good historical overview of the GDT, check out the Wikipedia article The Great Divide Trail.

Photo by Brian Patton


Early spring hikes in the Columbia Valley

If golfers can golf, hikers can hike. And both have been going at it for the past two weeks above the shores of Lake Windermere in the Columbia Valley. While the landscape is fairly brown and the lake ice-covered (for a few more days), most of the lower valley trails are dry and snow-free. And the first poplar leaves should appear in the next week or two. Here are some of my early-season favourites, with photos of Swansea Slopes and the Dutch Creek Hoodoos taken this week:


Swansea Slopes—2.5 km to a 1300-m bluff overlooking much of the upper Columbia Valley. This is a steep trail with panoramic views throughout the ascent, but grades have been much improved by newly constructed switchbacks over the past year.  And always check for wood ticks when you’re done.

WetlandsColumbia Wetlands Viewpoint Trail—1.6 km through open grassland and poplar groves to a viewpoint overlooking river channels and marshland south of Lake Windermere. The trail is flat with just a bit of down-and-up near the end. A bench at the overlook provides an excellent observation point for spring birds (bring binoculars or a spotting scope).


Hoodoos Old CoachDutch Creek Hoodoos—2.5 km one-way. This hike climbs for a km on an old roadbed to the top of the hoodoos then follows sandy trails along the crest of these dramatic erosion features for another 1.5 km (it’s a miniature version of Utah’s Bryce Canyon).


Old Coach Trail—9.0 km from the Dry Gulch trailhead on Hwy 93/95 (south) to the Visitor Centre in Radium (north). This rolling hike follows the roadbed of the first motor road through the valley in the 1920s. Today it is a near-wilderness experience with fantastic views of the Columbia Wetlands Wildlife Management Area. Well-marked trailheads at both the south and north ends make this ideal for hikers with two vehicles.

By clicking on Old Coach Trail Guide, you can download the brochure for that hike. And for maps and precise directions to all of these trails, stop in at the Visitor Centre in Radium.

Photos by Brian Patton 

Classic guidebooks by Don Beers

Don Beers, 1958Don Beers began his hiking career in the early 1950s under the tutelage of Leonard Leacock, the well-known music composer and instructor at Mount Royal College, who may well lay claim to being the earliest recreational hiker in the Canadian Rockies. Many of Don’s later trips were with wife Keitha, who often served as a colourful foreground for his photos, and long-time friend Lance Camp.

Don setting off to Shadow Lake with wife Keitha (photographer) three months after their wedding in 1958.


When Bart Robinson and I were setting out to create the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide in 1970, Don Beers was already entering his third decade as a hiker and climber in the mountain parks. I’m guessing he might have published the first trail guide to the parks had he not been devoted to raising a family and his teaching career.

But Don did finally publish his first trail guide with Rocky Mountain Books in 1981, The Magic of Lake O’Hara. It was a small 96-page paperback describing the hikes, history, flora and fauna of that popular hiking area, and the first trail guide in the Canadian Rockies illustrated with colour photographs.

Don really hit his stride as an author in 1989 with The Wonder of Yoho, a larger format book that was published in hardcover and lavishly illustrated with his exceptional colour photographs. This book also revealed his love of history, and it devoted an extra 20 pages to the exploration, development and place names of Yoho National Park.

The Wonder of Yoho would be the first in a series of larger format guides, and all subsequent editions would be self-published both in hardcover and paperback through Highline Publishing: The World of Lake Louise (1991), Banff-Assiniboine: A Beautiful World (1993) and Jasper-Robson: A Taste of Heaven (1996).


Jasper-RobsonBy concentrating on specific parks, these editions provide dozens of hiking options beyond the well-marked trails, stuff found nowhere else and unknown to anyone except Don and his readers. And if you check out the acknowledgements page, you soon realize there’s hardly anyone of note he hasn’t known or interviewed.

But the photographic coverage and its quality is what I find absolutely stunning. (Is there anywhere in these parks that Don hasn’t been?) And when you consider there is scarcely a photo made under adverse weather conditions, that means he stayed in these locations until the weather cleared or was there on numerous occasions.  Nowhere else, in books or on the internet, will you find anything that approaches his comprehensive coverage.

And though the books boast well over 100 excellent colour images each (nearly 200 in Jasper-Robson alone), they contain an equal number of black & white photos, including some very rare historical images.

Pardon me if I rave on. Quite simply, we will never see books on the mountain parks like these again. Never! Unfortunately, today’s book industry doesn’t even consider labours of love like these nor does it invest in quality colour reproduction on this scale (Manitoba’s Friesen Printers should be proud of the work it did on these books).

Don’s Yoho and Lake Louise books are no longer in print. However, there are still copies of Banff-Assiniboine and Jasper-Robson available at a handful of retail outlets in the Rockies (try The Viewpoint in Banff). Whether you’re a hiker or not, if you don’t have copies of Don Beers books in your library, you can’t be serious about your love of the Canadian Rockies.

Hiking with the stars in Hollywood’s Rockies

Barrymore on SentinelJohn Barrymore on Sentinel Pass during the filming of Eternal Love in 1928. The film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and utilized some of the highest filming locations ever in Canada. It is only one of several Hollywood films with trail-accessible locations. 


Oscars time again and it always amazes me how Hollywood hoopla captivates the media, even here in Canada. And everyone seems to be looking for a connection, no matter how tenuous, to the glamour of the film industry.

Of course, the Canadian Rockies aren’t exempt. More than 60 Hollywood-based films have been filmed at least partially in the region, and some scene locations can only be reached by hiking trail.

Eternal Love (1929). Follow in the tracks of the legendary actor John Barrymore to some of the highest filming locations in Canada. In addition to Sentinel Pass (see above), Barrymore and his leading lady Camilla Horn embraced on the summit of the Saddleback above Lake Louise with Mount Temple as a backdrop. Out of more than a dozen silent features made in the Canadian Rockies, it is the only one to survive intact. It was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and released on DVD in 2001.

Son of Lassie (1945). The second film in the popular Lassie series finds leading actor Peter Lawford running from German soldiers through much of Banff National Park (doubling for Norway) and was the first film to use the Columbia Icefield as a location. Hikers can follow the short trail to Stewart Canyon at Lake Minnewanka and stand on the bridge where Lawford (or his stunt double) leapt into the Cascade River with his dog Laddie in his arms.

Saskatchewan (1954). This Hollywood version of Mounties-meet-the Sioux was mainly filmed at Bankhead between Banff and Lake Minnewanka. But the film’s stars Alan Ladd, Shelly Winters and Jay Silverheels (aka Tonto from the Long Ranger series) travelled to the Yoho Valley, Bow Lake and Summit for scenic backdrops. Early in the film, Ladd and Silverheels ride the high subalpine meadows above Peyto Lake, which are accessed today by the Bow Summit Lookout trail. (In those days, the trail was the service road to the Bow Summit Fire Lookout.)

Bart on Nub Ridge3a

The Edge (1997). Director Lee Tamahori filmed nearly all of this love-triangle thriller in Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country. Lead actors Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin bounced from one location to another throughout the parks, but their most spectacular setting was hiking on the alpine slopes of The Nub with Mount Assiniboine as a backdrop.

Trail guide co-author Bart Robinson follows in the footsteps of Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin on the Nub Ridge trail a year after the release of The Edge.



Brokeback Mountain (2005). This critically-acclaimed film used a variety of locations throughout Kananaskis Country, but one of the most scenic was on the slopes of Moose Mountain. The trail leading to Alberta’s highest fire lookout at the summit is a popular day hike, particularly in the spring when wildflowers cover the meadows. The movie won three Academy Awards including Best Director for Ang Lee.


Lead actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger on the slopes of Moose Mountain in 2004 during the filming of Brokeback Mountain.




Top photo Brian Patton collection; middle Brian Patton photo; bottom Focus Features promotion still (click for larger images).

Predicting the hiking season with snow pillows

Curator LakeThis July 16th photo of Curator Lake on Jasper’s Skyline Trail shows the trail leading up to The Notch covered in snow and a large cornice lingering at the summit. On this particular summer, the highest sections of the Skyline still had a couple weeks before they were snowfree.


Bart recently received a query from American friends about the feasibility of backpacking the Rockwall or Sawback Trails in early July. That’s a time when we usually expect a fair amount of snow lingering above treeline and particularly on high, alpine passes. But each year is a bit different, and as spring approaches, we start second-guessing about when the high country will open up for snow-free hiking.

One of our favourite pastimes during late winter is checking the various snow plots maintained by the Alberta and British Columbia governments in the Rockies. These stations keep track of snow accumulations throughout the winter and plot the current year against the previous winter and average snowfalls at each site. British Columbia records this data via a rather ingenious method called “snow pillows”, which allows for remote readings (see “What Is An Automatic Snow Pillow Station?”)

Of course, the real purpose of these stations is to provide streamflow and flood warnings as well as information on downstream water supplies for urban centres and agriculture. But we like to use the readings as a means of predicting when the snowpack will disappear in the high country and when we might expect decent conditions for alpine trips.

Most stations started this winter with snowfall totals lower than average, but in the past several weeks those accumulations have risen to near average values or above. Check out several of the stations in the mountain parks below (click on map for larger image):

Station Map

1. Yellowhead

2. Southesk

3. Skoki Lodge

4. Floe Lake

5. Sunshine Village

6. Three Isle Lake

7. Akamina Pass

What does this all mean for the start of the summer hiking season in the high country? Well, probably not too much. A lot depends on the next three or four months. Will it continue to snow? Will temperatures stay near normal or vary strongly above or below? Reading the snow survey charts is only marginally better at predicting the future than reading tea leaves. But nonetheless, it is fun to keep track of these stations and watch the rise and fall of this winter’s snowpack.

You can click any of the links above throughout the rest of the winter and into spring to see how things are progressing.

Photo by Brian Patton

Technology on the trail

Radio 1924(2)Lewis Freeman and packers with a shortwave radio during the 1924 Columbia Icefield expedition. The party hauled the radio on a packhorse and successfully tuned in opera from San Francisco and the World Series. It is the earliest example of technology compromising the wilderness experience. 


I was working for Parks Canada at Lake Louise in 1994 when a phone call arrived at the Visitor Centre. A climber on the summit of Mount Temple was calling in to say he was running late and wouldn’t be checking in from his climb until later in the evening. I suppose we should have cheered the new technology that allowed climbers to inform us when they were safe or in trouble. But mostly we were rolling our eyes—someone was showing off with his cell phone. It was foreshadowing of things to come.

Fast forward 20 years and the backcountry has experienced a tech explosion: GPS units loaded with topo maps that also read distance travelled and altitude; two-way radios with Bluetooth headsets that allow everyone in the party to be constantly connected; pocket-sized digital cameras that can take hundreds of photos or high-definition video; GPS sport watches that tell the time, your location, distance travelled, heart rate and calories burned.

When we started our career on the trails, it was the era of no-tech, unless you consider the battery that powered the light meter in our camera. But even then, the camera still operated even if the battery failed.

When we set out to write the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, we pushed standard 27-inch bicycle wheels with mechanical odometers attached to a spoke on the wheel (one click per rotation). When cyclists went digital, we switched over to the new odometers. Unfortunately, they were no more accurate than the mechanical ones, you had to worry about batteries dying, they had to be recalibrated when batteries were replaced, and they were very easily shut off by a passing branch or when you rested the wheel on the ground.

Our trail notes used to be entered in small pocket-sized notebooks. But then came the micro-cassette recorder, which made note-taking much easier (but once again required batteries). And after that the mini-digital pocket recorder, which was even smaller and lighter. But the small controls are a bugger to operate, they need a USB connection to power internal batteries, and are always disappearing in your pack.

We also started  carrying GPS units a few years back, not because we feared getting lost or found the internal maps useful, but because of their decent accuracy for distance and altitude. And to record latitude and longitude for trail heads and points of interest, knowing full-well that many trail guide readers were using GPS units.

I imagine a lot of people are carrying cell phones in their packs these days in case of emergency, even though they are worthless if you don’t have a line-of-sight to one of the few cell towers in the mountains. But if you have a spare $500, you can buy a satellite phone and subscribe to a service (more $$$) and be in continual contact with the world. (Vancouver journalist-mountaineer Paddy Sherman reported on a French climber who summited Everest around 1980 and called his wife in Paris on a satellite phone to report on his success. Which led Paddy to lament: “There’s nowhere left to hide.”)

And I dread the day when I see a hiker on the trail, plugged into his iPad, listening to music and following the trail ahead on Google Street View. Makes one long for the days when you had no distractions except for the clouds building up on the peaks or worrying that there might be a grizzly around the next bend in the trail.

But who knows, maybe we’ll regain sanity and realize that our technology is getting between us and the mountains. After all, no one has taken a shortwave radio into the backcountry since Lewis Freeman in 1924.

Photo The National Geographic Magazine (April, 1925)

Winter Reading: A Hiker’s Library

Midwinter. Okay, call me a wuss, but when the daily temperature range is -15º to -30º, I spend less time outdoors and more time reading. And being a “professional” walker, I read a lot of travel writing.

To be a good travel writer, one who explores culture, landscape and self, you must be a walker. Some personal favourites by great walkers and skillful writers: Wilfred Thesiger (Arabian Sands); Colin Fletcher (The Man Who Walked Through Time, The Thousand Mile Summer); Dervla Murphy (Eight Feet in the Andes, In Ethiopia with a Mule); Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard); Paul Theroux (Kingdom by the Sea).

In addition to the above, here are three that still make me smile (walkers should never take themselves too seriously). I am rereading all three this winter and recommend them to anyone who enjoys a pedestrian journey through landscape and culture.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush cover


A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. Two novice mountaineers travel into northern Afghanistan in 1956 to attempt an unclimbed peak in the Hindu Kush. Humour in the face of hardship and a chance encounter with one of Britain’s last great explorers make this a travel lit classic. As described by reviewer Boyd Tonkin: “Genial godfather of modern British travel writing, Eric Newby taught a generation of adventurers how to blend the light touch with the long view.”



A Walk in the Woods


A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. A critically acclaimed author dons backpack, boots, and all the other paraphernalia required for long-distance trekking, to explore the sublime and ridiculous on America’s most popular long-distance trek. “When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really.”



Beyond Belfast


Beyond Belfast: A 560-Mile Walk Across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet by Will Ferguson. A relatively recent title (2009) by a Canadian humorist. Ferguson set out to discover his ancestry by hiking the Ulster Way around the edges of Northern Ireland. Mostly he discovered this “national” trail is more concept than reality and that some wounds from the worst days of “the troubles” are still open. “Great scenery, oddball characters and much hilarity” says The National Post.

Waterton’s Akamina Parkway reopens

Cameron Lake by Chic ScottBanff’s Kathy Madill enjoys a perfect day on Cameron Lake, one of the Rockies’ best x-country ski destinations. Photo courtesy Chic Scott.




The Akamina Parkway, which runs for 16 km from Waterton townsite to Cameron Lake, suffered serious damage from a major storm on June 19. Several washouts and roadbed collapses forced closure of the road for the remainder of the summer and rendered some of park’s most popular hiking trails inaccessible. (See Hiking Trail Update for Waterton Lakes National Park on this site. ) But following five months of major repairs and road reconstruction, Parks Canada was able to reopen the road on November 30, just in time for the winter season.

There are still some rough patches on the road, and vehicles are forced onto a short section of single lane traffic at km 3.4. As a result, expect brief road closures next spring so work on this section can be completed.

Meanwhile, skiers have been making their way to the Little Prairie trailhead near the Parkway’s southern terminus to enjoy the track-set trail to Cameron Lake—one of the best short trips in the Rockies. Little Prairie is also the jumping off point for another novice-intermediate trip over Akamina Pass to Wall Lake.

ski_trailsChic Scott’s Ski Trails in the Canadian Rockies is the best source for cross-country ski trips in Waterton. The book is available at many book outlets and outdoor outfitters throughout the region, but you can also order an autographed copy by contacting the author direct at

Rebuilding bridges in Banff

Spray River bridge1The bridge spanning the Spray River 6 km south of Banff was destroyed by record high water last June. Parks Canada replaced it with a new span at Christmas. Photographed by Chic Scott last week. 



According to Banff Park superintendent Dave McDonough, the record storm and flooding that hit the Rockies last June caused $19 million in damage to the park. Approximately half of that was to infrastructure, and much of that was the loss of 49 bridges on backcountry trails.

But a lot of repair work has been completed since the storm. The Spray River bridge at km-6 on the Spray River Circuit (13) was replaced just before Christmas. While used by hikers and cyclists in the summer, the trail is even more popular with skiers in winter.

Meanwhile, design for a new bridge upstream on the Spray is complete. Located at km-9 on the Goat Creek trail (14), that bridge is scheduled to be installed this summer. (That popular 19-km trail is not recommended until repairs are complete.)

Two important backcountry bridges on Forty Mile Creek were replaced last autumn—one at km-3 on the Cascade Amphitheatre (5) and Elk Lake (6) routes and another further upstream, at km-4 on the trail leading towards Edith Pass (17), Mystic Lake (20) and Forty-Mile Summit.

The first bridge at km-3 on the Healy Creek trail (28) was also washed out and replaced in October. Damage to the trail leading towards Healy Pass was not significant, and as of this posting it is in good shape for skiing.

Two bridge replacements still in the design phase are more substantial—the bridge crossing Healy Creek near the bottom of the Sunshine Road (70) and the one spanning the Cascade River at km-6 on the old Cascade Fire Road (77). Both are on popular routes used by cross-country skiers and mountain bikers.

All numbers in parentheses refer to trails as they are presented in the 9th edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.

Facebooking the Mountain Parks

I’m not a big social media fan. I don’t subscribe to Facebook or Twitter. But lately I’ve been checking out some Facebook pages linked to Parks Canada or created by local support groups. Without exception, I’ve discovered some great current news posted by park staff and visitors.

These sites are valuable resources, particularly for backcountry users. There are many excellent photos contributed by park staff as well as “Friends” who are out and about on the trails. Facebook sites often link to Parks Canada videos posted on YouTube. (Or you can go direct to YouTube and enter “Parks Canada Agency” to check out the full array of productions from across Canada.)

Unlike a lot of personal Facebook sites, you can access all the posted information without being a Facebook member, though you will have to sign up to “Friend” some contributor’s sites or create your own postings.

Facebook Waterton

All of the mountain national parks have active Facebook pages, but one of my favourites is Waterton Lakes National Park-Facebook. Waterton is a very active and close-knit community, so there is a lot of participation on the site summer and winter. And as with Facebook sites for other parks, click on one of the photos and then page through an amazing collection of recent “Timeline Photos”.

Another of my favourite sites is the Jasper Trail Alliance-Facebook. The Alliance is an offshoot of the Friends of Jasper. I’ll be writing more about this group and its Facebook site in future, but if you’re interested in anything dealing with the Jasper backcountry at any time of year, this is the place to go.