Bootprints Hiking Guide: Illecillewaet Glacier in Glacier National Park
July 15, 2017
From Takakkaw Falls at Hungry Horse Pass in Yoho National Park of southern Canada, I headed west and reached Golden, British Columbia, in late afternoon. After dinner, I drove up into the Selkirk Mountains to Rogers Pass. Arriving late to Glacier National Forest and captured in a gentle rain, I found the campgrounds at Illecillewaet, Loop Brook and Sir Donald full. I accepted this opportunity to explore the far side of the mountain range and descended out of the rainforest into a drier climate zone, where I found a dry campsite at Canyon Hot Springs west of Glacier National Park.
In early morning, I prepared for a hike into the Asulkan Valley to view the Illecillewaet Glacier. A mother black bear led three cubs across the campground meadow and quickly retreated into the forest as I collapsed my tent and packed for the day.
Hike to Illecillewaet Glacier
Arriving at the trailhead parking behind Illecillewaet Campground, I discovered five primary trails that rise out of the Asulkan Valley. Avalanche Crest Trail ascends east, then turns north up the spine of Avalanche Mountain (9,288 feet) to provide views from above tree line spanning the entire Asulkan Valley. Perley Rock Trail rises from the valley at the base of Mount Sir Donald (10,653 feet) to an overlook of the Illecillewaet Glacier at 8,570 feet. Glacier Crest Trail proceeds up Lookout Mountain (8,133 feet) to the west side of Illecillewaet Glacier. Asulkan Valley Trail leads to the foot of Asulkan Glacier and Abbott Ridge Trail goes up the west side of the valley to the spine of Mount Abbott (8,087 feet) for sweeping views of the Illecillewaet Glacier and surrounding mountains. Each of these routes require five to six hours of hiking, with a vertical ascent of 3,000 feet.
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Taking Avalanche Crest Trail
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I decided to take the trail farthest to the left, up the Avalanche Crest Trail. I entered the rainforest — stands of cedar and spruce cushioned in a bed of thick moss — and began climbing along dozens of switchbacks on the southern comb of Avalanche Mountain. Through the tops of the dense forest cover, I caught glimpses of the massive snowfields frosting the bowls on Mount Abbott, the western face of the valley. East of me rose the sharp, barren points of Eagle Peak (9,311 feet).
I passed through a narrow, open wetland, glancing at the distant edge in time to see a grizzly sow turn her head into the forest. Two cubs took her cue and vanished into the dense undergrowth. I paused to stare into the crystal-clear water of the pool beside me, the sound of flowing water muffled by the soft forest bed. Then, I quietly proceeded.
As I broke out of the trees, I could see the foot of Illecillewaet Glacier on my left and Asulkan Glacier deep across the valley at the dimple of Asulkan Pass. A pink algae bloom covered the north face of Illecillewaet Glacier, seen below a massive cornice. Waterfalls gathered streams of snowmelt pouring through faults across the valley and carried their foaming currents down to Asulkan Creek. The Okanagan word Illecillewaet means "rushing water," which here flows west from the body of the glacier into the Columbia River.
Beyond Rogers Pass (4,360 feet), north of Avalanche Peak, I saw Cheops Mountain (8,383 feet), an arrowhead pointing into the clouds above Trans-Canada Highway 1. The expansive views of the Asulkan Valley were magnificent, with the prominent peaks forming a border nearly a mile above the floor.
After receiving a full banquet of scenery, I descended from my high perch on Avalanche Crest as afternoon clouds poured into the valley to blanket the peaks.
Illecillewaet Glacier is west of Banff and Yoho National Park on Trans-Canada Highway 1. From Golden, on the eastern side of British Columbia, head west into the Selkirk Mountains. A Glacier National Park visitor center is located at Rogers Pass (4,360 feet) at the base of Mount MacDonald (9,459 feet). The longest railway tunnel in North America (9.1 miles) was dug through Mount MacDonald, with construction beginning in 1984. Illecillewaet Campground is located several miles beyond Rogers Pass, below Illecillewaet Glacier.
Author Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails throughout Colorado. His writing includes, "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties," and "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness," both available from Amazon Kindle Books.