Bootprints Hiking Guide: To Wilcox Pass in Jasper National Park of British Columbia
Avoiding the over-crowded campgrounds of Banff and Lake Louise on a road trip to Canada, I made a base camp for two nights at Wilcox Creek Campground, situated immediately east of the Athabasca Glacier, a branch of the Columbia Icefield.
The Columbia Icefield rests on a triple North American Continental Divide, separating the watersheds feeding the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean. The icefield covers the mountains of the Winston Churchill Range of the Canadian Rockies. The icefield arose 140,000 years ago, during the Illinoisan period of glaciation, and is comprised of layers of snowpack as deep as 1,200 feet. The icefield initially grew until the Wisconsinan period, 70,000 years ago, around the time that true humans evolved. The Athabasca Glacier expanded until 1840, when it began the progressive loss of volume that continues today.
Two hours after leaving my campsite, I heated a pot of water at Athabasca Falls for my morning brew of coffee and hot chocolate. After my morning meal, I explored the paths along the Athabasca River that led to the falls. The river rides over a hard rock layer of quartzite and slices through a gorge of limestone, creating a powerful waterfall 60 feet wide that tumbles downward 80 feet.
Want more from Canada? Read on for a hike to the Illecillewaet Glacier of Glacier National Park
An hour later, I began a 5-mile hike through the Valley of Five Lakes. This popular loop descends into a wetland, with a boardwalk crossing Wabasso Creek, then wraps around gentle slopes beside a series of lakes. The lakes are filled with diversely-colored, mineral-loaded waters of emerald and turquoise shades.
After a brief visit to the town of Jasper, I headed south again and spent an hour on the 2-mile hike exploring the Upper and Lower Sunwapta Falls. The native Assiniboine named the waters Sunwapta, meaning turbulent, for the potentially deadly 60-foot drop.
In early evening, I returned to the entrance of Wilcox Creek Campground, the trailhead for Wilcox Pass Trail. The trail begins at 6,500 feet and gradually ascends above tree line over a distance of 3 miles to 8,000 feet. The open tundra affords access to expansive views of the Winston Churchill Range, including Mount Athabasca and the Athabasca Glacier in the valley below. Tiny reflective ponds, bubbling brooks, and tundra blooms add to the charm of the plateau. The scenic trail terminates at the steep cliffs facing west above the Athabasca Visitor Center. The intermediate hike takes three hours for the 6 miles up and back, worth every second of effort expended to reach the dramatic glacier-covered mountain scenery.
A closer study of the Athabasca Glacier is sobering. Approaching the receding snowfield, sign posts mark where the foot of the glacier ended at points in time during the 20th century. The warming climate has melted the frozen water back thousands of feet in my lifetime. The depth of the glacier is losing 15 feet of its 300-foot depth each year, while the valley cover has lost a mile during the past 100 years.
Wilcox Pass and the Athabasca Glacier are located 185 miles north of Canmore, Alberta. Traveling north on Canadian Highway 1, continue north toward Jasper on Highway 93 (the Icefields Parkway). By the most direct route, Jasper is 1,400 miles northwest of Summit County.
Wilcox Creek Campground, 90 miles south of Jasper and directly across the valley from the Athabasca Glacier, is an ideal base camp for a cluster of day hikes leading to glaciers, lakes and waterfalls in the vicinity. The campground is like a primitive National Forest campground in the United States, with several pit toilets, drinking-water taps and rain shelters. At the entrance to the campground is the Wilcox Pass trailhead.
Mount Athabasca (11,453 feet) can be viewed across the valley. Athabasca Falls is 50 miles north of Athabasca Glacier. Sunwapta Falls is 20 miles farther north. The Valley of Five Lakes is 5 miles south of Jasper, east of the Icefields Parkway.
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