Our first hike of our trip into the Canadian Rockies was The Rockwall in Kootenay National Park. If granite rock faces are your thing, you will have all you can handle on this hike and more.
This is the second entry of our Canadian Rockies trip series. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.
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The Rockwall is defined by a steep limestone cliffs as part of the Vermilion Range within The Kootenay National Park. The ridge separates the Vermilion River drainage and the Kootenay River drainage. The Rockwall trail traverses three alpine passes following along the limestone cliffs that form the wall (see Park Canada for more information and trailhead closures).
- name: The Rockwall
- type: point to point
- distance: 34.4 miles (55 km)
- elevation change: 9088 ft. (2770 m) ascent & 9449 ft. (2881 m) descent
- time: 3 days
- location: Painted Pots Trailhead, Kootenay National Park (google map directions)
Our hike followed the official Rockwall trail going southbound starting from the Painted Pots Trailhead on the Helmet Creek Trail in the North and we exited the Floe Lake Trailhead on the Floe Creek Trail in the south.
Along the official Rockwall, there are 5 campsites for you to stay at during your hike though it is not necessary to stay at all 5. You may not have the options to stay at all 5 either since a reservation must be made during the high season at online or by phone (as described in the planning & research section).
For our hike, we were only able to grab a spot at Helmet Falls campground and the following night at Numa Creek campgrounds. This determined our duration of 3 days and 2 nights for our hike.
The direction of our hike was determined for us based on our campsite reservations. The guide by In a Faraway Land argues for going North to South, the main reason I would agree with is that elevation gains for this directions was mostly in the forest rather than under the full exposure of the sun and views opening up in front of you as you descend. However, my knees would probably have prefered the opposite direction since the steeper elevation changes were on the south side of the passes. I don’t think there is a bad direction for the hike.
Should you be more limited in your reservations, there are a 3 connecting trails allowing you access to portions of the hike. From the Highway 93 side, you can also access the Rockwall via Tumbling Creek trail from Painted Pots Trailhead or Numa Creek trail from Numa Falls Trailhead (Numa Creek Trail was closed during Summer 2019 because of a rockslide, check the Park Canada site for up to date information)
Alternatively, you can access the Rockwall from the west through Wolverine Pass, the Wolverine Forest Service Road, and Beaverfoot Forest Service Road (B.C. Recreation Sites and Trails).
There are several options if you are limited by the campsites available. If you could only book Helmet Falls or Tumbling Creek campsite, there is a loop out of Painted Pots circling Drysdale (alltrails) by connecting the Helmet Falls Trail and Tumbling Creek Trail. A popular overnight backpack trip should you only have the Floe Lake campsite is the in & and out hike to Floe Lake (alltrails). The hike out to Floe Lake is so popular, the Floe Lake campsite was actually the most difficult to reserve. It was also the section we saw the most day hikers make the in & out hike.
Lastly, the section of the hike from Floe Lake Trailhead to Helmet Falls Campgrounds are part of the Great Divide Trail (GDT, The Great Divide Trail Association). We met 4 separate hikers going northbound during our hike.
Since the main Rockwall is a point to point hike, there is the question of shuttling between the trailheads. The easiest way is to hitchhike between them since they are only about a 15-20 minute drive apart on Highway 93. Highway 93 is well traveled with plenty of areas to pull off, so hitching is pretty easy. We gave others a hitch while driving through and hitched ourselves when we did our hike.
For our hitch, decided to drop our car off at our exit point of the Floe Lake Trailhead. While dropping off my car, another group was just leaving for Calgary so I just asked if they could give me a lift. In total, I waited literally no time. One thing I did notice was that the Floe Lake Trailhead head was smaller with less parking spots, so that may determine how you shuttle.
Alternatively, a creative ways I’ve seen was someone stashing a bike at one of the trailheads and biking back to their car. Otherwise, the most reliable way is to have multiple cars to just set up a shuttle. I am not aware of any paid shuttle service, possibly because it is very easy to hitch during the high season.
Our first day on the trails had a very late start even though we woke up early being on eastern times. We had a nice, but pricey, breakfast from Rocky Mountain Bagel Company (tripadvisor). The day old bagels were very much worth it however and we would take advantage of that in the future. We had went to the store the night before, but were too exhausted from travels to really pack up everything so that was our next task before we could head out. By the time we were ready to head out for the trailhead, it was almost lunch time. We dropped by Wendy’s on the way out of town for lunch on the road and I picked up a couple extra junior bacon cheese burgers for dinner that night.
It was noon by the time we reached the Painted Pots Trailhead, where I dropped of Meg with our packs. This would be our starting point, but I needed to take the car to our exit point at Floe Lake Trailhead before hitching back. I was lucky on multiple fronts when I got to Floe Lake Trailhead. The first was that I found the last parking spot and the second was I found a hitch right away from a group just finishing the hike. The shuttling and hitching took about 40 minutes and we were ready to hit the trail just before 1pm.
- distance: 9.2 miles (14.8 km)
- elevation change: 1966 ft. (599 m) ascent & 936 ft. (285 m) descent
- time: 4:07 hours with minor breaks
A few steps through the woods from the trailhead, we came to the large crossing of the Vermilion River.
There were plenty of day hikers at this point checking out the banks of the teal river so iconic to glacial runoffs and the Canadian Rockies.
After the bridge, the trail junction with trail coming in from the Marble Canyon Trailhead. We turned left to continue to the Painted Pots and Ochre Spring. The trail continues on the banks of the Vermillion River for a few steps and then turns inlands and crosses a muddy area.
At the end of the muddy swamp around 0.4 miles, the trail starts to follow the orangish brown Ochre Creek uphill at about a 8.4% grade for the next 0.4 miles. Footing here can be slippery from the muddy trail and the many day hikers stopping by to see the painted pots
and Ochre Spring.
This is where we left the crowds behind. For the next 1.5 miles, the Helmet/Tumbling Trail continues through the forest undulating in elevation. At the crest of a section, we came to a clearing with views of the Tumbling Creek drainage as it meets the Ochre Creek drainage.
It wasn’t long before we reached the Tumbling Creek junction. We took the right path to continue on toward Helmet Falls.
After another 1.5 miles (3.8 miles from the trailhead) undulating through the forest, we came to the Helmet/Ochre Junction Campgrounds. The trail up to this point wasn’t very interesting. It was a nice campground with plenty of tent pads. There were a few campers here already, but majority were still empty.
We crossed the Ochre Creek after the campgrounds
and started on the steepest ascent of the day over the next mile at an average of 9.3% with the steepest incline around 30%. It was mostly through the forest except for where a previous rock slide opened up the view.
Around the 4.9 mile mark, the trail flattens out mostly and the creek, now called Helmet Creek being above the confluence with Ochre Creek, slowly meets up with the trail.
At roughly the 7.35 mile mark, the trail crosses a Helmet Creek over a bridge and heads into the woods once again.
The elevation picks up slightly for the next mile and a quarter until it plateaus at an opening and we get our first view of Helmet Falls.
Just before reaching the Helmet Falls Campgrounds, we pass the junction with the trail heading toward Goodsir Pass branching off the the right. That trail is also part of the GDT heading northbound. We continue straight to join the GDT southbound for the rest of the hike.
A small creek in the woods was the final point of interest
before the Helmet Falls patrol cabin came into sight sitting on the most idealistic background of the Helmet Falls amphitheater.
There were plenty of camping spot still open by the time we arrived around 5pm. So we took one near the back of the camping area. The campgrounds had a couple of outhouses and a separate cooking area with bear boxes for your food storage.
After setting up camp and dinner, we still had plenty of day light since it was only 7pm. So we decided to explore up to Helmet Falls. It didn’t look that far, but it turned out to be about a 3 mile roundtrip. To reach the falls, we continued on the trail past the campgrounds. After the trail cuts through the bush area, we came to a junction. The Rockwall trail was the left option crossing the creek, the trail to the falls continued on the right option.
The trail continued through the forest and there was a mound at the end with a view of the falls.
After the mound, we saw a trail curving to the right. The cairns here guided us through a rocky section before switchbacking onto the mound to the left of Helmet Falls.
We could feel the strong wind and mist that accompanied the falls near the top of the mound.
The headwaters for Helmet Creek originates from a couple glaciers, Sharp Glacier and West Washmawapta Glacier, sitting atop the the shelf above the cliffs and below Sharp Mountain and Helmet Mountain respectively. However, the are well out of view from our vantage point. All we can do is look back upon the drainage we hiked up for the day.
The sun was setting once we returned to camp after out extra side adventure. The view from the meadow in front of the patrol cabin provided the perfect alpenglow upon the the amphitheatre cliffs here to close out the night
- distance: est. 12.3 miles (19.8 km)
- elevation change: 4111 ft. (1253 m) ascent & 4822 ft. (1470 m) descent
- time: est. 8:15 hours with breaks
In our typical fashion, left camp around 8:30am in the morning.
Surprisingly, there were only 3 groups that left before us. The reason might be that most hikers are ending at Tumbling Creek Campgrounds where as we were only able to reserve the one after that, Numa Creek Campgrounds. Our day was a bit more longer than most others.
After going through the shrubbery are and crossing the stream, it was time to gain some elevation. For the next 0.6 miles, the trail zigzagged up the mountain within the forest at an average of 17.9% grade. At its elbows, the trail comes out to the cleaning with more view of Helmet Falls.
Once we were through with the switchbacks, the trail started to continue around the mountain under Limestone Peak for the next half mile at a 15.1% incline. There isn’t much of a view here since the trail is within the forest for the rest of the uphills to the pass. The final 0.7 miles to the pass under Limestone Peak is at an easier 10.7% graded incline. The top of the pass is rather rounded and you come out from the forest to the gorgeous meadow, one that definitely deserves a Julie Andrews twirl. The peaks that extend out in front of us include the immediate peak of Rockwall Peak, Mount Drysdale, and Rockwall Pass from right to left. We took a snack break here to enjoy the view in front of us and to replenish some of our expanded energy from that first uphills.
The views continue over the next 0.41 miles at the average grade of -16% as the trail remains in the open. A stream starts to accompany the trail on the left before the trail crosses in a brief flat. Then the trail heads back into the forest for the next 0.32 miles at -15.4% grade become coming out at the mouth of a moraine lake area at roughly 3 miles from Helmet Falls Campground.
For the next 1.2 miles, the trail gains elevation rather evenly at an average about 13.6%. It first starts among the moraine rocks and ponds.
Before the trail cuts across a stream and into the forest for the rest of the way up.
At the top of the uphills and roughly 4.5 miles from Helmet Falls Campgrounds, we reached Rockwall Pass. Here we met Sean, who was hiking solo and would join us for the rest of our hike. It was also here we saw our only snow patches on our hike.
Once at the pass, the trail was relatively flat with a slight overall downhill as it undulated over the next 1.5ish miles. The view across this entire section of the Rockwall Pass was terrific as we were treated to literally a rock wall.
This was in contrast with the high alpine meadows and hanging glaciers. The immediate peak here sitting behind Wolverine Pass is Mount Gray.
At 5.7 miles from Helmet Falls Campgrounds, we reached the junction to Wolverine Pass.
We dropped our packs and hiked the extra 0.36 mile side trip out to Wolverine Pass, all the while humming the X-Men cartoon theme song (youtube).
Returning to the Rockwall trail, we continued along the high alpine meadows with thenot stop views continuing which includes Tumbling Peak and its impressive hanging glacier.
When we reached the tree line, the steep descent into the Tumbling Creek drainage begin. It was at an average of -15.0% grade over the next 1.25 miles switchbacking among the evergreens.
We were glad to see the water source just before Tumbling Creek Campsite signally the end of our downhills. Tumbling Creek was a large campgrounds with plenty of campsites. However it was booked full as far as we knew even though we were the only ones there at the moment. We decided to take a snack break here and hold off on a long lunch break at the top of our next pass for the day.
The trail continues through the campgrounds before crossing Tumbling Creek over a bridge. The Rockwall trail continues to the right as the junction heading back upstream and then over the next pass.
Meanwhile the Tumbling Creek trail heads downstream and out to Painted Pots Trailhead. Should you be short on time or only able to get the campsites on this section, the Helmet Falls and Tumbling Creek loop is well worth it.
The next mile was a hard uphill both from the consistent steepness with a 19.3% grade average, the wear on legs, and the drop in our energy from waiting to eat at the pass. The initial portion was through the woods and slightly steeper with a maximum grade of 28%.
The the top of our climb, the forest starts to peter out and Tumbling Peak looms over us.
Once we were at Tumbling Pass, it was time for our late lunch.
Another group heading northbound joined us at our lunch spot where we had an amazing view of the granite wall and hanging glaciers in front of us. Also while there, we saw some interesting wind twisters further down the ridge.
Once we were done with lunch, we had a long downhills to look forward to to reach our campgrounds for the night, the Numa Creek Campgrounds. The downhill is in a couple of pitches, the first is a half mile descent at a -16.1% average grade.
That was followed by a nice flat walk along a meadow bench with a stream crossing.
Then came the monster downhill over the next 2 miles. The initial portion was switchbacks through some woods and brush before turning to more of a sandy scree portion with very little cover.
The worst part was having crossing a creek area several times as we zigzaged our way down into the drainage. At least we didn’t have to worry being thirsty.
Once we were back in the brush again, we had no more views. It was the kind of brush that blocked you from seeing anything but didn’t block out the sun to provide you any shade. This was my least favorite section of the entire hike. Our only view through the entire rest of the section was of unnamed glacial stream we had crossed a few times earlier on.
The end to our descent was the junction with the Numa Creek Trail, which was closed during our hike due to a rockslide. The junction was about 12 miles into our day. A sign shortly after told us we were very close to our end point for the day.
The challenges to our day didn’t end there as the skies opened just as we reached camp. I quickly threw up our tent the quick fly and groundsheet set up so we can weather the initial downpour before setting up our mesh during a break.
Numa Creek Campgrounds was pretty nice other than the outhouse. The camping area is separated from the gathering and food storage area by a tributary that joins Numa Creek further downstream. There was a few fire rings in the main gathering area where we hung out with a group from Edmonton once the rain stopped. Our fire starting efforts were despicable however and I blame it on the wet firewood.
We were ready for bed before hiker midnight since it was a pretty long day. The several creeks surrounding Numa Creek Campgrounds made for great white noise to sleep too. So did the rain throughout the night.
- distance: 12.5 miles (20.1 km)
- elevation change: 3105 ft. (946 m) ascent & 3759 ft. (1146 m) descent
- time: 7:21 hours with breaks
The rain had cleared by the time morning rowed around, but there were still plenty of clouds lingering. We were on our way around 8am once again, our typical set off time. After an initial uphills out of the Numa Creek Campgrounds, the trail was flat continuing on a ledge with overlooks upon Numa Creek until we reached a bridge over a tributary. Foster Peak makes its first appearance on the day for us poking into the clouds. It is the highest point in the Vermilion Range.
The trail then started to gain some elevation at about a 9.9% grade over the next mile crossing through the forest but not before another view overlooking Numa Creek. The morning light and moisture in the air after rain made the walk through the forest feel mystical.
At the end of the valley was a meadow revealing a couple of waterfalls down the limestone walls.
We crossed over the stream from the waterfall over a shady looking log.
The real uphills for the day started then in the form of about a 15.1% grade over the next 2.25 miles. It would mostly switchback through the forest. As we got higher up, we got peaks of the peaks around us, including Mt. Assiniboine in the distance.
About a quarter mile from the pass, we reached the treeline with Numa Pass in sight.
We turn around for a final look at the drainage we spend 2.5 hours and 4.25 miles climbing out of.
We thought about stopping here for lunch like another couple did after their climb out of Floe Lake Campgrounds, but it was a bit to windy at Numa Pass. The shivering couple informed us we should keep going. From the pass, we can see Floe Peak, but not the talked about Floe Lake yet.
The next half mile continued along the side of the mountain through a grassy meadow and slightly muddy trail with plenty of wildflowers blooming.
Just as the trail turns to drop toward Floe Lake, we came to the ultimate view of the trip. The teal Floe Lake with the shear granite wall behind it seem from a flower filled field.
It was decidedly the perfect lunch spot. After lunch, we started our long descent down to the trailhead. The first 0.6 miles from our lunch spot was at a -20.4% grade switchbacking through the forest. We were accompanied by plenty of wildflower on this section.
The next 2/3 of a mile down to Floe Lake was at a -9.0% grade. There were a few trails here around the lake. We took the one toward the lake itself and the patrol cabin.
I can see why Floe lake is the most popular camping spots on the Rockwall.
However, the mosquitos here were some of the worst we encountered on the hike as well, so we didn’t linger in one spot too long and continued along the lake shore.
There weren’t many people around the lake at about 12:30pm as most backpackers had already left for their next destination and the day hikers had yet to arrive from the Floe Lake Trailhead.
After our walk around the lake, it was time to head for the trailhead and back to town for some real food. Out of Floe Lake, there is a slight uphill before a steep 1.1 mile long drop at roughly -21.3% to the Floe Creek drainage. Initially it was switchbacks through the woods, but then we were in the open due to recent fires. This was where we passed most of the day hikers and backpackers heading to Floe Lake, most with exhausted faces.
Once we were through the major downhill, it was another 5ish miles undulating along the side of the mountain under the hot sun toward Highway 93 and the trailhead. I understood why the hikers we passed seemed so beat. What the burn does allow for was plenty of wildflowers to sprang up, like the fields of Lupines.
I was very happy to find a running stream along the way to help cool myself down. So much so, I became the resident troll under the bridge.
Being reenergized from cool water and cameled up, the hike out felt much better. We even found bushes of blueberry and I think raspberry along the side of the trail.
The field of flowers continued as did the hollowed carcusess of burnt trees as we followed Floe Creek out of the valley.
Once we were at the head of the valley, the trail switchbacked gently down to Floe Creek before crossing it 11.36 miles on the day for us.
Another 0.8 miles through a recovering burn area, we came the Vermilion River crossing. The teal rapids were a nice finishing bow to a great hike.
From there is was 0.3 miles to our end point at Floe Lake Trailhead.
We were famished once we were done. We gave Sean a lift back to his car at the Painted Pots Trailhead and said our goodbyes. I’ve always enjoyed meeting others on the trail and hopefully we’ll hike with him again in the future.
I had booked a night at our previous hotel, Quality Resort Chateau in Canmore (tripadvisor), again with 30k Choice points (see detailed hotel strategies). Once we checked in, we headed for food first. For this night it would involve all we could eat Brazilian Barbeque at Gaucho Brazilian (tripadvisor) in Canmore. It was a good way to conclude the first of our backpacking hikes covering our days 2-4 of our trip.
Our bookings at the time had us starting the Mt. Assiniboine hike the following day (day 5) with 2 days at the main campgrounds there at Lake Magog. However, we decided to push it back by at least a day since we didn’t take The Rockwall at the easiest pace. This eventually lead to pushing the hike back a couple of days as I found another day open up later in the week at Lake Magog, but I’ll get to it in the Mt. Assiniboine section of the series.
In the end, we extended our stay at the Quality Resort Chateau for 2 more nights at the rate of 30k Choice points. This allowed us to had a zero day (our day 5 on the trip) where we could recover and with no physical activities, other than heading out for food. The best of which were the burgers we found a hole in the wall poutine place, 514 Poutine (tripadvisor). Ofcourse, we had to have the poutine since we were in Canada after all.
The rating below are based on an unevenly distributed scale of 1-5. For full description of the ratings and the categories, see the explanation here.
views/experience: 4. The Rockwall lives up to its name in the fullest with several sections of extended granite ridges that accompanies the trail for the majority of the hike.
They were indeed impressive with hanging glaciers, teal lakes, waterfalls, and flowering meadows to accompany them. Plenty of the trail are above the treeline allowing you to have continuous views.
That being said, there are plenty of sections through the woods and brushes that can become dull. Or they can seem mystical in the right mindset.
I would come back to do this again and hopefully be able to stay night at Floe Lake Campgrounds, I imagine the alpenglow would be nice there.
As a final remark, I’ll leave you with the impression of a GDT hiker who we gave a lift to later on our trip, he said this was their favorite section of their entire hike.
difficulty: 3. The elevation changes for the hike can prove challenging. However, they should be manageable if you plan for a day or two more than our pace. Since there is good amount of exposure to the elements on the hike, weather can potentially have a greater effect on the difficulty of the trail. For instance, from Floe Lake to the trailhead was quiet brutal with the sun baking us the entire time and would have been more difficult if we were going the other way. Braving the rain, wind, and snow would make sections like this more challenging and possibly technical.
technical: 2. There were no specific navigation or other specialized knowledge beyond basic backpacking skills that were needed for the hike. While some of the inclines were indeed steep, I don’t remember any parts where we had to scramble or use our hands since the trail is very well managed. All this points to the technical rating of 1. However, we did hike this during peak season and mostly good weather. With the higher altitude the possible of snow crossings, this score does have the potential to range higher. Furthermore, additional elements can make the steep inclines technical.