Rae Lakes Loop | The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Rae Lakes

Upper Rae Lakes at Sunrise on the Rae Lakes Loop

Rae Lakes loop is one of the most coveted backcountry permits in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National parks. For 41 miles (66 KM) you’ll be treated to a seemingly endless supply of the Sierra Nevada superlatives. You’ll hike alongside the roaring South Fork Kings River, experience the cascading torrent of Mist Falls, marvel at the sublime sunrise reflection of the Painted Lady in Rae Lakes, and experience the catharsis of reaching 11,978′ (3651m) Glen Pass. 

Rae Lakes Loop can be completed in multiple directions and on a variety of schedules. In this guide, I’ll break down everything you need to know to backpack the Rae Lakes Loop.  Let’s dive in:

Need to know for hiking the Rae Lakes Loop

Days Required: 2-5
Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 41 miles (66 KM)
Elevation Gain: 7200 ft (2195 M)
Elevation Loss: 7200 ft  (2195 M)
Permit Required: Yes, competitive.
Navigation: Easy, trails are well marked.
Water Sources: Plentiful, trail follows reliable creeks and rivers for the duration.
Food Storage: Bear canister required.
Best Campsite walked past or stayed at: Middle Rae Lakes or Upper Rae Lakes.

Things you’ll love about backpacking Rae Lakes

    • Sublime Sierra Nevada scenery.
    • Well marked and easy to navigate trail
    • Loop hike makes transportation a breeze.
    • Multiple entry trailheads possible.
    • Multiple side trips possible for various itineraries.
    • Opportunity to meet other backpackers and thru hikers.
    • Plentiful water sources.

Things you won’t love about backpacking Rae Lakes

    • Bugs can be viscous.
    • Solitude can be hard to find  as both the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail run through the most scenic sections.
    • There are bear boxes, yet you need to bring a bulky bear canister regardless.
    • Glen Pass can be snow covered until July depending on the snow-pack.
    • The sandy soil texture can give you mad blisters. (Bring low gaiters),
Bubbs Creek on the Rae Lakes Loop

How many days does it take to hike the Rae Lakes Loop?

The Rae Lakes Loop typically takes 2 to 5 days to backpack in its entirety. That said, there are many possible side trails  for hikers looking to spend more time in the area including Sixty Lakes Basin, Gardiner Basin, and Kearsarge Lakes.

How do you get a permit for the Rae Lakes Loop?

During the quota season (May 26, 2023 – September 23, 2023) there are two ways to secure a permit to backpack the Rae Lakes Loop: through a reservation or walk-up permit. Outside of these dates all permits are self-issued at the nearest visitor center. 

The classic Rae Lakes loop starts at Road’s End in King’s Canyon National park and follows either Bubbs Creek (counterclockwise trips) or Woods Creek (clockwise trips).

How to make a reservation

Permits for Rae Lakes Loop can be booked starting 6 months before and up to one week before your intended start date via recreation.gov. Up to 20 people are allowed to enter via reservation daily on both Bubbs Creek Trail or Woods Creek Trail (40 total). Once you’ve secured your reservation, you’ll still have to pick up your permit from Road End Ranger Station starting at 1 pm the day before your hike or as late as 10:00am the day of your hike. If you’re arriving later, contact the wilderness office to let them know to hold your permit or it will be given away.

How to get a walk-up permit

5 people are allowed to enter with walk-up permits daily on either Bubbs or Woods (10 total). These permits can be obtained starting at 1pm the day prior to your hike. If you’re going this route, arrive well before 1pm to snag a spot near the front of the walk-up line. Make sure you have an idea of your itinerary  beforehand.

Which direction should you hike Rae Lakes?

Rae Lakes Loop can be hiked either clockwise via Woods Creek Trail or counterclockwise on Bubbs Creek Trail. Prior to booking your permit you’ll need to decide on a direction to hike this trip. Here’s more information to help you make your decision:

Clockwise, from the Woods Creek Trail

Starting your hike from Woods Creek Trail results in a more gradual elevation change. This route spreads the 6943 ft (2100 M) climb to Glen Pass out over almost 25 miles, following a steady upward trajectory with a limited number of drastic switchbacks prior to the big push up to Glen Pass

Counterclockwise, starting from Bubbs Creek Trail

Heading counterclockwise from Bubbs Creek is more strenuous, gaining the 6943’ of elevation to Glen Pass over 17 miles. If choosing this direction it doesn’t take long for the thigh burn to begin with a series of switchbacks greeting you within the first several miles and before the first campsite option at Sphinx Junction.

Verdict on direction

In my opinion, the competitive nature of the permit process doesn’t afford the luxury of being choosy. Either way the hike is fantastic.

If I had to choose, I’d start from Woods Creek Trail (clockwise) for the following reasons:

    • Your pack is heaviest with food weight at the start of your trip, so more gradual elevation is a perk.
    • Afternoon thunderstorms can be common in the summer. A clockwise trip makes it easy to spend a night at Rae Lakes and summit Glen Pass early in the morning before this becomes a factor.
    • Rae Lakes close proximity to Glen Pass makes it easier to go clockwise for those looking to include a night at Rae Lakes in their itinerary. 

Additional trailhead options for hiking the Rae Lakes loop:

Aside from Bubbs Creek and Woods Creek there are several additional access points for starting the Rae Lakes Loop on the eastern side of the Sierras.  Starting from these trailheads will add additional mileage, but may afford you the opportunity to get a permit that might not otherwise be available.

View down to Onion Valley from Kearsarge Pass

Kearsarge Pass via Onion Valley

The most common alternative trailhead for doing the Rae Lakes Loop, this trail starts from Onion Valley on the eastern side of the Sierras and climbs up and over Kearsarge pass. At 6.5 miles (one-way), it’s a great option and a common resupply trip for thru hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail. This trail offers stunning views of the Kearsarge lakes area on the descent from Kearsarge Pass. Permits for the Rae Lakes Loop starting from Kearsarge Pass must be booked through the Inyo National Forest – Wilderness Permits.   

Baxter Pass via Baxter Pass Trailhead

This strenuous 13 mile (one-way) route takes you over Baxter Pass before dropping you down by Dollar lake to the North of Rae Lakes. I have no personal experience hiking over Baxter, but my map marks it as a route (vs. a trail) and the official National Forest description calls it steep and rugged. Buyer beware! Drop me a line in the comments if you’ve done it, would love to hear about it. Starts from the Baxter Pass trailhead and is booked via the Inyo National Forest – Wilderness Permits on Recreation.gov.

Can you have campfires on the Rae Lakes Loop?

Yes, campfires are allowed on sections of the Rae Lakes Loop below 10,000 ft and assuming current fire regulations allow it. The elevation restriction means that fires are never permitted in the section of the trail that starts in the vicinity of Dollar Lake (including Rae Lakes) and ends near lower Vidette Meadow (if traveling clockwise). If you’re making a fire in the allowable areas make sure to follow minimum impact principles, use only existing fire rings, and ensure it’s doused repeatedly, cold to touch, and dead out before hitting the sack. Check with a ranger for all up to date restrictions before heading out.

Snow Going Up to Glen Pass on the Rae Lakes Trail

Is the hike to Rae Lakes challenging?

Like any hike the difficulty of hiking the Rae Lakes Loop is very subjective. Your conditioning, experience, and backpack weight are all major factors. Overall, I’d rate this hike as moderate. It’s well signed and offers multiple campsites to break the mileage up over multiple days. That said, there is significant elevation gain up to the highpoint at Glen Pass and its’ difficulty is compounded by the high elevation that comes with hiking in the Sierra Nevada. Furthermore, the potential for snow travel and river crossings in early season ups the difficulty level.

When to backpack the Rae Lakes Loop

The Rae Lakes Loops can be hiked from early-June through to October. The sun in the altitude of the high sierra is intense during the peak summer months and thunderstorms may pose a risk. Early season travel faces the challenge of snow on Glen Pass and potential for dangerous river crossings. In fall, temperature begin to drop and the potential for snow rises. If going early or late season, contact the wilderness office for questions on conditions. At all times of the year the trail will be heavily trafficked. Aside from Rae lakes being a popular backpacking destination in its own right, trail joins the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail for about 14 miles from Lower Vidette Meadow to Woods creek bridge.

How to get to the Rae Lakes Loop?

The traditional Rae Lakes Loop starts from Road’s End in Kings Canyon National Park. It can also be started from multiple other trailheads on the eastern side of the Sierras. It’s a loop hike and thus no shuttle is required.  Rent a car or drive your own, park at the trailhead and go nothing beats easy logistics! Am I right?

Hiking Past Upper Paradise on the Woods Creek Trail

Trail Sections

I’ve described the sections of the Rae Lakes Loop based on my own experience hiking clockwise. If you’re planning a trip the opposite way you’ll have to get creative and try to think backwards. 😉 All distances and elevations are rounded and approximate. 

Roads End to Mist Falls

4 Miles (6.5 KM)

850ft (250M) Elevation Gain

After departing from the Road’s End Ranger Station the trail follows a wide path through an open forest with excellent views to cliffs and peaks surrounding the canyon. Sun exposure in this section is high and shade is limited. After a couple miles, you’ll hit the junction for Bubb’s Creek trail where counterclockwise hikers take a right crossing the bridge over the South Fork Kings River.  Clockwise hikers continue along the Paradise Valley trail which follows along the rivers west bank, The trail becomes quite lush with the moisture, nutrients, and spray from the river transforming the forest and providing some shade. The contrast is stark, where minutes ago there was a sandy wash, ferns and significant understory abounds. For 2 miles after the Junction with Bubbs the trail steadily climbs adding about 650ft (200 M) elevation before reaching the aptly named Mist Falls where an incredible torrent of water shrouds the entire trail in vapor and mist.   This is a spectacular and refreshing location for lunch or a snack, just be mindful of the slippery rocks.

Paradise Valley on the Rae Lakes Loop

Mist Falls to Upper Paradise

5 Miles (8 KM)

1650ft (450M) Elevation Gain & 350 ft (100M) Loss

Leaving Mist Falls the trail continues its steady ascent navigating a short series of switchbacks half a mile after the falls. Views back down the river valley are spectacular and amplified in the morning as the sun’s rays highlight the canyon walls. The trail follows the river up the drainage as it flows through a series of deep and dramatic pools before widening and shallowing out near Lower Paradise Valley. Lower Paradise Valley is typically the first spot where camping is permitted, but for 2022 it was temporarily closed due to the presence of numerous dangerous trees. If you’re looking to camp in this area for the night continue on to Middle or Upper Paradise . This section of the trail provides numerous forested sections that serve as a lovely reprieve from the scorching Sierra sun. I was fortunate enough to see a bear about 150 ft in front of me on this section. Naturally, he took off the minute he heard me singing…

Hiking Past Upper Paradise on the Woods Creek Trail

Upper Paradise to Woods Creek

5.5 Miles (9 KM)

1650ft (500M) Elevation GaIn

After departing Upper Paradise you’ll encounter the largest river crossing of this trip. There was once a bridge that crossed the South Fork Kings River here, but it was washed away in 2016. As of June 2022, there was no new bridge and a stream crossing is required here. The conditions are season dependent and day dependent.  I encountered no issues with this crossing in early June , but every year/day can be different. Ask the ranger for any guidance when you pick up your permit as from time-to-time log jams form in the vicinity that can make the crossing easier. Look for the old bridge foundation to give you a bearing of where to head and avoid walking to far. Additionally, once you’ve made the crossing, find the remnants of the old bridge’s concrete foundation again to re-discover the trail. There are a couple trails that lead north (or to the left of the old fountain), do not take these, stay on the trail that heads straight then to the right and you’ll quickly rediscover the main trail. You’re now on the Woods Creek trail!  Over the next 6 miles you’ll gain over 1600 ft of elevation (500M) in a steady fashion. Who said going up was hard!  Following your crossing, you’ll initially hike out of sight of Woods Creek before the creek becomes visible a couple miles down the trail.  Upon reaching Castle Domes Meadows area the views really begin to open up and you’re given a sampling of what’s to come.  After staying right at the junction and joining up with JMT/PCT you’ll come to the suspension bridge and cross over Woods creek.

Lower Rae Lake

Woods Creek to Middle Rae Lake

6 Miles (10 KM)

2000ft (650M) Elevation GaIn

After crossing the suspension bridge over Woods Creek the trail climbs 1600 ft ( 500 M) to reach Dollar Lake and the junction with Baxter Lakes Trail. This climb is steady over the duration and crosses over various tributaries that flow into the South Fork Woods Creek. None of these crossings are technical and are likely seasonal flows, unfortunately in early June several were not crossable without conceding wet feet. After reaching Dollar Lake the trail remains relatively flat and you’ll cross another small flow that connects Arrowhead Lake with Dollar lake and re-soaks your feet just as they were starting to dry. Arrowhead lake offers a decent size camping zone with food storage boxes, should your legs be too weary to go any further or are looking to avoid the crowd at Rae. Arrowhead is also a great second night option for those looking to stay near Rae Lakes for longer than 1 night. At this point the trail makes one more climb  to reach the majestic Rae Lakes. There are several spots to camp near lower Rae lakes, but many backpackers continue past the ranger station to Middle Rae Lake. Camping here provides an optimal view over Middle Rae Lake to the Painted Lady and peaks behind.  Sunset and sunrise here is guaranteed to delight!

Alpenglow at Rae Lakes

Middle Rae Lakes to Glen Pass

2.5 Miles (4 KM)

1500ft (450M) Elevation Gain

If you’ve stayed at Middle Rae, you’ll start your day with incredible views as you follow the shoreline along the northern side of Upper Rae Lake. After walking for about ½ mile (1 KM) you’ll encounter another small water crossing where Upper Rae drains into Lower Rae. There were no rocks to cross during my trip. If you have an alternate pair of shoes/sandals you’ve been using for river crossings, I’d consider wearing them from camp to this point given. It’s a short distance and you’ll save the hassle of making the change. If not, embrace the morning footbath! Shortly after negotiating this crossing you’ll encounter the junction for the Sixty Lakes Basin to the right, a great place to explore for those spending additional time in the area. If not, continue to the left, it’s time to tackle Glen Pass! From Upper Rae Lakes the trail gains 1500ft  (450 M) over 1.8 Miles (3 KM) to the trail’s highest point at Glen Pass. This ascent is negotiated over a series of switchbacks that climb over loose rock and snow, in the early-season. If you’re hiking early in the year, this is where you’ll want your microspikes so have them ready. An early morning start is also helpful, as the snow is firm and far less strenuous to navigate without postholing at every step. Regardless of the season, It’s tough work making the climb, but the awe-inspiring views of alpine lakes and jagged peaks are balm to your burning quads. Following a final step set of switchbacks the trail cuts across sharply skirting the ridge to the right before reaching the summit of the pass. Be especially careful here if traveling on snow or ice as the slope to the right is steep and a fall would have consequences. After navigating this final section, take it all in. A breathtaking view greets you in all directions!

View from Glen Pass

Glenn Pass to Charlotte Lake Junction

2 Miles (3.5 KM)

1300 ft (400M) Elevation Loss

After enjoying your time atop Glen Pass, it is time to begin your descent. The path coming down navigates a series of switchbacks, but without the same level of loose rock as your ascent. Additionally, this slope south facing exposure makes it unlikely that you’ll encounter any more snow travel. You’ll descend towards a small alpine lake for around ½ mile rapidly losing 350 ft (100 M) of elevation along the way. After this first lake the trail follows along a small creek that drains into a lower lake about 1 Mile (0.6 KM) down. There are several camp spots nearby these small lakes that may be useful for hikers traveling counterclockwise and looking to get an early start going up Glen Pass. After passing the second lake, you’ll slowly leave behind the alpine environment and continue for another 1.2 miles (2.0 Km) losing  525ft (160 M) of elevation before reaching the trail for Kearsarge Pass. Kearsarge pass makes for an excellent alternative entry point or add on loop (9 KM round trip to the pass) that takes in scenic views from the pass, Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lakes. Staying on the main trail you’ll continue for ¼ mile (0.35KM) before coming to another junction with Charlotte Lake trail. Charlotte lake lies ⅔ Mile (1 KM) to the right with this trail also serving as the access point for exploring the Gardiner Basin area.

Charlotte Lake Junction to Junction Meadow

4 Miles (6.5 KM)

2600ft (800 M) Elevation Loss

Following the junction with Charlotte Lake, you’ll encounter a series of switchbacks before continuing a steady descent alongside a creek and down the valley. From Charlotte junction you’ll lose 360M of elevation in 2.7km walking through forested areas with consistent openings to the mountains above and valley below before reaching Vidette Meadow junction . Upon reaching Vidette Meadow junction you’ll stay right following the Bubbs creek trail and bidding adieu to PCT and JMT trails as they exit to the left. From here the trail parallels Bubbs creek as it descends providing innumerable magnificent views of the crashing torrent as it descends down into the valley below.  About 4km after lower Lower Vidette meadow you’ll arrive at Junction meadow. For those looking to cover move ground, an excellent camping spot with bear boxes lies an extra 0.6 miles down the trail adjacent to Bubbs Creek.

Bubbs Creek on Rae Lakes Trail

Junction Meadow to Sphinx Creek

6 Miles (10 KM)

2000ft (600 M) Elevation Loss

Leaving Junction meadow you’ll continue to parallel Bubbs Creek and walk through a mix of forest and meadow. Catch views of the surrounding cliffs that encircle the valley walls and marvel at the perfectly eroded drainages where spring runoff funnels down into Bubbs creek. After 3 miles (4.8 KM) and a 300M loss in elevation you’ll reach Charlotte Creek which offers a collection of campsites to the left of the trail and near Bubbs Creek. As you continue past this area and down to Sphinx Creek look for the looming silhouette of Charlotte Dome (10,630 ft 3240 m) to the right. A further 3.3 Miles (5KM) down the trail you’ll come to a junction at Sphinx Creek. The Campsite here is the last (first)  place to camp if completing this hike Clockwise (counterclockwise). 

Sphinx Creek to Road's End

4 Miles (6.5 KM)

1300 ft (400 M) Elevation Loss

From Sphinx you’ll walk for about ⅔ of a mile (1KM) before encountering your final set of switchbacks. As you descend, look for views of the Sphinx 2786M to the southwest. Once you’ve reached the bottom of the switchbacks you’ll make your way across Bubbs Creek (unbridged) before crossing the bridge over South Fork Kings River and retracing your steps back to Road’s end and your car. 

Campsites on the Rae Lakes Loop

Unlike popular hikes like the Rockwall Trail or the Grand Canyon’s corridor trails, there are no truly established campsites on the Rae Lakes Trail. Specifically, you will not have luxuries like tent pads or outhouses, but you have the luxury of getting to camp (mostly) where you please! There are multiple locations that are frequently utilized by backpackers and often feature well used/obvious tent sites, food storage boxes, and established fire rings. Bear canisters are mandatory for hiking the Rae Lakes Loop and priority in the food storage boxes is given to thru hikers on the PCT and JMT. However, if there is room many hikers pop their bear canisters inside to make it easily discoverable and eliminate the risk that a bear will accidentally roll your cache into a nearby lake or river should it attempt to get inside. You’ll find food storage boxes at the following locations:

    • Sphinx Creek
    • Charlotte Creek
    • Lower Junction Meadow
    • Junction Meadow (East Creek)
    • Vidette Meadow
    • Woods Creek crossing/John Muir Trail
    • Upper Paradise Valley
    • Middle Paradise Valley
    • Lower Paradise Valley
    • Arrowhead Lake
    • Middle Rae Lake

Itinerary options for hiking Rae Lakes

The traditional Rae Lakes Loop can be completed in 2 to 5 days, but numerous side-trails offer multiple ways to spend more time exploring this incredible area. The following itineraries have been provided as a starting point for helping you plan your trip. Only you know what mileage you’re comfortable with, so make an informed decision. Hiking and backpacking are rare activities where faster isn’t necessarily better or more enjoyable. The last thing you want is to be stressing out about whether or not you’ll make it to camp before dark.

Please note the following restrictions when planning your trip and check for up to date restrictions prior to booking and starting your trip:

    • Camping in Paradise Valley is limited to two nights.
    • Camping at Rae Lakes is limited to one night per lake.
    • No camping at Lower Paradise Valley due to the number of dead trees in the area.

All mileages and elevations are rounded and approximate.

Alpenglow at Rae Lakes

Rae Lakes Loop in 2 days / 1 night

Crazy? Maybe a little, but trail runners tackle the Rae Lakes Loop in one day of quad destroying bliss.  So, if you’re really short on time and are comfortable logging high miles in the High Sierra this trip is for you.

Clockwise via Woods Creek

    • Day 1: Road’s End to Middle Rae Lakes via Woods Creek
      • 21.5 Miles (34 KM) 
      • 5900 ft (1800 M) Elevation Gain 
      • 300 ft (100 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 2: Middle Rae Lakes to Road’s End via Bubbs Creek
      • 19 Miles (31 KM) 
      • 1600ft (500 M) Elevation Gain
      • 7200 ft (2200 M) Loss
Notes:

 In this short of time, clockwise is the way to go as it allows you to spend a night at the loop’s namesake (Rae Lakes) and get up and over Glen Pass first thing in the morning on day 2. Going up Glen first has a number of benefits including: reducing the chance of having to delay due to midday thunderstorm and not having to conquer the toughest part of the trail at the end of a long day when you’re fatigued.  If you’re going with this itinerary, I’d start as early as possible. I  completed this same schedule on my first day hiking to Rae Lakes.  I picked up my permit at 7:00am and finished at middle Rae Lake shortly after 5:00pm with about 30-45 minutes of stoppage time (for lunch/snacks). It felt tough, but manageable. On the 2nd day it’ll be all downhill after completing Glenn pass as your first order of business and you should be back at Road’s end in the late afternoon/early evening, leaving you plenty of time to drive home, get a few hours sleep, and make that early morning Zoom meeting the next day.  Weekend warrior this trip was built for you!

Upper Rae Lakes at Sunrise on the Rae Lakes Loop

Rae Lakes in 3 days / 2 nights

There are a couple ways to complete this backpacking trip in 2 nights. If you cannot live with the FOMO of hiking to Rae Lakes and not camping there you will need to have one really big day and 2 medium days. If you’re alright with passing by Rae Lakes and not camping there you can spread the mileage over the three days on the trail.

Here are the options:

Option 1 - Clockwise via Woods Creek and camp at Rae Lakes

This is the choice for you if you MUST camp at Rae Lakes! I get it, this was me. Here’s how to do it:

    • Day 1: Road’s End to Middle Rae Lakes via Woods Creek
      • 21.5 Miles (34 KM)
      • 5900 ft (1800 M) Elevation Gain 
      • 300 ft (100 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 2: Middle Rae Lakes to Junction Meadow, Charlotte Creek, or Sphinx Creek
      •  9.5 Miles (15 KM) to Junction
      • 1600 ft (500 M) Elevation Gain
      • 4000 ft (1200 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 3:Junction Meadow, Charlotte Creek, or Sphinx Creek to Road’s End via Bubbs Creek
      •  9.5 Miles (15 KM)  to Junction
      • 3200ft (1000 M)  Elevation Loss
Notes:

Similar to the 1 night itinerary, clockwise is the way to go as it allows you to spend a night at Rae Lakes and get up and over Glen Pass first thing in the morning on day 2. By knocking off Glen Pass first thing you reduce the chance of delay due to midday summer thunderstorms and avoid having to complete the toughest part of the trail at the very end of a long day.

Day 2 gives you some flexibility on the final campsite, allowing you to lengthen the day and subsequently reduce your hike out on day 3 should you desire. If you’re itching for more miles, trips to Charlotte Lake or Kearsarge Pass/Lakes can easily be added to the second day.  This is pretty much the itinerary I hiked, except I added a loop trip to Kearsarge Pass, Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lake to Day 2. 

Option 2 - Clockwise via Woods Creek with even-ish mileage

    • Day 1: Road’s End to Woods Creek Crossing via Woods Creek
      • 16 miles  (25 KM)
      • 3900 ft (1200 M) Elevation Gain 
      • 300 ft (100 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 2: Woods Creek to Junction Meadow
      • 16 miles (25 KM) 
      • 3600 ft (1100 M) Elevation Gain
      • 4000 ft (1200 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 3: Junction Meadow to Road’s End via Bubbs Creek
      • 9.5 Miles (15KM) 
      • 3300 ft (1000 M) Elevation Loss
Notes:

If you’re looking to space the mileage out, this itinerary splits the elevation gain almost equally between the first and second days while leaving the shorter day for the final day to get where you need to go post hike. Downside is that you don’t get to camp in the alpine areas which are, in my opinion, the most scenic. 

Option 3 - Counterclockwise via Bubbs Creek with even-ish mileage

    • Day1:  Road’s End to past Charlotte  Lake Junction via Bubbs Creek . Stay near one of the small lakes about 1.5 Miles (2.5 KM) North of Charlotte Lake Junction and before Glen Pass.
      • 16 Miles (25 KM) 
      •  6600 ft (2000 M) Elevation Gain
    • Day 2: Charlotte Lake Junction area to Upper Paradise
      • 16 Miles (25 KM) 
      • 1000ft (300 M) Elevation Gain
      • 5300 0ft (1600 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 3: Upper Paradise to Roads End
      • 9 Miles (14 Km) 
      • 2300 ft (700 M) Elevation Loss
Notes:

This itinerary will park you very close to Glen Pass for day 2 and you get the majority of the tough mileage out of the way on a tough day 1. The mileage is more evenly distributed, but this first day will be very tough. 

Hikers ascend a snowy Glen Pass

Rae Lakes in 4 days / 3 nights

Completing the Rae Lakes Loop in 4 days / 3 nights seems to be the Goldiloks zone for many backpackers. Here are couple options to do it in this timeframe:

Option 1 - Clockwise via Woods Creek

    • Day 1: Road’s End to Upper Paradise
      • 9 Miles (14 Km) 
      • 2300 ft (700 M) Elevation Gain
    • Day 2: Upper Paradise to Middle Rae
      • 12 Miles (19 KM) 
      • 3600 ft (1100 M) Elevation Gain
      • 300 ft (100 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 3: Middle Rae to Junction, Charlotte Creek, Sphinx.
      •  9.5 Miles (15 KM) to Junction
      • 1600 ft (500 M) Elevation Gain
      • 4000 ft (1200 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 4: Junction Meadow, Charlotte Creek, or Sphinx Creek to Road’s End via Bubbs Creek
      •  9.5 Miles (15 KM)  from Junction
      • 3200ft (1000 M)  Elevation Loss
Notes:

There are tough days in this itinerary, but the mileage is manageable for most backpackers.. You get to enjoy the splendor of Rae Lakes for a night and can summit Glen Pass in the morning. A winning itinerary, if I say so myself.  

Option 2 - Counterclockwise via Bubbs Creek

    • Day 1: Road’s End to Lower Vidette Meadow
      • 13 Miles (20 KM) 
      • 4600 ft (1400 M)  Elevation Gain 
    • Day 2: Lower Vidette Meadow to Middle Rae Lake
      • 7 Miles (11 KM)
      •  2600 ft (800 M) Elevation Gain
      •  1600 ft (500 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 3: Middle Rae Lake to Upper Paradise
      • 12 Miles (19 KM)
      • (100 M) Elevation Gain
      • 3600 ft(1100 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 4: Upper Paradise to Road’s End
      • 9 Miles (14 KM) 
      • 2300 ft (700 M) Elevation Loss
Notes:

By making a big climb to Lower Vidette Meadow on Day 1 you put yourself in good shape to make the trek up to Glen Pass on the morning of Day 2. Ideally you’ll have a good amount of time in the later afternoon to kick back at Rae Lakes.

View from Glen Pass

Rae Lakes in 5 days / 4 nights

Spend a little bit more time in the area and break up the big up days into smaller and more manageable chunks.

Option 1 - Clockwise via Woods Creek

    • Day 1: Road’s End to Middle Paradise Valley
      • 8 Miles (12 KM)
      • 2000 ft (600M) Elevation Gain
      • 300 ft (100M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 2: Middle Paradise to Woods Creek
      • 8 Miles (12 KM) 
      • 2000 ft (600 M) Elevation Gain
    • Day 3: Woods Creek to Middle Rae Lake
      •  6 Miles (10 KM) 
      • 2000 ft (600 M) Elevation Gain
    • Day 4: Middle Rae Lake to Junction Meadow
      • 9 Miles 14 KM 
      • 1600 ft (500 M) Gain 
      • 4000 ft (1200 M) Loss
    • Day 5: Junction Meadow to Road’s End
      • 10 Miles (16 KM)
      • 3300 ft (1000 M) Loss
Notes:

This itinerary groups the lighter mileage with the larger elevation gain and the longer mileage with the larger descents. The shortest day is to Rae lakes providing ample time for relaxation here. 

Option 2 - Counterclockwise via Bubbs Creek

    • Day 1: Road’s End to Charlotte Creek
      • 7 Miles (11 KM) 
      • 2300 ft (700 M) Elevation Gain
    • Day 2: Charlotte Creek to Charlotte Lake
      • 9 Miles (14 KM) 
      • 3900 ft (1200 M)  Elevation Gain
    • Day 3: Charlotte Lake to Arrowhead Lake
      • 7 Miles (12 KM) 
      • 1600 ft(500 M) Elevation Gain
      •  2000 ft(600 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 4: Arrowhead Lake to Upper Paradise Valley
      •  10 Miles (16KM)
      •  3600 ft (1100 M) Elevation Loss
    • Day 5: Upper Paradise Valley to Road’s End
      • 9 Miles (14 KM)
      • 2300 ft (700 M) Elevation Loss
Notes:

This itinerary once again groups the lighter mileage and larger elevation gain and longer mileage with larger descents. If you’re going clockwise and looking to split mileage evenly between the days you won’t be able to camp at Rae Lakes. This itinerary includes a 1 mile side trip to camp at Charlotte Lake on Day 2 which is a nice spot to camp and puts you in reasonable proximity to Glen Pass for Day 3. 

Trees on the Rae Lakes Loop

More time? Adapt the Itineraries!

Add a low KM day or zero KM day in the Rae Lakes and Arrowhead lakes alpine area to any of these itineraries to give yourself more time to explore. Maybe you spend the day relaxing lakeside or day hiking into the Sixty Lakes Basin (3 miles each way from Upper Rae Lakes).   Remember, if you’re staying at Rae Lakes you’ll have to move your basecamp as camping is limited to one night per lake. 

Itineraries too long? Break up a day. Camping is permitted almost everywhere on this loop, so break any of the days up into manageable chunks!

What to pack for the Rae Lakes Loop​

Hikes like Rae Lakes Loop are more enjoyable the lighter your pack. A lighter backpack helps you cover more mileage and more elevation with way less effort making big days more realistic, not to mention more comfortable!

If you’re new to backpacking, don’t stress out about buying the latest and greatest equipment. Save money and use things you already own that can be repurposed for backpacking, rent gear or borrow stuff from a gear-head buddy. Later, when you’ve gained more experience, modify your kit and change out gear as you get a better understanding of what creature comforts you can and can’t live without. With this in mind, here’s some gear suggestions for taking this trip:

Camping by Junction Meadow on Rae Lakes Loop

Tent

I prioritized a lightweight tent this year and bought the Mountain Hardwear Strato UL2 after also considering the MSR Freelite. I probably would have bought the MSR, but it was sold out at the time. I’ve been thrilled with this little tent so far! That’s it above near Junction meadow!

If you’re looking for a completely freestanding tent check out the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2’s unique blend of functionality, livability, weight, and durability. This tent earns high praise every year and Big Agnes’s customer service is second to none!  

Backpack

If you’re relatively new to backpacking and building out your kit slowly, there is nothing wrong with using a large-size travel backpack with a decent suspension system and padded hip belt, or borrowing one from a friend. This gives you time to decide what features you need and whether or not backpacking (and the gear) is something you’re going to invest in.  When I first started backpacking, I used our Khmer Explorer Travel Set on Canada’s West Coast Trail  which worked great despite me packing way too much!  

If you’ve begun dialing in your backpacking kit and moving towards a lightweight set-up, checkout the Gregory Focal or Women’s specific Facet. At ~2.5lbs these pack provides a great compromise between barebones ultralight packs and the heavier feature-laden packs. 

If you’re ready to go to an extreme level of gram counting, check out the Hyperlite 3400 southwest. It’s 100% waterproof and constructed from ultralight dyneema fabric.

Sleeping Mat

I used to have terrible sleeps in the backcountry until I switched to the Therm-a-Rest. It’s incredibly lightweight, comfortable, and packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle. This is probably one of my favorite backpacking items! Try it out. You won’t regret it. Sleep well!

Backpacking Pillow

Yes, you can sleep with a pillow not made of bunched up clothes in the backcountry. Check out the Big Agnes Q-Core Deluxe Pillow It packs down ultra small and provides a new level of comfort after long days on the trail.

Sleeping Bag

Patagonia’s sleeping bags are 5 star!!  I received one as a gift several years ago and it has been nothing short of perfect. It’s lightweight and packs down small. I found the 30°F / -1°C to be perfect for most outings – if it gets colder you can always layer up! Like all Patagonia products, it’s not cheap, but they stand behind their gear and the quality matches the price point. If you spend a lot of time in colder environments they also make a 20°F / -7°C version.  These bags are a worthwhile splurge!

Water Purification

For purifying water, I’m a huge fan of the Steripen. It’s light, portable and only takes minutes to purify a liter of water in a Nalgene. Press the button, place the pen in your bottle, and stir for a couple minutes!  Make sure to bring tablets as a backup though should you run into any technical problems/dead battery with your Steripen.

Trowel & Toilet Paper

The lack of facilities on the Rae Lakes Trail make a trowel  a requirement for this trip. Follow minimum impact camping principles and be sure to go at least 200m away from any established trails, campsites, or water (creeks, lakes, rivers etc.). Pack out your TP or hang onto it until you reach the next outhouse.

Swiss Army Knife

For fixing gear or cutting food, a swiss army knife is your go-to-everything for backpacking.

Stove & Fuel Canisters

Lightweight, convenient, and reliable, the MSR pocket rocket has been my go-to backpacking stove for years.

Backcountry Cookset

I love the GSI Halulite Microdualist II, two-person cookset. It’s lightweight and I can fit my MSR pocket rocket and a fuel canister inside. Check out the MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit for an all-inclusive solution.

Water Bottle or Reservoir

Nalgenes are always a backcountry favorite. If you’re cutting weight or looking for a way to save a buck, a simple smart water is the go-to for ultralight backpackers. I’ve recently moved to a hydration reservoir as it allows me to stay hydrated continuously without stopping to grab and open a bottle.

Water Container

Extra water storage capacity makes cooking that much easier and camp life more enjoyable, so consider the MSR DromLite Bag V2. It’s also a must for a trip without reliable water sources where hauling more water may be essential.

First Aid Kit

From blisters, to scrapes, and cuts. A first aid kit is an essential item to have.  The pre-built kits from Adventure Medical Kits have served me well on many adventurers. At the end of your trip write down any items you used and replace them so they’re ready for your next adventure.

Hiking Poles

For the big elevation gain of the Rae Lakes Loop poles make a huge difference!  I resisted getting them for years, but take it from a former skeptic, poles are incredible at reducing the strain of long, grueling descents and providing extra stability on exposed sections. Do yourself a favor and get a pair of poles. For a reliable entry-level option try these Black Diamond Poles or consider upgrading to the carbon fiber to save extra weight.

Bear Canister

Bear Canisters are required on the Rae Lakes Loop and Rangers will check for them.  For several people go with the BV500 for solo adventures the BV450 works great. 

Headlamp

The Spot 350 is the way to go with 6 modes including the night vision saving red light! Red light mode takes a minute to get used to, but once you do it’s a total game changer trust me! Hello stars!! 

GPS, Compass & Map

Download the GAIA app for maps and gps. I always bring a traditional compass and map as well in the case of technical problems or dead batteries.

Battery Back-up & Charging Cable

Keep your phone charged for photos and gps.

Luxury Items

These items are not necessary, but may be worth it depending on your weight priorities and the distance you plan to cover.

Camp Chair

After a long day on the trail there’s nothing better than finding a nice comfortable spot to rest your weary glutes. The Helinox Chair One is a great option and at just over 1kg, it’s light enough to justify bringing on slower/easier backpacking trips where weight isn’t as big of consideration or for trips from an established base camp.

Hammock

If you’ve never strung up a hammock between two trees deep in the backcountry, you’re missing out! Nothing beats getting horizontal with some great reading material in the pre-dinner hours or taking in an amazing sunset from your own outdoor couch. The ENO Double Nest has room for two and at ½ kg  it’s hardly even a splurge to pack.  P.S. don’t forget the straps to hang it.

Clothing & Accessories

Shell Jacket

An essential piece for wind, rain, and snow. Check out the Patagonia Torrentshell  (or Women’s version).

Sun Hat & Warm Hat

A ball cap or tilly hat keeps your face protected from the intense mountain sun. A winter hat is great for warming up during chilly mornings or evenings.  Here are a bunch of great options.

Sunglasses

Don’t forget to pack your favorite pair, the sun gets intense at these elevations! 

Rainpants

Mountain weather can change fast and rain pants are an absolute lifesaver to have in your backpacking kit. Many have the functionality for quickly taking them on and off without removing your shoes/boots and allowing you to stay comfortable even if you get caught in a sudden downpour. If you need a pair, check out the Patagonia Torrentshell in men’s or women’s.  

Convertible Hiking Pants 1-2 Pairs

I never thought I’d see the day I embraced the zip-off. But they really are the best of both worlds and can’t be beat for quickly changing mountain conditions and keeping warm in the evening when the temperature drops. Check out the Quandary Pant for a great option. 

Puff Jacket

I’ve had the Patagonia Men’s Nano Puff® Hoody for years. It’s a perfect multi-functional item for everyday, backpacking, and pretty much anything where you might need a bit of warmth. I’m still looking for an activity it doesn’t work for. They also make the Nano Puff in a women’s version.

Sun Hoodie

When I went backpacking in the Grand Canyon a few years back, I was shocked to see throngs of Arizona Trail thru-hikers wearing hoodies in the 100 degree (40 C) heat. Turns out they were onto something! A sun hoodie has been one of the best items I’ve added to my backpacking kit. They keep you burn free, are surprisingly cool, and let you get away with leaving the bottle of sunscreen at home. The Sahara Sun Hoodie (men’s/women’s) from REI has served me well.  Or check out these ones from Outdoor Research (men’s / women’s).

Base Layer Top

These Capilene Cool shirts work well for me, but pretty much any athletic quick-dry top will work fine.

Base Layer Bottom

A merino bottom baselayer is perfect for warming up at night or during chilly mornings.

Underwear

Patagonia makes fantastic underwear with quality, durability, and comfort far exceeding Lululemon, and Saxx (I’ve tried both). You decide how many or how few you bring…

They also make women’s underwear, but I am unable to advise on fit, form, function, or durability on this front.

Hiking Socks 3 Pairs

Darn Tough Vermont makes the best hiking socks hands down. They’re guaranteed for life/replaced free of charge and they don’t stink. Really! I typically bring 3 pair. 1 pair for hiking, 1 pair to change into at camp, and a reserve to throw into the rotation as needed. 

Gloves

I typically bring a thin weatherproof pair.

Camp Shoes

Crocs are back! Well for backpacking camp shoes they never left… They’re lightweight and ugly as ever. Many backpackers find them to be the perfect camp shoe for resting sore feat after a long day in boots/shoes.

Personally, I still hate them. I have an old pair of Tom’s which I occasionally bring. They are light and less bulky than Crocs. If going with a trail runner, I’ll often ditch the camp shoe altogether and just loosen my laces. Your call!  

Trail Runners or Hiking Boots

When I’m going lightweight I’ll wear trail runners. I’ve had great luck with the La Sportiva Bushido II. When I’m carrying more gear/weight or if there’s a chance of snow, I’ll wear a larger more traditional hiking boot, like the Scarpa Kailash.

Microspikes (Season Dependent)

Microspikes slip effortlessly over your boots and make walking on snow and ice a breeze.

Low Gaiter (Season and Condition Dependent)

Low gaiters are perfect for keeping rocks, sand, and snow out of your boots.

Duct Tape (For Repairs and Blisters)

Tooth Brush & Toothpaste

Food

Everyone has different takes and caloric requirements, so I won’t tell you exactly what to bring. I generally avoid the just-add-water meals you find at REI or MEC. They’re overpriced and often don’t rehydrate as you’d like. I usually head to the grocery store and search for things like lentil rice, ramen, or plant-based mac & cheese. They’re basically just add/boil quickly meals. Always re-bag/re-pack this type of food, as there is no reason to carry unnecessary packaging on the trail. I’m also a big fan of the Patagonia provisions soups and chilis

If you’re looking for incredible dehydrated food, check out Food for the Sole. Their salads are some of the best add-water-food I’ve had in the backcountry. 

View down the Valley from Mist Falls

Final thoughts on hiking the Rae Lakes Loop

    • The Rae Lakes Loop was an absolutely spectacular backpacking trip.
    • Completing it in 3 days was manageable, but day 1 was long.
    • Would love to return to check out the Sixty Lakes Basin or Gardiner Basin areas.
    • JMT and PCT section from Woods Creek Bridge to  Lower Vidette Meadow felt very busy due to thru hiker traffic.
    • Bugs were pretty bad at times in early June. Saw hikers with face nets.

Your Thoughts on Rae Lakes

Have you hiked the Rae Lakes Loop? I’d love to hear from you. Questions about backpacking Rae Lakes? Drop me a line in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help! 

More adventures you might enjoy

View along the Rockwall Trail towards Floe Lake.

Rockwall Trail | The Ultimate Guide to Hiking the Rockwall

The Rockwall Trail is one of the Canadian Rockies’ premier backpacking trips. For 55km you’ll be treated to a seemingly unending supply of sublime Rocky Mountain scenery. Here’s how to make it happen with must-read tips for getting a permit and beating the crowds.

Rockwall Trail | The Ultimate Guide to Hiking the Rockwall

View along the Rockwall Trail towards Floe Lake.

The Rockwall Trail is one of the Canadian Rockies’ premier backpacking trips. For 55km you’ll be treated to a seemingly unending supply of sublime Rocky Mountain scenery. You’ll camp near glacier-clad Floe Lake, hear the torrent of water crashing down from 300m+ high Helmet Falls, and be left awestruck by the Rockwall itself, an incredible expanse of 1000ft cliffs arranged almost unbroken for 30km.

Traversing three high passes in Kootenay National Park, the Rockwall delivers over 2,500 m meters of quad-burning elevation gain and over that amount of knee-crunching descent. Fortunately, five established campsites make daily mileage manageable for backpackers looking to space the hike out over a longer period of time. 

Your biggest challenge in backpacking the Rockwall is likely to be obtaining a permit and finding a way to escape the crowds on this popular hike.  Fortunately, you’ve come to the right spot!  This comprehensive guide was built on my own experience hiking the Rockwall and includes multiple itinerary options for planning your own adventure. I also reveal how I managed to hike the first 40 km without crossing paths with another hiker, while snagging a permit only days before starting my hike. 

So without further ado, let’s dive in.

** Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. If you click one of the links and make a purchase we’ll earn a small commission at no cost to you. We’re very particular about products and we only recommend products, services, or accommodation we trust and use ourselves.**

Need to Know for Hiking the Rockwall Trail

Days Required: 2-5
Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 54 km (34 miles)
Elevation Gain: 2,500 m ( 8, 000 ft)
Elevation Loss: 2,600 m (8, 500 ft)
Permit Required: Yes, campsites must be booked and book up fast
Designated Campsites: Yes
Navigation: Easy, well marked and maintained trail
Food Storage: Provided bear boxes
Best Campsite: Floe Lake
Worst Campsite: Helmet/Ochre Junction

Patrol Cabin on the Rockwall Trail near Helmet Falls

Things You’ll Love About This Hike

    • Sublime Rocky Mountain scenery.
    • Established campsites with bear lockers (no need to carry a bear canister), tent pads, outhouses, and tables for cooking/eating.
    • Numerous campsites allow for flexibility on trip duration and daily mileage.
    • Chance to see Rocky Mountain mega fauna (moose, grizzly bears, and mountain goats).

Things You Won’t Love About This Hike

    • Lack of solitude during peak season with large campsites.
    • Competitive permit process that requires advance trip planning during peak season.
    • 13 km shuttle required between the starting trailhead and ending trailhead.
    • Most campsites lack dynamic views from the tent pads.

How to get a permit for the Rockwall trail?

Trekking the Rockwall Trail is such a memorable backpacking trip that your biggest challenge is likely to be securing the right to do it. Reservations for many dates/campsites along the Rockwall book up days after Parks Canada opens the reservation system (usually at the end of January) and no permits are allocated for walk-ups. If you’re planning on doing this trek during peak season, set a reminder and plan ahead to avoid missing out.

To get a permit for the Rockwall Trail you can either call Parks Canada at 1-877-737-3783 or use the online system for Kootenay National Park.

You must start by selecting your starting trailhead, either:

    • Paint Pots Trailhead – if heading North to South
    • Floe Lake Trailhead- if heading South to North

After picking your starting trailhead you’ll select the campsites you’ll stay at each night. For help with that, refer to the itinerary section below.

Hiker on the Rockwall trail between Helmet Falls and Tumbling Creek

When to Hike the Rockwall

The Rockwall Trail is best hiked between early-mid July and mid September. Any earlier and the passes can still be snowbound and sections can be subject to avalanche danger. Later season trips provide a means to beat the crowds and gain booking flexibility. The downside is that the days get shorter, the nights get colder, and there is a significant chance of early season storms disrupting or canceling your hike all together.

My recommendation on when to hike it

I hiked the Rockwall in early October snow-free, but the nights were chilly (woke up to significant frost) and we used up the majority of daylight hours to complete the Rockwall in 2 nights. If you get lucky with weather and are prepared for the potential of cold-weather/snow, fall can be the perfect time to take this trip and you’ll experience solitude unlike any other time of year. We hiked the first 40 km before encountering another group, camped alone at Tumbling Creek, and shared Floe lake with only 4 other parties.  With demand for reservations falling off significantly after the middle of September,  it’s possible to reserve a permit the day before starting a trip (especially during the week). If you are prepared for the challenges of late season hiking, this is the way to go, so keep your eyes glued to the forecast and make a last minute decision. You might end up having this incredible hike all to yourself!  

How to Get to the Trailheads - Shuttles & Transportation

The Rockwall Trail starts from either Floe Lake Trailhead or Paint Pots Trailhead in Kootenay National Park, approximately 50 km from Banff (Paint Pots) and 175 km from the city of Calgary. The Floe Lake and Paint Pots trailheads are 13 km apart on the Kootenay Parkway Highway 93, making transportation between trailheads a required annoyance. Your options for dealing with this are as follows:

 

    • Take 2 cars and leave one at each trailhead.
    • Hitchhike. If you’re electing this option, the best bet is to start your trip with the hitchhike. You get it over with and are more likely to get picked up as you look all fresh and clean! Consider making a small sign on a piece of paper that says “Hiker: only going 13 km” (helps take the edge off by helping drivers realize that even if you’re a weirdo, they won’t be stuck with you for long).
    • Bet on your social skills and charm (busy season only). Meet someone on the trail or at the parking lot that will drive you to your car. Bring desirable backpacking bribes (think dessert, candy, pocket cocktails) to help lubricate negotiations.
    • Convince a friend, spouse, parent, or lover to drop you off and pick you up! Just make sure you arrange all the details in advance as there is no cell service!

Which direction should you hike the Rockwall Trail?

The Rockwall can be hiked:

    •  North to South starting at Paint Pots trailhead and ending at Floe Lake trailhead, or
    •  South to North starting at Paint Pots and ending at Floe Lake trailhead.

Quite frankly, you should be happy if you get a permit going either direction given how hard it is to snag sites. The hike is awesome no matter how you do it! Floe Lake tends to be the most popular campsite and as a result your itinerary may be dictated by the available dates for camping here.  

I hiked the Rockwall North to South and if I had to choose I’d do that again. Doing it this way lets you enjoy camping at Floe Lake on your last night. Floe Lake is the pièce de résistance of the Rockwall campsites, and enjoying sunrise here is an epic way to cap your trip.

How long does it take to hike the Rockwall?

The Rockwall can be backpacked in 2-5 days depending on how much mileage you’d like to cover each day. In my opinion the sweet spot for hiking the Rockwall is 2-3 nights for reasonably conditioned hikers who are mindful of their pack weight.  You’ll start early and typically finish in the later afternoon. You’ll have full days of hiking, but leave plenty of time for photos, snack breaks, and lunch.  If you’re someone that likes slow mornings or lazing around camp in the afternoon, go for 4 nights – that’ll be perfect. 

The shorter you go for, the more important it is to be cognizant of your pack weight and what you’re packing (see the what to pack section). Pack weight makes a huge difference in your enjoyment levels during long days on the trail.

Rockwall Trail Sections

The Rockwall Trail is best thought of as 5 unique sections. Here’s a quick breakdown of each section described for a North to South trip (Paint Pots to Floe Lake Trailhead). If you’re going South to North, use your imagination and remember uphill changes to downhill!  😉

Helmet Falls in Kootenay National Park

Paint Pots Trailhead to Helmet Falls - 14.2 km

14.2 KM - 500 M elevation gain / 200 M elevation loss

The opening section of the Rockwall takes you through lush forest until you pass the Helmet-Ochre junction campground at 8.2 km.  Shortly after Helmet-Ochre Campground the trail swiftly gains elevation for about a kilometer before continuing at a more gradual pace up to the Helmet Falls Campground.  By the time you reach this campground, you’re 14 km into your trip and starting to get a real taste of some of the scenery to come! The campground is situated between the tributaries of Helmet Creek and 350m Helmet Falls crashes down in the distance. Take a breath, soak it all in, and taste that mountain air with an essence of waterfall mist! Yum!  A short side trip takes you closer to the base of the falls for a closer look. Stay here for the night if it’s on the itinerary, if not, proceed to the next level.

Heading towards Rockwall Pass

Helmet Falls to Tumbling Creek over Rockwall Pass- 12.3 KM

12.3 KM - 700 M elevation gain / 500 M elevation loss

After departing the Helmet Creek Campground the trail begins an ascent, climbing over 400m in just over 3 km to Limestone Summit.  This hard work gives you your first close-up of the incredible Rockwall. Take it in and enjoy. Erosive forces have been working relentlessly for millennia  to create this view for you and your Instagram followers!  Show ‘em some love and savor it! After your climb, you’ll descend towards the south fork of Helmet Creek before climbing again to Rockwall Pass and eventually passing the junction for Wolverine Pass where a short side trip leads to the border of Kootenay National Park. The scenery along this section is absolutely stunning as you view the Rockwall, alpine meadows and glaciers. Shortly after the junction you’ll make a short but steep descent down to Tumbling Creek Campground with views towards Tumbling Glacier and the Rockwall along the way. The campground is in the trees near the creek. 

views to tumbling glacier on the way to Tumbling Pass

Tumbling Creek to Numa Creek over Tumbling Pass - 7.9 km

7.9 KM - 400 M elevation gain / 700 M elevation loss

After departing the campground and crossing Tumbling Creek, you’ll fire up the ol’ pegs and begin your ascent up to Tumbling pass gaining 350m in 2.5 km. Go legs go! Walking through subalpine forest, you’ll have views of Tumbling Glacier. After reaching the height of the pass you’ll descend through a boulder meadow before following numerous switchbacks alongside tributaries fed from the glacier above, fording the water on numerous occasions. As you descend and hear the roar of Numa Creek grow louder, shrubbery begins to surround the trail. Make lots of noise here to avoid sneaking up on a bear enjoying the buffet of berries that can be found in this section. After walking through some lush vegetation that makes you feel as if you’re hiking in the Pacific Northwest, you’ll arrive at Numa Creek Campsite. 

Numa Pass at the height of the Rockwall Trail

Numa Creek to Floe Lake over Numa Pass - 9.2 km

9.4 KM - 800 M elevation gain / 300 M elevation loss

From Numa Creek Campsite, you’ll cross a log bridge over Numa Creek and hike through lush vegetation adjoining multiple avalanche chutes before beginning the climb to Numa Pass, the highest point on the Rockwall Trail. The ascent to Numa Pass is strenuous with 800m of elevation gain in under 7 km. As you near the top the landscape changes from alpine forest to a barren alpine tundra. From Numa Pass incredible vistas greet your weary legs including a glimpse of Mt. Temple to the North. After taking in the view from the pass, continue down through the alpine as you wind through larch glades and seasonal wildflower meadows, noticing as Floe Lake comes closer into view below you.  Once you reach Floe Lake there are a couple of frequently occupied tent pads near the water, unfortunately the  other sites lack the same view out to the lake. Fortunately, the cooking area is set adjacent to the lake and provides great consolation. Don’t forget to set your alarm, sunrise here is a spectacle to behold!

Floe Lake on the Rockwall Trail

Floe Lake to Floe Lake Trailhead - 10.5 km

9.4 KM - 150 M elevation gain / 900 M elevation loss

After walking for several hundred meters through the subalpine forest surrounding the magnificent Floe Lake, the trail drops sharply for the next 2.5 km, quickly losing 400m.  For the final 8 km you’ll find yourself walking through the remnants of the substantial forest fire that burned through Kootenay National Park in 2003. Heed extra caution on windy days as some of these trees have precarious leans to them. Take note of the incredible regrowth that has already occurred in this burned area and observe the significant logjams that have funneled their way into the valley and Floe Creek below. To wrap the hike you’ll walk alongside a beautiful canyon eroded by the Vermillion River, before crossing to the Floe Lake Trailhead. Give your hiking companions (if applicable) a high five! You did it!!  

View along the Rockwall Trail towards Floe Lake.

Rockwall Itinerary Options

Here’s your Rockwall itinerary buffet! No matter your time or desired mileage level there should be an itinerary that suits your palate.  I’ve also indicated which day you’re likely to find the most challenging. 

Campsites on the Rockwall Trail

To make your reservation for hiking the Rockwall you’ll need to select a campsite for each night. There are 5 campsites along the Rockwall Trail.  Listed in order from North to South they are:

    • Helmet-Ochre Junction Campground*
    • Helmet Falls Campground
    • Tumbling Creek Campground
    • Numa Creek Campground
    • Floe Lake Campground

*None of the below itineraries include the Helment-Ochre Junction Campground. In my opinion, staying at this site provides limited benefit as Helmet Falls to the Paint Pots Trailhead is not a challenge for most hikers looking to complete the Rockwall in its entirety. In a pinch, those looking to spend 4 nights on the trail could use this site as a substitute for Helmet Falls if that was booked. 

Rockwall Trail in 1 Night /2 Days

Crazy?? Maybe! But trail runners slay this dragon of hike in a day. So, the Rockwall Trail is doable as a 1 night / 2 day backpacking trip if that’s all your schedule affords. To make this happen, you’ll need to travel light and be comfortable hiking 30 km+ days with significant elevation changes. Your pack weight should be under 20 lbs. I’d also suggest doing this early in the season (July) so that the long daylight hours are on your side and you can hike from dawn to dusk if needed. 

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, time to pick your poison:

Starting at Paint Pots Trailhead

Option 1
    • Day 1: Paint Pots Trailhead to Tumbling Creek (26.5 km) 
    • Day 2: Tumbling Creek to Floe Lake Trailhead (27.6 km) – Hardest Day

Notes: This option splits the mileage evenly between the two days with Day 2 being significantly more challenging as you’ll combine both Tumbling Pass and Numa Pass in one day before making the knee-crunching descent from Floe Lake to the parking lot.

Option 2
    • Day 1: Paint Pots Trailhead to Numa Creek (34.4 km) – Hardest Day
    • Day 2: Numa Creek to Floe Lake Trailhead (19.7 km)

Notes: A huge Day 1 is a great way to go as you benefit from fresh legs and guaranteed blister-free feet!  Plus, by doing it this way, you group the two easier passes together (Rockwall Pass and Tumbling Pass). This itinerary also saves the most physically strenuous pass (Numa Creek Campsite to Numa Pass) for the lower mileage day and provides ample time for a lunch stop at Flow Lake prior to making the big descent down to the trailhead.

Starting at Floe Lake Trailhead

Option 1
    • Day 1: Floe Lake Trailhead to Numa Creek (19.7 km)
    • Day 2: Numa Creek to Paint Pots (34.4 km) – Hardest Day

Notes: For a 1-night option going South to North, this is the option that I’d pick as the first day is shorter, but includes a significant amount of elevation delta going directly from the Floe Lake Trailhead to the trail’s high point (Numa Pass) then making the big drop down to Numa Creek. The second day will be long, but the most challenging ascent will come first thing as you grind up Tumbling pass from Numa Creek Campground. The final 14 km from Helmet Falls to the trailhead will fly by. 

Option 2
    • Day 1: Floe Lake Trailhead (27.6 km) to Tumbling Creek – Hardest Day
    • Day 2: Tumbling Creek to Paint Pots Trailhead (26.5 km) 

Notes: Despite evening out the mileage, Day 1 will be brutal on this trip as you ascend the trail’s two longest climbs back-to-back while squishing the epic descent from Numa Pass to Numa Creek in the middle. The upside? Day 2 should feel like a breeze after making the early morning climb from Tumbling creek to Rockwall pass, so you can throw it into cruise all the way down.

hiker crosses Numa Creek on the rockwall trail

Rockwall Trail in 2 Nights/3 Days

Anytime you can fit a trip like the Rockwall into an extended weekend, you go for it right? If that’s your motto and you’re an in-shape backpacker that knows your limits, this is probably the trip length for you. When I hiked the Rockwall this is how I did it (North-South) and if I had a do over, I wouldn’t change a thing! This trip duration makes for a couple full days, but you have ample time to enjoy the views without feeling rushed and you’re left with an easy half-day conclusion to wrap it up. 

Starting at Paint Pots Trailhead

    • Day 1: Paint Pots Trailhead to Tumbling Creek (26.5 km) – Hardest Day
    • Day 2: Tumbling Creek to Floe Lake (17.1 km) 
    • Day 3: Floe Lake to Floe Lake Trailhead (10.5 km)

Notes: This is the exact itinerary that I hiked. Day 1 was long, but manageable. Day 2 felt longer than the mileage would suggest given the significant elevation gain over Tumbling Pass and Numa Pass before reaching Floe Lake. The hike out from Floe Lake flew by in the morning of the last day.

Starting at Floe Lake Trailhead

    • Day 1: Floe Lake Trailhead to Numa Creek (19.7 km) – Tie Hardest
    • Day 2: Numa Creek to Helmet Falls (20.2 km) – Tie Hardest
    • Day 3: Helmet Falls to Paint Pots Trailhead (14.2 km)

Notes: This itinerary has been included as an option, but I don’t recommend this itinerary unless you have no other options for the following reasons:

    1. You have limited time to enjoy the scenery around Floe Lake.
    2. The section from Helmet Falls to the Paint Pots Trailhead isn’t nearly as enjoyable of a denouement as the descent from Floe Lake.
Heading towards Numa Pass on the Rockwall Trail

Rockwall Trail in 3 Nights/4 Days

Completing this hike in 3 nights and 4 days requires one longer day, but allows for plenty of time to relax at campsites and enjoy the Rockwall at a more leisurely pace. Unfortunately, this itinerary is slightly awkward, as you’re still stuck with one longish day that will include two passes. 

Starting at Paint Pots Trailhead

    • Day 1: Paint Pots Trailhead to Helmet Falls (14.2 km)
    • Day 2: Helmet Falls to Numa Creek (20.2 km) – Hardest Day
    • Day 3: Numa Creek to Floe Lake (9.3 km)
    • Day 4: Floe Lake to Floe Lake Trailhead (10.5 km)  

Notes: Day 2 will be the most challenging as you combine Rockwall Pass and Tumbling Pass in one day. Both are manageable ascents taken in this direction. You’re likely to find the long descent from Tumbling Pass to Numa Creek tiring at the end of a long day. Day 3 has light mileage, but the ascent to Numa Pass is long and gruelling.

Starting at Floe Lake Trailhead

    • Day 1: Floe Lake Trailhead to Floe Lake (10.5 km)
    • Day 2: Floe Lake to Tumbling Creek (17.1 km) – Hardest Day
    • Day 3: Tumbling Creek to Helmet Falls (12.3 km) 
    • Day 4: Helmet Falls to Paint Pots Trailhead (14.2 km)

Notes: Day 2 will be tough. After making the big descent from Numa Pass to Numa Creek, you’ll make the long and thigh-burning ascent to Tumbling Pass. Day 1 is likely to be the next most challenging as the climb to Floe Lake is significant.

Descending the Floe Lake Trail on the Rockwall

Rockwall Trail in 4 Nights/5 Days

The Rockwall Trail’s incredible scenery is worthwhile sticking around for and with 5 established campsites along the trail, why not make use of them? By going with this itinerary you’ll break all major elevation gains into separate days. This seems to be the most popular way for most backpackers trek the Rockwall. The more relaxed schedule allows you to sleep in a bit and relax at camp after arriving early in the afternoon. If this sounds like the type of adventure you’re looking for, here’s how to make it happen:

Starting at Paint Pots Trailhead:

    • Day 1: Paint Pots Trail Head to Helmet Falls (14.2 km) 
    • Day 2: Helmet Falls to Tumbling Creek (12.3 km)
    • Day 3: Tumbling Creek to Numa Creek (7.9 km)
    • Day 4: Numa Creek to Floe Lake (9.3 km) – Toughest Day
    • Day 5: Floe Lake to Floe Lake Trailhead (10.5 km)  

Notes: This itinerary is the standard Rockwall itinerary that many backpackers choose. The climb to Numa Pass on Day 4 is likely to be the most challenging.

Starting at Floe Lake Trailhead

    • Day 1: Floe Lake Trailhead to Floe Lake (10.5 km) – Toughest Day 
    • Day 2: Floe Lake to Numa Creek (9.3 km)
    • Day 3: Numa Creek to Tumbling Creek (7.9 km)
    • Day 4: Tumbling Creek to Helmet Falls (7.9 km)
    • Day 5: Helmet Falls to Paint Pots Trailhead (14.2 km)
  •  
  • Notes: This itinerary is the standard Rockwall itinerary that many backpackers choose. The climb to Floe Lake (Day 1) is likely to be the most challenging, with the climb from Numa Creek to Tumbling pass (Day 3) a close second. 
Vermillion River Canyon by Floe Lake Trailhead

What to Pack for the Rockwall Trail

Big hikes like the Rockwall are a lot more enjoyable the lighter your pack. A lighter backpack helps you cover more ground and more elevation with way less effort, making big days more realistic, not to mention more comfortable.

If you’re new to backpacking, don’t stress out about buying the latest and greatest equipment. Save money and use things you already own that can be repurposed for backpacking, rent gear from your local university, or borrow stuff from a gear-head buddy. Later, when you’ve gained more experience, modify your kit and change out gear as you get a better understanding of what creature comforts you can and can’t live without. With this in mind, here’s some gear suggestions for taking this trip:

Tent

The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2’s unique blend of functionality, livability, weight, and durability have earned high praise since its release a couple of years ago. Big Agnes’s customer service is also second to none!  This tent and the Nemo Dagger OMSO were front runners  when I upgraded my tent set-up this year. 

Ultimately, I  prioritized lightweight and bought the Mountain Hardwear Strato UL2 after also considering the MSR Freelite. I would have bought the MSR, but it was sold out at the time. If you never backpack alone and don’t mind the extra weight, most of these tents are also available in 3-person models which are much more comfortable for two.

Backpack

If you’re relatively new to backpacking and building out your kit slowly, there is nothing wrong with using a large-size travel backpack with a decent suspension system and padded hip belt, or borrowing a pack from a friend. This gives you time to decide what features you need and whether or not backpacking (and the gear) is something you’re going to invest in.  When I first started backpacking, I used our Khmer Explorer Travel Set on the West Coast Trail and Sunshine Coast Trail, which worked great despite packing way too much!  

If you’ve begun dialing in your backpacking kit and moving towards a lightweight set-up, checkout the Gregory Focal or Women’s specific Facet which at ~2.5lbs provide a great compromise between barebones ultralight packs and the heavier feature-laden packs. 

If you’re ready to go to an extreme level of gram counting, check out the Hyperlite 3400 southwest. It’s 100% waterproof and constructed from ultralight dyneema fabric.

Sleeping Mat

I used to have terrible sleeps in the backcountry until I switched to the Therm-a-Rest. It’s incredibly lightweight, comfortable, and packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle. This is probably one of my favorite backpacking items! Try it out. You won’t regret it. Sleep well!

Backpacking Pillow

Yes, you can sleep with a pillow not made of bunched up clothes in the backcountry. Check out the Big Agnes Q-Core Deluxe Pillow It packs down ultra small and provides a new level of comfort after long days on the trail.

Sleeping Bag

Patagonia’s sleeping bags are 5 star!!  I received one as a gift several years ago and it kept me cozy during my chilly early October trip on the Rockwall Trail. It’s unbelievably lightweight and packs down small. I found the 30°F / -1°C to be perfect for most outings – if it gets colder you can always layer up! Like all Patagonia products, it’s not cheap, but they stand behind their gear and the quality matches the price point. If you spend a lot of time in colder environments they also make a 20°F / -7°C version.  These bags are a worthwhile splurge!

Water Purification

For purifying water, I’m a huge fan of the Steripen. It’s light, portable and only takes minutes to purify a liter of water in a Nalgene. Press the button, place the pen in your bottle, and stir for a couple minutes!  Make sure to bring tablets as a backup though should you run into any technical problems/dead battery with your Steripen.

Trowel & Toilet Paper

The Rockwall trail feels like luxury with established outhouses at each campsite, that said you need to bring a trowel for digging a cathole in case nature calls at any other time. Follow minimum impact camping principles and be sure to go at least 200m away from any established trails, campsites, or water (creeks, lakes, rivers etc.). Pack out your TP or hang onto it until you reach the next outhouse.

Swiss Army Knife

For fixing gear or cutting food, a swiss army knife is your go-to-everything for backpacking.

Stove & Fuel Canisters

Lightweight, convenient, and reliable, the MSR pocket rocket has been my go-to backpacking stove for years.

Backcountry Cookset

I love the GSI Halulite Microdualist II, two-person cookset. It’s lightweight and I can fit my MSR pocket rocket and a fuel canister inside. Check out the MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit for an all-inclusive solution.

Water Bottle or Reservoir

Nalgenes are always a backcountry favorite. If you’re cutting weight or looking for a way to save a buck, a simple smart water is the go-to for ultralight backpackers. I’ve recently moved to a hydration reservoir as it allows me to stay hydrated continuously without stopping to grab and open a bottle.

Water Container

Extra water storage capacity makes cooking that much easier and camp life more enjoyable, so consider the MSR DromLite Bag V2. It’s also a must for a trip without reliable water sources where hauling more water may be essential.

First Aid Kit

From blisters, to scrapes, and cuts. A first aid kit is an essential item to have.  The pre-built kits from Adventure Medical Kits have served me well on many adventurers. At the end of your trip write down any items you used and replace them so they’re ready for your next adventure.

Hiking Poles

For the grueling passes of the Rockwall, poles make a big difference!  I resisted getting them for years, but take it from a former skeptic, poles are incredible at reducing the strain of long, gruelling descents and providing extra stability on exposed sections. Do yourself a favor and get a pair of poles. For a reliable entry-level option try these Black Diamond Poles or consider upgrading to the carbon fiber to save extra weight.

Bear Spray

When traveling in bear country, Bear Spray is a must. Make sure to remove the packaging and check the expiration date before heading out.

Dry Bag

The Rockwall offers bear storage boxes at every campsite so you can leave your buiky bear can at home! For trips like this, I use a dry bag to store my food, camp cook wear, and toiletries/scented items in for making transportation easy to the bear box and keeping everything nicely organized inside my pack.

Headlamp

The Spot 350 is the way to go with 6 modes including the night vision saving red light! Red light mode takes a minute to get used to, but once you do it’s a total game changer trust me! 

GPS, Compass & Map

Download the GAIA app for maps and gps. I always bring a traditional compass and map as well in the case of technical problems or dead batteries.

Battery Back-up & Charging Cable

Keep your phone charged for photos and gps.

Luxury Items

These items are not necessary, but may be worth it depending on your weight priorities and the distance you plan to cover.

Camp Chair

After a long day on the trail there’s nothing better than finding a nice comfortable spot to rest your weary glutes. The Helinox Chair One is a great option and at just over 1kg, it’s light enough to justify bringing on slower/easier backpacking trips where weight isn’t as big of consideration or for trips from an established base camp.

Hammock

If you’ve never strung up a hammock between two trees deep in the backcountry, you’re missing out! Nothing beats getting horizontal with some great reading material in the pre-dinner hours or taking in an amazing sunset from your own outdoor couch. The ENO Double Nest has room for two and at ½ kg  it’s hardly even a splurge to pack.  P.S. don’t forget the straps to hang it.

Clothing & Accessories

Shell Jacket

An essential piece for wind, rain, and snow. I’ve had great luck with an older version of the MEC Flash Cloud. Also check out the Patagonia Torrentshell  (or Women’s version).

Sun Hat & Winter Hat/Toque

A ball cap or tilly hat keeps your face protected from the intense mountain sun. A toque is great for warming up during chilly mornings or evenings.  Here are a bunch of great options.

Sunglasses

Pack your favorite pair!

Rainpants

Mountain weather can change fast and rain pants are an absolute lifesaver to have in your backpacking kit. Many have the functionality for quickly taking them on and off without removing your shoes/boots and allowing you to stay comfortable even if you get caught in a sudden downpour. If you need a pair, check out the Patagonia Torrentshell in men’s or women’s.  

Convertible Hiking Pants 1-2 Pairs

I never thought I’d see the day I embraced the zip-off. But hey, they’re really the best of both worlds for quickly changing mountain conditions and keeping warm in the evening when the temperature drops. Check out the Quandary Pant for a great option. 

Puff Jacket

I’ve had the Patagonia Men’s Nano Puff® Hoody for years. It’s a perfect multi-functional item for everyday, backpacking, and pretty much anything where you might need a bit of warmth. I’m still looking for an activity it doesn’t work for. They also make the Nano Puff in a women’s version.

Sun Hoodie

When I went backpacking in the Grand Canyon a few years back, I was shocked to see throngs of Arizona Trail thru-hikers wearing hoodies in the 40 C (100F) heat. Turns out they were onto something! A sun hoodie has been one of the best items I’ve added to my backpacking kit. They keep you burn free, are surprisingly cool, and let you get away with leaving the bottle of sunscreen at home. The Sahara Sun Hoodie (men’s/women’s) from REI has served me well or check out these ones from Outdoor Research (men’s / women’s).

Base Layer Top

These Capilene Cool shirts work well for me, but pretty much any athletic quick-dry top will work fine.

Base Layer Bottom

A merino bottom baselayer is perfect for warming up at night or during chilly mornings.

Underwear

Patagonia makes fantastic underwear with quality, durability, and comfort far exceeding Lululemon, and Saxx (I’ve tried both). You decide how many or how few you bring…

They also make women’s underwear, but I am unable to advise on fit, form, function, or durability on this front.

Hiking Socks 3 Pairs

Darn Tough Vermont makes the best hiking socks hands down. They’re guaranteed for life/replaced free of charge. Really!

Gloves

I typically bring a thin weatherproof pair.

Camp Shoes

Crocs are back! Well for backpacking camp shoes they never left… They’re lightweight and ugly as ever. The perfect camp shoe for resting sore feet after a long day in boots/shoes.

Trail Runners or Hiking Boots

When I’m going lightweight I’ll wear trail runners. I’ve had great luck with the La Sportiva Bushido II. When I’m carrying more gear/weight or think I might encounter snow, I’ll wear a larger more traditional hiking boot, like the Scarpa Kailash.

Microspikes (Season Dependent)

Microspikes slip effortlessly over your boots and make walking on snow and ice a breeze.

Low Gaiter (Season and Condition Dependent)

Low gaiters are perfect for keeping rocks, sand, and snow out of your boots.

Duct Tape (For Repairs and Blisters)

Tooth Brush & Toothpaste

Food

Everyone has different takes and caloric requirements, so I won’t tell you exactly what to bring. I generally avoid the just-add-water meals you find at REI or MEC. They’re overpriced and often don’t rehydrate as you’d like. I usually head to the grocery store and search for things like lentil rice, ramen, or plant-based mac & cheese. They’re basically just add/boil quickly meals. Always re-bag/re-pack this type of food, as there is no reason to carry unnecessary packaging on the trail. I’m also a big fan of the Patagonia provisions soups and chilis

If you’re looking for incredible dehydrated food, check out Food for the Sole. Their salads are some of the best add-water-food I’ve had in the backcountry. 

Final Thoughts on the Rockwall Trail

    •  The Rockwall Trail is unquestionably one the best hikes for scenery that I’ve experienced in the Canadian Rockies. 
    • Go late season to avoid the crowds. 
    • 2.5 days felt like the perfect length. It was 2 full days with early morning starts and late afternoon finishes, but plenty of time for lunch, scenery observation, and snacks. The last day from Floe Lake to Floe Lake Trailhead was an easy half day. 
    • The section from Tumbling Pass to Numa Creek felt like it would be quite hot in peak summer months. 
    • What I’d change hiking it again: Nothing! I was happy with the duration and campsites.   
    • Hike it North to South. Floe Lake is a great place to finish. Sunrise there is spectacular. The final day out is short, yet scenic, and makes for an easy conclusion. 

Your Thoughts on the Rockwall Trail?

Have you hiked the Rockwall Trail? I’d love to hear from you.

Questions about the Rockwall? Drop me a line in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help! 

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Howe Sound Crest Trail – Your Guide to Hiking the HSCT

View from Magnesia Meadows on the Howe Sound Crest Trail

The Howe Sound Crest Trail (HSCT) offers the ambitious hiker a taste of the best of the incredible BC backcountry!  The 33 km HSCT crosses over and around some of the North Shore’s most iconic mountains including the Lions, James Peak, Mt. Harvey, and Brunswick Mountain. Along the way you’ll be inundated with stunning vistas of the coastal mountain range and Howe Sound. Frequent scrambles, mild exposure, and a few precarious sections with chains/ropes make the Howe Sound Crest Trail an ambitious 1-2 night backcountry trip (or an even more ambitious trail run) not for the faint of heart. To the ambitious hiker the rewards of this journey are unmatched by anything with this proximity to Vancouver. 

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The Lions on the Howe Sound Crest Trail

How to get to the Howe Sound Crest Trail

The Howe Sound Crest Trail is typically done as a point-to-point hike from south to north starting from Cypress mountain near West Vancouver and finishing at Porteau cove. North to south navigation is also possible, but adds significant elevation gain to your hike.  

There is no Translink (public bus) available to Cypress mountain or Porteau cove, but Cypress Coach Lines does offer transportation to the Cypress provincial park during the summer months and into the middle of September. It may also be possible to take an Uber directly to Cypress mountain.  Either of these options still leaves you in need of a pickup, a way to drop your car in advance, or a hitchhike back from the end point at Porteau cove.

Later in the season, a multi vehicle solution or a generous friend willing to pick you up and drop you off is required. 

It is also possible to hike up the Baden Powell from Horseshoe Bay (public transit accessible) to begin your hike, but this will add an extra 9km and over 1000 meters of elevation gain to an already long and strenuous adventure. I did this. It was brutal.

Important considerations for the Howe Sound Crest Trail

Water: As the trail spends a lot of time meandering along ridges and on summits, water can be an issue on this hike. Come prepared by carrying at least 5L.

Dogs: There are several segments of the trail that your furry friend will not be able to negotiate. There have been several forced evacuations as a result of people trying, so leave your dog at home for this one.

Cell Reception: Good reception is available until Brunswick lake. After that, expect to lose it until the gruelling final slog down the 5km of access road.

Insurance: If you’re travelling from outside Canada, make sure your travel insurance covers you for this type of adventure. If you’re looking for comprehensive coverage, World Nomads has many great options for protecting adventure lovers.

Backcountry Camping: Unlike hikes like the Rockwall Trail, you will not find outhouses, tent pads, or no bear caches on the Howe Sound Crest Trail.  You must come prepared with your trowel for digging a cathole, and a bear canister to store your food.

Bears: You’re in bear country. Make lots of noise, bring bear spray and a bear canister to store your food (as there are no hangs/boxes). Be extra noisy in the obvious areas overgrown with berries (I spooked a bear in the berry-laden meadow between David Peak and Magnesia Meadows).

Other information: Check BC Parks website for important updates on trail access or warnings.

View from the campsite at magnesia meadows
Photo Credit Stephen Evans

Camping spot recommendations for the Howe Sound Crest Trail

1 night on the trail: Magnesia Meadows

 A long first day brings to you this beautiful campsite situated in a gorgeous alpine meadow with an incredible sunset view of Mt. Harvey and out towards the Howe Sound and Sunshine Coast. Magnesia Meadows has a good consistent water source provided by a small tarn that is a close walk from the emergency shelter.

2 nights on the trail:

For night 1 find a spot with access to a tarn for water near Unnecessary Mountain or the East Lion. For night 2 camp on the beautiful shore of Brunswick lake.

How long will it take to hike the Howe Sound Crest Trail

To give you an approximate idea, here’s my rough timing for the Howe Sound Crest Trail done as 2 days and 1 night. Please note I added several hours and a lot of energy by hiking up the Baden Powell trail from Horseshoe Bay. If you go this route, I’d suggest taking the first possible morning bus to Horseshoe Bay to limit the potential of being forced to hike in the dark. As a baseline, I’d classify my pace on the faster side. Leave early on day one to avoid hiking in the dark, especially in the fall as the days grow shorter.

Horseshoe Bay to Cypress Mountain via Baden Powell Trail – 2.5 hrs

Cypress Mountain to Magnesia Meadows (with a couple quick stops and 30 minute lunch) – 9 hours

Magnesia Meadows to Highway 99 (including ascent up Brunswick Mountain, swim in Brunswick lake and lunch) – 7 hours

Hiking the Howe Sound Crest Trail:

From the parking lot at Cypress Mountain pass the lodge on the left hand side and head toward the main wooden sign post for the ski resort. You should see several sign posts indicating St. Marks summit and the Howe Sound Crest Trail.

View from St Marks Summit near Cypress Mountain

Cypress Mountain to St. Marks Summit

You’re off! The first 6km of the Howe Sound Crest Trail meanders through the trees before making several switchbacks to the top of St. Marks summit. The first part of the trail is relatively uneventful and can be quite busy. St. Marks is a hugely popular day-hike and the throngs of running shoe, jean clad, hikers may leave you wondering if you’ve somehow gotten lost … fear not! Following St. Marks the crowds thin and the hike becomes a lot quieter.

Once you’ve reached the summit of St. Marks, follow the paths off to the left to find the best view spots and take a moment to savour your first great vista. You likely won’t have the view to yourself, but it’s gorgeous nonetheless and worthy of a snack stop (or lunch if you’e been really ambitious and come up the Baden Powell from Horseshoe Bay or are taking 2 nights to complete the trail).

Once you’ve savoured the views you’ll drop steeply down the backside of St. Marks before beginning the steep ascent up the appropriately named Mt. Unnecessary.

St. Marks to Mt. Unnecessary

While not the most technically challenging part of the trail, I found the ascent up Unnecessary to be the most mentally gruelling. It’s in the trees, your pack is at its heaviest (assuming you haven’t already eaten too much food) and the toll of descending St. Marks just to make an unnecessary up again (pun intended) is a touch taxing.  After making the slog up for a while, the trees begin to thin out and you’re granted an incredible view of the Howe Sound – the perfect antidote to unnecessary suffering!

The Lions from Unnecessary mountain

Unnecessary Mountain to the Lions

From the top of Unnecessary mountain you’ll make a scramble down a steep roped section before the grade eases briefly as you continue towards the base of the Lions. Keep your eyes peeled for a small detour trail to the right of the main Howe Sound Crest Trail that provides a potential water fill up spot should the need arise! There’s also a few spots in here to make camp if you’re planning a multi-nighter. From here, the trail begins to ascend steeply giving you a taste of the scrambling and challenges to come! Near the top of the ridge a stunning view awaits with huge cliffs dropping off around you! If you’re spending several nights on the trail and time is on your side the Lions provides the opportunity for a scramble and the chance to bag another summit on your epic Howe Sound Crest Trail adventure. Near the base of the Lions, the trail cuts down to the right and the more technical part begins!

The Lions to James Peak

After dropping down slightly the trail traverses a gully along which a series of rock ledges give you your first taste of some exposure. Following the traverse, you’ll ascend steeply to a beautiful spot before another brief descent and level off  to yet another beautiful viewpoint! From the viewpoint, you’ll descend steeply before entering a talus field. Mind your footing through the ankle twisters and keep your eyes peeled for the occasional orange trail marker indicating that you’re on the right path. Towards the left side of the field you’ll exit and begin a steep journey up James Peak. Once at the summit you’ll find a chain rope that can be used for support in crossing a thrilling ridge!  Once across, James peak opens up into a meadow – a great spot to stop and catch your breath!

Scaling the ropes accross James Peak
Photo Credit Stephen Evans

James Peak to David Peak to Magnesia Meadows:

When you’re ready to continue, look for orange markers or flags toward the left side and descending through the meadow. Avoid the false trails leading straight, they end abruptly in descents that would only work with a squirrel suit!

Once you’ve completed your descent through the meadow after James peak, you’ll come to a fork in the road. The left fork leads up and over David peak with a steep scramble through the bush and several roped sections. To the right, the trail circumnavigates David peak, losing significant elevation before forcing you to regain it. During my hike in September of 2019, the route left over David peak appeared to be the only option and was clearly marked as the main route. After ascending and steeply descending David peak the trail veers off to the left passing through a field of berry bushes and ascending towards Harvey pass. Make lots of noise in this area, as tons of ripe berries make this prime prime bear feeding territory late in the season. I spooked a black bear fattening himself up for hibernation on my hike. Once you’ve ascended through the berry-lane you’ll reach Harvey pass and almost immediately see the Magnesia Meadows emergency shelter. Magnesia Meadows is a stunning location to spend the night and the views of Mount Harvey and the Howe Sound are nothing short of spectacular! Set up camp, savour the sunset and rest well, the hardest part of the Howe Sound is now behind you!

View from Magnesia Meadows

Magnesia Meadows to Brunswick Mountain trail:

After packing up, continue past the emergency shelter before veering to the left and hiking through the trees and several meadows with a few views of Mt. Harvey. Around 2km in you’ll encounter a fork in the road for the Brunswick Mountain trail. If you’re up for it, dump your pack (remove your bear can or take food with you) and make the 30 minute scramble to bag yet another peak, not to mention some incredible views of the Howe Sound, Mt. Harvey, and the Coast mountain range.

Brunswick Mountain on the howe sound crest trail
Photo credit Stephen Evans

Brunswick Mountain to Brunswick lake:

When you’ve finished the detour up Brunswick mountain, continue along the trail crossing another meadow and a forested area with several tarns before descending to the sublime beauty of brunswick lake. Brunswick lake offers an incredible spot to camp if you continue a ways past the emergency shelter and take a right at the fork to the lakes south shore. It also provides a great spot for a refreshing dip to help cool those aching muscles and joints before continuing the bone crunching descent!  

Brunswick lake the perfect spot for a swim
Photos credit Stephen Evans

Brunswick Lake to Deeks Lake

After you’ve enjoyed some time relaxing at Brunswick lake follow the fork to the left and cross a small rock bridge (another great spot to swim). After descending further, you’ll reach a roped section that helps ease a slippery section by a waterfall. From here you’ll pass along meadows and rocky sections before descending and then eventually crossing a small stream. Eventually you’ll reach deeks lake and traverse the lake through beautiful trees and mossy grounds to the log jammed area and campsite at the opposite side.

Deeks Lake
Photo credit Stephen Evans

Deeks Lake to Highway 99

From Deeks Lake you’ll descend and pass a small waterfall before continuing to descend uneventfully through the forest. From the boundary of the trail, you’ll slog the last 3.5km along a gravel road before shooting out near Porteau Road. Chuck off your pack, pat yourself on the back and drive down the road for a celebratory brew or post adventure feast in Squamish! 

Packing List for Backpacking the Howe Sound Crest Trail

Since I first wrote this post I’ve changed my gear setup quite a bit and moved towards a lightweight setup. Intense backpacking trips like the Howe Sound Crest Trail or the Rockwall Trail are a lot more enjoyable with less weight, letting you cover more distance with ease.

If you’re new to backpacking, don’t stress out about buying the latest and greatest equipment. Save money and use things you already own  or borrow things from a friend. Later, when you’ve gained more experience, modify your kit and change out gear as you get a better understanding of what creature comforts you can and can’t live without.

With this in mind, here’s some gear suggestions for taking this trip:

Essential Gear to Pack

Tent

The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2’s unique blend of functionality, livability, weight and durability have earned high praise for several years! Big Agnes’s customer service is also second to none!  This tent and the Nemo Dagger OMSO were front runners for me when I upgraded my tent setup this year. 

Ultimately, I  prioritized weight and bought the Mountain Hardwear Strato UL2 over the MSR Freelite. I would have bought the MSR, but it was sold out. If you never backpack alone and don’t mind the extra weight most of these tents are also available in 3-person models.

Hiking Backpack

If you’re relatively new to backpacking and building out your kit slowly, there is nothing wrong with using a large size travel backpack with a decent suspension system and padded hipbelt or borrowing a pack from a friend. This gives you time to decide what features you need and whether or not backpacking (and the gear) is something you’re going to invest in.  When I first started backpacking, I used my Khmer Explorer Travel Set on the West Coast Trail and Sunshine Coast Trail which worked great despite my poor packing skills (don’t recommend backpacking with 55lbs…)!  

If you’ve begun dialing in your backpacking kit,  checkout the Gregory Focal or Women’s specific Facet which at ~2.5lbs provide a great compromise between barebones ultralight packs and the heavier feature laden packs. 

If you’re ready to go to an extreme level of gram counting and have eliminated all creature comforts check out the Hyperlite 3400 southwest. It’s 100% waterproof and constructed from ultra light dyneema fabric.

Sleeping Mat

I used to have terrible sleeps in the backcountry until I switched to the Therm-a-Rest . It’s incredibly lightweight, comfortable and packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle. This is probably one of my favorite backpacking items! Try it out. You won’t regret it. Sleep well!

Backpacking Pillow

Yes, you can sleep with a pillow not made of bunched up clothes in the backcountry. Check out the Big Agnes Q-Core Deluxe Pillow, It packs down ultra small, weighs almost nothing and provides a new level of comfort after long days on the trail.

Sleeping Bag

I can’t speak highly enough of Patagonia’s sleeping bags I invested in one several years ago. It’s unbelievably lightweight and packs down small. I found the 30°F / -1°C to be perfect for most outings. Like all Patagonia products, it’s not cheap, but they stand behind their gear and the quality matches the price point. If you spend a lot of time in colder environments they also make a 20°F / -7°C version.  These bags are a very worthwhile splurge you won’t be disappointed in.

Water Purification

 I’m a huge fan of the Steripen. It’s light, portable and only takes minutes to purify a liter of water in a Nalgene. Press the button, place the pen in your bottle, and stir for a couple minutes. It’s like magic! Make sure to bring a few purification tablets as a backup should you run into any technical problems/dead battery with your Steripen.

Swiss Army Knife

Fixing gear, cutting food, a swiss army knife is your go to everything too for backpacking.

Stove & Fuel

Lightweight, convenient, and reliable, the MSR pocket rocket has been my go to backpacking stove for years.

Cookset

I love the GSI Halulite Microdualist II, Two-person cookset. It’s lightweight and I can fit my MSR pocket rocket and a fuel canister inside. If you don’t already have a stove consider the MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit for an all-inclusive solution.

Water Bottle

Nalgenes are always a backcountry favorite. If you’re cutting weight or looking for a way to save a buck, a simple smart water is the go-to for ultralight backpackers. I’ve recently moved to a hydration reservoir as it allows me to stay hydrated continuously without stopping to grab and open a bottle.

Extra Water storage

Extra water storage capacity makes cooking that much easier and camp life more enjoyable so make sure to invest in something like the MSR DromLite Bag V2. It’s also a must for a trip without reliable water sources like the Howe Sound Crest Trail (later in the year) where hauling more water may be essential.

First Aid Kit

From blisters, to scrapes, and cuts. A first aid kit is an essential item to have.  The pre-built kits from Adventure Medical Kits have served me well on many adventurers. At the end of your trip write down any items you used and replace them so they’re ready for your next adventure.

Trowel & Toilet Paper

The HSCT does not have any established outhouses, so you’ll  need  a trowel to dig a cathole when nature calls.  Followminimum impact camping principals and go at least 200m away from any established trails, campsites, or water (creeks, lakes, rivers etc.).  Pack your TP out, I know it’s gross, but just do it. 

Hiking Poles

I once had an ego and thought I didn’t need poles. Then I completed the Howe Sound Crest Trail and my knees screamed at me for the next week. My overweight pack and lack of poles were to blame. Poles are great for reducing the strain of long grueling descents and providing extra stability on exposed sections. Both these features you’ll experience on the Howe Sound Crest Trail, so do yourself a favor and get a pair of poles. For a reliable entry level option try these Black Diamond Poles or consider upgrading to the carbon fiber to save extra weight.

Headlamp

The Spot 350 is the way to go with 6 modes including the night vision saving red light! Red light mode takes a minute to get used to, but once you do it’s a total game changer trust me! The stars never looked so good! 

Bear Spray

When traveling in bear country, Bear Spray is a must. Make sure to remove the packaging and check the expiration date before heading out.

Bear Canister or Ursack * Don't Forget

Keeping your food safe from bears is an essential part of keeping you safe and being a responsible backpacker. The Howe Sound Crest Trail doesn’t offer any food storage so bring a bear canister to keep your food safe. They’re bulky, they’re annoying to pack, but they work well as stools and are far more convenient and effective than hanging your food. For several people go with the BV500 for solo adventures the BV450 works great.  To save weight Ursacks are also a great option, but they need to be tied to a tree and don’t prevent your food from being crushed and smashed by a hungry bear.

Don”t overlook safe food storage, as if a bear gets into your food it will need to be destroyed.  End of story. 

GPS, Compass & Map

Download the GAIA app for maps and gps. I always bring a traditional compass and map as well in the case of technical problems or dead batteries.

Luxury Items to Pack

These items are not necessary, but may be worth it depending on your weight priorities and the distance you plan to cover.

Backpacking Chair

After a long day on the trail there’s nothing better than finding a nice comfortable spot to rest your weary glutes. I’m a big fan of the Big Agnes Mica Basin Camp Chair. At just over 1kg, it’s light enough to justify bringing on slower/easier backpacking trips where weight isn’t as big of consideration or for trips where you’re taking day trips from an established base camp.

Hammock

If you’ve never strung up a hammock between two trees deep in the backcountry you’re missing out! Nothing beats getting horizontal with some great reading material in the pre-dinner hours or taking in an amazing sunset from your own outdoor couch.  The ENO Double Nest has room for two and at ½ kg  it’s hardly even a splurge to pack.  P.S don’t forget the straps to hang it.

Clothing & Accessories to Pack

Shell Jacket

An essential piece for wind, rain, snow. I’ve had great luck with an older version of the MEC Flash Cloud. Also check out the Patagonia Torrentshell  (or Womens version).

Sun Hat & Winter Hat/Toque

A ball cap or tilly hat keeps your face protected from the intense mountain sun. A toque is great for warming up during chilly mornings or evenings.  Here are a bunch of great options.

Sunglasses

Protect your eyes!

Rainpants

Mountain weather can change fast and rain pants are an absolute lifesaver to have in your backpacking kit. Many have the ability to quickly take them on and off without removing your shoes/boots allowing you to stay comfortable eveb if you get caught in a sudden downpour. Check out the Torrentshell in mens or womens.  

Zip Off Hiking Pants (1 - 2 Pair)

I never thought I’d see the day I embraced the zip-off pant. But hey, they’re really the best of both worlds for rapidly changing mountain environments and keeping warm in the evening when the temperature drops. Check out the Quandary Pant for a great option.

Puff Jacket

I’ve had the Patagonia Men’s Nano Puff® Hoody for years. It’s perfect multi-functional item for everyday, backpacking, and pretty much anything where you might need a bit of warmth. I’m still looking for an activity it doesn’t work for. They also make the Nano Puff in a women’s version.

Sun Hoodie

When I went backpacking in the Grand Canyon a few years back, I was shocked to see throngs of Arizona Trail thru-hikers wearing hoodies in the 40 C (100F) heat. Turns out they were onto something! A sun hoodie has been one of the best items I’ve added to my backpacking kit. They keep you burn free, are surprisingly cool, and let you get away with leaving the bottle of sunscreen at home. The Sahara Sun Hoodie (men’s/women’s) from REI has served me well or check out these ones from Outdoor Research (men’s / women’s).

Base Layer Top

These Capilene Cool shirts have worked well for me, but pretty much any quick-dry athletic top will work fine.

Base Layer Bottom

A merino bottom baselayer are perfect for warming up at night or during chilly mornings.

Underwear

Patagonia makes fantastic underwear with quality, durability, and comfort far exceeding lululemon, and saxx (I’ve tried both). You decide how many or how few you bring….  

They also make womens’ underwear, but I am unable to advise on fit, form, function or durability on this front… 

3 Pairs of Hiking Socks

Darn Tough Vermont makes the best hiking socks hands down. They’re guaranteed for life/replaced free of charge and they don’t stink. Really! I typically bring 3 pair. 1 pair for hiking, 1 pair to change into at camp, and a reserve to throw into the rotation as needed. 

Gloves

Thin, water resistance 3-season glove is typically perfect for cold mornings or windy summits. 

Camp Shoes

Crocs are back! Well for backpacking camp shoes they never left… They’re lightweight and ugly as ever. Many backpackers find them to be the perfect camp shoe for resting sore feat after a long day in boots/shoes.

Personally, I still hate them. I have an old pair of Tom’s which I occasionally bring. They are light and less bulky than Crocs. If going with a trail runner, I’ll often ditch the camp shoe altogether and just loosen my laces. Your call!  

Trail Runners or Hiking Boots

When I’m going lightweight I’ll wear trail runners. I’ve had great luck with the La Sportiva Bushido II. When I’m carrying more gear/weight or if there’s a chance of snow, I’ll wear a larger more traditional hiking boot, like the Scarpa Kailash.

Microspikes

Microspikes slip effortlessly over your boots and make walking on snow and ice a breeze.

Low Gaiter (season and condition dependent)

Low gaiters are perfect for keeping rocks, sand, and snow out of your boots and preventing blisters.

Toothbrush & Toothpaste

Duck Tape ( for repairs and blisters)

Food

Everyone has different takes and caloric requirements, so I’m not going to tell you exactly what to bring. I generally avoid the just add water meals you find at REI or MEC. They’re overpriced and often don’t rehydrate as you’d like. I usually head to the grocery store and search for things like lentil rice, ramen, or plant-based mac & cheese. They’re basically just add/boil quickly meals.. Always rebag/repack this type of food. As there is no reason to carry unnecessary packaging on the trail. I’m also a big fan of the Patagonia provisions soups and chilis

If you’re looking for incredible dehydrated food check out Food for the Sole. Their salads are some of the best add water food I’ve had in the backcountry. 

Final thoughts on hiking the Howe Sound Crest Trail

The Howe Sound Crest Trail offers an incredible backcountry experience to properly prepared adventurers. If you have questions drop me a note in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help you out! Happy hiking friend! 

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