55km, 4 days, 3 mountain passes, 2850m of elevation gain and 1 epic trail. This is one of the most sought-after backpacking experiences in the Canadian Rockies and it does not disappoint. You will pass towering waterfalls, hanging glaciers, turquoise alpine lakes, mountain pass meadows and a single, massive limestone cliff, rising more than 900 m above the trail below. This is a must-do in the Canadian Rockies.
Trip Completed: September 2021
Starting Point: Paint Pots trailhead, Highway 93
Ending Point: Floe Lake trailhead, Highway 93
Total Distance: 55 km
Elevation Gain: 2850m
Duration: 4 days
Kootenay National Park, British Columbia. The trailheads are located on Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park, which is accessed at Castle Junction off of Highway 1 in Banff National Park.
Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of Ktunaxa ɁamakɁis and Niitsítpiis-stahkoii ᖹᐟᒧᐧᐨᑯᐧ ᓴᐦᖾᐟ (source).
Maps & Resources
Map: AllTrails – Following the trail systems marked on AllTrails is very helpful in customizing your trip through this area. Always bring a paper map with you when backpacking. Even though the Parks Canada trails are well marked, taking a paper map is proper safety.
Campsite Reservations: Must reserve through Parks Canada. Select “Backcountry Camping”, and for the park choose “Banff, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks”. Then select the trailhead you want to start as your access point (Paint Pots, Tumbling Creek, Numa Creek or Floe Lake) then select your campsites. You will need to purchase a backcountry permit which you can do in advanced when reserving your campsites. You will also need to have a National Parks day pass which you pay as you enter the park.
Safety: Bring bear spray! This area is frequented by grizzly bears. Bring bear spray and ALWAYS carry it with you. Cook and eat in the designated area away from the tents.
Outfitters & Shuttles
No outfitters or shuttles are available but this is an end-to-end trail. Either park a car on either end of the trail, or hitchhike (most people hitchhike, including my group).
Day 1: Paint Pots Trailhead to Helmet Falls Camp (15 km)
After moving back to Ontario after living two years in BC and Alberta, I was finally able to make my way back to the Rockies for a vacation. I was lucky to secure 4 days on The Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park. This is one of the most sought-after backpacking trips in the Rockies and I would soon realize why. This isn’t the longest trail (only 55km) but it has some intense elevation gain (nearly 3000m) as you traverse through three alpine passes. Although this trail is very physically demanding, I only rate it as intermediate because it is well-marked, straightforward and not technical. It is also possible to do this over more days if you wanted to camp at the campsites I passed through.
The plan for this trip was that I would park at the north trailhead at the Paint Pots, camp at Helmet Falls the first day then meet my friend at Numa Creek campground the next day. He would be parking and hiking in from Numa Creek. Then on Day 3 we would hike to Floe Lake and hike out to Floe Lake trailhead on Day 4. From here we were planning on hitchhiking back to his car at Numa Creek. Or if worst came to worst we would walk the additional 10km along the highway to his car.
Due to a flight delay, I didn’t make it to the Paint Pots trailhead until 4 pm with the sunset time being 8:30 pm. With 15km ahead of me I knew I had to hike relatively fast so as to not be hiking alone at night in grizzly country. To my benefit, the trail was only a gradual incline with an elevation gain of 400m over the 15km. At around 6 km into the trail, you will pass the Ochre campground which isn’t anything special but is great if you wanted to space the hiking out more – or were super late getting started like me.
I made it to the Helmet Falls campground at 8pm, just in time to see the sun setting behind The Rockwall and the magnificent Helmet Falls rising 352m above the valley. This campground has 18 tent pads making it one of the busiest backcountry sites I’ve been to but they are spaced out enough. The food storage and eating area have a spectacular view of Helmet Falls. I set up my stove, made a cup of coffee and ate my Backpacker’s Pantry dinner. I met a group of 5 paramedics from Edmonton who were also hiking to Numa Creek the next day and they offered that I join them. We discussed and soon started to dread the 20km and 2000m of elevation gain we had the next day. We figured it was best to get a good sleep and an early start.
Campsite: Helmet Falls. This is a large backcountry campground with 18 decently spaced-out sites right along Helmet Creek. In the distance, you can see the magnificent 352m tall Helmet Falls pouring off the mountain into the river below. There are bear storage containers and picnic tables to eat.
Campsite Coordinates: 51° 11.7426’ N, 116° 18.3258’ W
Day 2: Helmet Falls Camp to Numa Creek Camp (20km)
Knowing I had a long and physically demanding day ahead of me, I got up with the sun. After my breakfast and coffee, I hiked approximately 1 km to the base of Helmet Falls. Even with the 20km and 2000m of elevation ahead of me, I just couldn’t resist seeing the falls up close. The golden light illuminated all the angles Helmet Falls had to offer and it was a tough view to leave. I packed up camp and headed out with my new friends to Numa Creek campground. There is no cellular service in Kootenay (as soon as you get on Highway 93 it is lost) and I had told my friend I would meet him at Numa Creek around 4 pm. This estimation was made before I even realized how tough my day actually was. Leaving at 8 am that morning meant I had to maintain at least 2.5km per hour. Although my average pace is 3km per hour, I was faced with 3 big climbs that day.
The 6 of us left camp and headed up the first climb under the watchful gaze of Limestone Peak rising vertically above us. This first climb was about 400m elevation gain over 3km and was a great way to get the blood pumping in the morning. The view of Helmet Falls as you climb up is spectacular but nothing compared to the views from the top of the pass. At the top of the climb, you are met with incredible views of Rockwall Pass. And I mean incredible views, almost unrivalled by any other place I have been. The massive Rockwall rising out of the meadows below with the sharp peaks of Mt. Drysdale, Rockwall Peak, and Tumbling Peak striking the base of the clouds would leave anyone speechless. Large hanging glaciers could be seen clinging to the mountainsides as they slowly melt away.
After a quick break, we started the descent into Rockwall Pass. Eventually, the dirt path would turn into loose boulders and scree. Like the descent, the scree wouldn’t last long as we were soon heading back uphill for another 300m elevation gain over 2.5km. Once you reach the top of this climb, the trail feels relatively flat for a few kilometres. Lucky for us, the easy trail allowed us to take in all the views around us. At this point, you are now at the junction with Wolverine Pass. Here we were met with Parks Canada Rangers informing us that a mamma grizzly and her two cubs had been spotted in the area earlier in the day. We kept our bear spray nearby as the open meadows turned into the forest and the flat trail steepened on the descent towards Tumbling Creek Campground.
Crossing the bridge at Tumbling Creek, we could see the third and final climb up into Tumbling Pass. This was another 300m elevation gain over 2km. It might have been because it was the third big climb of the day but this one felt never-ending. At this point, I had to pick up the pace if I wanted to meet my friend at 4 pm without him being worried. I broke off from the group I had met the day before and pushed up into Tumbling Pass. The great thing about hiking in the Rockies is that when you finally reach the top, the views make you forget about how exhausted you are. Tumbling Peak takes your entire view to your right and in the distance, Hewitt and Foster Peaks become more prominent. The lush meadows contrast with the white and grey from the mountains and glaciers.
The remaining 5km is all downhill until the Numa Creek campground. Starting out in the meadow, eventually, you are going down switchbacks and crossing over streams and scree. This quickly turns into a narrow dirt trail that feels almost overgrown as the branches reach out to try and block the path. This trail was covered in 1-day old bear poop so I was quite nervous going through here. The Parks Rangers had said that this section of the trail was effectively closed because the mamma bear and her cubs were travelling through. This prevented hikers from getting to the next campsites. Luckily for me, the bear had moved into Wolverine Pass where I was a few hours earlier.
Amazingly, I made it to the campground at 3:57 pm, 3 minutes before my seemingly wildly inaccurate estimate. My friend was there already and said the 6km hike from Numa Creek trailhead was very easy. Being the first time, we had seen each other in 2 years, we caught up over some ready-made meals and whiskey then called it a night.
Campsite: Numa Creek. This campground is nothing special in terms of views. The creeks that they are on our beautiful and Foster Peak can be seen through the trees. They offer an outhouse, bear storage, picnic tables and fire pits.
Campsite Coordinates: 51° 6.5778’ N, 116° 11.0106’ W
Day 3: Numa Creek Camp to Floe Lake Camp (9 km)
Checking the forecast before starting the trip 3 days prior, I knew there was supposed to be a big rainstorm. Knowing this, we got moving quickly in the morning in hopes of beating the storm. Floe Lake was our final stop and was only 9 km and 700 m of elevation gain away. The first few kilometres are in the forest alongside the rushing rivers and you are blessed with periodic views of massive waterfalls coming off the mountains.
The strenuous climb through the forest turns into subalpine meadows and the final push is up a steep scree slope. As we took a break in the subalpine meadow, it started to rain so we put on our raincoats. We made the final push up the scree and as we crested we were met with the storm. The winds were enough to blow you off your feet and the rain started pouring down. We had 2.5km of downhill hiking which was made difficult as the trails turned to slick mud. To say we got soaked is an understatement. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t miserable those last few kilometres. Puddles formed in our boots and being wet was made worse from the wind and cold temperatures. Normally on this descent from the pass to the lake, you are met with stunning views of Foster Peak rising out of the aquamarine waters of Floe Lake but we were in the clouds and could see in front of us.
Our soaked and damaged souls made it to the campground during a periodic break in the rain and we could set our tent up with little problems. The big issue now was that nearly all the clothes I owned were drenched and the nights were going down to -1°C or -2°C (yes, at the end of August/beginning of September). For the next few hours, we tried to stay warm in the tent and hung our wet clothes under a tree protected from the rain which continued off and on. Hanging our clothes was a futile attempt since there was no sun and the temperatures were frigid.
Just in time for dinner, the rain stopped and the low clouds lifted giving us spectacular views of Floe Lake and Foster Peak. The mountains that rise out of Floe Lake are so massive, you cannot capture the lake and the top of the peak in one picture. Many people consider Floe Lake the crown jewel of this trail, but its stunning aqua colour makes it a figurative gem lying at the protective feet of Foster Peak. After the storm had passed, the area was dead quiet but never became a deafening silence which I found peculiar and very peaceful.
Campsite: Floe Lake. This campground is amazing for views. The lake is gorgeous and the enormous mountains are humbling. Like the rest of the campsites, there is food storage, picnic tables and outhouses.
Campsite Coordinates: 51° 3.2622’ N, 116° 8.16’ W
Day 4: Floe Lake Camp to Floe Lake Trailhead (~11kM)
Well, weren’t we surprised when we woke up? It had not been raining all night but rather snowing! On September 1st, it was snowing! There was a good 2cm of snow on the ground and my green Marmot tent was painted white. We were actually hoping that the predicted forecast of clear skies would hold true. If it had, we would have hiked back up Numa Pass to see the views of Floe Lake from above. Instead of clear skies, the snow gave us a clear choice: let’s get back to the trailhead. We quickly packed up our gear and started the 11km hike to the trailhead.
The hike down is through a gully that must have had a forest fire burn through it years ago. Burnt trees scattered the mountainside and downed trees blocked the creek flowing from Floe Lake to the Kootenay River. Every so often the newly snow-capped peaks would be visible through the low clouds. Although it had stopped snowing, the vegetation surrounding the trail was wet and we were soon drenched to the bone. Luckily for us, the hike was all downhill about 700m and before we knew it, we were at the parking lot.
Now hopefully someone would pick up two wet and dirty hitchhikers. Within 20 minutes we found someone who was heading the same way as us and he drove us to my friend’s car at Numa Creek trailhead. From here we picked up my car at Paint Pots and headed to Banff for a well-earned night out and bed to sleep in.
I now understand why this trail is considered one of the premier backpacking experiences in the Canadian Rockies. It easily competes with the likes of Mt. Assiniboine, Mt. Robson (Berg Lake), Lake O’Hara and Northover Ridge. If you ever have the ability to get reservations for this trail, take the opportunity, you won’t regret it. Although many consider Floe Lake the best part of the hike, I have to argue that Rockwall and Wolverine Pass take the crown for me.
The great thing about this trail is that there are multiple trailheads to start and end at making different combinations of trips possible. You can do the trip so that you never have much more than 10 km per day if you wanted an easier trip. Always note trail closures before booking and hiking. The trailheads at Tumbling Creek and Numa Creek close quite often due to washouts etc.
Let this trip report be a note to everyone to prepare for all types of weather when camping in the Rockies especially if you are camping near shoulder season (September, or June). Not that I wasn’t prepared as I had ample layers, mitts and a toque. The mistake I made was I wore my sleeping base layer during the massive rainstorm hiking because I was too lazy to change in the morning. The night of the snowstorm, I had boiled water and put it in my sleeping bag which was made it possible for me to stay warm.
Sean Vandersluis is an outdoor enthusiast who loves exploring Canada’s outdoors. He always brings along his camera to capture some of Canada’s most beautiful locations. Mostly a backpacker in the mountains of western Canada, he has been trying to get into canoeing after moving to Ontario (but still prefers a good old fashion hiking trip). Follow his Instagram to follow along!