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Rockies ::  Icefields :: Howse River to Glacier Lake

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Hiking initial portion of Howse River flats.  Mt. Sarbach upper left, Mt. Outram center right. Glacier Lake is behind grassy rib distance right

Abstract

Overall Difficulty D4 Plenty of deadfall in initial part of the trail.  Several fords of braided Howse river channels.  Routefinding. Logistic problems with transport back to Mistaya trailhead if doing the loop by returning via Glacier lake trail
Snow Factor S2 Low accumulation and frequently in shape early in the season.  Possibility of post-holing in Mistaya portion of the trail
Scenery Spectacular Howse River vistas -- one of most awe inspiring in Banff National Park.  Several well known peaks including Mt. Sarbach, Outram, Wilson and Survey peak. 
Trail/Marking Poor / None Official Howse Pass park trail falling into disrepair.  Route-finding across the flats.  Old horse trail to Glacier lake is poorly defined with plenty of deadfall.
Suggested Time 7-8 hr Full loop  (Mistaya start, Glacier lake trailhead end) 
Elevation Start: 1530     Max: 1530m     Total: ~350m  Round Trip: 22 km (Mistaya - Glacier trailhead loop)
Gear Full hiking boots.  Gaiters are essential. Pair of old sandals for river fords.  Snowshoes or skis not required for early season trip
Water Howse River.  It is moving fast enough, but still should be filtered.  Carry 1-2L
Dog Friendly Yes Standard back-country precautions.  Caution: Pack of grey wolves make area home

 

 

Gallery

Howse Pass Parks sign

Mistaya canyon near the trailhead. Mt. Sarbach in the distance

Initial part of Howse Pass Trail descending to River flats

4.8 km junction with horse trail leading back to the Crossing

Emerging at Montane area with great views of Mt. Wilson

Great hiking in Montane area. Mt Wilson left, Sarbach right

Lovely tarn with backdrop of Mt. Wilson

Howse River at point where trail dips back to the forest

Looking across Howse River towards Survey Peak

Zoom at Survey Peak - difficult snowshoe with lots of elevation gain

View back east towards Crossing area with Mt. Wilson center left

Deep pools of Howse River looking across to north side

Hiking along a wide channel while looking for a place to cross

Fresh wolf print in the mud. Pack of grey wolves lives nearby

Turnaround point just past Glacier lake outlet junction

Looking west towards Howse Pass area at turnaround point

Just after the first ford. Shallow, but wide and freezing cold

Lovely pond near Glacier lake junction with views of Mt. Sarbach

Site of second and final ford. Still had to take boots off

Views west from old Glacier lake horse trail just above ford area

Recent kill and feast.  I believe wolves are the culprit

Great panoramic views of Howse flats on return along the north side

Reflection of Mt. Sarbach in still waters of Howse River

One last look down the Howse River from viewpoint on Glacier lake trail

 


Summary

Howse Pass trail is historic route in Canadian Rockies. Following the wide alluvial fan of Howse River, it was used by fur traders to establish posts on west side of Canadian Rockies. Later Parks Canada established hiking trail and built ranger cabin just east of the pass.  As such this area is very appealing to modern day explorers. Sadly in the age of cutbacks trail has been decommissioned and area is reverting back to wilderness.  

In early season -- usually April/May timeframe -- when water level is low, it is possible to hike braided flats of Howse river and avoid horrible bushwhack along the official trail on south side.  Using this strategy it would be possible to backpack to vicinity of Ranger cabin, then day trek to the pass and explore on the other side towards Blaeberry River.  For day-hikers attractive option is hiking the first part to Glacier lake outlet junction, following by loop return on the north side and finish on official Glacier lake trail. Only problem -- transport back from Glacier trailhead back to Mistaya where the hike started.  In this case bicycle would be helpful, but if all else fails it takes about 45-50 minutes of fast walk on the highway (~6km). 

Park at Mistaya canyon tourist trailhead ~5km south of Saskatchewan River Crossing on the Icefields Parkway.  Trail descends to the canyon and crosses the chasm on good bridge. On the other side trail rises and soon emerges to the junction: Sarbach lookout left,  Howse Pass right. Parks Canada sign warns that Howse trail is not maintained, and they are not joking.  Even the initial part to Howse river has plenty of deadfall - but it is still fairly well defined and easy to follow.  At 4.8km mark there is signed junction with horse trail from the Crossing. In 2016 this sign had note "trail interrupted" next to the Crossing direction, so it might not be feasible -- I have not investigated further.  Past the junction trail exits the forest and enters "Montane area" -- delightful hiking for couple of kilometers in open benches dotted with meadows and lakes.  Trail is well defined in this section.  Eventually it reaches south side of Howse River around 7km mark and dips back in the forest.  This is the start of "decommissioned section" that should be avoided at all costs. 

Leave trail and hike across the flats hopping across snow bridges and small channels, aiming in general direction of imposing Mt. Outram.  Glacier Lake trail is on the other side.  Crossing the flats is generally easy, but there is deep channel hugging the north side; it is deep and moving quite fast even early in the season.  You might be able to spot parks sign on the other side -- it reads "2.4 km to Glacier Lake".  This is the start of old horse trail to Glacier lake, and site of supposed place to cross - but the river has shifted since.  So follow the flats towards the wide canyon draining Glacier lake; usually this is the best place to cross to the other side.  Couple of fords are usually necessary;  with little luck they will be shallow, but still icy cold.  Once on the other side simply trash up the hill and intercept old Glacier lake horse trail.

From here there are couple of options. One is to continue to Glacier lake -- about half an hour, as there is plenty of deadfall and snow lingers in shady areas quite late.  From Glacier lake you can then return via the official trail that is cleared, but boring, muddy and has some unnecessary gain elevation/loss as it travels across forested hill below Survey Peak. Better option is to return along the flats on north side.  Once past "2.4km to Glacier Lake" sign trail disintegrates, but easy trash for few minutes brings you down to river level. From there it is an easy travel in the open for about an hour to the point where you can pick up official trail around 3km mark and hike out.  Added bonus: Fabulous viewpoint from 2 red Airdondack chairs at viewing platform at top of small hill -- one of finest Rockies viewpoints.  From here follow the trail to Glacier trailhead, then drive/cycle/walk back to Mistaya.




 

Glacier Lake Outflow


In winter or early spring it is also possible to approach Glacier Lake directly via the outflow canyon; this avoids trash and postholing along the old horse trail.  Going can be challenging if river is moving freely; then you have to hop over snow bridges from 1 side to another frequently, and it could be dangerous.  It takes about half an hour from the Howse confluence to Glacier Lake this way.

Entering Glacier Outflow Canyon past Howse River confluence

Freely moving water and small cascades present challenges

Soft fused light at Glacier Lake as sun is setting down

Magical late afternoon at still frozen Glacier Lake in early spring