Trip Summary: Six Passes-Maligne Valley Loop

This past year has been quite busy for us as I’ve been back in school completing a Bachelor of Education, so unfortunately we haven’t found time for any overnight hiking trips. My program finished in July and I had the month of August off, so we decided to take advantage of this and go a bit further from home to return to the Great Divide Trail in Jasper. This trip was a combination of doing some trail maintenance with the Great Divide Trail Association and then doing a short loop of the GDT by combining the Six Passes Alternate with the main GDT route.

As a quick plug here for doing trail maintenance, I can’t recommend it highly enough! We have never done trail maintenance or building before, but went on two trips with the GDTA this year and found it very fulfilling to both give back to the trail as well as quite educational in terms of learning about how much thought and efforts needs to be put in to keeping trails in good condition. We will definitely be back in the future to help on future trips!

Logistics

This loop is approximately 67km with 30km off-trail, 10km on excellent trail and the remaining 20ish km on trail of varying quality. It combines the Six Passes and the official GDT route through the decommissioned Maligne Valley trail. It should take 2-4 days depending on how fast you are.

We started at the northern end and did the loop counterclockwise, starting with the Six Passes Route as we were uncertain how long Six Passes would take, but knew we could hammer out the Maligne Valley section in one day if needed.

If starting at the southern end, you would add an additional 30 km round trip (15 km one way) to reach the loop from the Poboktan Trailhead.

To get permits, campsites along the official GDT/Maligne Valley can be booked as “Maligne North” on the online booking system; camping along the Six Passes Route needs to be booked by calling the Jasper Parks Office. I’d suggest calling to book everything – you will probably need to leave a voicemail and wait for someone to call back to confirm the details. I’ve found Jasper is quite good about calling back on the same day if you call in the morning.

You will also need a Discovery Pass which can be purchased in advance (in person at MEC or online from Parks Canada) or in person at the park gate when you arrive.

For maps, we downloaded the GPS tracks from the GDTA and created our own maps in Caltopo. The GDT website also lists several other map options. These were supplemented with the GDT app.

Beforehand you’ll want to confirm trail conditions primarily for the following: (1) Snow/cornice size on the southern most pass on the Six Passes Route – early in the season this could be too large to bypass; (2) Water levels, in particular for Maligne River – typically this crossing shouldn’t be an issue, but this year water levels were quite high and there was at least one incident of a hiker needing a rescue.

Daily Trip Journals

Final Thoughts

This is a nice simple loop if you are looking for a few days of hiking and are fairly tolerant of brush. Personally I don’t have any issues with the level of brush in the Maligne Valley, but many other hikers find it to be one of the worst sections of the GDT. It is also possible to do the Six Passes Route as an end-to-end route if you have two vehicles or hitch from one end to the other.

For GDT hikers, I would highly recommend the Six Passes Route in good weather. In bad weather, the main challenges with the alternate are the first/last passes and the ridgewalk on the northern side. Honestly though, the valley route also affords nice views on clear days and really isn’t that bad (especially compared to Section D and some bits of Sections F/G).

Gear-wise we continue to be quite happy with our overall setup (lighterpack – a few things have changed, but this is mostly accurate). Gear of note on this trip:

  • Sun hoodies: Both Kyle and I used new sun hoodies on this trip. He has the Arcteryx Phasic and I have the Patagonia Sunshade. We were both quite pleased with how they performed and will continue to use them on future trips
  • Baseball cap: Previously we wore bucket-style sunhats, but baseball caps pair better with sun hoodies. I was most impressed with how well the baseball cap kept rain off my glasses – I will definitely continue to use a baseball cap rather than a bucket hat for this main reason.
  • BeFree Filter: Our Platypus GravityWorks filter was at the end of its life after the GDT, so we decided to try out something new to replace it. There are some reports on the internet of it clogging early on, but so far ours seems to be working fine – hopefully it stays that way in the future! If it fails, we’ll probably go back to the GravityWorks filter.
  • Rain jackets: Our MEC Outathere rain jackets are definitely on their last legs (arms?). I think we can probably add one more set of patches to them before they should be replaced. I’ve got my eye on Arcteryx Zeta FL jackets, but I’m not sure if I’m willing to shell out that much money for a rain jacket.

Food-wise we stuck to our usual diet of mostly bars, supplemented with cheese, salami, and baby food pouches. Kyle had Beans and Rice for his dinners and I dug deep into our food cabinet to use up some old instant potatoes and dehydrated beef. I added cheddar cheese to the potatoes and was quite pleased with how they turned out – not sure how it took me so long to think of adding cheese to the potatoes, but I find it improves them substantially!

Day 3 – Six Passes-Maligne Valley Loop

Mileage: 27 km

It did not rain overnight and it got cold enough to scare the mosquito swarm away; this was our nicest morning on the trail so far!

We were making relatively slow time as we were taking pictures and waypoints to document the worst sections of the trail. The brush wasn’t too bad until a particularly brushy section before Mary Schaffer where the trail got close to the river (and had actually washed away in a couple sections along with the river bank). We got to Mary Schaffer a bit before noon, but stopped for lunch as it was raining.

The rain didn’t last for long, but the clouds stuck around obscuring the fairly nice views that we would get on a clear day. The rest of the day we alternated between forested sections with regular deadfall to navigate over and brushy meadows. The meadows were fairly dry and we didn’t experience too much carwashing which was a pleasant surprise.

At Maligne River, the old bridge sat on an small island in the middle, taunting us for trying to keep our feet mostly dry today. The river was substantially deeper than when we went through last year, but still very manageable; where we crossed it was mostly knee deep with a brief crotch deep section close to the shore.

After the river ford, we still have several hundred metres of meadows to get through before the worst of the brush would be behind us. Unfortunately all the rain the area has received this year meant there was a new challenge in front of us – a boggy muddy mess. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the mud we encountered approaching Kakwa, but nonetheless, it wasn’t my favourite part of the day.

Soon enough we finished the mud and reached the area we had been clearing the trail a few days prior! After this we flew down the trail, opting to head all the way to our car rather than camp at Trapper Creek.

Day 2 – Six Passes-Maligne Valley Loop

Mileage: 23 km

There was rain off and on throughout the night, but thankfully when we woke up in the morning it seemed to have stopped. It was still pretty cloudy, but we managed to get packed up and hiking in a reasonable amount of time.

Now that we were on route, navigation was straightforward and we finished our third and fourth passes before stopping for lunch. The sun was even shining and we had a mini yard sale to dry out our gear.

After lunch, we quickly made it over the fifth pass and down to the valley where we started the long ascent up to the six and final pass. We opted to stay to the east side to try and stay high and out of the marsh with moderate success. We continued to stay left as we ascended the final scree slopes to the top of the pass. This is where we encountered our challenge of the day – there was a cornice on the south side of the pass. I’m generally okay with exposure, but when combined with the loose footing, I froze up. Kyle had to coach me past the east edge of the cornice and across the scree to a more moderate slope. It took me way too long, but eventually I made it over and we continued our descent.

On our way over to connect with the GDT, we found several cute families of marmots hiding amongst the rocks.

Once we got on the GDT, we flew down towards the Mary Vaux campsite. It was nice to be able to relax and just follow a trail, especially after descending around the cornice.

As soon as we started setting up camp, the rain that had been threatening us all day finally arrived. Thankfully the campsite is well-equipped despite being decommissioned and has a well-sheltered picnic table we ate dinner at while fending off a never-ending swarm of mosquitoes.

Day 1 – Six Passes-Maligne Valley Loop

Mileage: 17 km

We got a relatively late start as we needed to pack up our car camping site first, but we managed to get to the trailhead at 9:30am and promptly started ascending to Bald Hills in the rain. It was somewhat steep, but easy walking as it followed an old fire road up the hill. As we neared the summit, we encountered several large groups of tourists – pretty impressed they still went out in the rain. We weren’t rewarded with views at the top because we were socked in with clouds, but we did get to start on a pretty awesome ridge walk leaving the main Bald Hills trail.

Mistake in purple

We soon reached a saddle on the ridge and made a mistake we’d spend most of the rest of the day fixing. I thought the saddle was where we would cut down to the south, unfortunately this was wrong and we were supposed to continue on the ridge for a ways more.

Once we realized the mistake, we wound up sidehilling through an annoyingly dense batch of trees until we finally descended enough to find an easy contour to follow. We eventually reconnected with the route at a pretty lake just below the pass we were supposed to descend.

Now that we were on the trail, it was pretty easy going over our second pass, although we would have appreciated a bit less rain.

With the rain seeming to not be going to stop, we decided to camp in a good flat spot we found before the third pass. It was only once we finally got everything setup and were starting to eat dinner that we finally got to see some blue sky and the rain stopped.

We were both still pretty soggy when we tucked into bed. Hopefully we dry off while we sleep and tomorrow is less wet!