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!

Trip Report: Elfin Lakes

We’ve been itching to get on an overnight trip since we got back from the GDT and over the winter break was the first chance we’ve managed to make it work. We haven’t done any winter camping before, so we decided on Elfin Lakes – the route is marked and a reasonable length (11km one way) and there’s a heated shelter at the end.

Logistics

All camping in Garibaldi Provincial Park requires permits/reservations year-round. If you plan to go on a weekend, you will need to book well in advance, but weekdays tend to have spots available. All reservations need to be purchased online or by phone in advance – there are no options to pay cash in person anymore.

To get to Elfin Lakes, you will want to the Diamond Head trailhead. Signage to get there is straightforward from the highway. The final several kilometres are on a gravel road. In the winter, you’ll want winter tires and chains – chains are required in the park and the final section of road is quite steep.

The winter route is classified as simple terrain, but you should always check the avalanche forecast before you go.

Trip Report

It snowed the previous day and only a narrow ski track was worn into the trail, so on the way up, we were breaking trail to avoid walking in the ski tracks. We made good time though and got to Red Heather quicker than expected. The shelter was full of skiers taking breaks and we stopped for a quick snack break.

We were happy to find the route from Red Heather to Elfin Lakes was marked the day before as it was snowing and we had very low visibility after leaving Red Heather. It would have been quite slow going without the poles.

Despite the poor visibility, the ridge from Red Heather to Elfin Lakes was easy walking and we quickly made it to the Elfin Lakes shelter. It was early in the day, so we had it to ourselves at first. We ate, played Sushi Go and entertained ourselves on our phones. Over the afternoon, people slowly trickled in and then a whole bunch arrived around dinner time.

As we were considering going to the bed, the CO detector went off due to someone leaving the propane burner on without it being lit. All the doors and windows were opened, but surprisingly few people went outside – I guess most people don’t realize how dangerous carbon monoxide can be. Thankfully it wasn’t too cold out and the skies had somewhat cleared, so we got to enjoy views on the surrounding mountains while we waited for the alarm to stop going off. Once it stopped 20 minutes later, it was time for bed!

We both slept surprisingly well and were nice and toasty warm.

We woke up as others started to wake up and make noise and then went outside to watch the sunrise. After the sunrise, we lazily made breakfast and packed up before starting on our way back down.

We could actually see things on our way down and I can see why this area is so popular! The area is truly beautiful and seeing it all covered in snow is magical. My phone decided it was too cold though and shut itself off early on, so we did not end up with many photos.

We made quick time on the way down and stopped again at Red Heather for lunch. After Red Heather, the trail after was very wide and packed in – certainly not the single ski tracks and making our own trail of the way up.

We made it to the car in just over three hours total including our lunch break.

We drove off and were quite happy we brought chains – there was a Jeep in the ditch that wasn’t there on our way up!

Final Thoughts

Going on a winter overnight was quite fun and I think overall our current gear works quite well. For future non-shelter-based trips, I think we’d want a new shelter, but otherwise I don’t think there’s anything else we’d need.

We also tried out instant miso soup and rice as a breakfast option. It was quite tasty, but not very calorie dense. We’ll need to brainstorm some additions to add more calories.

For Future GDT Hikers

The GDT is an amazing trail and I think it has ruined us in terms of our expectations for other trails in the future. Here are a few resources and our perspective on the GDT. I’ll try to avoid repeating things other hikers have already addressed well – definitely refer to the other hiker journals I have linked below.

For another perspective (and some of the same as well), check out my partner’s reflection on the GDT.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!

Resources

Planning Resources

Great Divide Trail Association

The GDT website has an abundance of information and is a great starting point for any questions you have.

Hiker journals I found helpful:

On-Trail Resources

Ryan Silk’s Maps

These were the only physical maps we brought – there were a few sections where it would have been nice to also have larger scale overview maps, but overall these are excellent and if you don’t plan to do the high routes/alternates, these are likely all you need.

GDT App

For finding the trail again on the edge of meadows, having the app was amazing. It also has some helpful notes/comments for planning out your days – we did find all the notes about water crossings to make them sound more intense than they ended up being and I believe we went in a fairly average year for water.

A caveat with the app – be sure you know how to navigate with paper maps/compass and be aware of your device’s limitations.

GDT Hiker Notes

Save a copy of this on your phone – maybe skim through it beforehand, but it is most useful to have on-trail to plan out your days and know what’s up ahead.

GDT Facebook Group

Trail closures and reroutes are posted in the group and it can be useful to connect with other hikers.

Gear

Gear List

Most other hikers we saw leaned towards the ultralight/light side of the spectrum, but there were some hikers with more traditional gear out there as well. Generally, I’d suggest trying to get your gear weight down as much as possible – the food carries are long so you want to minimize your weight as much as possible.

Some general things I’d recommend:

  • Rain gear – Bring full rain gear (pants and jacket) – you’ll likely encounter at least one day off going through wet brush and the car wash is slightly more tolerable with rain pants
  • Headlamps – We didn’t use our headlamps until the last couple of days. Unless you plan to night-hike you can probably bring something super basic.
  • Water filter – there’s a fair number of glacial streams, make sure you can backwash/clean your filter
  • Canister stove – it’s possible to buy canister fuel in most of the resupply locations, we were somewhat concerned about this, but it didn’t end up being an issue
  • Satellite messenger/emergency beacon – We found our inReach to be very useful for getting weather forecasts and checking in on the status of the forest fires. 
  • Sleep system for couples – For couples specifically, I can’t recommend a double quilt and sleeping mat highly enough!

There are a significant number of sections that are either entirely off-trail or on a very poor trail, so navigation skills are definitely needed. The vast majority of those sections follow nice geographical features though (ridges, rivers), so the navigation is pretty straightforward as long as you can orient yourself correctly.

We brought paper maps, but for navigation during the day, we mostly used the GDT app on our phones. In particular, the app was helpful for navigating when the trail followed ATV trails as they are a bit of a maze and for refinding the trail at the edge of meadows.

Resupply Strategy

You don’t really have many options in terms of resupply due to the spacing. Generally, I’d recommend mailing your resupplies; it would be possible to buy as you go, but it would be very pricey (ie >$10 for a bag of chips pricey in some locations).

If we were to do the trail again, I’d probably mail 10-20% less food than we did. Not because we didn’t eat it all, but because we ended up being bored with some items or not liking them as much as we anticipated. We ended up ditching some items and replacing it with food we bought at every resupply.

Some notes on each resupply location:

Waterton – Surprisingly well-stocked store. Make sure to book a spot in the campground.

Coleman – Stay with Alannah and Dan at A Safe Haven! They are really the only trail angels on the GDT. We got three delicious meals a day (and Alannah is amazing about accommodating allergies and dietary restrictions), laundry, driven to Blairmore to pick up supplies, and last but not least, a dry comfy bed for the night. A Safe Haven is also the only place with a hiker box we encountered on the trail.

Peter Lougheed – Minimize your time here if possible. We found hitching to be a lot more difficult than anticipated for a park and also had a negative encounter with an Alberta Parks Conservation Officer who told us hitchhiking was dangerous and quasi-threatened to send the RCMP by to ticket us. It is possible to take a shower at the Boulton Creek Campground if you want even if you don’t camp there; you can buy tokens at the trading post. Visitor Centre wifi is slooow when people are around, but the speed is pretty decent otherwise.

Assiniboine Lodge – Not a resupply location, but definitely try to time your day so you arrive here when they are open (4 – 5pm). They’ve got tea, cake and beer (and cider and wine). Bring cash!

Banff – Stop by Sunshine Village for lunch, but I wouldn’t recommend going into Banff unless you absolutely have to. If you do have to, make reservations beforehand otherwise you are likely to find yourself spending far more than you are comfortable spending on accommodations. Banff is expensive and busy. We ended up having to stay in Banff to do a phone interview and it was honestly the worst part of the hike.

Field – There are laundry and wifi at the Truffle Pig. Don’t expect to find accommodations here unless you’ve made reservations. I know several other hikers recommended hitching to Golden and taking a zero there – the hostel in Golden is apparently quite hiker-friendly.

Crossing Resort – If you plan to buy as you go, the Crossing is the one location you should send a package to. They have a store, but prices are absurd. There are wifi and laundry here, but it is supposed to be only for guests – we did end up staying overnight here, so not sure how well enforced this is.

Maligne Lake Lodge – Another not resupply location, but they’ve got a cafeteria and small store (no wifi) if you want to take a beer and charge your devices break.

Jasper – Favourite non-trail spot of the GDT. Still a bit touristy, but waaaay less so than Banff. If you are solo, you’ll probably be able to find accommodations, but if you are a couple or group, you’ll likely want to book these in advance. The downtown hostel is the nicest hostel I’ve been at with great cooking facilities, laundry and wifi. 

Prince George – You’ll likely need to stay overnight here before catching your transportation home. There are lots of hotels and the bus system is decent for getting around town if you need to.

Permits and Schedule

So booking permits is definitely a hassle – Dan has already written up a great summary about this including a couple sample itineraries, check that out for sure.

Make sure to confirm all the dates and which parks require permits in advance – these tend to change every year. Once you have the dates, book them in your calendar – including the time they open – and make your bookings the second they open.

We did take the approach of booking everything in advance, which worked well for the first part of the trail, but by the end, we were ahead of schedule by a couple of days. I’d highly encourage others to make reservations – many areas aren’t really accommodating to dispersed camping. In particular in Banff National Park, the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, and the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park, the trails are very busy and it is unlikely you will find a spot available if you show up without a reservation.

Regardless of whether you make reservations or not, please pay into the system as much as possible. Buy a Discovery Pass. Donate to the GDTA.

Getting to/from the trail

Getting to Waterton

There used to be a Greyhound bus that went from Calgary to Pincher Creek and then you could hitch from Pincher Creek to Waterton. Greyhound doesn’t operate in Western Canada anymore, so this isn’t an option. Check out the GDT website for most recent updates, but you’re probably in for a long hitch.

Getting from Kakwa

Kakwa Lake is 100km from the highway and 30km from the drivable part of the FSR connecting it to the highway. Unless you have arranged a ride in advance, expect to walk all the way to the highway. We were definitely more optimistic than we should have been about getting a ride early on and we didn’t encounter anyone on the road until we were only ~25km from the highway. It is easy walking and more than doable to do 50km/day and get it done in two days, just be mentally prepared for it.

Final Thoughts

The Great Divide Trail is an amazingly beautiful trail.

Be prepared for the lows to be as low as the highs are high. The highs are so so high, but you’ll also encounter extreme lows when you are stuck walking on a shitty ATV road or bushwhacking through a soggy non-existant trail or crossing the same river for the fifth time that day. The highs do make it all worth it though.

Finish at Kakwa. This is the final exam you’ve been preparing for on the rest of the trail and you are going to nail it.

And finally, to quote one of the first thru-hikers I encountered online, thru-hiking will break your heart.