For most people, hiking to the alpine in Canadian Rockies is an insurmountable cardiovascular barrier best left to the health nuts, but... What if you could start the hike just below treeline? What if you could have mind boggling views within fifteen minutes? What if? Sure, the heart will pound and the legs will whine but even if you only go as far as the first opening, the trail to Wilcox Pass in Jasper National Park rewards all who make the trek. And boy oh boy, do lots of people make this trek. Due to the popularity of this hike the trail has become wide, braided, muddy and rutted and it's getting worse every year. Please do not add to the carnage. Please wear proper boots and gaiters, please walk through the mud and please stay on the main trail... Please.
The weather this close to the Columbia Icefield is very fickle to say the least, sometimes changing frequently throughout the course of a single day. I was once caught at the crest of the pass by a snowstorm in the middle of July so be prepared. Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep are frequently seen feeding along the trail and I've also seen goats and caribou.
The pass itself is wide and very obviously glacier scoured. Standing on the crest it is easy to imagine the great glacier that once straddled this height of land. Low parallel ridges run the length of the pass revealing the direction the ice flowed. Between the ridges a fragile layer of soil supports a myriad of wildflowers that bust to life during the brief two month growing season. Carpets of white globe flowers and anemome lead the charge in late spring, sometimes pushing up through the last of the melting snow. By summer flowers of yellow, red, blue and purple join the fray and create a scene any self-respecting gardener would be envious of.
Nestled in a patch of willow on the edge of Sunwapta Pass the trailhead is quite unassuming by comparison. The trail soon enters an old forest of Engleman Spruce and Subalpine Fir and begins a moderate climb. At the first viewpoint Sunwapta Pass is spread out below you and across the valley is Mt Athabasca. The trail continues to climb through ever diminishing trees and eventually passes above the creek that drains the pass.
Leaving the trees behind, it is another easy 2km to the crest of the pass which is marked by a small sign. The trail is under snow in much of June and is wet through the end of July. As the trail crosses the alpine its condition improves indicating that most hikers don't make it all the way. People become distracted by one thing or another and drift off-trail in the wide open spaces of the pass. If you fall victim to the beauty of Wilcox Pass on a hot summers day please respect the area and limit your impact by spreading out, avoiding wet areas or staying on rock. Return the way you came.
The trail continue across the pass and down Tangle Creek to the Icefields Parkway for a one-way hike of 11km but without a second car most hikers don't complete the journey. If you're at the pass and have the energy, it's worthwhile to push-on 3km to the far edge of Wilcox Pass for a look down Tangle Creek. The trail can be faint but you'll find your way, just stick to the base of Mount Wilcox on the left.
In the 1950's Wilcox Pass, among other areas of Jasper National Park, were used for the shooting of The Far Country starring James Stewart. See also IMDB. Look for the scene where they are driving a herd a cattle over a mountain pass and that's Wilcox. The pass was named for Walter Wilcox who was in the party that made the first recorded trip into the area in 1896.
Jasper National Park produces a free day hiking guide called 'Summer Trails' of this and many other trails in the park, it is available at both the Columbia Icefields Centre and Jasper Information Centre. For maps lovers there are Gemtrek's 'Columbia Icefeild' at 1:75000 or the government topo '83 C/3 Columbia Icefield' at 1:50000. If you intend to cross the pass then you'll also need '83 C/6 Sunwapta Peak', but the current edition does not show the trail down Tangle Creek.
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Posted By: jimpc
- Thu Nov 10 21:01:24 EST 2011
Upsidefew people spectacular views
Downsideif it has been raining the trail is heavy gumbo
Posted By: AlinaGabriela
- Thu May 27 18:25:21 EDT 2010
QuestionComing from Calgary is a 4 hrs drive, would like to do this hike and stay overnight somewhere in the area. Does anyone know some nice affordable accommodation ?
ANSWERS are in this forum: accomodation
Posted By: wildfox
- Mon Jun 30 02:35:25 EDT 2008
UpsideA reliable day trip that offers something new each time. I have hiked it probably about 8 times over the years.
DownsideSometimes crowded, but easy to avoid this by exploring off the beaten (and braided, and sometimes muddy) path.
CommentHiked it today. +32 in Jasper, +23 at the trailhead. A strong breeze under blue skies in the pass - perfect! This time we explored over the ridge to the east and found the hidden lake in a cirque. 4 bighorn rams were very prominent. Parks Canada has recently started to "harden" the trail from the trailhead. Looks like they plan to helicopter in gravel for the soft portions in the alpine. It will be good to repair the damage, but too bad it had to come to this.
Posted By: vpigeon
- Wed Sep 12 00:40:44 EDT 2007
UpsideA beautiful, and easy hike mostly above the tree line, in Jasper NP, just north of the Jasper/Banff NP boundary, approx 2-3 k south of the Columbia Icefields Info centre.
DownsideFar from everywhere, a 2 hr drive from Banff, a 1+ hr drive from Jasper.
CommentDid a day hike, up and down, circled south from the "small sign" at the summit of the pass, went to the ridge overlooking Athabasca Glacier and found geocache # GCGH93, "Wilcox Cap". Saw mountain sheep at 2 locations, not at all aggresive, allowed us to approach to approx 7-8 m to take photos. Highly recommended. Total time 3.5 hours, with lots of doddling.
Posted By: wanderlust
- Tue Jul 25 03:29:46 EDT 2006
UpsideOh so easy access. Endless options once you reach the plateau. Great views of glaciers. Big Horn sheep.
DownsideOh so easy access. Ultra-wide trail in places. Crowded. Draws the same tourists that want to ride a bus across the glacier on the other side of the highway - if you see people trampling meadow flowers to get a better shot of the sheep - say something, willya?
CommentWin-dy. It was 33 degrees at the trailhead, and I had to put a toque on up top. Be prepared. Oh yeah - lovely for sure - NOT the most amazing hike I have ever been on - not even the most amazing hike I was on that week.
Posted By: Kmarshall
- Tue May 09 15:00:18 EDT 2006
UpsideBig Horn Sheep.walking the ocean floor,Beautiful amazing hike. It goes for miles and miles. 360 Degree views of spectacular Mountians. This is a hike not to be missed. Once you do this it will be hard to do other hikes
DownsideNo downside. We went in July 2005 not a sole was around. Amazing views great for walking not stressful great for the dogs they will love you for it.take your camera lots of fossils to photograph along with the the most amazing hike you will ever go one