Elevation Gain (m): 1100
Total Trip Distance (km): 36
One Way Time (hrs): 6.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 1 – you fall, you tripped over your own feet
Difficulty Notes: On-trail hiking and backpacking the entire way from the trailhead to Berg Lake. The difficulty is with a one day push with a full backpack.
GPS Track Download: Download GPX File
Technical Rating: TL2; YDS (Hiking)
Map: Google Maps
Every fall I try to get away for a solo trip to the mountains before work gets crazy for the fall and winter months. In 2012 I spent time finishing up the Nugara scrambles in the Castle Wilderness in southern Alberta but for 2013 I planned something a bit different than a peak bagging excursion. I’ve wanted to see Mount Robson up close and explore around Robson Provincial Park for years already and 2013 was going to be that year for me. The weather wasn’t looking too encouraging at first but eventually it looked like I might manage to squeeze two decent days in between my approach and depproach days so I went ahead with my plans for a 4-5 day trip. My plan was to hike the 21 kilometers to the Berg Lake campground on Tuesday, September 26th. On Wednesday and Thursday I would try to ascend a few of the supposed scrambles in the area and do some hiking. Friday would either be easy hiking with a Saturday exit, or if the weather crapped out I would head out on Friday already.
The first thing I realized as I drove from Calgary to Robson Provincial Park is how far the bloody drive is! It took me over 6 hours before I was finally pulling into the visitor center! Good thing I left at 04:30. There was a lot fresh snow in the mountains and I even had to use 4×4 around the Columbia Icefields due to an icy / snowy highway. The second thing I realized is just how freaking huge Robson is. The peak was mostly covered in clouds but the bulk of the mountain was visible from the visitor center and it looked massive. I could clearly see Little Robson and the Wishbone Arete along with various other routes on the south face. The slopes were all plastered with fresh snow making it look even more foreboding and inaccessible.
The information center folks were friendly enough and told me there were very few bear sightings in the Berg Lake area since June – probably due to the extreme amount of human traffic this area gets in the summer months. There were a few bear sightings in September but no resident bears that they knew of. This was good news as I was traveling solo – but I kept my bear spray out anyway, just in case. I confirmed my suspicion that there would be very few folks camping with me and that there were far fewer visitors in the park than during the summer months – this was a good thing as I was looking for solitude on this trip.
I felt great as I started up the long approach to Berg Lake on the Kinney Lake approach trail. My pack wasn’t light, with 5 days worth of food and supplies, but I’d completed a few grueling trips earlier (Recondite, Willingdon, Fortress Lake) that prepared me well for this outing. I was looking forward to using my new Black Diamond Hi-lite solo tent which doesn’t weight much more than most bivy sacks. A very light rain was falling as I walked the easy first 4km to Kinney Lake through typical BC forest including some pretty impressive Cedar stands and lush undergrowth beside the trail. The first 4km of ‘trail’ are more like a road – literally. Biking the first 6km is a great option, the only reason I didn’t is that my bike is worth a lot of money, and I didn’t like the idea of leaving it for up to 4 days, unprotected from vandals or porcupines.
Hiking along Kinney Lake was an interesting experience. There was a lot more up and down than I was expecting. There are two main frustrating sections to get through. The first is almost right after arriving at the lake when the trail suddenly gains elevation very quickly and steeply. The second isn’t until after the Kinney Lake campground and the bike drop and also gains at least 100 meters vertical before plunging back down to the river flats at the back of the lake! Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re gaining any substantial elevation in the first 7-8km to Berg Lake – because you’re not. This is also why I’ve listed the elevation gain to Berg Lake as 1000 meters and not the stated 800 or so that BC Parks will tell you. There is around 800 meters elevation difference between the start of the trail and Berg Lake, but when you add up all the gains / losses it’s over 1000 meters of total vertical and your legs will feel the difference!
The trail was nice and quiet for the first 7km – only a few day hikers were bothering with the hike to Kinney Lake on this dreary fall day. At the campground I met my first backpacker. He was from around Edmonton and fully decorated in army / camo gear, complete with a giant ax and knives! He was grumbling something about “there’s no route from here to the Dome – I don’t know what the internet was talking about”. Uh oh! This wasn’t sounding very sane so I hurriedly said some polite stuff before hiking quickly up the trail, leaving him behind.
The section of trail from beyond Kinney Lake to the Whitehorn campground and Ranger Station finally gains some real elevation. Fall colors were also more prevalent on this section and I enjoyed the easy uphill hiking and amazing scenery of the valley at the end of the lake. The rain mostly stopped here and I was already getting stunning views of Kinney Lake behind me and the Robson River valley below. Shortly before the Whitehorn campground I crossed the river on an interesting swinging foot bridge. This valley is a very lovely spot for the ranger cabin – I instantly wanted to live there permanently. I met my second group of backpackers at the Whitehorn cook shelter. They looked a bit weary and told me that I was timing it much better than they had. Apparently they didn’t see much of Robson on their 4 day trip and had nothing but snow, rain and sleet at the Berg Lake area. My decision to hike in my giant (but warm) alpine boots and bring long underwear was starting to seem brilliant at this point.
A very pleasant walk through the river flats at the start of the Valley of a Thousand Falls brought me back across the river and and to the first tough section of trail. A sign just across the bridge warned me that the next 4km would be the worst hell of me life. Just kidding! But there was a sign warning that there was no water access for the next 4km and a steep hill to be climbed. At this point I was a bit tired of yellow warning signs (IMHO people should know their own limits and not need all the babysitting warnings that we insist on posting everywhere to cover our butts from lawsuits.) and I largely ignored the sign. Oops.
This 4km wasn’t easy for me. My pack was starting to feel heavy and my boots weren’t the easiest to hike in – they’re giant alpine climbing boots and are warm but NOT comfortable hikers! At least the sun was poking out of the clouds and there were 3 nice waterfall distractions on this section. To be honest, the Valley of a Thousand Falls was much different than I expected. I didn’t expect to be climbing a steep trail most of the way – I expected to be wandering through a valley with waterfalls cascading down walls around me. I’m wondering if normally there are many more falls around the Whitehorn CG river flats but in September a lot of them are dried up? White Falls was very nice, as was the Falls of the Pool. But there was a much bigger falls waiting for me further ahead.
After completing the steep grunt past the Falls of the Pool, I came to a very interesting section of trail. This section was separated from the Robson River by a deep valley. The weird part was that the river didn’t run through the valley bottom, but rather along a channel far above the valley floor on the opposite side from me! As I worked my way up a small, winding trail to the end of the valley, I could see the impressive mass of water known as Emperor Falls crashing down a steep rock wall ahead. Eventually the trail crossed a small wooden bridge and came back around to a sign indicating Emperor Falls to my right and the Berg Lake trail continuing ahead. I dropped my heavy pack and went down the trail to check out Emperor Falls. The falls were impressive, especially with the Emperor Ridge on Robson’s west side towering imposingly high above the raging torrent of water. I took a nice break here, enjoying this very special place all to myself. I love hiking in the off season.
After hydrating at the Emperor campground I continued on the trail as the weather continued to improve. The upper trail before the Marmot CG is very well constructed and offers some incredible views of the Emperor Ridge and face, towering over the Mist Glacier and Robson River. Someone put a lot of work into maintaining the rock retaining wall along the scree slopes on the trail – I was very impressed with this bit of work. As I walked the final few kilometers from the Marmot campground to my destination at Berg Lake, I contemplated about how incredibly lucky I was to be out on my own enjoying this spectacular scenery. I felt a very deep sense of contentment that I always seem to find out in the fresh air of the mountains and away from everyone else. Roughly 6.5 hours after leaving the parking lot I was arriving at the Berg Lake campground and Hargreaves Shelter.
There were only a few (quiet) people at the campground and I set up my tent away from them and near Berg Lake. After a good supper and some nice pics of a clear and amazing Mount Robson I turned into my sleeping bag around 8pm. The air was cold and there were patches of fresh snow on the ground but I didn’t feel any of that in my warm down sleeping bag and was soon oblivious to the world.
After several days in the Berg Lake area, including excursions to Snowbird Pass, Titkana Peak, Tatei Ridge, Mumm Peak, Mumm Basin, The Cave and Toboggan Creek / Falls it was time to return home again. The descent was obviously much easier than the approach was and I was surprised at the amount of elevation loss. Once again, I met very few people which was fantastic.
Over the years since I’ve done this backpacking trip I’ve come to realize just how lucky I was to get such clear conditions and such an empty campground at Berg Lake. Many people have hiked into the area and never even see Robson, never mind get the photos that I managed to capture with sub-par camera equipment. Since this trip, I’ve been back into the area on skis on a great trip with Mike and Ben up Rearguard and Resplendent mountains.