Onion, The (Summer Route)

Summit Elevation (m): 2682
Elevation Gain (m): 730
Round Trip Time (hr): 7
Total Trip Distance (km): 19
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2 – You fall you sprain something as long as you stick to the easiest routes. If you cross “the rock bridge” be prepared for a short moderate scramble with some exposure.
Difficulty Notes:  On and off trail hiking in loose, somewhat exposed terrain depending on route choices.
Technical Rating: TL2, OT4, SC5, RE3
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps

I’ve been up the Bow Canyon towards Crowfoot Mountain and / or the Bow Hut many times on skis over the past few decades. For some reason I’ve never gone up there in the summer – the only time I came close was ascents of Portal Peak and Jimmy Simpson Junior. When the family surprised me by ALL wanting to do a hike on the same day (that hasn’t happened in a decade either) I remembered that Wietse had recently done the hike to Bow Hut with his wife and commented that it was pretty scenic. I decided it was time for me to check out the summer trail and complete it with an ascent of nearby Onion – rumored to have pretty sweet summer views and gaining popularity recently.

The Onion Summer Hike Route Map.

We arrived in an already busy and mostly full Bow Lake parking lot around 09:00 and started hiking around the lake in temperatures just above freezing. As usual the views over Bow Lake to the north end of Crowfoot Mountain and Bow Peak in the distance were stunning. Near the back of the lake we took the rooted trail in forest to avoid getting wet feet along the flats which involves crossing several branches of the inflow creek.

After hiking across some more scenic flats at the back of the lake we approached some steep (and giant) stairs ascending steeply on climber’s right of a short canyon. This canyon is avoided in winter by skiing up and down slopes to the left but in summer you are required to cross it another way if continuing to the Bow Hut. The main trail stays climber’s right and ascends to a bowl under Bow Glacier Falls. A sign points left indicating the trail to Bow Hut deviating off the main one above the stairs. I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by the “boulder bridge” crossing a raging creek far below to access the trail to Bow Hut on the other side. Getting onto the rock involves a slippery move and crossing it to the other side is quite exposed. This is moderate scrambling, especially for people with short legs. It is much safer and easier to follow the main trail towards Bow Glacier Falls and cross the stream upriver of the canyon to join the Bow Hut trail IMHO. (This is what we did on return.)

After the rock bridge crossing the trail remains quite exposed to the canyon before turning south up lefthand slopes above the canyon to Bow Hut. In winter we ski right up the canyon but the summer trail traverses a scenic series of forested benches and rubble slopes high above it.

There was more forest than I expected but also some amazing views over the canyon far below. You might want to be careful with children and / or dogs here as the exposure is quite severe in places and the trail is hardpan dirt and scree and a bit slippery for folks not used to this terrain. 

Eventually we ascended some steep terrain and found ourselves looking over the cirque under the Bow Hut and Vulture Glacier that leads between lateral moraines to the back of the valley and grants access to the Bow Hut and Wapta Glacier. The main trail was hard to follow simply due to the amount of smaller trails and number of cairns through the rubble. Generally stick left and higher than you’d expect and you’re likely on the right trail. Aim for the back right of the valley if all else fails – this is what we did on ascent and eventually ended up on the highway trail.

Near the end of the cirque the trail turns climber’s right up a series of very steep moraines to access the Bow Hut. If you’re not on a very obvious trail you should look for it – it’s worth following up this loose terrain. So far we’d kept our feet dry and just barely kept them that way crossing a lively stream just under the hut. Workers were adding a porch onto the hallway of the Bow Hut as we passed by on our way towards the glacier which was still out of sight at this point. We ascended – still on an obvious trail – above hut, under the Onion and towards the headwall of the anemic looking glacier.

Above the Bow Hut we continue on trail. The trail ends near the glacier ahead and follows just climber’s right of it. The Onion visible at upper right, St. Nich at left. The headwall of the glacier is rapidly shrinking.

One above the Bow Hut and approaching the rapidly retreating glacier the trail dropped off until we were hiking on very loose rubble on very not-loose slab. This is where the hiking turns into scrambling. The terrain was extremely friable next to the ice but this is where the angle is easiest. A group of young folks scrambled fun looking slab up steeper slopes but we stayed as easy as possible, hiking under an ice shelf before turning up more gently angled staircase slabs towards the peak.

After a short bit of easy scrambling up debris covered slab we ascended a short scree slope and started the long, gentle ascent to the huge summit cairn and wicked views in every direction. Views over Bow Glacier Lake and back over the Wapta Icefield were incredible. I can see why this is becoming such a popular hike – there were at least 2 dozen other parties ascending it while we were there.

Views to the Wapta Icefield from Gordon (L) to Collie, Rhondda, Habel, Baker, Mount Thompson and Portal Peak (R).
Views over Bow Falls Lake and Bow Lake include (L to R), Rhondda, Habel, Baker, Thompson, Portal, Jimmy Simpson, Observation and Crowfoot Mountain (R).

After a nice long break at the summit we turned back. I was surprised how many people were still ascending the peak as we slowly worked our way down slippery rubble covered slabs back along the glacier. I’m cautioning you that although Aunt Edna might be happy about most of this hike she won’t love all of it. The boulder bridge and the debris covered terrain near the glacier will make her somewhat more grumpy than usual. I recommend some classy boxed wine with crackers and cheese for lunch at the summit to brighten her mood a bit. (That may not help her balance on the descent though!)

Hiking back down from the recently glaciated terrain climber’s right of the glacier. The trail picks up near here again.

We descended past the hut and could no longer easily keep our feet dry across the stream. There was definitely increased flow from the warm afternoon melting the glacier above. The hike out of the canyon went well and instead of crossing the rock bridge we chose to cross the stream and join the main Bow Glacier Falls trail instead. Obviously we got wet feet but it felt good in the warm afternoon sun. The stream was pretty feisty!

Hiking back along a busy Bow Lake was very pleasant in late afternoon breezes but driving the parkway was decidedly less pleasant with a LOT of folks seemingly unconcerned about 90 kph traffic and their own agendas… Oh well. It’s the price we pay to enjoy the Rockies in a post-pandemic world within a few hours of a city the size of Calgary. It was nice to see so many folks out enjoying a beautiful late summer day. Bow Lake has gotten more and more popular as a summer destination – likely overflow from a way-too-busy Lake Louise area. It deserves the attention but for those who want a little more peace and quiet with a lot more views, The Onion is a great escape.

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