Summit Elevation (m): 2590
Trip Date: October 7, 2023
Elevation Gain (m): 1600
Round Trip Time (hrs): 7
Total Trip Distance (km): 25
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2 – You fall you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Everything is very easy courtesy a good trail to the pass and easy slopes from there. The only fly in the ointment is the considerable amount of height loss on approach – necessitating over 400 meters of height gain on return.
Technical Rating: OT3; RE3
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
In 2019 I ventured up Gibbon Pass Peak on backcountry skis and despite experiencing a wonderful winter day with good friends, I always wanted to return to the area in warmer conditions. Over the past few years – since C19 took over the world – hiking and larch season have exploded in the Rockies largely due to Social Media influence and good ol’ fashioned FOMO. Several friends had posted photos from the Gibbon Pass area, prompting me to put it on the “larch march” list and I waited for an opportune time. After scrambling to the summit of Vista Peak the day before, I decided that despite larches in the area being past their prime I would return on October 7th for a solo hike to check things out and get some exercise and fresh air.
The weather forecast for the Thanksgiving weekend was unbelievably good so I decided to be one of the first at the busy real estate challenged Vista / Arnica Lake parking lot on Saturday, October 7th. I pulled into the lot just as a group of 3 was leaving at around 08:00. There was only one other car in the lot besides theirs so I assumed I was behind two parties as I began my descent to Vista Lake in brisk mountain air. Yes – this hike starts with 100 meters of height loss to the first lake. I wonder how many folks forget this at the end of their day?
It didn’t take long to reach the first lakeshore of the day. It was in deep shadow thanks to Vista Peak looming overhead but the views were respectable. Vista Lake is too low for larches, however, so I didn’t linger. It was deathly quiet at this early hour and I relished the stillness of the day as I continued past the lake and started a long ascent to Arnica Lake.
The trail to Arnica Lake started off wide and clean and low angled but quickly steepened, narrowed and roughened up a bit. As it climbed it wound its way through a tight forest of low pine trees – likely the effects of an old wildfire. I passed two groups of hikers on this stretch and soon I was on my own again – silence again washing over me.
I’m not sure why but I think due to the recent grizzly tragedy in Banff, but I was on edge more than usual this particular day and felt quite alone as the trail finally eased off and I approached my second lake of the day. As I stood on the quiet lakeshore in brilliant morning sunshine I wondered at my love and tendency to be solo in the mountains, and mused on why solo hiking and scrambling is seen as relatively “safe” and “normal”, while solo rock climbing is seen as “extreme” and “dangerous”. To me the two are very similar for the same basic reason. When solo adventuring there is absolutely NO room for anything unexpected to happen, especially anything that can render the soloist unresponsive. Obviously the rock climber can’t even slip without dying but even a scrambler can’t slip in many zones. The mountains are chock-full of tripping hazards, objective overhead hazards and wild animals – all of which can very quickly and very easily render a soloist unresponsive and unable to call in their own rescue. Food for thought.
The larches dotting the hills around Arnica Lake were looking well past their prime but the day was beautiful and quickly warming as I continued to hike up the trail past the silent backcountry lake. Yes – the trail continues uphill past the lake and soon I was slipping and sliding around on half-frozen snow and muck to a high pass between Arnica and the Upper Twin Lake.
I knew I had to lose roughly 400 meters on the first half of my day but I didn’t know exactly how or when until I crested the pass above Arnica Lake. Then everything became glaringly obvious. From the pass I could see a massive drop and rise to a still-distant Gibbon Pass and realized that ironically I’d be losing several hundred meters to “Upper” Twin Lake – it’s only upper if you come from the lower one – not from where I currently found myself standing! Ah well. There wasn’t much to do but start trudging downhill, so that’s what I did. At least the south facing downhill portion of the trail was dry.
Upper Twin Lake was just as still as Arnica had been but there were voices drifting towards me from the nearby campground. Apparently folks were taking advantage of a gorgeous Thanksgiving long weekend and were extending their backpacking season as long as possible. I don’t blame them but they must have had a very chilly night! Obviously I expected to continue losing height from the upper to the lower Twin Lake and that’s the way things went. The lower lake was quite close to the upper one and marked the end of height losses on the approach. One annoying thing about the lower lake was getting to it off the main trail which involved some bog dancing. Let’s just say that I don’t dance well and ended up with a booter on the way. One non-annoying thing about the lower lake is that there was a very scenic waterfall coming down from Storm Mountain into the lake on its far side that I will go back to check out some day.
From the lower Twin Lake I continued up a narrow trail leading to Gibbon Pass. This was the most rustic part of the trail and although it’s obviously well travel and somewhat maintained, there were sections with fallen trees and near-washouts that kept me on my toes. As I ascended I also slowly entered back into larch elevations and before long I was finally hiking through a stunning larch forest that would have been amazing a week earlier if it hadn’t been a full-on blizzard then.
I continued to gain height on a carpet of golden needles. The snow was turned orange by the sheer amount of shedding from the forest around me and the sun glowed a strange warm color through the trees, casting a mysterious atmosphere over the winding trail. Finally the trail eased off its angle as I neared the pass.
Gibbon Pass didn’t disappoint despite the fact that the larches were well past their prime. Blue skies, brilliant sunshine, soaring snow covered peaks and no wind combined to make the long approach almost worth the effort. After a short water break I decided to wander up to the summit, another few hundred vertical meters east of the pass. There was a track on Gaia that I could have looked for but I didn’t bother, heading up slopes more directly from where I was.
Travel was easy through a light larch forest and soon I was on even easier rubble slopes with incredible views back down to the pass and Mount Ball looming over Shadow Lake. The bright sunshine hid the fact that many of the larches were 75% bare.
It didn’t take long and I was approaching the upper summit ridge, now on an obvious trail in the scree coming from below. Apparently this is an extremely popular peak with Ephraim’s large summit register overflowing with entries. On this particular day, however, it was just me sitting on the summit taking in the views – much different than the last time I was here!
After 20 or 30 minutes at the summit enjoying the peace and quiet of a perfect fall day it was time to start the long journey back. I could hear voices drifting up the east slopes from Gibbon Pass but bypassed the owners somehow on my descent. As I dropped to Lower Twin Lake I met some trail runners and some backpackers. From Lower Twin Lake I gained ~100 meters to the upper lake before gaining another ~200 meters to the pass above Arnica.
I continued to run into hikers and as I descended to Vista Lake from Arnica Lake I ran into quite a few late-day hikers grunting their way up the steep, narrow trail. As expected there were quite a few folks at Vista Lake – not really worth the “hike” to just go there IMHO but I admit I’m spoiled when it comes to seeing beautiful backcountry lakes. The final ascent up another 100 meters of gain to the parking lot was very easy thanks to the wide, gently angled trail. I enjoyed this hike quite a bit. It’s very similar to something like Healy Pass / Egypt Lakes or the Skoki Lakes area but much shorter. I’ll admit that I was a wee bit disappointed in the lack of larches almost the entire way until just below Gibbon Pass but this isn’t unlike many other larch marches in the Rockies. If you are a fit hiker and don’t mind a 25km day with over 1600 meters of gain, than this trip is definitely for you. I would time it a week better than I did to catch the larches at their prime but this is always a bit of a “hit-and-miss” game.