In 2015, a friend of mine and I vowed to go through all the “three and four boot” (rating system of scenic proportions) hikes in the Canadian Rockies guidebook: Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies. To that end, I selected a Mount Assiniboine backpacking trip as one I would venture in 2016. Conventional routes to Mount Assiniboine were uninspiring; on the other hand, stealthily trekking into the popular destination and retreating out the back way greatly appealed to me. I consulted my maps, and directly South of Mount Assiniboine lies an obscure trailhead in the Kootenay Land District: Marvel Pass Trail.
Mount Assiniboine Backpacking Trip Review
Planning and Preparation
The planning required to do the Mount Assiniboine Valley in British Columbia, Canada, includes: getting a map, booking required campsites or shelters, purchasing two backcountry permits, checking bear and weather reports and arranging transport to and from the trailhead.
“Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood”
Research suggests there are two main routes to Mount Assiniboine. First, a bus from Canmore, Alberta or Banff, Alberta, can transport backpackers to Sunshine Ski Area. From Sunshine Ski Area, a relative southward trek leads to Mount Assiniboine. Trekkers can return from whence they came, or alternately, hike onward to Mount Shark Trailhead and plan a shuttle back to their vehicle or Sunshine. Additionally, backpackers with extensive travel budgets can book a helicopter ride to (or from) Assiniboine Lodge to Mount Shark Trailhead or Canmore Alpine Helipad. As can be expected with a serviced route, the Sunshine route to Mount Assiniboine is well-maintained and occupied.
You can reverse the path. Backpackers may choose to start from Mount Shark and hike (or fly) to Mount Assiniboine Lodge. The North-Westerly route follows popular Bryant Creek Trail. Horses share it. For a short time, mountain bikes share the path. Bryant Creek Trail is busy and well-traveled.
Additionally, I found one reference to an Eastern route through Marvel Pass to Owl Lake in one of the oldest and most exhaustive guidebooks for the area. Despite Google searches and consulting half a dozen guidebooks for the area, I cannot find any accounts of travel on the Northeast route through Marvel Pass to Wonder Pass. You locate the route in The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide (where I found the Northeastern route reference) and on the Banff and Mt. Assiniboine Gem Trek topographical map, except to acknowledge the existence of Marvel, I have found few detailed references. My curiosity piqued.
“I Took the Road Less Traveled by”
I reviewed the features of each trail, contrary to common sense, selected the most remote route. A day-hike ends at Aurora Lake, but Marvel Pass continues, diverging and intersecting with Banff National Park’s Bryant Creek Trail and or Wonder Pass and leads into Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park.
Little information exists about my route into and out of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. Almost no information was available online about Marvel Pass Trail beyond Aurora Lake. After Aurora Lake, the trail diverges around Marvel Peak: one route following Marvel Pass to Wonder Pass and the other following Owl Creek to Owl Lake.
I planned on traveling into Mount Assiniboine via Owl Lake and out via Wonder Pass. I consulted some other locals I know: most hadn’t even heard of the route, a couple had heard of it but never done it and those who had done it hadn’t done it some years. One of my neighbors had traveled the area extensively on skis in his younger years and knew there was an old route used by bear hunters. His fatherly concern about the bears caused me to pause. I had no updated trail reports, but I did have decade old tales of incredible sights and warnings of possible dead-fall, washouts, and grizzly bears.
One of my best friends has opted to accompany me on almost every week long trip I take this year. He’s a good sport and an exceptional trail-mate. I say: “mountains” and he shows up wearing a pack with a camera in hand.
This particular trip, he is proving he is a glutton for punishment. I asked:
Hey, I’m backpacking Mount Assiniboine, want to come? Wait…. Before you say yes: I have no idea if there is still a trail on the route I chose and oh… it’s a grizzly bear habitat.
He didn’t even bat an eyelash. All I had to promise were a few decent trail meals. Poor guy: I plan meals, and he carries the heaviest equipment through grizzly habitat and all for an opportunity to do a bucket list hike.
Banff National Park and BC Parks require Backcountry Permits to stay at Marvel Lake Campground and to enter and stay in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. I will be driving through Banff National Park, but I will not require a Canadian National Parks Pass because I will not be stopping in a National Park on route to Kootenay Land Use Area. My trailhead rests on Crown Land, no passes or permits for camping or having my vehicle are required.
I can drive to my trailhead in about six hours. On the other hand, my trailhead rests at the end of a poorly maintained mining road. Unlike the conventional route, there is no “trail bus” to the trailhead. A truck or high clearance SUV becomes necessary as the road is rough and poorly maintained.
I could complete this trip by booking various lodges or huts (used primarily for hunting and fishing). Not carrying any shelter system would lighten my load. Be that as it may, I am content in my Nemo Equipment Blaze 2P. Shelters are an excellent option during inclement weather or backcountry ski and snowshoe season. Some campsites in the area are free (Porcupine and Mitchell Meadows Campgrounds). I needed cash for other campsites (Og Lake and Lake Magog) but no reservations. Other sites require reservations and a fee (any of the Bryant Creek Campgrounds). For my purposes, I planned to bypass the lodges and huts but needed to book a campsite at Marvel Lake.
Other Travel Options
Other options to enter Mount Assiniboine via helicopter, mountain bike or horse to portions of the park is possible with permits and bookings. Not all trails are accessible via alternate travel methods.
Regulations permit hunting, fishing, and horseback riding in some areas with proper licenses and equipment.
This particular trip comes with some equipment challenges. In addition to gear testing, I have a triad of unique considerations: bears, navigation, and crossings.
All Things Gear
I’m testing several pieces of gear this trip. I’ve played with each piece but haven’t relied on them yet. The gear in test mode includes:
1. Garmin eTrex Vista HCx
I picked this used GPS up from a member of the local mountaineering club, and I snagged the Garmin All Canada GPS Maps on Amazon. This route seems an acceptable spot to try the GPS, and the topography of the area makes it truly unnecessary.
I’m doing a review on the Purple Rain Adventure Skirt, and the main concern folks had using skirts were brambles and mosquitoes. In other words, I can’t think of a more appropriate trip to test and confirm or deny if nettles and mosquitoes are as terrible as imagined.
Nemo Equipment sent me an ultralight tent to review at the beginning of the season. I’ve slept in the Nemo Equipment Blaze 2P in my backyard once and am ready to test it out on the trail. Mosquitoes will be vicious in this area; a fully enclosed tent is an appropriate choice.
I received this quilt at the beginning of the season and have completed a couple of car camping trips with it, but this will be its first backpacking trip. It may be slightly warmer than necessary, but the passes can be cold and unforgiving in any season, and I want to test it out in the worst way. Stay tuned for my Performance Review later in the year.
5. Girls XL Free Country Power Down Vest
Costco had a special on kids’ down vests. I am small enough I can wear kids’ clothes, and I bought this vest for $22. Notably, the vest is filled with duck down, is made with 7 denier polyester fabrics with polyester stretch side panels, a zip front, two slash zip pockets and two internal patch pockets. Giving my $22 vest a whirl is exciting.
Bears and Scares, Oh My….
Bear are a primary concern and particularly grizzly bears. 2016 has been an active year for bears. February started with black bear waking up a month and a half early, and March began with grizzlies waking up two weeks early. Bear No. 122 awoke. First, he’s big, bad and famous for eating a black bear. His range, of one thousand square kilometers, includes Mount Assiniboine, and humans have sighted him within forty kilometers of my route.
Three weeks before my trip, a park-wide bear warning was issued by nearby Kananaskis Provincial Park. Two bear attacks in two days made me nervous about my route through a creek bottom filled with buffalo berries. Reading the news stories, I could see the bears were not completely at fault. Human flight reactions may have intensified the bears’ defensive behavior into attacks, and the quick use of pepper spray minimized damages. Intellectually, this makes me feel better. Practically, I’m concerned my flight reaction might kick in, despite knowing better.
I am not counting grams and ounces on bear safety equipment this bear season. Through seldom traveled, my route is prime berry grazing. Passing through creek beds dictates proper management of the predator situation. I hold bears in the highest respect, but am fully aware how much damage large animals can do.
Bear Kit Content
- bear bell
- pen launcher
- banger cartridges
- bear spray
- bear bagging kit
Also, an iPhone to sing along with, a whistle and a Spot GPS Locator are in my kit. The kit remains overstocked, but I feel I have little other recourse.
Marvel Pass Trail has one fork. A straight northward shot at Aurora Lake leads to well-traveled Wonder Pass. Conversely, a meandering North East shot on the Eastern facing slope of Marvel Peak following Owl Creek leads to the established Bryant Creek trail. I will take my Spot GPS locator beacon on this unreported route. The Marvel Pass Trail is an ideal location to test a GPS.
This trail follows the floodplain of several creeks and tributaries, and topography suggests soggy footed terrain. As a matter of fact, in the first ten miles (17 km) there are at least nine water crossings. Courses of tributaries and creeks may have changed after the 2013 and 2015 flooding of the area. I could not find any updated maps of the streams or tributaries.
Marvel Pass Trail to Mount Assiniboine: Part 2
In the next installment in this series, Emylene starts her journey. Continue on to begin reading the trip journal and expedition report!