Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Plateau Point (Bright Angel Trail)

Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon's Granite Gorge below Plateau Point, Tower of Set in the distance
12 miles round trip, 3250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; uphill on return, possibility of searing temperatures and dehydration
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Grand Canyon National Park entrance fee required

Plateau Point is a hair-raising viewpoint in the heart of the Grand Canyon, situated directly above the Colorado River beneath the towering spires of the canyon's soaring temples and buttes. Reaching Plateau Point involves a hike down the Bright Angel Trail from the canyon's South Rim, an extraordinary hike that delivers the perspective necessary to comprehend the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. This hike is a remarkable way- simultaneously intimate and grand- to experience one of the planet's geological wonders.

Hiking into the Grand Canyon is a strenuous physical activity. If you're not a regular hiker, you should exercise extreme caution in picking your destination in the canyon. The descent into the canyon can be deceptively easy and mask the difficulty of hiking up from the canyon; each year, Grand Canyon National Park mounts hundreds of rescues to bring out hikers who descend too far and struggle to return to the Rim. Choosing to hike deep into the canyon without having a good gauge of one's physical abilities is the height of irresponsibility and can endanger your life. Casual day hikers can consider hiking down and back from the Mile-and-a-half Rest House but the hike to Plateau Point should only be attempted by experienced and fit hikers. If you've never hiked a trail as long as 12 miles round trip with over 3000 feet of elevation gain, this should not be the first place you attempt to do so.

Additionally, the National Park Service emphasizes that the round trip down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River is not a day hike. I didn't attempt to go all the way down to the river, but based on my experience with Plateau Point, I will say that I think it is plausibly doable for very fit hikers; if you have to wonder about whether or not you can do it, you probably shouldn't.

During summer, heat is an extreme hazard at the Grand Canyon. Temperatures are much warmer in the lower elevations of the inner canyon than at the rim and there's very little shade in the canyon itself. During winter, daylight hours are short and ice and snow may often cover the upper portions of the trail, making traction devices such as Yaktrax or microspikes a necessity. Additionally, potable water sources at One-and-a-half Mile Rest House and Three Mile Rest House are turned off for the winter. Check with the National Park Service on conditions before you hike.

As this hike description will mainly describe my hike out to Plateau Point, you can gain an idea of the difficulty of ascents on the return based on descriptions of the grade of descent on the way down. Overall, you should expect constant ascending grades from Indian Garden back to the Rim.

I hiked the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point during a brief January visit to the Grand Canyon. I parked at the Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village and walked slightly west along the rim from the lodge past Lookout and Kolb Studios to reach the trailhead of the Bright Angel Trail, next to a mule pen.

The trail made a short switchback as it began dropping downhill before joining up with a spur trail that led up to Kolb Studio. From here, the trail continued to descend, making a long switchback through the Kaibab Limestone that formed the top layer of the many sedimentary layers of the Grand Canyon. The trail passed through a small tunnel blasted through a fin of Kaibab Limestone as it followed a path blasted out into the rock cliff face. The slopes were almost continuously open, allowing for great views out into the canyon.

Grand Canyon from atop the Bright Angel Trail
The Grand Canyon is a incredible record of geological history. The hike down the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point starts in limestone laid in the Permian Period, about 250 million years ago, and cuts down to sandstone laid in the Cambrian Period, over 500 million years ago. Each intervening sedimentary layer has been almost perfectly preserved in position during the uplift of the Colorado Plateau. The layers passed along this trail, in descending order, are the thick cliff-forming Kaibab Limestone; the thin, slope-forming Toroweap Formation; the thick, cream-colored cliff-forming Coconino Sandstone, one of the most impressive formations in the canyon; the slope-forming red Hermit Formation; the multi-layered and generally sloping red Supai Group that is topped by a thinner cliff-forming unit, the Esplanade Sandstone; the thick and sheer cliffs of the Redwall Limestone; and the Tonto Group, of which the bottom-most layer is the hard and erosion-resistant Tapeats Sandstone, which forms the flat Tonto Platform in the inner canyon. Below the Tapeats Sandstone is the Great Unconformity, marking an over 1 billion year shift in the geological record to the ancient Vishnu Schist that forms the basement of the Grand Canyon.

Descending into the Grand Canyon is a difficult proposition because of the many cliff-forming sedimentary layers in the canyon walls. The Bright Angel Trail tackles the three major cliff-forming units- the Kaibab, the Coconino, and the Redwall- by taking advantages of layer mismatches resulting from a small fault. The trail is thus able to minimize the amount of time traversing blasted cliff faces by constantly switching sides of the fault to maximize time spent in slope-forming layers.

After switchbacking through the Kaibab and the Toroweap Formations, the trail descended into the Coconino Formation. For a brief stretch, the trail was cut directly into a cliff of Coconino Sandstone and included a section in which a tunnel had been blasted through this towering sandstone.

Tunnel on the Bright Angel Trail blasted through Coconino Sandstone
From the rim, it is difficult to appreciate the true magnitude of the Grand Canyon. Hiking through the Coconino Sandstone with its five hundred-foot tall cliffs finally makes clear the canyon's extraordinary size. Rim views are deceiving: our brains are unable to process sights such as the Grand Canyon and viewing the canyon from above may give the whole scene a surreal and almost toy-like feel. Yet being in the canyon and seeing the Coconino Sandstone tower hundreds of feet overhead, dwarfing other hikers, one starts to comprehend the size of it all. I felt the same wonder that Coronado's men must have felt when they became the first Europeans to descend into the canyon and realized that large rocks they had thought to be the size of men were actually as tall as the greatest towers and domes of Europe.

The Coconino Sandstone of the Grand Canyon
After cutting through the Coconino Sandstone, the trail began to head north as it descended into the Hermit Formation. Here, I came to the Mile-and-a-half Rest House, a small shelter with a nearby restroom. As the name suggested, this shelter was a mile and a half down the Bright Angel Trail from the rim, marking one quarter of the way out to Plateau Point. In summer, there is potable water at the resthouse; in winter, the water is turned off to prevent pipes from freezing. For most dayhikers, this is an excellent point at which to turn around and return to the rim; it's already 1000 feet lower in elevation from the canyon rim.

Mile-and-a-half Rest House
Past the Mile-and-a-half Rest House, the trail continued its steady descent, soon entering into the Supai Group, a set of largely slope-forming layers that are a beautiful red color, one of the principal sources of the canyon's broad palette. While hiking through the Supai Group, I encountered a mule team descending the trail towards Phantom Ranch. Mules have been one of the most reliable ways to move people and supplies up and down through the canyon.

Mules descending into the canyon
The Bright Angel Trail is today built atop former Havasupai paths into the canyon, which were widened by Ralph Henry Cameron, a European American prospector who staked a land claim at the canyon rim. While Cameron was initially interested in the canyon as a source of mineral wealth, he soon came to see tourism as a lucrative endeavor. Cameron widened the Bright Angel Trail and began charging early visitors tolls to hike down into the canyon. Cameron vigorously opposed the establishment of a national park at the Grand Canyon due to the potential revenue it could generate in private hands through tourism and resource extraction. The opposition of Cameron and other local settlers delayed the passage of a national park bill on the Grand Canyon in Congress; although the park was first proposed by Benjamin Harrison in 1882, it was not until 1919 that Congress finally established Grand Canyon National Park. The backbone of park opposition was only finally weakened when Theodore Roosevelt established Grand Canyon National Monument using the Antiquities Act at the end of this second term. Without the strong executive power granted by the act that allowed Roosevelt to unilaterally move to protect the Grand Canyon, it's unclear whether the Grand Canyon would be preserved in the condition we see today.

The Supai layers were thick and took most of 1.5 miles to hike through. After the trail had cut down through most of the Supai Group by switchbacks, it came to the Three Mile Rest House, which was 3 miles down from the rim as the name suggests. Here, there was once again a shelter and a restroom; a thermometer at the rest house allows summer visitors to gauge the heat in the canyon. Three Mile Rest House is just over 2000 feet downhill from the rim; only fit hikers should continue past this point.

Three Mile Rest House
Past Three Mile Rest House, the trail descended into the Redwall Limestone, a towering, dark red cliff-forming formation. The trail negotiated this descent with a set of extremely tight switchbacks, packed onto the narrow slopes of the canyon. Whereas most hikers on the upper portions of the trail had been day hikers, most of the hikers I encountered from here on were backpackers coming up from the river.

Switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail in the Redwall Limestone
At the bottom of the Redwall Limestone, the trail reached the gentler slopes of the Tonto Group. With the steepest part of the descent behind me, I continued gently downhill through the slopes of Muav Limestone. At this point, trailside vegetation had changed completely from what it had been at the rim. While the hike started amongst ponderosa pine and junipers, here I hiked alongside catclaw, prickly pear, and Mormon Tea, plants more common to the low elevations of the Sonoran Desert than to the highlands of the Colorado Plateau.

Looking up, the cliff-forming layers of the canyon walls towered one above the other. The Kaibab and Coconino Formations, which had appeared so majestic when I had descended through them, were now far enough away that I no longer had a good sense of their size; it amazed me that this canyon could make even the mightiest cliffs seem diminished.

Kaibab, Coconino, and Redwall Formations viewed from the inner canyon
4.5 miles from the trailhead, I came to Indian Garden, an oasis in this desert canyon. At Indian Garden, the nonporous underlying Bright Angel Shale forces groundwater to the surface. Surface water supports a grove of cottonwoods, a lush patch in an otherwise dry landscape. The Indian Garden area was actually quite developed, with water pumping stations, a ranger station, restrooms, year-round potable water, and a backpackers' campground. The cottonwood trees at Indian Garden still clung onto a few autumn leaves, allowing me to see desert fall foliage in January.

Cottonwoods of Indian Garden
Indian Garden marked the end of significant descent into the canyon; the remainder of the trail to Plateau Point was mostly flat, with only slight ascents and descents. At the far end of the Indian Garden area, just past the restrooms and water fountains, the Bright Angel Trail came to an intersection with the Tonto Trail West. Here, I left the Bright Angel Trail, instead taking the left fork towards the Tonto Trail and Plateau Point. While the Bright Angel Trail continued descending towards Phantom Ranch, the Plateau Point route instead stayed on the Tonto Platform.

The Tonto Trail crossed a stream and then entered the desert slopes of the Tonto Platform. Ahead, views of the inner canyon opened up as I finally hiked out of the side canyon to which the Bright Angel Trail had been confined. After hiking all morning in the shadows of the canyon, I now finally entered the sun.

Leaving Indian Garden on the Tonto Trail
About three-quarters of a mile out from Indian Garden, the Tonto Trail split from the Plateau Point Trail; I stayed to the right at this junction to continue out towards Plateau Point. Plateau Point's name comes from its position on a particularly flat section of the Tonto Platform in the inner canyon. This plateau is formed due to erosion-resistant nature of the underlying Tapeats Sandstone, which forms the base layer of the Colorado Plateau's many sedimentary layers.

Agave and desert vegetation populate the inner canyon on the Tonto Platform
Out on the Tonto Platform, the trail was flat and dry, surrounded by catclaw, prickly pear, and agave. Great cliffs rose on all sides: the Battleship, the Tower of Set, Cheops Pyramid, Isis Temple, Buddha Temple, Brahma Temple, and Zoroaster Temple were just some of the soaring buttes that filled the view. Looking back towards the South Rim, I could now spot the distinct promontories of Hopi Point, Yavapai Point, and Yaki Point. Indian Garden was also visible, a lone clump of trees at the bottom of a wash.

Looking back from the Tonto Platform towards Indian Garden
A mile and a half past Indian Garden- six miles from the trailhead- I found myself at the edge of a cliff, high above the Colorado River. Above me soared the grandest buttes and temples, shaped into spires by five million years of erosion. Below, the Colorado River- mighty, raging, and ever-patient- continued to cut though Granite Gorge, eating away at the Earth's crust as it eagerly charged towards its final resting place in the Sea of Cortez. The raw cut of the Vishnu Schist below Plateau Point was a stark contrast with the clean layers of sedimentary rock that composed the upper reaches of the canyon. The power of the Colorado River, the magnitude of what water can do given time, was sublime and terrifying.

The Colorado River flows though Granite Gorge beneath Buddha, Brahma, and Zoroaster Temples
As I gazed out into the abyss from Plateau Point, I saw a number of rafts make their way through churning rapids on the Colorado in Granite Gorge.

Rafts in Granite Gorge on the Colorado River
I arrived at Plateau Point in the middle of the day; although I initially saw few other hikers, by the time I left a steady stream of hikers was arriving. Still, the crowds here were thin compared to those at the rim or higher up on the trail. Squirrels at the point were remarkably bold, making repeated raids into the backpacks of many hikers; don't leave your gear alone when you're here.

Standing 1500 feet above the Colorado River, deep in the heart of the Grand Canyon raised some complex emotions for me. The scene was undeniably beautiful, but also inspired some feeling of fear and awe at the magnitude and rawness of the canyon. You'll have to make it out to Plateau Point to experience it for yourself.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Weverton Cliff

The Potomac River cuts water gaps through the Blue Ridge below Weverton Cliff
9 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park parking fee required (Federal lands pass valid)

Weverton Cliff provides a sweeping overview of the water gaps cut by the Potomac River as it traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains. This hike is an opportunity to hike in two states with a view of a third and includes the only overlapping stretch of two of America's most famed routes, the Appalachian Trail and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. If you love history and natural scenery equally, here's one place where you won't have to choose one at the expense of the others: the great river views of this hike occur along one of the most historically critical landscapes of this nation. It's possible to make a shorter hike to Weverton Cliff by starting at a closer trailhead in Maryland, but I recommend hiking the route described here from Harpers Ferry to fully appreciate this land and its history.

I hiked this trail with my family on a cold winter day; high temperatures that would only be in the 20s didn't dissuade us from embarking on our annual Christmastime hike. We drove to Harpers Ferry from Fredericksburg; most hikers will probably visit from the DC metro area and will find the fasest route to be taking I-270 to Frederick, merging onto I-70 west briefly, and then taking US 340 west towards Harpers Ferry. After crossing the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers on US 340 heading west, we turned onto Union St and followed it until reaching Washington St, where we turned right and descended into Harpers Ferry. In the lower town, we made a left turn onto Shenandoah St and then a left again onto Potomac St to come to the train station, where we parked to start the hike.

From the train station, we followed an elevated path along abandoned railroad tracks towards the east. A grassy field below marked the former site of the United States Armory. George Washington selected Harpers Ferry to host the nation's second armory, which produced weapons from the Jefferson Administration through the end of the Civil War. Harpers Ferry was chosen in part for its ample hydropower that came from the rapids of the Potomac.

In 1859, events at the US Armory in Harpers Ferry became the spark that set off the American Civil War. Located at the time in the state of Virginia- West Virginia had yet to secede from its eastern neighbor- Harpers Ferry had a large store of armaments and was not far from the plantations of antebellum Virginia. Infuriated by the creep of slavery into newly-admitted western states, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Dred Scott Decision, and recognizing the common humanity of people regardless of race, abolitionist John Brown chose Harpers Ferry as his target for a large-scale slave rebellion. Hoping to spark a widespread uprising of slaves against their masters, or perhaps even to precipitate a war, Brown assembled a small contingent of fighters to seize control of the armory. They believed that as news from their revolt spread throughout the countryside, slaves would join them at Harpers Ferry and together, they would be able to march south and deliver emancipation. Their plan failed: after successfully raiding the armory, few recruits joined them. The raid was crushed by a contingent of Marines led by Robert E. Lee and Brown was captured. A little over a month later, Brown was hung, but not before delivering a soon-fulfilled prophecy: "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." Twelve months later, South Carolina seceded from the Union.

John Brown's Fort, a fire engine house in which Brown made his last stand in his standoff against Lee's Marines, is one of the few remaining structures from the raid. The building has been moved since the raid, but the materials of the building remain those of the building in which Brown was apprehended. The Armory was dismantled after heavy damage during the Civil War and the armory site has been long abandoned.

John Brown's Fort at Harpers Ferry
John Brown remains one of the most controversial figures in American history, barely less divisive today than he was in the autumn of 1859. His ardent belief in abolition and his willingness to sacrifice his life for the cause made him a martyr to Northern abolitionists; Union soldiers marching into battle sang "John Brown's Body," a song that commemorated him. Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, upon Brown's hanging, that Brown would "make the gallows as glorious as the cross." To many white Southerners, John Brown was a terrorist. The widespread endorsement of Brown's actions in the North shocked white Southerners: their countrymen were cheering on efforts to kill them. Northerners, in turn, were becoming more disgusted by the day at the failure of white Southerners to recognize the humanity of their slaves. Mutual feelings of moral abhorence set America on an irreversible path to war. Historical interpretations of Brown have largely depended on the loyalties of the viewer: Brown is simultaneously venerated and deemed a madman. He was a violent man, the murderer of Pottawatomie, and an unselfish one who gave his life for emancipation.

I contemplated this past as I stood at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, still just meters away from the car. Rugged cliffs rose above the confluence: Maryland Heights across the Potomac, Loudoun Heights across the Shenandoah. Standing in West Virginia, I could see Maryland across the Potomac and Virginia just slightly further east across the Shenandoah. Old bridge piers crowded the river, giving reminder of the importance of the town of Harpers Ferry throughout American history.

The confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers at Harpers Ferry
Harpers Fery lies roughly at the halfway point of the Appalachian Trail, about a thousand miles from either Springer Mountain or Katahdin. We followed the Appalachian Trail across the Potomac on a railroad bridge. The truss bridge carried the track of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad and a pedestrian walkway. From the bridge, we had good views east over the Potomac-Shenandoah confluence and ahead to the massive cliffs of Maryland Heights.

Once in Maryland, the Appalachian Trail descended off the bridge via a spiral staircase and intersected with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. We continued following the Appalachian Trail north, which overlapped with the C&O Canal Towpath heading east. Just a few meters past the bridge, we found a nice riverside spot with a view back across the Potomac to Harpers Ferry with its church steeple and historic lower town.

Harpers Ferry viewed from the Maryland side of the Potomac
Harpers Ferry
We continued along the C&O Towpath for roughly 3 miles. The towpath was sandwiched between the C&O Canal and the Potomac River; at spots, small side paths led down to the river for nice views of this mighty river, the second largest river to drain into the Chesapeake Bay. About halfway through the C&O Canal Towpath section of the hike, the trail passed beneath the span of the US 340 bridge over the Potomac River. At a few spots along the trail, there were small beaches along the Potomac which were covered with tiny shells.

The Potomac River downstream of Harpers Ferry
While the river occupied attention on the southern side of the towpath, the canal was the main point of interest north of the trail. The C&O Canal was born out of grand dreams in the nation's early years as European Americans gradually began settling the lands of the Ohio Valley to the west of the Appalachians. After the construction of the Erie Canal in New York, it became clear that accessible trade routes between the East Coast and Midwest could be extremely lucrative. Thus, in the 1820s, the US government authorized the construction of a canal that would connect the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River watershed, a water route for trade from Washington DC to Pittsburgh. Work started in the late 1820s but ended at Cumberland, Maryland in 1850, still over a hundred miles from Pittsburgh. By the time the canal had been built, railroads were already supplanting canal barges as the most efficient means of transportation in the growing United States. Today much of the canal remains and the towpath once used by mules to tow boats upstream through the canal and through slackwater is now principally used by cyclists and hikers.

C&O Canal Towpath
Having followed the towpath for just under three miles along the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry, we arrived at the junction where the AT split off from the towpath. Here, we followed the white blazes and took the left turn at the intersection to leave the towpath, crossing railroad tracks and coming out to a road. We spotted white blazes for the AT across a sharp bend in Keep Tryst Road and followed the white blazes as the trail returned into the forest. At this point, the trail began the first real stretch of elevation gain of the hike, climbing slightly uphill before crossing under US 340 at the highway's bridge over the small gorge of Israel Creek. Older road traces were visible below the AT and were especially noticeable at the US 340 bridge, where the remnants of an older, lower bridge still stood over Israel Creek. After passing under US 340, the trail climbed slightly uphill and passed a parking lot for AT access about half a mile after leaving the towpath. Hikers wishing to skip the towpath stretch of the hike can park here to cut the hike down to a 2.5-mile round trip.

The trail briefly paralleled Weverton Cliff Road before coming to the intersection of Weverton Cliff and Weverton Roads. We crossed Weverton Road to continue uphill and north along the Appalachian Trail.

In the next mile and a bit, the trail ascended fairly gently up the slopes of South Mountain, which forms the principal crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through Maryland. The trail was often rocky and had switchbacks at points but otherwise the ascent was not terribly difficult. 1.2 miles after passing the Weverton Cliff trailhead parking, the trail arrived at the top of the ridge. Here, the AT made a sharp left turn that was marked by a sign indicating that the AT was heading north. An unmarked trail broke off to the right here, heading downhill. We took this unmarked trail, which led down towards Weverton Cliff. A short descent brought us quickly down to a set of rocks with partially obstructed views of the Potomac and the surrounding countryside.

The Potomac River water gap at Harpers Ferry
By scrambling about the rocks at the end of the trail, I was able to get a good overall view of the surounding area. The cliff looked directly down over the Potomac River's water gap through South Mountain. To the west, I could see the Potomac River flowing through another water gap at Harpers Ferry, cutting between Loudoun and Maryland Heights. To the east, the Potomac River stretched out towards Catoctin Mountain and its final water gap before its great turn to the south towards Great Falls and the nation's capital. Farms in the Piedmont stretched out to the east, with the tiny town of Knoxville visible below nearby and Brunswick visible a little further down the river. To the west, I spotted the church steeple of Harpers Ferry through the water gap and could see the many-layered Valley and Ridge beyond. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad snaked along the river, its tracks still carrying cargo for CSX today, nearly two centuries after the ties were laid for the first common carrier railroad in the United States.

The Potomac River below Weverton Cliff

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Iceline-Little Yoho Loop

The President and Vice President rise over the Emerald Glacier
12 miles loop, 2800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead (no trailers/RVs), Canadian National Parks pass required

With a name like "Iceline," it's no surprise that this hike delivers an intimate look at the glaciers of Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies. This loop hike, a popular excursion in the Canadian Rockies, offers sweeping views of the Waputik and Wapta Icefields, a close up look at the Emerald Glacier, and a chance to see two of the many wonderous waterfalls of Yoho Valley. The early part of the loop visits the barren alpine terrain high up in the President Range while the later part of the loop descends through idyllic Little Yoho Valley and past the roaring waters of Laughing Falls. While the Iceline, in my opinion, doesn't measure up to the scenery at nearby Lake O'Hara, it still makes an excellent hike and a good way to experience this compact but extremely beautiful national park.

I hiked the loop during a weekend trip to the Canadian Rockies in which I spent a day in each of the four main parks; the Iceline-Little Yoho Loop was my hike of choice for Yoho National Park. I spent some time deciding whether to hike the Iceline Trail or to revisit the Lake O'Hara area, which I had visited about 8 years earlier; while Lake O'Hara's larches seemed enticing, I ultimately chose the Iceline Trail to spend some more time with the glaciers in the Rockies before climate change shrinks them any further.

To reach the trailhead from Banff, I took Highway 1 (the Transcanada Highway) west from Banff, following it past Lake Louise and across Kicking Horse Pass into Yoho National Park and British Columbia. Once in Yoho, I turned right at the junction with the Yoho Valley Road and followed that road to its end at the Takakkaw Falls trailhead. The Yoho Valley Road has a few extremely sharp switchbacks, which makes the road inappropriate for RVs or cars with trailers. While the Iceline Trail starts at the Whiskey Jack Hostel, there is limited parking at the hostel and thus it is better to park at Takakkaw Falls.

From the trailhead, I followed the paved trail south along the Yoho River towards Takakkaw Falls. The falls- which, at 300 meters tall (about 1000 feet), are one of the taller waterfalls in Canada- are a magnificent sight, especially in spring and summer when the flow of the waterfall is heavy. Here, free-falling water appears to momentarily enter a state of suspended animation, hanging in the air briefly before gracefully diving to the earth. The falls were visible from the trailhead, although views improved as I hiked along the river. Soon, the trail towards Whiskey Jack broke off from the main Takakkaw Falls Trail, which crossed a bridge over the Yoho River to continue towards the base of the falls.

Takakkaw Falls
I followed the path towards the Whiskey Jack Hostel. This trail followed the flat bottom of the valley a little further before crossing a bridge over a small creek and coming to the Yoho Valley Road. Across the road, the trail came to the Whiskey Jack Hostel, where I found the trailhead for the Iceline Trail.

Yoho Valley near Whiskey Jack Hostel
There was a maze of trails emanating out from Whiskey Jack Hostel: paths headed out towards Hidden Lake, Yoho Lake, and the Iceline. At the frequent trail junctions early in the hike, I would bear right each time to stay on the track towards the Iceline Trail. The trail made a stiff ascent through the forest, initially with very few views, but after about two kilometers of hiking uphill, the trail began to emerge into the alpine. Views of Yoho Valley were impressive, with the peaks of the Continental Divide coming into view behind the high cliffs at Takakkaw Falls.

Takakkaw Falls drops into the Yoho Valley
Looking to the south, views were a bit hazy due to ongoing forest fires in the Rockies, but I could still make out the forms of Cathedral Mountain and Mt. Stephen across the Kicking Horse Valley.

Morning light on the Iceline Trail
Once in the alpine, the trail continued to ascend steadily, although wide views made this stretch of the ascent much more bearable. The trail climbed towards progressively higher and higher ledges until, a little over two miles from the trailhead, it finally broke out onto a broad bench 2000 feet above the valley floor that held the icy tentacles of the Emerald Glacier. The commanding east face of the President Range rose directly from the glacier.

Emerald Glacier and the President
The next two miles of trail were spectacular. The Emerald Glacier served as a constant companion to the west as the trail navigated through the rough, rocky landscape, ascending and descending knolls and moraines and passing a number of small tarns. Hints of fresh snow clung to the high ledges of the President Range.

Two lobes of the Emerald Glacier
The view away from the ridge was equally as impressive. To the north, the Yoho Glacier flowed out from the Wapta Icefield, feeding the Yoho River. To the east, the Daly Glacier flowed down from the Waputik Icefield, with meltwater from that glacier then plunging into Yoho Valley in the form of Takakkaw Falls. Mt. Balfour, Mont des Poilus, and Mount Daly were notable peaks along the horizon.

Yoho Glacier
The Daly Glacier flows from the Waputik Icefield, feeding the high drop of Takakkaw Falls
The effects of climate change were quite obvious along the Iceline Trail. The trail is a fairly new addition to the trail system of Yoho National Park, replacing earlier Highline and Skyline Trails by following an even higher route opened up by the retreat of the Emerald Glacier. The most spectacular stretch of the hike traverses terrain and moraines only accessible due to the loss of glacial ice in Yoho Park.

Emerald Glacier
The Iceline climbed steadily but continuously as it traced the flanks of the President Range. It was a delightful experience to hike for an extended time in such open terrain with consistent sweeping views. Short spur trails leading to the local summits of moraines provided even better vantage points of the Emerald Glacier and the Yoho Valley.

Iceline views over Yoho Valley
As the trail ascended further, Takakkaw Falls gradually disappeared from view, although the Waputik and Wapta Icefields remained visible in their high perches along the Continental Divide.

Daly Glacier and Takakkaw Falls
I came to a junction with the Celeste Lake Trail at a pretty, emerald-colored tarn. Here, the Celeste Lake Trail broke off to the right, descending past Celeste Lake to meet the Little Yoho Valley Trail. This offered an option to cut short the hike by a few kilometers, but I chose to continue along the Iceline Trail towards the Iceline summit.

I passed a second, larger tarn and soon found myself hiking parallel to a cleanly deposited terminal moraine of the Emerald Glacier. The tarns were a stark contrast to the barren landscape only recently relinquished by the ice.

Two tarns along the Iceline Trail
Past the tarns, I made a final push uphill to reach the Iceline summit at four miles from the trailhead. From the saddle high point on the main trail, I took a spur trail to the right that led to the top of a small knoll, where I had a sweeping view of multiple lobes of the Emerald Glacier and of Yoho Valley. From here, it was easy to spot a distinctive recent moraine left behind by the retreating Emerald Glacier. I took a long lunch break here to appreciate the panoramic views.

Emerald Glacier with a clearly defined terminal moraine
Leaving the Iceline Summit, I followed the trail as it began to descend. As the trail wrapped towards the northwest around the President Range, an additional lobe of the Emerald Glacier appeared, nestled at the foot of the President and Vice President. Below the glacier was a tarn, the largest of the many along the Iceline. Smaller tarns were visible close to the treeline downslope of the trail.

Iceline Trail
The trail cut through land that was likely covered by the Emerald Glacier until the past few decades. Views of the glacier and of the President Glacier here were excellent and persisted until the trail rounded a moraine and began tracking towards the west.

President, Vice President, and the Emerald Glacier
After rounding the moraine, the most spectacular stretch of the Iceline concluded. Here, the trail descended back into meadows and open forests. The moraine lay to the left (south) of the trail, blocking out most views of the President Range. Remnant seedpods of western anemone dotted the meadows along the trail.

Iceline Trail through the meadows above Little Yoho Valley
The four kilometer stretch of trail between the Iceline Summit and Little Yoho Valley was mainly pleasant descent. Once the Iceline Trail was back in the forest, the views diminished but didn't go away entirely: at points, I was able to see across Little Yoho Valley to nearby glaciated peaks. The trail descended around a large rockpile that was perhaps the result of some mass wasting event before arriving at the bottom of the valley.

Massive rockpile on the descent into Little Yoho Valley
As the trail descended gently, the form of the ACC Hut in Little Yoho Valley appeared through the trees. Upon finally reaching the valley, the trail crossed the broad riverside meadows, using a series of small bridges to cross the Little Yoho River. The view of the Little Yoho River meandering through the valley beneath Rocky Mountain peaks was extremely idyllic.

Little Yoho Valley
An Alpine Club of Canada Hut and a warden cabin marked the junction between the Little Yoho Valley Trail and the Iceline Trail. The trail to the left (west) led towards alpine Kiwetinok Pass; the trail to the right led east back towards Yoho Valley. I ate a second lunch on the large picnic table outside the ACC Stanley Mitchell Hut, enjoying views of the President Range and chatting a bit with a couple who were visiting from Switzerland.

ACC Hut and Warden Cabin in Little Yoho Valley
As it was getting late in the day and I was only slightly over halfway through the hike, I decided to pick up the pace for the rest of the hike. I made a quick pace along the three kilometers of trail from the Stanley Mitchell Hut down to the junction of the Celeste Lake Trail. Occasional nice views of the President Range popped up to the south, especially early in the descent while the trail stayed close to the Little Yoho River in Little Yoho Valley. After the trail began descending out of the valley, views evaporated and the forest closed in.

The President and the Emerald Glacier above Yoho Valley
At the junction with the Celeste Lake Trail, instead of continuing directly onwards down the Little Yoho Valley Trail to Laughing Falls, I took a brief downhill detour to a bridge on the Celeste Lake Trail that spanned the Little Yoho River. From this bridge, there was a pretty view looking upstream to the President and Vice President rising over the Little Yoho River. After enjoying the view, I returned to the Little Yoho Valley Trail to continue the descent.

The Presidential Range rises over the Little Yoho River
After passing the junction with the Celeste Lake Trail, the trail began to descend in earnest. Cutting downhill through the forest via switchbacks, the trail passed another junction with the Marpole Lake Trail about a half mile after the Celeste Lake Trail junction; here, I once again stayed on the Little Yoho Valley Trail to head towards Laughing Falls and the Takakkaw Falls Trailhead. A final mile of descent down switchbacks brought me to the bottom of the Yoho Valley. At the junction of the Little Yoho Valley Trail with the main Yoho Valley/Twin Falls Trail, the roar of Laughing Falls was audible. After turning right and heading south on the Twin Falls Trail, Laughing Falls itself came into sight. While Laughing Falls is not the tallest waterfall in the park, it is still an extremely beautiful one: here, the Little Yoho River explodes down a cliff face, plunging out of a narrow canyon above for its final drop before meeting the Yoho River.

Laughing Falls on the Little Yoho River
Nearby Laughing Falls Campground was located next to the Yoho River itself. I wandered into the campground down to the river and took a break from walking by enjoying views of the distant Yoho Glacier and skipping rocks in the milky waters of the river.

Yoho River with Yoho Glacier in the distance
Leaving the campground, I began to follow the Yoho Valley Trail for the final 4 kilometers back towards the trailhead at Takakkaw Falls. The trail crossed a bridge over the Little Yoho River and then delved into the forest, keeping the Yoho River in earshot and occasionally in sight. This section of trail was fairly uneventful with the exception of a few spots where the river cut narrow, rocky gorges. About a half mile out from Laughing Falls, I passed a spur trail leading to Lake Duchesnay, which I skipped.

Yoho River
The trail descended a bit to reach the bottom of the valley, where two side trails branched off to Angel's Staircase Falls and Point Lace Falls. I took both of the side trails and found both waterfalls to be a bit underwhelming, but I came late in the season so it's possible that at peak flow the falls might be more impressive. From this junction onward, the last two kilometers of the trail were broad and flat, making for very easy hiking.

Just a few hundred yards before reaching the trailhead, the trail entered a wide clearing- perhaps a former avalanche chute- with some final views of the nearby peaks. Mount Stephen and Cathedral Peak rose ahead to the south, while the Yoho Glacier was still visible to the north.

Yoho Valley
Takakkaw Falls also came into view, indicating that the hike was almost over. After 20 kilometers of hiking, the sound of the falls and the knowledge that my car was nearby was music to my ears. After passing the clearing, the trail meandered through the Takakkaw Falls campground and then arrived back at the trailhead.

Takakkaw Falls at the end of the loop
The Iceline is a good hike, though I'm not sure I would place it at the top of the list of hiking destinations in the Canadian Rockies. On this particular trip, in which I hiked Floe Lake, Wilcox Ridge, Larch Valley, and the Iceline, I found the Iceline to be the least exciting of those trails. Visitors who are limited on time will find better hikes; in Yoho National Park, I found the Lake O'Hara region to be a prefereable hiking destination to the Iceline. That said, the waterfalls and glacier views of the trail are excellent and will surely make an enjoyable experience for any hiker.