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.

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