Monday, February 5, 2018

Wilcox Ridge

The Athabasca Glacier spills out from the Columbia Icefield
6.5 miles round trip, 1450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canadian National Parks pass required

The Columbia Icefield is the greatest body of ice in the Canadian Rockies and is surely among the more accessible icefields of its size. Wilcox Ridge vies with nearby Parker Ridge for the trail-accessible spot with the best view of the Columbia Icefield; I've hiked both and I'm more particular towards Wilcox Ridge. From the viewpoint at the end of the trail on the shoulder of Wilcox Peak, there is a sweeping viewshed that encompasses the Athabasca and Dome Glaciers flowing off the Columbia Icefield, the barren tundra scenery beyond Wilcox Pass, and the stately peaks that border the Saskatchewan River Valley. This is a relatively easy hike considering the incredible scenic rewards and should be at the top of the list of any hiker traveling the Icefields Parkway through Alberta's Jasper National Park.

I did this hike on the first day of a four day trip to the Canadian Rockies. With four days to visit four parks, I decided to pick a single highlight hike in each park for my September trip; for Jasper, I chose to hike Wilcox Ridge. I drove to the trailhead directly that morning from the Calgary Airport; after following Highway 1 (the Trans-Canada Highway) west past Banff and Lake Louise, I took the exit for Highway 93, the Icefields Parkway, to drive north to Jasper National Park. The Wilcox Ridge hike is at the very southern reaches of Jasper National Park; I came to the trailhead shortly after entering the park at Sunwapta Pass. The trailhead was at the entrance of the Wilcox Creek Campground, which is on the east side of the Icefields Parkway (on the right if you're heading north).

Trailhead parking was pretty crowded: this is a popular hike! Leaving the trailhead, the trail began an immediate ascent through the forest. The trail ascended steadily along the well-maintained trail through a forest coated with a recent dusting of snow.

Wilcox Pass Trail in the forest
After just under a mile of hiking through the forest, the trail emerged into a small clearing for its first views. To the north, the lip of the Columbia Icefield was visible just above the ridges of Snow Dome and Mount Kitchener and the Dome Glacier poured off the largest icefield of the Canadian Rockies. Below, the Icefields Parkway ran through the meadows of Sunwapta Pass.

Dome Glacier pouring off the Columbia Icefield
The trail briefly reentered the trees before emerging again into open meadows. This time, the Athabasca Glacier came into view as well, spilling off the Columbia Icefield and filling a broad valley.

Athabasca and Dome Glaciers and the Icefield Centre
The trail passed a set of red Adirondack chairs. These chairs are a recent addition to the Canadian national parks: after debuting the red chairs a couple of years ago to popular acclaim in Newfoundland's Gros Morne National Park, Parks Canada has expanded the program and installed chairs throughout the park system. For many hikers, these chairs, a mile from the trailhead with a good view of the Athabasca Glacier and its icefalls and moraines, is a sufficient turnaround point. From here, I could spot the road used by Brewster Snocoaches to take tourists out onto the Athabasca Glacier. As perhaps the most accessible glacier in North America, the Athabasca Glacier is a rare spot where tourists can ride buses onto a glacier and walk around.

Athabasca Glacier, Snocoach visible
While many hikers hung out near the chairs, satisfied with the scenery at this point, I chose to continue on to Wilcox Pass and Wilcox Ridge. The trail continued climbing past the chairs, albeit at a gentler grade, and the open views of Mount Athabasca and Mount Andromeda across the valley made the ascent feel much easier.

Mount Athabasca
Soon, the trees thinned out entirely and the trail was traversing an open alpine landscape. Views were stark and beautiful with fresh snow capping the surrounding peaks. As the trail began to parallel a small ravine, the Athabasca Glacier disappeared behind a nearby ridge, but views to the south past Sunwapta Pass into the Saskatchewan River Valley became increasingly impressive. The patterns in the fresh snow accentuated the sedimentary layers forming the Rocky Mountains.

Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, and the Athabasca Glacier
View towards the Saskatchewan River Valley
A mile and a half of ascent through the open meadows brought me to Wilcox Pass. Through this uphill stretch, the rocky summit of Wilcox Peak filled the view in front of the trail.

Wilcox Peak
Wilcox Pass is an extremely broad, flat mountain pass; maps show that a lake fills part of the wide, flat pass, but I didn't end up spotting any significant body of water. Wilcox Peak rose to the northwest of the pass, while an alpine tundrascape of snowcapped peaks rose to the northeast. I crossed a stream at the pass that was meandering through the flat meadows, with views back towards Hilda Peak, Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, and the Andromeda Glacier. The Athabasca Glacier itself was not visible at the pass. While the pass makes a nice destination and the views to the north are quite unique, if you've made it this far you might as well go all the way to the end of the trail at Wilcox Ridge.

Wilcox Pass
At the pass, a sign indicated the Wilcox Ridge trail breaking off to the west. I followed this trail, which was narrower and less well defined than the Wilcox Pass Trail. Cairns marked the route towards the ridge. The trail began to climb up from the pass towards the top of the ridge emanating southeast from the summit of Wilcox Peak. As I climbed out of the pass, views to the north improved; there was something hauntingly beautiful about the tundra-like landscape to the north defined by the blue of the sky, the yellow of the meadows, the white of fresh snow, and the gray of rocky peaks.

Alpine landscape of Wilcox Pass
The trail was at turns muddy and rocky as it made its way towards the ridge. After an initial ascent, I realized that the ridge was not a single layer, but rather a series of parallel ridges defined by layers of sedimentary rock. The viewpoint of the Athabasca Glacier was on the southwesternmost of the parallel ridges; I followed the cairns across the alpine landscape up and down each of the parallel ridges. The views in this landscape were spectacular: even though the Athabasca Glacier was still not fully in view, the panorama along the trail encompassed Nigel Peak to the east, the Sunwapta River Valley to the south, Hilda Peak, Mount Athabasca, and Mount Andromeda to the southwest and Wilcox Peak to the northwest.

Nigel Peak and the view south down the Saskatchewan Valley
About three-quarters of a mile from Wilcox Pass, I reached the end of the trail, at a viewpoint high above the valley holding the headwaters of the Athabasca River. The mighty Athabasca Glacier flowed out from the Columbia Icefield directly across from where I stood.

Athabasca and Dome Glaciers pouring off the Columbia Icefield, viewed from Wilcox Ridge
The Columbia Icefield is the largest body of ice in the Canadian Rockies. Astride a triple divide, the Columbia Icefield feeds rivers that flow into the Pacific, the Arctic, and the Hudson Bay. It is the headwaters of the great river of the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia. The Saskatchewan River just to the south near Parker Ridge is the headwaters of the Saskatchewan River, which itself is the primary inflow of Lake Winnipeg and thus the main source of the Nelson River, which flows into the Hudson Bay. The Athabasca Glacier is the source of the Athabasca Glacier, which feeds into Lake Athabasca and is part of the larger Mackenzie River watershed, the second largest watershed in North America that drains much of northern Canada into the Arctic Ocean.

Athabasca Glacier and Mount Andromeda
The large parking lot of the Icefield Centre and the Icefield Chalet lay directly below the ridge. Across the Icefields Parkway, the green waters of Sunwapta Lake sparkled in the sunlight. I first visited the Athabasca Glacier in 2001 on a trip with my family; we did many of the touristy activities at the glacier on that visit. I returned, briefly, in 2011, before this most recent visit. Through the three visits, the glacier had visibly retreated. At the start of the 20th century, the Athabasca Glacier flowed all the way to the foot of Wilcox Ridge. It has since retreated a mile up the valley, thinning out as winter snows continuously failed to replenish the existing ice. The impact of a changing climate was obvious here; it was sad to see such a mighty river of ice beat such a constant retreat over time.

Looking south across Sunwapta Pass along the Icefields Parkway
The views at Wilcox Ridge were stunning and required only a moderate effot to reach, making this an excellent hike even though the trail doesn't wander too far from the Icefields Parkway and the civilization of the Icefield Centre. I highly recommend this hike as a way to experience the Canadian Rockies' most famous river of ice, the ultra-touristy but still dazzling Athabasca Glacier.

1 comment:

  1. I worked at the Columbia Glacier in 1965 & 1966 & did some climbs. You might be interested in this picture from Parker Ridge:
    It's from this album: