Above: view of Lineham lakes
Having had poor weather last Fall down in Waterton Lakes National park which saw us abandon our hiking/camping plans, Meg and I were excited to make up for it and a couple of weekends ago set out to complete the Tamarack Trail. Located within Waterton in south west Alberta, the trail is touted as the longest (and best) the park has to offer, treating hikers to stunning views along the continental divide and a relatively secluded backcountry experience.
We drove down on a Thursday evening after Meg finished work and stayed just outside the park at Crooked Creek campground in our camperised Ford Escape before starting the trail early on Friday morning. The campground was busy, mainly with trailers and RV’s but the sites were nice and reasonably priced at $25 a night.
Rising at around 6 am, we had a light breakfast of hard boiled eggs and bagels before driving into town for a much needed caffeine fix. Being just outside the park, it took us around 10 minutes to get into town and grab a coffee at which point we were glad that we hadn’t done the whole drive in the morning from Fernie. After that we popped in at the Visitors centre which opens at 7.30 just to check in and receive our backcountry permits before driving to the Rowe lakes trailhead off the Akamina Parkway. We had arranged for a shuttle to pick us up there and drop us to Red Rock Canyon to start the hike.
Before I go any further, I should say that technically we didn’t hike the normal Tamarack trail route. Instead of hiking the snowshoe trail to Twin lakes and then across to Lone Lake, we opted to hike the Blackiston valley trail. We did this mainly because we had heard and read that the Blackiston trail was a much more scenic and less trafficked route compared to the snowshoe trail which is a multi use trail/old fire service road for 8.5km to the first campground. I haven’t hiked both before so couldn’t judge myself but we were not disappointed with our route and all in all it was only 4-5 km shorter so we didn’t lose too much credibility.
Anyways after a nice chat with our shuttle driver we arrived at our start point and readied our packs to begin the 14.3 km hike to our campground at Lone Lake. The trail took us quickly to Blackiston falls which we stopped at briefly and were easily admired from the brand new platforms erected in the past year. We pressed on and were treated to views of a creek running through walls of red rock, every bit as nice as the canyon itself, and then for the next couple of hours we would hike through mainly wooded forest. The trail was overgrown and narrow in some sections with the odd fallen tree needing to be ducked or climbed over, features which I tend to like on a trail as they make the whole experience a bit more wild and therefore enjoyable.
The last 4-5kms to Lone Lake saw a bit of a steeper incline (previously very gradual gain in elevation) that opened out into beautiful meadows with bear grass in full bloom and many other mountain flowers on their way. We passed only 2 other groups the whole time we were hiking, a group of 4 that were on their way down to Red Rock canyon and an odd group of 2 consisting of a Canadian guy and a German girl who were going the same way as us. I say odd because when chatting to them we discovered that they a) had ran into a bear early on in the trail and did not have any bear spray/bear bangers b) the German girl did not even know what “pfeffer spray” was and that there were even bears in the park and c) they didn’t know where they were camping nor had they registered for a permit with the park. The Canadian dude seemed to be quite a seasoned backcountry expert but he lost some credibility when he thought that there were no grizzly bears in Waterton and that he and his German counterpart were just going to camp somewhere in the “alpine” region of the park. Funnily enough they hiked close behind us for half an hour or so before we stopped for lunch, I think because we were slightly better prepared. I know bear spray isn’t full proof by any means but it’s definitely better than nothing!
We reached Lone lake by mid afternoon and lucky for us had first pick of the sites. There are only 4 tent pads at the lake which is nice as it keeps the numbers at a minimum. Soon after arriving we made quick time of pitching the tent and filtering some water from the lake. We used our recently bought Katadyn hiker water filter, which works really well and produces some amazing tasting water. Definitely recommend it for extended hikes. After some down time and a dunk in the lake, we had a nice chat to a group of 4 female school teachers all doing the hike together before tucking in to our hearty dinner of ramen, spam and broccoli. I believe we consumed 200% recommended daily intake of salt but I figured we were low in electrolytes anyway.
The night proved to be quite warm and I slept in my down sleeping bag without any layers and completely unzipped. We woke up around 5.30am to get an early start on the day but mainly because nature started chirping loudly. We chowed down on a can of beans and made some coffee using these nifty little filters by a Japanese company called Kantan. They are single use, one cup filters which sit on the rim of a cup and produce some good coffee. We would have used them as kindling if we had made a fire to be more enviro friendly but unfortunately had to carry them out as trash.
The lake was beautiful and still as we took off just after 7am and were kicked right into gear as the trail climbs a good 200-300m of elevation for the first 30 minutes. After this the next couple of hours were quite enjoyable walking through dense forest with some gradual ups and downs until we reached an open meadow which would start the somewhat gruelling ascent up to lineham ridge. The plus side however was the amazing views and abundance of flowers that got better with every step towards the top.
Once we reached the ridge we walked off trail right to the edge to get some great shots of Lineham lakes where we also caught a glimpse of some mountain goats grazing in the distance. We then continued on to where the trail starts to descend again and stopped for lunch with a view of upper Rowe lake in the distance. The next 9km of hiking would be all descent, approx 950m in total, in 35 degree weather and to be honest was quite a slog. There are still some beautiful views as you get closer to Rowe lakes and you get to ford some nice creeks which offer a great chance to cool off.
Our pace slowed in the last few km’s as we started to tire (and we would later find out that Meg was sporting some insane blisters). Despite this we pushed on and made it back to the car by mid afternoon, deciding to bypass the short walk to lower Rowe lake. Never the less we were elated once we finished and after giving Meg’s feet some much needed tlc, we celebrated our first backcountry hike of the year with a beer and poutine back in town before heading back to Fernie.
Note: Just some extra info that might be handy for others planning to do the same hike.
- We hiked the trail on the 7th and 8th of July. Temperatures were seasonally above average, high 20’s to low 30’s. It was pretty hot going hiking during the day but the plus was the night stayed warm too. We only encountered small patches of snow on the trail but nothing that was difficult to cross or that presented an overhead hazard. I imagine it would be a different story in early June.
- We chose to hike from Red rock canyon to Rowe lakes instead of the traditional way which goes in the opposite direction. Personally I enjoyed this way as the elevation gain seemed more gradual during the first day so the legs were in good condition for the harder second day. It also saves the best views til the end so you have anticipation as an extra motivator. Going the traditional route would mean a very big first day ( a Swiss couple at Lone Lake hiked ~9 hrs and looked exhausted) with a somewhat less interesting second day. Either way you’ll have an awesome time!
- We both had 3 litres of water each at the start of the hike which took us to Lone lake. There is accessible flowing water most of the way up Blackiston valley however we didn’t need to refill. We didn’t encounter any water sources between Lone lake and a few km’s beyond Lineham ridge (except for a stagnant looking lake that was off trail) so it’s a good idea to fully stock water in the morning when leaving.
- Have some sort of insect repellant at Lone Lake. The flies/mozzies were fairly annoying but seemed deterred by some repellant spray. Also best time to use the outhouse is early in the morning, smell is minimal and you avoid the swarms whilst doing your business.
- If you don’t have the convenience of having a car at each end of the trail, the Waterton shuttle is really worth it. We had friends who hitch hiked back to their car some years ago but it took them over an hour to get a ride and they had already started walking closer to town. We were pretty beat by the end so loved having fresh clothes and some water waiting for us.