Hiking Trail Review: Thru-Hiking the Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park, BC

Location: Kootenay National Park
Park Here: Floe Lake Trailhead or Paint Pots Trailhead, both located on Highway 93

Hike Distance: At least 54 km one-way
Hike Duration: 1-6 days depending on itinerary
Elevation Gain/Loss: 3,012 m
Difficulty: Challenging

What makes it challenging? The trail is well-marked and easy to follow, but there is significant elevation gain and loss over multiple mountain passes. The elevation and length of the hike, combined with the skills and experience needed to complete a multi-day trek, make this a challenging route.

Park website: Click here

The Rockwall Trail is a popular bucket list hike—so much so that many trekkers spend years trying to secure the highly coveted campground reservations needed to hike it.

Those lucky enough to hike this trail will be rewarded with infinite views at the foot of the continuous, 55-kilometre rockwall that stretches along the entirety of the trek. With steep peaks, glaciers, mountain passes, plunging waterfalls, creek-lined forests and wildflowers dotting vast meadows, this iconic Rockies hike has it all.

Finding the Trailhead

Hikers start their point-to-point thru-hike at either the Floe Lake Trailhead or Paint Pots Trailhead. It’s most common to start at Paint Pots and finish at Floe Lake.

As with any thru-hike, you have to figure out some transportation logistics before you start. Most people park at Floe Lake so their car is ready and waiting for them at the end. From there, you can bring a second car to get back to Paint Pots or hitchhike a short 10 minutes down the road.

If you’re parking at Floe Lake, arrive early as it’s a small lot that fills up quickly. Paint Pots is much larger, so you shouldn’t have an issue finding a spot.

The Hike Itself

Day 1: Paint Pots Trailhead to Helmet Falls (14 km)

The hike starts on a popular trail towards the Paint Pots. These mineral pools of red-orange ochre were used by the Ktunaxa people as paint and dye and were later mined by colonial settlers.

Past this gorgeous section of red earth, the trail crosses the Vermillion River and heads toward the riverside Helmet/Ochre Junction campground at 5.8 kilometres. This is a great spot to spend the night if you don’t get a reservation at Helmet Falls, which books up much faster.

From the Helmet/Ochre Junction, the trail climbs gradually upward through the forest. There are many good riverside spots to stop for lunch before you drop your packs and set up for the night at the Helmet Falls campground.

Like all campgrounds along the trail, Helmet Falls has shared cook areas and bear caches. Use these to maintain a bear-aware campground, as there are grizzlies in the area. These are also a great spot to meet fellow hikers and trade trail tales.

Day 2: Helmet Falls to Tumbling Creek (12 km)

When leaving the campground, we made a small detour on a 0.5-kilometre trail leading to an even better view of the towering Helmet Falls. This is a worthwhile side trip before you start the day’s hike in earnest, which immediately climbs up 500 metres of elevation toward Rockwall Pass.

At the pass, you’ll get your first real view of the Rockwall—expect it to stop you in your tracks!

From Rockwall Pass, the trail descends about 300 metres in elevation to the Tumbling Creek campground—the first of many passes that this trail traverses up and over.

We camped here for the night as it was the only spot we could get a reservation, but most people completing the thru-hike choose to spend their second night at Numa Creek for a better balance of daily distance and elevation.

Day 3: Tumbling Creek to Floe Lake (17 km)

Covering 17 kilometres with roughly 1,100 metres of elevation gain and loss, this was our biggest and most beautiful day on the trail. Our hike started with a short but steep climb out of the campground to Tumbling Pass, where the Tumbling Glacier stood out as one of my all-time favourite Rockwall views.

We savoured the pass before descending into a narrow and overgrown single-track trail to the Numa Creek campground. Luckily, water is abundant along the Rockwall trail’s many creeks and streams, so we could refill before heading through a delightfully purple meadow and then ascending to Numa Pass.

Numa Pass boasts the never-ending views that the Rockies are known for.

After a short descent back into the forest, the trail takes you straight to Floe Lake—the most iconic campground on the trail.

Day 4: Floe Lake Campground to Floe Lake Trailhead (10 km)

With only a 10 kilometres descent left to go, we decided to spend a long morning swimming and drinking coffee at the lake. You’ll want to spend as much time here as you can, with some people opting to spend two nights here just to enjoy the lake.

The final stretch of the trail traverses a burned and fallen forest, leaving you with reflections about climate change and the dire need to protect these places that we’re lucky enough to travel and call home. In early season, you can expect deadfall covering the trail, adding a significant amount of travel time to this final stretch.

Before You Go:

  • Backcountry camping reservations and a National Parks Discovery Pass are required. Check the Parks Canada website to find out when next year’s reservations open (usually in March). Be online as soon as reservations open, as these book up incredibly fast!
  • Be bear aware, as grizzly sightings are common. Bring bear spray and use the communal cooking areas and bear caches available at every campsite.
  • Download offline versions of the trail map to help you navigate, as you’ll be out of cell service for the entire trip. Fatmap, Gaia or AllTrails are recommended.
  • Dogs are allowed on leash.

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