I WAS WRONG about the Canadian Rockies. I know it as I climb through a verdant gorge, but I don’t admit it until I emerge at the foot of a headwall in an alpine meadow that’s covered with flowering white bistort so dense it looks like snow. Chalky spires jut skyward, splintering sunbeams that set the cirque aglow. Down valley, rows of pinnacled peaks stretch to the horizon.
I’m somewhere between 8,221-foot Mt. Hosmer and 7,251-foot Mt. Fernie on the new Mountain Lakes Trail in the southeastern corner of British Columbia. My closest friends made this path the centerpiece of our annual girls’ reunion trip because its creators, eccentric Fernie local Heiko Socher and his band, left clever detailing, like rope bridges and cutesy signs, throughout the trail. While my friends had no qualms about traveling all the way here from San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston, I felt a little dispirited. Like many Coloradans, I assumed the Canadian Rockies were just an extension of my home range. Visiting them on an easy, 14-mile path didn’t seem foreign or exciting.
The scenery, however, quickly eclipsed my preconceptions. We headed out from Hartley Lake, climbing through a forested gorge via wobbly ladders, skinny bridges, and exposed singletrack. Shoulder-high ferns blocked the trail in spots (signed “Shady Lane”), and a creek locally known as Jumping Waters squirted through crumbling limestone like a fountain (“Watergate”). We ate lunch in house-size Bisaro Cave and then cooled our feet in eight-tiered Jumping Water Falls.
When we reach the glacial cirque (“Vict. Ave.”), we stop to gape at the 8,000-footers. What they lack in elevation, they make up for in grandeur: The Canadian Rockies are starker, sharper, and more dramatic than the Rockies I’m familiar with back home. And, because they’re less developed than the American Rockies, the Canadian Rockies host a healthy grizzly population estimated at 25,000 (compared to just 1,500 in the Lower 48). So we belt boy band anthems to avoid any surprise encounters with bruins as we duck back below timberline at dusk, finally pulling off the trail to spend the night on the shoulder of Mt. Fernie. We stay up late catching up and drinking wine and fall asleep in a meadow so plush we don’t need pads.
When the morning sun illuminates our campsite, it reveals slopes of red paintbrush and pink fireweed. Striated Mt. Fernie looms over the hanging valley. We could trek the final 5 miles over the last pass and down to Island Lake, but instead we decide to spend the day lounging in our idyllic campsite. There are few surprises in life. We intend to savor this one.
DO IT Fly into Calgary and drive south to Fernie (A B-2 is faster, but taking the Trans Canada and Kootenay Highways takes you through Banff and Kootenay National Parks). Leave a car at the Island Lake Lodge in southern Fernie and start at the northern terminus (49.609375, -115.059299) by Hartley Lake. (There is no commercial shuttle, but inquire at fernietrailsalliance.com.) Season July through September Permits None Contacttourismfernie.com