In 2015, Christa and I decided we wanted to do a hike in the Rockies. Christa’s parents had given me the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, so a flipped through it looking for a good one. I somehow settled on the Brazeau Lake Loop, mostly because I liked that it was a loop, I liked the distances, and the book sold it well, so off we went.
• 81 km loop, we took 4 nights
• Elevation gain/loss: 1878 m
• Maximum elevation: 2470 m
We started from the Nigel trailhead at about 1pm on Monday, after staying at the Lake Louise campground the night before. The first thing we noticed was how cold it was, so we started our hike with most of our warm clothes on, but we warmed up as the day went on. The trail starts on an even, packed trail through a forest that’s apparently often used by horseback riders, but we didn’t see any. What we did see was lots of people coming the other way — mostly day hikers who had hiked up to Nigel pass for lunch, but also some groups coming out from the loop. Eventually the trail headed steeply upwards, then even steeply-er downwards as we go our first view of the mighty Brazeau River. Nigel pass isn’t the highest or most impressive point on the trail, but it’s a stunning entry into the backcountry. The hike down to the river isn’t too far but was a little technically challenging for us with full packs. We were very happy to have one hiking pole each, but we really would have been happier with two. After rock-hopping over the river, we hiked along it to our first campground at Boulder Creek.
Boulder Creek is a small campsite with only about 4 tent sites and not much in the way of a clearing. But it’s right by the river and you definitely feel like you’re in the backcountry, unlike some of the deluxe backcountry sites in the national parks. On the downside there were mosquitos. We tried the first of our homemade dried meals (based on recipes we found online) and found it tasty and filling. We chatted for a bit with another couple at the site but it was chilly and we were tired and we knew there was a long day tomorrow so we went to bed fairly early. I taught Christa the trick of filling a Nalgene with boiling water and sticking it in the bottom of your sleeping bag, which I think she’s still grateful for.
We knew we were in for a long day, but we still “slept in” until 7am and broke camp around 9. A lesson I learned that morning is that when you’re pumping water from a glacier-fed river, you have to clean your filter regularly or else it take 20 minutes and a fair bit of sweat to pump 2 L of water. Oops! The trail stays easy along the river to Four Point campground (which is the preferable 1st night campground).
Immediately after Four Point, we took the turn-off towards Jonas Shoulder since we’d decided to do the loop clockwise, opposite to how most people chose to do it. The trail headed steeply up through the forest until the views opened up and we could see miles down the valley towards Jonas Shoulder. This stretch of alpine meadow with towering mountains on either side is certainly the highlight of the trip. Being able to see so far in front of you gives you a real appreciation for how much ground you can cover on two feet. Christa and I spent the time arguing over whether we were walking through The Sound of Music or an epic Western. We felt very alone along this stretch, our only company being 2 groups coming the other way and a bunch of field mice running up and down the trail.
Eventually we came to Jonas shoulder, our path out of the Jonas river valley so that we can head towards Brazeau lake tomorrow. The shoulder is a steep ~300 m climb along a barren shale hillside. The views from the top, though, are phenomenal, looking along the Jonas and Pobotkin river valleys. We spent some time at the top relaxing, taking pictures and watching a Marmot sunbathing on a rock. But was getting towards evening and we were anxious to make camp so we headed down towards the Jonas Cutoff campground. The trail down the other side of the shoulder turned out to be even tougher than the trail up, with tight switchbacks on loose shale and again we wished we had two poles each. The trail evened out along a meadow and it ended up taking way longer to get in to our campsite than we expected. We thought it would be right over the shoulder but it turned out to be quite a hike and we got into our campsite around 6:15. We we sore and tired but in good spirits after an incredible day on the trail. The campsite was busy with a big guided group and a few other groups.
The first thing we both noticed that morning was a great view from the thunderbox. Definitely an underrated part of a top notch campsite! Everyone else at the campsite was heading the other way, so we made our way out towards Brazeau Lake on our own a bit after 9am. A gentle climb up toward Pobotkin gave us our last real taste of the alpine before heading down into the forest. And head down we did, a long way down in the afternoon heat. The forest got denser around us and brambles scratched our legs. We saw another couple hiking the other way hiding under a tarp to eat lunch out of the sun. We stopped for lunch at John John campground, then kept on until we got our first glimpse of Brazeau lake in the distance. We got to the campground early in the afternoon so I had a chance to jump in the lake while it was still warm out. Refreshing! The campsite was probably the nicest of the trip, with a great view of the lake. We had a blast reading the log book at the campsite. Apparently people get snowed in on the trail as late as Canada day and as early as Labour Day.
We took of from the lake a bit after 9 am and immediately ran into someone who had stayed at the nearby Brazeau river campground that night. He told us that site sucked and that the lake is way better. Lucky us! We got a bit lost past the Brazeau river campground thanks to some sketchy signage and the crappy map I’d printed out instead of buying a proper one. But we found the right path and headed down through the forest along the river. This stretch isn’t hard but is pretty boring, and even though you’re close to the river there aren’t actually that many places to get water without a bit of a bushwack.
We got in to 4 Point campground a bit after 4pm and found a few other groups already there. 4 Point is deluxe compared to Boulder Creek with lots of tent pads and tables and a big clearing. Some people were struggling to get a fire going so I went all cub scout and helped them out. We spent the evening chatting with the other people there and comparing camping stories
We had our first rain of the trip early Friday morning. In the tent it felt like it was coming down a lot harder than it was, so I rushed out to put up the tarp for breakfast but it turned out to not really be necessary. We rushed to get going since we knew we had a long drive ahead and we weren’t feeling super fast. The drizzle picked up as we hiked out and we didn’t pay as much attention to the scenery as we had on the way in. The last stretch on the gravel road felt a little endless and we were happy to find our car still in the parking lot.
- It definitely would have been better to stay at Four Point on the first night and Boulder Creek on the last night to make days 2 and 5 a bit shorter. It was nice not staying at the same one twice, though.
- It’s hard to say whether it was better doing it in the clockwise or counter clockwise direction. It was nice to be mostly by ourselves with no one else doing the same route as us.
- Our dinners were way too big, doubling those recipes made an awful lot of food. 1.5 or less for 2 people would have been better.
- Our tent (a MEC Tarn 2) was probably too small for the two of us. I couldn’t lie straight out without my feet pressing against the end of the tent so my sleeping bag got a bit wet with condensation from the tarp most night.
- Overall we really enjoyed spending time on a less well known trail in the rockies.