Hiking the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park

Great for beginners and experienced hikers alike, the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park is one of the premier hikes in Western Canada.  Few trails deliver multiple waterfalls, expansive mountain vistas, and up close views of majestic glaciers all along one incredible route.  The trail begins near the town of Field, in British Columbia and the extra hour of driving from Banff allows you to get away from the crowds. Yoho is generally more peaceful than its more famous neighbour and the scenery is equally stunning.  The hike follows remnants of the Emerald Glacier and with the majority of it is above treeline you’ll be treated to stupendous views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. For these reasons and its easy accessibility from Calgary we figured this gem was deserving of a place on our 2017 Alberta Bucketlist despite being in British Columbia.  

Getting to Yoho National Park & The Iceline Trail

To get to Yoho National Park from Calgary (the nearest major city) drive West on Highway 1 for about 2.5 hours.  Turn on Yoho Valley Road and park at the Takakkaw Falls viewing area.  Guesthouses at the quaint town of Field, BC, a Golden, BC, the Whiskey Jack Hostel, or the walk in campground at Takakkaw Falls would be good options to get an early start on the trail.

As an aside, Field is a quaint mountain village of about 200 people.  Set along the Kicking Horse River and the Canadian Pacific Railway it is an excellent gateway to explore Yoho National Park.  Nearby sights include Lake O’Hara, Emerald Lake, and of course, Takakkaw Falls and the Iceline Trail.

Takakkaw Falls

A site worth visiting on it’s own, Takakkaw Falls is the starting point for the Iceline Trail. Falling 384m (1,260 feet) in total from the Daly glacier and Waputik Icefield.  These falls are the second highest in Western Canada. Translated from Cree, Takakkaw means “it is magnificent”.

Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park
Takakkaw Falls, Yoho National Park

Takakkaw is pronounced “TACK-a-kah”, now you can spend the hike practising.  For most of the Iceline portion of the hike you can see and hear the roar of Takakkaw Falls which makes for a unique experience.

Hiking the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park

Depending on your experience and fitness level, you have many options to hike the Iceline Trail.  It can be done as a day trip, or a backpacking trip making it an ideal trail to customise to your schedule and ability.  Also, it can be done in both directions, starting at the Whiskey Jack Hostel or Takakkaw Falls Campground.

The Iceline Trail can be hiked any time in the summer or fall but keep in mind Yoho Valley Road is closed to vehicle traffic from early October through late June due to avalanche risk.  Check the road status with Parks Canada before you plan your trip!

Glaciers on the Iceline Trail
Hiking Among Glaciers on the Iceline Trail

If you’re short on time, hiking the Iceline Trail as a daytrip is a good option and you still hit the main highlights and enjoy the glacial views.  This version would be a 17km day, starting from either the Whiskey Jack Hostel or Yoho Valley going through the Celeste Lake junction (see map at the end of the post).

If you have more time, add the Whaleback section, which allows you sky high views of the Presidential peaks in Yoho National Park and includes a scenic stop at Twin Falls.  We hiked the full loop to make sure we saw the Whaleback and Twin Falls and it is about 30km.  Doing the trail over a couple days gives you time to enjoy the area so naturally, this is what we recommend!  If you’re one of those crazy speedy hikers or a trail runner it is possible to do both sections in one (very long) day but we take no responsibility for your sore feet!

Bridge over Twin Falls in Yoho National Park
The Bridge over Twin Falls

As mentioned, the trail can be done in either direction.  If you’re doing both the Iceline and Whaleback portions we recommend the clockwise route.  Start at the Whiskey Jack Hostel as it gets the elevation gain out of the way while you have fresh legs and puts you quickly above the treeline.  If bookings are scarce or you think you know better than some random blogger on the internet, reverse everything and go through Yoho Valley.  Your starting point would be the Takakkaw Falls Campground and there is a clear sign from the parking lot.

Camping on the Iceline Trail

Iceline Trail is well set up with numerous campsites so again, the theme is options and flexibility.  Fly through on a day trip or split the hike into a multi-day backpacking trip to truly enjoy the surroundings.  Campsites must be booked in advance through Parks Canada and book up quickly so make sure you plan in advance.  Cancellations often come available last minute so keep an eye on it if your dates are already taken.

Starting in the clockwise direction from Whiskey Jack Hostel the backcountry campgrounds on this gem of a trek in Yoho National Park are as follows:

Yoho Lake is a 2km off the normal Iceline path and not too far from the Hostel.  Too early in the trail to be much use for our recommended route but could make a nice detour!
Little Yoho Campground is perfectly spaced to break up the Iceline Trail.  If you can’t get in at the hut this would be our recommended spot for a two day trip!
Twin Falls is located near twin falls (guess that was pretty obvious eh?) on the Whaleback section of the trail.  This would be a good place to spend a night if you’re looking to break the trail up into three days (either the first night or the last night).
Laughing Falls is about 6km past Twin Falls.  Right along the river, it looked like a nice place to camp but our weary legs carried on for the remaining 4km to the parking lot.

Laughing Falls at Yoho National Park
Laughing Falls

Stanley Mitchell Hut: Last but not least, operated by the Alpine Club of Canada, this hut is the luxury way to do a backpacking trip.  Like Little Yoho Campground, the Stanley Mitchell Hut is placed well to break up the Iceline and Whaleback portions of the trip.  For beginner backpackers staying in a hut is a great way to try a backcountry trip without having to worry about carrying a tent and cooking supplies on your back. For experienced backpackers, this hut is a nice little piece of luxury.  A bunch of board games, a guitar, and wood burning fireplace make this place quite cozy at night and you’re sure to make new friends!

Stanley Mitchell Hut
Stanley Mitchell Hut

Originally built in 1940 the hut has is almost 80 years old.  It’s undergone a few renovations but is relatively the same as when it was originally constructed (apparently, we weren’t around to see the original construction).  It was designated a Federal Heritage Building in 1997.

As with the campgrounds, bookings for the Stanley Mitchell Hut need to be made well in advance.  They also require an Alpine Club of Canada membership (which you can purchase).  Check out the Alpine Club of Canada’s website for more info.

Zentraveller’s Backpacking Trip on the Iceline Trail

For our trip we opted to do the trail clockwise, starting at the Hostel and doing the main portion of Iceline on the first day.

We drove out from Calgary the morning of our trip and stopped in the town of Field to wait out a bit of rain.  After admiring the Takakkaw Falls and snapping a few photos (ok, more than a few) we set out towards the Whiskey Jack Hostel and the start of the Iceline Trail at 2pm.  The trail to the Stanley Mitchell Hut is roughly 11km, so with a relatively short distance ahead of us,  we figured we could make up for our late start.  The beginning of the trail climbs through forest and steadily gains elevation, quickly putting you above treeline.  All along you can hear the roar of Takakkaw Falls and as you clear the treeline, take some time to appreciate the fact that you are now higher than one of the highest waterfalls in Canada.

Hiking the Iceline Trai above Takakkaw Falls
Hiking above Takakkaw Falls

This is the payoff for the earlier steep hike through the forest.  The trail moves along rocky and rugged open terrain as you hike beside the Emerald glacier and over streams and tarns.

Streams from Melting Glaciers in Yoho National Park
One of many streams from the melting glaciers

After hiking along the Iceline, we eventually descended back into the forest, with only a couple kilometres to go until Stanley Mitchell Hut and Little Yoho Campground.  We had opted to spend the night at the Stanley Mitchell Hut (And by “opted” I mean it was the only option that wasn’t booked solid) where we met a few other groups, including a guided group out of New York, which represents a testament to the world class beauty of the Iceline Trail.

On the next day we continued on up the steep Whaleback and continued our descent past Twin Falls.  Our day two  was  a longer 20km trek, but we figured with the weight savings of no tent or cooking gear and the elevation gain out of the way we could make good time.

From Stanley Mitchell Hut we quickly descended approximately 2.5km through the forest to Celeste Lake junction which was actually closed as the bridge had been washed out.  No matter, we were planning to do the Whaleback anyway.  Turning left (and the only way that goes up) at the junction we headed up the Whaleback.  The next 2km is the main elevation gain for the day so take heart that the rest of the trip is steadily downhill.

Excellent views in the Yoho Valley
Excellent views in the Yoho Valley

At the top of the Whaleback we admired the view of the Yoho Valley’s peaks and glaciers while having a snack and checking over the map.  This was one of the only points in the trail where we found the route wasn’t crystal clear. There were two relatively distinct trails at the top of the Whaleback.  If doing the trail clockwise as we did, one goes left (northwest) towards the top of Twin Falls and I assume the other goes straight down to Yoho Valley and the parking lot.  At any rate, if you’re doing the trail clockwise as we did, turn left when you get to the top of the Whaleback.  Twin Falls is worth the extra effort.

Descending from the Whaleback, after about 30 minutes you’ll run into some powerful rushing water and cross a bridge over the top of Twin Falls.  Stop and take a couple pictures to enjoy the scene.  As you’re stopped, keep your eyes peeled for American Dippers.  Dippers are found in fast moving rocky streams and they do exactly what their name indicates – dip in the water for bugs.  They’re a fairly plain looking brown bird, but look for their unique white eyelid and characteristic dipping, they’re a lot of fun to watch! If you see one in the spring, listen for their pretty song too.

American Dipper
American Dipper photographed in Banff National Park, aren’t they cute?

A couple minutes after crossing the bridge over Twin Falls, you’ll come to a cliff edge where you can admire the falls and gain some perspective on the height you still have to lose.  Take a good look and you will see your next destination, the Twin Falls teahouse.

The trail meanders through the forest for about 4km, heading steadily downhill until you come across a viewing area for Twin Falls.  Drop off your packs and walk in a bit closer for a view (and misting) from the waterfall.  Even though you may be tired from the journey, it’s worth the effort.

Admiring the view at Twin Falls
Admiring the view at Twin Falls

Just past Twin Falls is the historic Twin Falls Teahouse.  It was built between 1908-1928 as a stop for trail ride tours and was designated a national historic site in 1992 for it’s role promoting tourism in Yoho National Park’s early days.

From Twin Falls the trail is well defined and it’s 8.5km back to the parking lot. Crossing Laughing Falls is a highlight and the campground there looks gorgeous nestled in by the river.  Further on there are detours for Point Lace Falls and Angel’s Staircase.   We were in “get off the trail” mode so will have to come back another day for these two!

We had considered staying the night at the Takakkaw Falls Campground, but with sore feet and storm clouds on the horizon the walk back in to Takakkaw Falls Campground didn’t seem to appealing .  We bailed and drove back to Calgary with a pit stop in Canmore for a well deserved pint.

Map of the Iceline Trail & Whaleback

Parks Canada has a pretty good map of the area here although from our experience, distances didn’t seem to be completely accurate.  Noteably, the distance for the last portion of the Iceline Trail to Stanley Mitchell Hut seemed to be mixed up with the distance to Celeste Lake Junction from Stanley Mitchell Hut (5km).  The Parks Canada Visitor Centre in Field, BC would also have information about the Iceline Trail and other attractions at Yoho National Park.

We also put together an approximate map of the area below:

If you’re looking for more, there’s a lot of summits that you can do in the area – Mount Kerr, Isolated Peak, and Whaleback Mountain are popular scrambling destinations.

Safety on the Iceline Trail

When hiking you are responsible to take care of yourself and assistance may not be nearby.  Parks Canada has an excellent page on safety which you should read before entering the backcountry.  Here are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you’re prepared:

Bears: This is bear country, so travel with a group and make noise.  Bears generally prefer to avoid people so make noise to avoid them.  Sing and shout to your heart’s content.  You should carry with bear spray with you and know how to use it.  Retailers also sell bells but those have been proven to be ineffective and may actually make the bear curious, so save your money.   

Grizzly Bear in Kananaskis
A Grizzly Bear in Kananaskis, not something you want to run into on the trail!

If you’re camping, make sure that you place all of your food in bear proof canisters (available at Yoho’s campsites), or hoist it 3-5 metres into a tree. Prepare your meals away from your tent so that you’re not sleeping in the same place as the smell.  

Weather: Weather can change quickly in the Rocky Mountains.  You may set out during a beautiful sunny day with a perfect forecast but if you hike enough in the Rockies you know you’ll get stormed on someday.  Dress in layers and avoid cotton as it does not keep you warm when it gets wet. Never underestimate how cold it can get at night in the Rockies, even during the heat of summer! The outside thermometer at Stanley Mitchell Hut said that it was only 3 degrees Celsius (37F) during the evening and early morning. Suffice to say, all layers were needed until later in the day. 

Equipment: Ensure that you have enough food (including fuel), water, and the appropriate equipment for your trip.  Pack a first aid kit and know how to use it.  Hopefully it stays in your pack untouched or is only used to treat blisters.   Pack a bit of extra food in the event you need to spend more time than anticipated on the mountain.  Mark down the emergency numbers for the national park (911 or 403-762-4506 for Yoho) but keep in mind that you may not have cell reception.  When you connect, state that you are “In an emergency in Yoho National Park and require Warden Service

Water: 
Pack enough water and know where you can refill along the trail. While it may seem glacier melt should be the most pristine source of water bacteria such as Giardia can ruin your trip in a hurry.  Boil water for at least 1 minute before drinking.  Alternatively, use a filter or purchase tablets to treat the water.  As you’ll be working hard and may be doing so in the heat of the day, it’s a good idea to pack hydration salts as well.

Twin Falls Erosion
Water flowing after Twin Falls.  Better safe than sorry, treat it first!

Prepare: Last but not least, research the area.  Know where you’re going, look at a map (and take it with you), and read a couple different blogs or books.   Leave your itinerary with a friend and in your car.  

Although, the Iceline Trail is not a technically challenging trail, it’s long, and you’re in the backcountry, so it’s best to be careful. If you follow these tips you should be prepared if something goes wrong and you’ll find more enjoyment in your hike!

The Iceline Trail really is a unique and amazing hike.  It’s consistently found on “best of” lists and delivered!  When we did the trail we met groups that had travelled to Yoho from all over the world.  We certainly are privileged to have such stunning beauty so close and accessible from our home in Calgary.  

Hopefully we’ve inspired you to check out this area so we’ll leave you with a packing list to plan your trip.  If you visit Yoho National Park or hike the Iceline Trail tell us about it in the comments or send us a picture.  We’d love to hear your story!  

Iceline Trail Packing List

  • Meals & Snacks
  • Stove, Fuel & Cooking Utensils (Not required if staying at the hut)
  • Tent (Not required if staying at the hut)
  • Sleeping Pad (Not required if staying at the hut)
  • Sleeping Bag, Pillow
  • Backpack
  • Hiking Poles
  • First Aid Kit
  • Map & Trail Directions
  • Permits for campsite and/or hut & give a friend a copy of your itinerary
  • Hiking Boots, Clothes, and a Warm Jacket or Fleece
  • Rain Jacket
  • Hat and/or Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen, Bugspray, Lip Balm
  • Headlamp
  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Water Bottles & Filter or Pristine Tablets
  • Camera
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