In the summer of 2013, we elected to make Jasper National Park’s famed Brazeau Loop Trail our longest backpack trip of the season. This trail is considered the “grand tour” of the southern part of the park and winds its way through a diverse selection of alpine and sub-alpine terrain, including traversing three mountain passes. It also passes by Brazeau Lake, which is one of the largest backcountry lakes in the park. Being that the trail is 80 kilometers long, we opted for a five day, four night trip, as that would give us a bit of exploration time at some of the campsites we had planned to stay at.
As had happened the year prior on our trip to the Rockwall Trail, heavy rains and bad weather once again necessitated having to alter our plans. One of the main bridges on the largest river south of Brazeau Lake had been washed out and Parks Canada did advise avoiding the area unless you were willing to brave the crossing without the bridge. After speaking to Parks Canada, we decided on a trip to the Jonas Cutoff camp on the western part of the trail where we would then base camp for a couple of days and explore and hike the area. It would still be a two day trip to the Jonas camp and we would then spend two nights there, before returning on the same route via Jonas Pass.
We spent the night prior to hitting the trail at the tent site near the Columbia Icefields visitor centre, which is one of our favourite front country campgrounds, particularly since it is tent only and it’s not spoiled by loud and noisy RV’s, trailers, generators, and so on. Sites like this are few and far between these days in the front country. Throw in a great view of the Icefields and looming Mount Athabasca and it’s pretty hard to beat.
As usual on these sorts of trips, we got an early start from the Nigel Pass parking area on the day we made our way out. It was also a nice and sunny day which is always great for getting one in the mood for an extended stay in the backcountry. Say what you will but there is no doubt it’s a bit harder to get started on a rainy day.
Our first day was getting to the Four Point campground which was about 18 km from the trailhead and did include a climb up and over Nigel Pass along the way. It’s not a particularly difficult stretch of trail but you do spend much of the first part of the day climbing to the top of the pass.
Nigel Pass is in interesting section of trail. Once you climb above the trees on the western side of the pass, you then immediately descend for a crossing over a river at the bottom of the valley. Being that we did this in August, the river was quite low which was good as there is no bridge here; in high water, it would likely be much more challenging. After crossing the river, we then climbed back up again on the other side where is the a big contrast in the terrain. On the west side, it’s lush and green. On the east side, it was nothing but boulders and barren stretches of rock until you begin to wind back down on the east side of the pass. There is also a junction here that will lead intrepid backpackers or hikers to the White Goat Protected Area.
Crossing Nigel Pass itself is only a couple of kilometers in length. Along the way, we did come to some excellent view points where we could enjoy the valley below us to the east.
Once we had descended the eastern pass, we weaved through the meadows following the river for a bit before reaching the Boulder Creek campsite. This is a small site with only four tent pads but it is quite nice and there are some good views to be had of the nearby peaks. After leaving the camp, the next few kilometers are in the trees until we reached the Four Points camp.
Four Points camp is pretty standard for a Parks Canada site; tent pads, bear poles, tables, and a couple of outhouses. Everything and more for the average backpacker. However, it also had some of the less desirable elements of backpacking; the backcountry assholes, as we call them. These are the sort of people who disregard signs, notices, and often common sense in order to do whatever the hell they want. In this case, it was the group who decided that they were entitled to have a campfire because they were in the backcountry and it was their God given right to do whatever the hell they pleased, signs notwithstanding. That also included cutting branches off of a live trees and trying to unsuccessfully burn their garbage.
As anyone can probably guess, when people try to burn garbage and it’s not fully consumed, they will then leave it behind. And this group was no exception. Regrettably, Four Points site was a bit of a garbage dump as there was garbage scattered in almost every old fire ring and even hanging in garbage bags from the bear poles. We guess some people figure their mama is going to come out later and clean up after them. We cleaned up what we could but there was no feasible way for us to pack all the garbage out.
Anyway, the rain and thunder really moved in that night so we had an early night and spent much of it reading in the tent.
While it wasn’t raining on us in the morning, it had rained for most of the night which meant we had the joy of packing a wet tent for the day. This day’s plan was for us to make the 19km section along Jonas Pass to the Jonas Cutoff camp. For the most part, we expected to climb much of the day with the high point being going up and over the Jonas Shoulder.
Entering Jonas Pass, we were still in the trees but it’s not long before we began the slow and steady climb into the subalpine meadows that follow the valley. This is among our favourite kind of terrain as once you are above the trees, you can usually enjoy good long views unobstructed by trees. We did get lightly rained on several times and we could see storms passing by us to the north and south throughout the day. Hours later, we crested the pass and began to get some great views of Sunwapta Peak.
After the top of the pass, we started descending awhile until we reached the steep section leading to the top of the Jonas Shoulder. Jonas Creek and the valley stretched before us towards the north and the Waterfall Peaks.
The trail to the Jonas Shoulder was a relatively short but steep stretch that took us to the highest part of this trip, coming in at 2450 meters at the top. On this day, however, it was grey, gloomy and cold so we did not linger long. We descended on the eastern side into Pobokton Pass for the last five kilometers to the Jonas Cutoff camp.
Arriving at camp in the rain and mud, we found only one other group was there for the night. That meant there were plenty of pads to choose from so we waited for a break in the rain and quickly set up our tent and got our gear stashed. The rain was unrelenting for most of the night but the other group was nice enough to leave their tarp over a table and let us use it once they all retired for the evening. This allowed us to make dinner and spend a bit of time relaxing outside of the tent until we were ready to call it a night.
Our third day actually started out with sunshine so we were quick to take advantage of the warmth and get our stuff hanging out to dry. As we were staying at this site for two nights, it was good to not have to worry about packing everything up and hitting the trail this day. We also had some cleaning and wiping down for our tent as the pads were quite muddy and much of the tent’s fly was splattered by mud from the heavy rains that persisted through the night. We also took over one of the tables and tarped it up quite nicely so that we had a dry place to cook, eat, and play games. Unluckily for us, we also had the joy of changing out the barrel on the crapper as detailed in an earlier post, Doing Your Business in the Backcountry.
Our only plan on this day was a hike around in the area and maybe hit some of the waterfalls to the north of us. In a short time, the other group packed up and headed on their way, which left the entire site to us until a group of teenagers rolled in later in the day. They were quite quiet and we barely saw them, though.
After some nice sunshine in the earlier part of the day, it once again started to rain,with thundershowers coming through every once in a while all day. In the end, we did not go hiking from here and just elected to hang out, play games, and read. Occasionally a group would come by on their way to another camp and we would get caught up on the stories of various parts of the trail that people had been traveling along. We were particularly interested in the sections we decided to skip due to missing bridges and got several different stories about how hard it was to get around. Some people said it was a piece of cake, and some groups said it was difficult and required some serious bushwhacking and/or fording of the Brazeau River. It seemed to be a bit of luck all depending on where you tried to get across the river.
The fourth day on the trail once again started with sunshine after a relatively dry night. This was a good thing as we did not have to pack any wet gear for our trip back down the trail. For this day, we had to make the 22km to the Boulder Creek camp as the Four Points camp was fully booked. Fortunately much of the day would be a descent back down Jonas Pass once we got over Jonas Shoulder.
Sometimes old injuries come back to haunt you and this was a the day where I had one hell of a time getting up the Shoulder. Somewhere in the past, I had injured my right knee and on this day, it constantly reminded me that it wasn’t happy. On the plus side, we had wonderfully sunny day with perfect temperatures for backpacking in. It was nice to not be rained on for once on this trip, so once we got back to the top, we were greeted with some the best views along the whole trail.
We took this opportunity to relax at the top for a bit and enjoy the spendour of Sunwapta Peak to the west of us.
It was a wonderful contrast between the sky, the green of the meadows below, and the many layered colours of the mountains.
From the pass, it was all business for the rest of the day as we pushed our way to the camp. Eventually we reached the Four Points camp, only to find that no one had yet arrived, so it was completely quiet and empty. While it was very tempting to just stop at this point for the night, we knew the site was fully booked and we had to load the packs back on our backs and continue our way to Boulder Creek.
We arrived at Boulder Creek late in the afternoon and found that we were the first and only people there for a couple of hours until other groups slowly started to trickle in. This camp was a surprisingly nice place to spend the night and we found it very pleasant to sit down by the river in the evening and enjoy the sunset. Granted, the fact that was the first day we didn’t get rained on went a long ways towards putting us in high spirit.
With morning, it was a quick pack as we were eager to finish off the last 11km on our fifth day out and get back to Jasper.
We once again enjoyed the traversal up and over Nigel Pass, where we could see in the direction of the Columbia Icefields and Parker Ridge.
Shortly afterwards, we arrived back at our vehicles and concluded yet another great backpack trip. It was unfortunate that we were not able to complete the entire loop as we would have really liked to have gotten out to Brazeau Lake. We figure that at some point, we will come back and have another go at this trail in the future. We read that a couple of weeks after we did this trail, crews were in and built a new bridge over the Brazeau River so, with luck, the next time we come back here it won’t be washed away again.