This is undoubtedly one of the most popular multi-day backpacking trips in the Canadian Rockies, and for good reason. With impressive waterfalls, gorgeous alpine lakes, and of course the massive limestone rockwall, this hike is unmatched in scenery.
Day 1 – Paint Pots trailhead to Helmet Falls Campground
15 km, Elevation Gain – 350 m
Located in British Columbia’s Kootenay National Park, the Rockwall hike can be done in either direction. We prefer north to south as described because it allows for the amazing views to reveal themselves in front of you.
We began at the trailhead for the Paint Pots. Not far from the parking lot the trail crosses the wide Vermillion River and leads to the ochre coloured Paint Pots. Large puddles and ponds in rich colours contrast the green meadows and trees. Even a small creek bed was deep orange in colour. The ochre was once used by the local indigenous people as pigment for ceremonial body paint.
The rest of the day however, is quite uninspiring as it spends most of its time in the thick forest. We didn’t see much wildlife, but did cross paths with a mom grouse and her babies. She sat motionless on a log as if posing for a picture. Finally we came to an open meadow and had our first glimpse of Helmet Falls in the distance. Our first campsite lies below these impressive falls.
After setting up our tent and having a quick break, we hiked half a kilometre to get a closer look at the powerful Helmet Falls. Enclosed in a cirque, the 352 m tall falls look like they are multi-leveled because of the many rockbands within them causing the water to crash and change its course. It would be worth the hike to just see these falls, as I believe many people do. The best part of Helmet Falls Campground (1800 m) is that you have a great view to these falls from the picnic tables.
Days 2 and 3 – Helmet Falls to Tumbling Creek to Numa Pass Campground
21 km, Elevation Gain – 1,027 m over 3 climbs (400, 275 & 325 m), Elevation Loss – 1260 m over 3 descents (200,350 & 710 m)
This section of the trail can be done in one very long, difficult day, or in two days. After leaving Helmet Falls campground we again passed Helmet Falls and saw it glistening in the morning sun. The trail then begins its ascent up to Rockwall Pass. You hike through thick trees, but once you reach the open meadows below the pass, you will be astounded at the amazing view. In front of you 30 km of sheer limestone cliffs line the side of the rolling, open pass. Hanging glaciers and alpine flowers complete this picture-perfect scene.
There are a few large elevation gains and losses as the trail goes up and down on its way to the pass. At the summit of the wide Rockwall Pass (2240 m), you can see the incredible wall in front, beside and behind. It really is a breathtaking view. In the distance is another Ranger’s cabin that we thought would have been perfect for self-isolation this past spring.
There’s a ½ km side route to Wolverine Pass. It was nice, but not as spectacular as the rest of the day. From Rockwall Pass, we had a steep descent all the way down to Tumbling Creek Campsite (1890 m). It’s a very nice campground with limestone peaks towering above. Many people will stay here over night, but we continued on the trail.
After the campground we had another climb up to Tumbling Pass (2,215 m). Above the pass is Tumbling Glacier which has a commanding presence. The open trail was filled with wildflowers adding to the incredible views. Two trail runners ran by us on the trail. I can’t even imagine being able to run to this pass and back in a day. There were quite a few gophers on the entire pass, but this area was overflowing with chunky Colombia ground squirrels who screeched out warnings as we passed.
The trail quickly descended a knee-jarring 710 m to Numa Creek below. We were more than ready to reach our campground that day (1,505 m). The last time we hiked here, the site was much smaller. The parks department have added a new eating area and quite a few tent sites across the river. We were now lower than our campsite at Helmet Falls and it was much warmer overnight.
Days 4 & 5 – Numa Pass campground to Floe Lake to Hwy 93
Distance 20 km, Elevation Gain – 850 m, Elevation Loss 315 m to Floe Lake, then 715 m to trailhead.
The day begins by slowly climbing through the forest, but soon turns to a steep ascent up to Numa Pass (2,355 m). As soon as you get out of the thick trees you can begin to see the peaks that tower above Floe Lake. Looking back we could see the 30 km long Rockwall and the rest of the Vermillion Range.
Finally, after a long steep climb over 800 m we reached another amazing viewpoint. A tall limestone ridge with lingering snow at its base borders the blue waters of Floe Lake. The views get even better as you descend down the open trail toward the lake. When we were there, the alpine flowers were in full bloom filling the ground with red, pink, purple and yellow. The campground at Floe Lake (2040 m) sits on the side of the lake and is one of the prettiest in the area. Since it’s easy to reach here in a day, it is very popular and often difficult to get a tent site. Many people come to Floe Lake for the night and not continue on the Rockwall Trail.
The trail to return to Highway #93 is almost entirely downhill. Leaving Floe Lake, we are soon hiking through the remnants of a massive forest fire that decimated this area in 2003. We hiked to Floe Lake in 2005. At that time it was depressing to see such so many burned trees. In 2020 it was nice to see the amount of regrowth this area has seen since the fire. As the trail continues it crosses open slopes filled with wild flowers. Four more trail runners passed us on the trail. We didn’t know trail running was so popular in this area. After what feels like a lot more than 10 km, we finally cross the Vermillion River and are at the Floe Lake Trailhead.
Located in Kootenay National Park, the Rockwall Trail is a beautiful trail but also very tough as it has a lot of elevation gain and loss over its length. The trail extends from Helmet Falls to Floe Lake and can be done in either direction, but we prefer ending in Floe Lake. This direction allows you to walk toward the best views for the entire time. You can also access Tumbling Creek and usually Numa Creek Campgrounds from the highway if you don’t want to do the entire length of the hike. Note that in 2020 Numa Creek trail is closed for maintenance. They have no set date to re-open.
Total Distance – 55 km
Total elevation Gain – 2600 m
Note – There are no consistent sources for distances or elevations. Even the Parks Canada signs are inconsistent. Those given in this post are taken from our altimeter for elevation and a combination of sources for distances.
Access – Paint Pots Trailhead is at Paint Pots parking lot on Highway #93 in Kootenay National Park. It’s 12 km north of the Floe Lake parking lot also on Highway #93. You can either leave a car at either end, or do as we did and catch a ride from another hiker or by hitchhiking.
When to hike
The best time to do this hike is between mid-July and late September. When we did this trail a few years ago it was early July. The passes were covered in snow and it was difficult to navigate. In 2020 we did the trail in early August and there was no snow on the trail. Here’s a comparison of the trail in July vs. August.
There are 5 campgrounds between the two access points allowing you to chose the amount of days you want to take. Campgrounds have tent sites, outhouses, bear-proof food lockers and picnic tables. They are situated near running water, but this water must be filtered or treated. Most don’t allow open fires so you need to bring a camping stove. There will be no cell reception at any of the backcountry campgrounds. Due to the craziness of summer 2020, it seems that everyone is backpacking and filling up backcountry campgrounds. We weren’t able to get a spot in Tumbling Creek or Floe Lake and had to complete the trail in 3 days.
Reservations – For this hike, depending on the time of year, you may need to book your campsite a few weeks in advance. You can book and pay at Parks Canada website here
Park Pass – You do require a park pass if you plan on stopping at all inside of Kootenay, Banff, Jasper or Yoho National Parks. Passes can be obtained from the park gates at all entrances in the summer. In winter some ticket booths are closed, but you still require a pass if you intend to stop. They are very diligent at checking parked vehicles in town and at trail heads. These passes are purchased separately from campsites.
Here’s a short video from our hiking and climbing in Canada’s Rockies.
Coming Next: Our Favourite Monkeys in South Asia
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