The last week of September is a peak moment for hikers with the legs to trek high into the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia. While forest-fire season is waning in the high country, the landscape has burst into a blaze of fall colors. Huckleberry bushes are crimson, mountain ash berries are brilliant orange and the alpine larch are coming out of obscurity to steal the show.
A rugged forestry road northeast of Nelson and Kootenay Lake gives hikers access to three routes that lead to one of the most accessible and stunning visuals of the golden larch show against a backdrop of skyscraping glacier-studded peaks.
Each hike – 4 to 8 miles round trip each – is worthy of an overnight trip. But savvy hikers can get the most from the road trip by bagging all three in a two-day weekend.
The three routes lead to Monica Meadows, Jumbo Pass and – for hikers with an inner mountain goat to satisfy – Macbeth Ice Fields.
Monica Meadows is the easiest and most enjoyable of the hikes, although you still pay the price of quickly gaining more than 1,000 feet in elevation toward elevations above 7,000 feet. The reward is an unbeatable spectacle of meadows, tarns and larch against a giant panorama of glaciers and peaks up to 10,000 feet.
Incidentally, pause for a moment just to savor the scenery from the trailhead. Enjoy the raven’s-eye view from 6,000 feet south across Glacier Creek to the Horseshoe Glacier, which is guarded by numerous sentinels between Emperor Peak to the west and Blockhead Mountain to the east and a supporting cast with names such as Squabble and Quibble peaks along with Covenant, Truce and Tranquility mountains.
Jumbo Pass is reached by a consistently uphill route that delivers hikers to a sudden breathtaking view of peaks and valleys. The bonus: Plan ahead and reserve the Jumbo Pass Cabin online at www.cvhsinfo.org.
Macbeth Ice Fields is the most varied and most rugged hike. A sign at the trailhead warns the route is for “experienced hikers only.” Expect to devote about nine hours for the 7- to 8-mile round trip.
But this is the best autumn in years to take the challenge. The route, often neglected, is cleared and the Kootenay Forest District has shown new commitment to the trail by installing a new aluminum footbridge over the icy glacial waters of Birnam Creek.
The hike starts with a stiff climb into an ancient rainforest and settles into a flat respite along a meadow and stream before heading uphill in the early trajectory of a Titan missile.
By the time you go up and down this section, your legs will crave flat ground in the same way your throat begs for water after wandering in the desert without a canteen.
Safe travel on the upper ice fields requires special skill and gear. But even off the ice, the payoff is being alone among glaciers, tarns, lakes and deafening waterfalls with room to scramble endlessly to new discoveries.