A drive of 600 kilometers in 7 ½ hours, followed by the hike in.
|Time||1 ¼ hrs|
|Min. Elevation||1868 m|
|Max. Elevation||2014 m|
|Cum. Ascent||290 m|
|Cum. Descent||153 m|
In the end of June a heat dome over the western part of Canada produces scorching, record breaking temperatures of up to 49.6 degrees and causes wildfires all over BC. It makes for a very challenging summer of 2021. Evacuation alerts and orders everywhere and dense smoke rolling in and out that at times makes it hard to breathe and drives air quality numbers to hazardous levels. Actually, by late July most of the country is shrouded in smoke as there are numerous wildfires burning in other provinces, too.
I take my chances with the conditions and go for the hike that I managed to book earlier in April. The northern route via Jasper will bring me to the Mosquito Creek trailhead on the Icefield Parkway in Banff National Park. I leave home early because my first destination is the Mosquito Creek backcountry campground at kilometer five on the Molar Pass trail.
It is very smoky all through the North Thompson valley. Mount Robson is invisible in spite of a cloudless sky. It is quite warm, but the smoke filters the sun and most of its heat. Towards Jasper the air gets lighter with a slight breeze. I can now see some mountains nearby but those in the distance remain veiled by the haze. The further south I come, the better the air gets.
I park in the lot near the Mosquito Creek hostel. Right away I take a first picture: of a mountain with flowers in the foreground and - most importantly - under a blue sky with some nice fluffy clouds. I haven’t seen blue skies for a while.
I shoulder my backpack and cross the bridge towards the Mosquito Creek frontcountry campground. Then I find my way across the busy highway itself and begin the hike along Mosquito Creek.
The trail is lovely, with a very gentle ascent, and leads along the turbulent creek.
Soon I have some nice views of the mountains. The fireweed and other flowers are in full bloom.
After a little over an hour I arrive at the Mosquito Creek campground and find a spot for my tent under the trees. They will protect me from the bad weather that is forecasted for the night. These days, bad weather often enough means heavy thunderstorms. I brought a slice of home-made pizza, so I don’t even have to set up my cooking gear tonight. I talk to a couple who stay at the campground for three days of day-hiking. We exchange some information about the hiking possibilities around here. In the evening it starts drizzling.
Later during the night it rains on and off, but nothing too serious. I have a decent night’s sleep interrupted here and there by the roaring sound of Mosquito Creek.
|Time||3 ½ hrs|
|Incl. breaks||4 ½ hrs|
|Min. Elevation||1991 m|
|Max. Elevation||2603 m|
|Cum. Ascent||811 m|
|Cum. Descent||626 m|
It has been a warm night; I did not even need to close my tent flaps as the fly kept the rain out. At one point in the morning the rain stops long enough to make a move for breakfast. I even manage to pack up while it stays dry. There is not much choice than to move along to the next campground in spite of the gray skies. I hope for some views from North Molar Pass, with 2600 m one of the highest points in the Rockies to be reached by a proper trail. The air is moist, almost free of smoke. I haven’t been breathing nice fresh air in a while.
The trail continues along Mosquito Creek and I keep an eye out for the old camp of the Skyline Hikers of the Rocky Mountains. This is where in 2010 my passion for alpine hiking started. After about 20 minutes and about 1.2 kilometers down the trail I discover a faint side trail towards the creek. This must be it. The forest opens into meadows. The eastern cliffs of the mighty Noseeum Mountain become visible to my right.
Soon I reach a fork in the trail: North Molar Pass on the left and (South) Molar Pass to the right. The Fish Lakes campground is down the other side of North Molar Pass, so this is where I am headed today.
The pretty flowers that border small creeks trickling through the open forest make more than up for the dull skies.
When I finally reach the wide open North Molar meadows, I am awed by its vast carpets of bright yellow Mountain Arnica interspersed by large pockets of pink Fireweed. The impressive peak of The Fang (or Houndstooth) dominates the scenery. It is a remarkable 2408 m peak on the ridge between North and South Molar Pass.
At a sizable tarn in the middle of the meadow (Mosquito Tarn), I keep to its right shore when the trail suddenly ends. I check my map and realize that I have missed the crossing of the tarn’s outflow. I hop over some rocks and re-discover the trail on the other side of the tarn. Two hikers approach. It turns out that they are from Parks Canada and on the return from an investigative trip. They wanted to interview hikers in the Fish Lakes area and particularly in the Devon Lakes area beyond. They found plenty of people at the campground but none in the Pipestone Valley and beyond. As I am going to day-hike this area, they are happy to count me into their studies. Mostly they want to know my opinion about the camping infrastructure and how I got to know about the hikes in this remote area. They have a lot of advice and show me some nice pictures on their cell phones.
When I continue on my way, bad weather moves in from the valley. At first it looks like it is just fog catching up with me, but on my way further up to North Molar Pass it starts to drizzle. A group of ten young hikers comes down the pass and they tell me that I will have the campground to myself. Not something I am keen on in grizzly bear country. It seems that many people have cancelled their hiking trips because of smoke and bad weather. There seem to always be some vacant spots now in the campgrounds which were so hard to book in early April.
The final ascent to the pass is a bit of a slog through gravel. The trail is narrow and steep but well-trodden. I think it would be visible even in a white-out. Too wet for taking any pictures, I cross over the pass and walk down the other side. Here it starts raining in earnest and the mountains have disappeared in the low hanging clouds. I can always hope for views on a sunny return trip. Still, I don’t mind the rain all that much. In spite of the altitude, it is quite warm and the air is clean. I worry about my hiking boots, though. They are soaking wet by now.
I reach a deserted Fish Lakes campground and immediately put up my tent under some trees. It is still wet from last night and does not suffer much more from the light rain during setup. Covered in my poncho, I sit at the lake to have a late lunch. Even in this weather it is a serene and beautiful place.
Being wet and sitting still, makes me feel cold after a while. I disappear into the tent and change out of my wet clothes. The rain becomes heavy at times. I start worrying whether I brought enough changes of clothes, especially socks. It doesn’t look like I will be drying things on the clothes line any time soon. My boots are a mess. I keep them in the tent vestibule, but discover soon that a rivulet is running through there. None of the tent pads in the Fish Lakes campground are level and they are prone to flooding. That would have been something to tell the Park rangers, had I known about it then. I find some rocks to put under the boots and keep them out of the pooling water. In the other vestibule I leave the wet poncho, gaiters and rain pants to their fate. On top of staying wet they will get even muddier.
Cooking dinner in this rain is out of the question. I cannot get more of my stuff wet. So I eat a cold meal of beef crumbs with broccoli that I had started re-hydrating in the morning, with a nutrition bar on the side. Oh well, this is camping on its downside. Most of the time I am lucky enough, and it is only one rainy day out of four or five sunny ones.
Late in the evening I hear other campers setting up their tent. At least I am not by myself out here any longer. During the night I hear a howling sound nearby. It’s not a wild animal: the hikers have a husky dog who is having a bad dream. Most importantly, the rain stops at some point in time during the night.
|Time||4 ½ hrs|
|Min. Elevation||2137 m|
|Max. Elevation||2325 m|
|Cum. Ascent||749 m|
|Cum. Descent||749 m|
The next morning the sky seems to be blue, sort of. There is a lot of fog in the air and it is not clear how much of it is smoke. Nevertheless, Fish Lake shows all its beauty now.
Everything around us is wet. My hiking clothes are, too. I stay in my sleeping clothes for now. I am exhausted from yesterday’s climb over the 2600 m pass and not having eaten properly. A hot cereal with lots of dried fruit and a strong coffee bring me back to life. The sunrise is amazing. The sun’s redness however is a sign of smoke in the air. At least I don’t smell any.
The couple that arrived late yesterday got caught hiking in the rain and their stuff is also wet. The picnic area by the lake gets the sun first, and we bring some of our gear from the shaded campsites down here to dry. As the sun gets stronger, I am putting on the damp hiking clothes with my warm black fleece jacket on top. This way they can dry on my body. My boots are drying on my feet, too. The spare pair of socks helps a while against the unpleasant feel of wet feet.
While the couple debate which way they will head off for their next destination, I decide to have a second breakfast. I will only day-hike today and it is still very foggy in that direction, so no rush to get anywhere fast. I cook the couscous with Thai sauce that was supposed to be part of my dinner last night. After the second meal I feel up to shape again. I string up a clothing line for my wettest shirt. I don’t dare to leave essential stuff hanging outside while I am away, because a porcupine was spotted in the campground.
While the other two will backtrack over North Molar Pass and follow the South Molar trail to reach their next camp at Molar Creek, I take my chances with the Pipestone Valley. The trail does not actually go through the valley but clings to its western highline. It starts at the Fish Lakes cabin, a comfortable hut for the rangers when visiting the area.
I fill up my water bottles at the creek and begin my hike with a crossing that gets my boots even wetter. I am glad that I am wearing only a daypack. Fortunately it will be the only tricky creek crossing for today.
The trail climbs up the treed side of the valley. The flowers are delightful and the mist is lifting, too. It appears that there wasn’t much smoke in the air after all.
Soon I reach Moose Lake, a very pretty alpine lake.
There is even a loon calling the lake home.
The view opens into the vast Pipestone Valley. Not many hikers find their way into this remote area. I feel elated to be one of the lucky few.
There are a few more creek crossings, but all of them have rocks to step on. Only one of them needs a little bit of route finding to keep the boots dry.
Behind the creek I meet the only other hiker for today, and he is on his way over Pipestone and Clearwater passes to the Devon Lakes. Because of my late start, I won’t make it that far, not even to Pipestone Pass which was the destination I originally had hoped for. Instead I take my time to take it all in. This valley is just magnificent.
On a knoll that provides me with spectacular views ahead to Pipestone and Clearwater passes, I have my lunch break. I decide to make this my turnaround point, so I have a nice long rest here. I even take off my boots to give them every chance to get dry. They are not too bad right now.
On my return trip the skies seem hazier because I look into the sun now. The tarn yet again captures my attention, as it is so pretty against the backdrop of the mountains.
Further down yet another tarn adorns the meadows.
When returning to the Fish Lakes Cabin, I fill up my water bottles again. A bit further down on the trail I take the turnoff to Lower Fish Lake. After only half a kilometer the lake comes into view. The terrain around it is more open and rugged than Upper Fish Lake with the campground on its shore.
I catch a glimpse of Cataract Peak, the most unique peak around, unfortunately still somewhat obscured by the haze.
The campground is filling up tonight, every site is taken. I am relieved that all my gear is dry again, even the boots. My spare socks can go back into the pack and my other pair has dried while dangling on the outside of my backpack during the hike. My tent was not raided by the porcupine, as I had left everything hanging up at the bear pole that might have the faintest smell of sweat, food or soap. Everyone enjoys a pleasant warm and dry evening at the picnic tables. The campsites here are very close together, so it takes a while until the different noises settle down and ease into snoring.
|Time||3 ½ hrs|
|Incl. breaks||6 hrs|
|Min. Elevation||1991 m|
|Max. Elevation||2603 m|
|Cum. Ascent||631 m|
|Cum. Descent||809 m|
I wake up to another spectacular sun rise, the sun even redder this morning. I am first at the picnic tables and enjoy a quiet breakfast.
I am ready for the trail when most of the others start cooking breakfast. Some are staying for a day hike like I did yesterday. I hit the trail just ahead of two girls who I will meet again and again on the way over North Molar Pass back to Mosquito Lake campground. I climb up above Fish Lake and wave it a last good-bye. I will be back as soon as I can to explore this remarkable area some more.
With the sunshine today, I delight in the surroundings of North Molar Pass. What a difference it makes to the rainy hike in.
Slowly but steadily I approach North Molar Pass.
Here is the first glimpse of the pass to the right. The red coloured pinnacles on the ridge are fascinating.
To the east of North Molar Pass you look up at Molarstone Mountain. Its top, at 2880 m, is a 45 minute scramble right from the pass. Not today with a big backpack, though. A little further down I have spotted a family of Hoary Marmots who were just waiting for someone to leave their pack behind.
On looking back, the main peak of Molar Mountain shows above the rock wall of its outlier.
Finally I reach the cornice of North Molar Pass. Some ambitious hikers scramble up to the ridge here and walk past The Pinnacles and The Fang all the way to South Molar Pass. To me the nose of this ridge seems impassable, unless you are a mountaineer or completely unafraid of heights.
The views towards the meadow and the peaks that surround Mosquito Creek Valley are staggering.
After I have taken it all in, I begin the decent from the pass.
Soon Noseeum Mountain takes over the scenery.
Some interesting pinnacles on the eastern slopes of the valley catch my eye. They are part of Molarstone Mountain.
I have a long break by the tarn. It is still early and the views here are priceless. A gap in the eastern slopes opens a shortcut into the Pipestone Valley or - if the steep descent on the other side is not for you - a viewpoint of Pipestone Pass. A future adventure might bring me up there.
The Dolomites loom over the western end of the Mosquito Creek Valley
On returning through the beautiful meadows with their carpets of arnica, I meet a family with two young children on their way to the Fish Lakes. They look happy and I am amazed that the kids are up for such a strenuous hike.
I reach the campground shortly before the two girls who started out with me at Upper Fish Lake. They decide to stay overnight for a good rest after all. Four of the five campsites are taken. Later that afternoon thunder rumbles in the distance. It looks like a storm is moving in, but for a long time nothing but a few drops of rain materializes. Cooking dinner remains a mostly dry affair. I am tired enough to have an early and good night’s sleep in spite of the children from the neighbouring tent playing hide and seek between the boulders until darkness falls. One heavier shower of rain comes down eventually accompanied by some more thunder. After that the only sound comes from the creek rushing by.
|Incl. breaks||6 ½ hrs|
|Min. Elevation||1988 m|
|Max. Elevation||2527 m|
|Cum. Ascent||1060 m|
|Cum. Descent||1027 m|
The sun shines again in the morning and for the first time the night had a bit of a chill to it. With nothing to pack up, I am on the trail early to explore the South Molar Pass area. It takes me about an hour to get to the fork between North and South Molar Pass trails. The valley that leads up to South Molar Pass is very different from the open meadows on the other side: much lusher vegetation and many more trees. The trail winds through forest that is interspersed by flower meadows. It is quite narrow at times. I cannot see what is ahead of me and so I start making lots of noise. This is prime grizzly country and it is not a good idea to surprise one of them on the trail.
I am walking directly below Noseeum Mountain. The fireweed is the tall kind, different from the dwarfed Mountain Fireweed found on the North Molar meadows.
The trail ascends gradually. I arrive at the bottom of a beautiful cascade that meanders through the flowers. I recognize it from ten years ago when I came here with the Skyline Hikers. We called it the Japanese Garden. The flowers were partially covered in new snow at the time which was quite attractive, too.
From here the trail becomes steep, climbs out of the valley and offers a spectacular view.
South Molar Pass is just ahead of me. A hiker comes down the trail and I recognize him from my day hike to Pipestone Pass. He has spent a night at Devon Lakes and the next at Molar Creek campground, doing a clockwise loop this way. He hasn’t seen another soul on his way.
From a distance I see the silhouette of another hiker against the sun. He is sitting up at the pass and having lunch. When I approach, he tells me about the grizzly bear. He had an encounter with one right on the narrow trail winding through the trees, while hiking just 30 minutes ahead of me. Fortunately, it was a good bear: startled for a moment - as the hiker was - and then it took off immediately. I thank him profoundly for taking care of it.
We continue along the trail together for a while. The fireweed grows in particularly thick patches here.
My fellow hiker is very knowledgeable about this area and points out the landmarks to me. He lives close by and hikes here often. His dad has German background and comes from the same town as I do. What a small world! Eventually I stop for lunch by a creek that we cross, while he continues on to find a certain lake further down the trail.
After lunch I follow up on my plan to explore a way to access The Fang from this side of the Molar ridge. My old Skyline Hikers map shows a route that I want to try. I follow the creek up towards the mountain. The creek is a good landmark for orientation, so I cannot get lost.
Higher up, the views get even better. Noseeum Moutain is dominating yet again. Behind it is Mount Andromache with its glacier named Molar Glacier.
I finally catch a glimpse of Molar Mountain itself against a hazy sky.
It is quite easy to hike up the meadow, the backside of The Fang always in focus. The meadows end where the big boulder fields begin.
I follow the edge of a big pile of boulders and reach a small tarn. From here I can even see Mount Hector and Little Hector peek out behind Mont Andromache.
I figure that the best way to actually reach The Fang would be to scramble up right here.
The final outcrop of this rock formation consists of unstable boulders. On a future clear day, I might try and reach the Molar ridge at the base of those boulders from here.
I return the same way I came and halfway down the hill I meet my companion again. We walk cross-country through the meadows until we descend steeply to the trail, meeting it just below South Molar Pass.
Back on the official trail, we part ways. I have a rest on a knoll next to where the trail drops sharply into the valley. I watch my companion’s descent from here.
It is still a long way back to the campground. Fortunately, no more bear encounters. At the campground, the family with the two young kids have returned from the Fish Lakes. They don’t look so happy any more, especially the ten year old son. They have hung all their stuff out on a line to dry. They had a terrible thunderstorm during their night at the Fish Lakes campground. Their tent flooded badly and most of their stuff got wet. The tent got so muddy that they had to clean it in the lake before packing up. They are having supper while things dry out. The son is adamant that they not spend another night camping. His little sister seems mellower, but the son gets his wish. By 5 pm they are gone. Fortunately the highway is only a little more than an hour away.
The campground is almost deserted again. There is only one other tent up for the night. For some reason the creek’s roaring feels louder tonight, and wakes me up many times during the night.
|Time||1 ¼ hrs|
|Min. Elevation||1868 m|
|Max. Elevation||2014 m|
|Cum. Ascent||153 m|
|Cum. Descent||290 m|
In the morning the smoke has returned; one more reason to abandon the idea of another day-hike today. I would have to return to South Molar Pass for an additional explore or try the side valley towards the Dolomites. Both would be a full day of hiking, too much if I still want to hike out and drive on. I decide to break camp and leave for home.
I am making such good time that I don’t even consider stopping overnight in Golden, but drive straight home. The smoke gets thicker and is worst around Glacier National Park and Revelstoke. Fortunately there are no road closures, and near Chase the air clears. It stays good all the rest of the way home. I am happy that I beat the odds and enjoyed a great hiking adventure in spite of the smoke and the fires all around.