Trip Report: GDT Section C August 2021 Days 3 and 4

Section C of the Great Divide Trail according to most information is a hair over 200km of hiking trails running through mostly National Parks. I’ve been dreaming about this hike for 3 years, and I finally got to go, despite my hiking partner once again canceling on me, because my wife signed up to go with me! You can read about our first two days on trail here.

The original plan was to take days 3 and 4 very easy, so that if my wife, who is new to long-distance hiking, needed time to recover from her first two passes she would have it. However, I had the feeling that because day 3 would have been flat valley-bottom walking, we may have a shot at combining days 2 and 3. The original plan for days 3 and 4 were:

  • Day 3: Palliser Pass (HOTR) over Palliser Pass to Birdwood Camp (Banff National Park, AB) – 11km, 100m ascent, 150m descent
  • Day 4: Birdwood to Marvel Lake Camp (Banff) – 14km, 50m descent, 50m ascent

But since we finished Day 2 at Burstall Camp (3km south of Birdwood), we had almost accomplished the combining of the two days and were ahead of schedule!

This opened up a few options.

  • Option 1: extend our time in Banff (night 6) between legs and give ourselves a true zero day instead of a nearo (and pulling 20km to get to Banff isn’t exactly restful), or
  • Option 2: take an extra day in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. I had planned ahead and booked a spot at Magog Lake (I had been efforting Og Lake to skip Porcupine, but no sites at Og ever came open) just in case we did combine the two days.

In order to extend the Banff stay to a true zero, we would have had to camp at all subsequent campsites a day early, and risk the wrath of angry rangers, and fines for not having campsites booked. Granted, we had already done that once with Burstall, but the empty campground meant we didn’t feel guilty in the least. I had tried to book, they told us there was none, and that was a lie so…

Our final decision was to go for Magog. The distance from Burstall to Marvel Lake would have been 20km. Probably doable, but we decided to just set out and see how far we get.

It turned out that the walking was pretty easy, but the hard push to Burstall had given Cheryl some concerns, and her shoulder straps were causing some pain. We fiddled throughout the day with them and finally found a setting that worked for her. Sadly, our socks were hardly drier than when we bedded down. We wrung them out as much as we could, and then the dew began assaulting them again.

That grass… soaked the feet in seconds. But the walking was otherwise easy. You can barely make out the ranger cabin on the right where the trail points.

Along the way, we passed the ranger cabin at Birdwood, but nobody was home. Then we passed Birdwood camp, which was very nice. We would not have felt bad about staying there, but 3km into our day we weren’t ready to stop. We pushed on.

Lunch with the pack off… and our backs to a tree.

After lunching at the Palliser River bridge, the intermittent sun today had finally begun to dry off our backup socks and the dew on the grassy path. We made it to the trail connection to Spray Lakes, and the trail turned into a gravel “road” wide enough for a quad. This area sees a lot of hike traffic, and apparently is also a mountain bike route, though we didn’t see any.

My dogs is tired and my socks need dryin’

We decided to end our day at Big Springs, which was a good stretch and we felt positive about giving ourselves a few extra hours without packs to get ready for the climb up Wonder Pass the next day. A series of texts through our Garmin InReach to my mother-in-law secured us a camping permit for Big Springs, so we were legal too! We explored the short track along the creek to see where it explodes out of the side of the mountain – it truly is a big spring!

It’s gonna be a loooong way up Wonder Pass

We met a nice couple new to backpacking at the campground, who were planning to hike into Assiniboine the next day. After reports of a sow Grizzly and her cub playing at the top of the pass, we decided to hike together. The next morning we set off, with dry socks for the first time since we left Kananaskis.

Passing through Marvel Lake camp, it would have been a nice place to stay too but it was another 5k up the trail. Glad we stopped when we did.

The climb up Marvel Pass was all we expected in terms of challenge, and we peered nervously at the snow accumulations on the mountainsides all around us. Sure enough, as we reached the last km before the pass, the snow was coating the ground around us. The sweaty climb kept the chill off, and as we descended through the gorgeous larch-covered subalpine, we just soaked in the beauty, despite the clouds obscuring the mountain everyone comes to see.

Wonder Pass 2394m (7850 feet) – our third pass!

We arrived at the lodge just in time for 4pm tea, and enjoyed a beverage on the porch. It couldn’t have been more than +2 Celsius (35 F) but it felt good to know we were only a km or two from our evening destination.

Mount Assiniboine hiding out in a fogbank… or is it snowbank?

We selected campsites close to a covered eating area and enjoyed some warm food and companionship at the busy campground. It was a great decision to end here rather than push for Porcupine. We would discover how great that decision truly was the next day, when it was all we could do to get there with a full day put in. But that story will be in the next post. We didn’t get to see Mount Assiniboine today, and it would be a chilly night overnight, down to -5 or so. But despite the cold night, we felt a sense of accomplishment making it here.

Actual Hike:

  • Day 3: Burstall to Big Springs (Banff NP) – 15km, negligible ascent and descent
  • Day 4: Big Springs over Wonder Pass to Magog Lake (Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, BC) – 16km, 600m ascent, 100m descent

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