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Friday, 25 March 2016

10 Passes to Cross the Canadian Rockies

My preferred definition of a mountain pass is a low point that can be used to cross a mountain range between two drainages. Many of them are high notches between peaks or ridges that can be seen from miles away. Others are less well defined and one may cross them without really knowing exactly where the pass is (unless you carry a GPS unit or an altimeter).

If you want to hike across the Rocky Mountains, you must use a series of passes in order to do so. There are 10 passes that can be used to complete the “Walls of Stone” traverse of the Central Canadian Rockies. What follows is a list of them, with a brief description of each one.

1. Tombstone Pass - 2231 m, Alternate route; "Piper" Pass - 2553m
This pass itself isn’t very interesting, but if you divert to Tombstone Lakes they are very scenic. We had originally planned on the more ambitious crossing of higher “Piper “Pass (between the West Arm of the Little Elbow, and lovely Piper Creek) but bad weather and low clouds forced us to take the lower option.

2. Elbow Pass - 2100 m
More hikers cross this pass than any other in Kananaskis Country. The pass itself isn’t a destination, but it provides access from (or in our case, egress to) Highway 40. Some excellent subalpine and alpine country lies to the east of the pass. Most folks use it to visit pretty Elbow Lake.

3. North Kananaskis Pass - 2368 m
This notch between Mounts Beatty and Maude sits astride the Continental Divide and was my personal favorite of the entire expedition. A hoary marmot greeted me at the alpine meadows, next to Maude Lake. It provides passage between the Kananaskis River drainage on the Alberta side to the Palliser River in B.C. and is certainly a destination in its own right.

4. Palliser Pass - 2105 m
The area around the pass is interesting enough, with four lakes in the immediate vicinity. It sits on the Great Divide between the Upper Palliser River and the open valley of the Spray River in southern Banff National Park. It is close by to the more often visited Burstall Pass.

5. Wonder Pass - 2381 m, Alternate route; Assiniboine Pass -2193 m
Another highlight of the trip, this high pass is often visited as a destination in itself. It can be used to provide access across the Great Divide to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. Alpine flowers are in abundance near the summit and there are amazing views in every direction.

6. Ferro Pass - 2289 m
We had seen this as a necessary, but uninspiring route into the Simpson River drainage and Kootenay National Park, but we couldn’t have been more wrong about this less visited, but scenic pass. It was one of the surprises of our journey across the Rockies. The views from the interesting narrow pass were well worth the ascent. In late July beautiful subalpine flower meadows were in full bloom just to the north of the pass itself.

7.  Numa Pass - 2355 m
This is the pass that should have been the highlight of our journey, but terrible weather caused us to cut short our visit to these expansive alpine meadows. If the weather is good, I am sure a visit would be well worth the serious effort required to get to this spot along the Rockwall Trail. For us it was a day of drudgery.

8. Tumbling Pass - 2210 m
A tramp up a long avalanche slope leads to some high meadows surrounded by rocky scree and talus slopes, with views of the Rockwall. Waterfalls, glaciers, moraines and a glacial lake make all the effort involved well worthwhile.

9. Wolverine Pass - 2210 m
For us, this spectacular gateway through The Rockwall, was utilized to exit the Rockwall Trail and make our way down into the Beaverfoot Valley. The alpine area around this pass and leading to nearby Rockwall Pass looked amazing and would certainly bear more future exploration.

10. Harrogate Pass -2127 m
This virtually unused historic pass is one of the few ways that the Western (Beaverfoot) Range of the Canadian Rocky Mountains can be traversed. For our expedition, this is the infamous and uncrossed “Tenth Pass”. It was a question mark throughout our entire backpack trip and it still remains an enigma due to time constraints and lack of an obvious route. It appears to be unlike the other wind-swept, open passes. It looks to be clogged with trees and it is surrounded by cut-blocks and impenetrable British Columbia bush. I am determined however to revisit this location and attempt a crossing, in order to prove that my “Walls of Stone” route across the Canadian Rocky Mountains is viable. Stay tuned!


  1. As usual, I wish I could complete even part of the traverse you and Don did. I'm following your accounts with great interest.

  2. I've crossed only one of these passes and it was a