How We Nailed Our Rockies Road Trip

We were on the tail end of our two week road trip as we wound down the canyon, sneaking views of foaming green water fed by the high glacial lakes we’d hiked amongst in the days before. The Kicking Horse River did a noble job trying to draw our attention away from the snow-covered peaks looming above, but soon our darting eyes lay fixed on the valley cradling our home for the night - Golden. 

Having driven well over 2,000 miles north along the spine of the Rockies up to this point, we’d been through our share of mountain towns - from the speck on Google Maps in Montana where we prayed the gas station on the screen still existed as the gas light glowed, to the fur-lined, five-diamond villages that made our #TruckLife selves feel a bit uneasy. But as soon as we stepped into the local watering hole and found that the laid back folks inside actually knew each other and didn’t mind talking to us, Chris and I agreed this was our kind of mountain town. 

The Canadian Rockies blow everywhere else I’ve been out of the water when it comes to access in the mountains, and for my money there’s no basecamp better situated for exploration than Golden. It’s in the middle of six national parks (which, don’t forget, are FREE next year), five of which we visited on our trip. Not to mention the plethora of activities in town. 

We timed our trip in the shoulder season to enjoy its many benefits - no crowds, great color, and comfortable weather. Had we visited a month earlier, we could have gone hang gliding, mountain biking, rafting, or strolled alpine ridges with gondola access. A month later and we could have ski toured Rogers Pass, ripped in-bounds at Kicking Horse, or cross country skied the endless valleys that rise out of the area. Proud, yet humble, Golden provided the vibes and location needed to finish our journey strong. 

For us, this was a hiking trip - and snagging an off-season reservation at the Elizabeth Parker Hut in Yoho National Park just up the road gave us access to maybe the best hiking of my life. After a night of boxed wine and card games with our hut mates, we awoke to a blanket of snow coating the valley surrounding the spectacular Lake O’Hara. Clouds danced around the high peaks as we made our way around the next addition to your hiking bucket-list: the Alpine Circuit. Words and pictures fail miserably in capturing the majesty of this valley, and the only downside is that every hike after this day will feel a little less dazzling in comparison. 

With our eyes still trying to believe what they saw, we continued on to another highlight of the trip - the Icefields Parkway through Jasper National Park. Brimming with glaciers, waterfalls, and lofty peaks, the drive gave our legs the rest they needed while still soothing our souls. 

But even for the off season, some of the more popular spots fed by a steady stream of tour busses left us in need of the solitude we’d been searching for on our journey. This is where local knowledge from the friendly folks at the bar comes in. We had it on good authority that a blue river flowed through a slot canyon just a short drive from town. 

With a hue unmatched by any energy drink, Thompson Falls along the Blaeberry River is a spot yet undiscovered by Instagram. More breathtaking than the wildly popular Athabasca Falls by its own merits alone, the added beauty of this place lies in its seclusion. With six national parks already surrounding the area, I believe Thompson Falls should be known as the “Seventh Wonder of Golden.”

Accessible simply by a forest road that lies squarely in the “Drive Slow Enough and You’ll Make It” category, this long canyon will keep you busy finding new vantages along its steep and often slippery rim. Luckily a free forest service campsite, common in this area, lies right along the most scenic part of the river and allows for relaxing extended viewing. 

Another prime campsite in the area can be found mere feet beneath the summit of Mount 7, rising to the east of Golden. More beautiful fruit can hardly be found hanging any lower, as you can drive your car quite literally onto the summit with sweeping views of the town and Columbia River valley. On summer days, you’ll find hang and paragliders running off the summit into thin air and flying for miles (oops, kilometers!) through the valley with jagged peaks providing an intimate backdrop across the way. 

On the subject of the Columbia - Golden gives a unique setting for viewing this grand river. Being from Seattle, the Columbia provides a frequent backdrop for my adventures. From the dozens of waterfalls pouring into its banks just outside Portland, to hiking through the deserts of central Washington in the Ancient Lakes area it is a constant companion. But what makes this upper section of the river so special is what it doesn’t have: dams. One of the most dammed rivers in the world, here the waters can rise and fall freely through wetlands that fill the valley floor. 

Sadly, the same obligations we were trying to escape finally forced us back to reality. On the road once again, we left town and began the drive home in ernest. Maybe it was the rain that began falling, but the ‘return’ miles of a road trip have a decidedly different feel than the ones that brought you there. Time was spent editing photos and admiring other rigs headed off to adventures of their own. 

And as we pulled into the driveway, we were comforted by the thought that the roads that lead us home can also bring us back. 


Risk in the Mountains


Risk in the Mountains

How do I manage risk?

It’s something we all need to ask ourselves in the outdoors, especially as seasons and conditions change. Mitch Rennie (@mountain.mitch) and I were confronted with this difficult question this weekend just below the summit of Hidden Lake Lookout.

In the summer, it’s a fun and easy hike in the North Cascades with huge views. But in the middle of a winter storm warning with blinding snow, waist-high drifts, and wind chills in the single digits, it became a much more serious undertaking.

We were already delayed from having to hack through a fallen tree to even reach the trailhead. By 12:30 we were headed up the trail in falling snow but only had 4.5 miles to go and were making great time. A little over two miles in, we passed two parties that were day hiking, put on our snowshoes, and started breaking trail.

I’ve done this hike a number of times and was happy with how well we were staying on the trail with how deep the snow was. We were even happier when we saw a pocket of blue sky above us - but then we looked down into the valley and saw the darkest cloud I’ve ever seen racing up the slope towards us.

Within minutes, our trip went from an enjoyable snowshoe to a struggle to stay upright. We were sinking to our waists in snowdrifts and losing our vision as the snow blasted our faces. I was tracking our every step with my Garmin watch and knew exactly where we were the whole time, but we were racing daylight and our pace and ground to a crawl.

We started the discussion of turning around. It’s a difficult one to have when you’re only a quarter mile away and can see the summit going in and out of the clouds. We were still feeling strong and had all the supplies we needed. But we were also the only ones left on the mountain as the other groups had turned around, our fingers were starting to tingle, and we didn’t know how much snow had piled up across the scramble route on the leeward side of the mountain.

We called it.

It’s fun to push our limits and test ourselves in the mountains, that’s one of the big reasons why I love them so much and keeps me coming back. But we have to recognize when the odds aren’t in our favor. Weigh what can be gained versus what we’re risking - no matter what level you’re at.

This isn’t a story to garner any kind of glory - it’s hopefully the start of other conversations like we had when we decided to make the safer decision and turn around. As I look back now, I still think that we probably could have made it to the summit.

But probably isn’t good enough.