Hike into History: Great Divide and Ross Lake Loop

Starting at the Lake O’Hara turnoff, this trail starts on what used to be part of Highway 1A going to the Lake Louise Road. Sometime in the late 1990s, this section of the road was closed and converted into a paved trail in summer for cyclists and walkers, and a track-set ski trail in winter.

I had been wanting to do a summer trip up to the Great Divide Exhibit and Ross Lake for some time. We tried last summer, and almost got as far as the log archway, when one of our group saw a grizzly bear well ahead of us on the paved road, and we made the smart decision to go hiking elsewhere. A friend and I also got to visit on snowshoes in the winter, but with everything under four feet of snow, we left with questions about what was really under there.

Ross Lake sketches Inktense
Inktense sketches: Chipmunk, flowers

This time we had a clear, sunny day, and no bears to be seen anywhere. In fact, the only wildlife we saw all day was a Least Chipmunk sitting on the concrete barriers at the trailhead. We also saw only one other person all day on the trail, a cyclist. Given the crowds at other trailheads on a day like this, this was something of a miracle.

While I’m not crazy about hiking paved trails, sometimes it’s the only way to get more interesting places. Ross Lake trail starts a kilometre or so short of the Great Divide Exhibit, so having gone that far, you might as well go have a look at it. Along the way, you’ll also see a pair of pretty lakes, Sink Lake and Summit Lake, with open mountain views. The roadsides were full of flowering strawberry plants and patches of buffalo bean.

Great Divide sketch
Great Divide Archway, Pencil sketch

In addition to the log archway marking the border between Alberta and British Columbia, and the line dividing the waters east and west, there is also a picnic shelter, and a short interpretive trail heading to the rail line, with information panels on the history of the area. Since the closure of the road, nature has been allowed to take over – grasses and bushes are lush and well-grown.

Train at Great Divide
Train at Great Divide, colored pencil on paper

After having a look around, we headed back to the Ross Lake trailhead, marked by a sign and a wooden barrier. The trail meanders along a small creek, crossing it a few times on plank bridges, and climbs very gradually. It was nice and cool in the shady forest, with moss everywhere, yellow violets and fallen logs giving new life to fungi, mosses, and tiny succulent plants.

Ross Lake
Ross Lake, pastel on paper

Ross Lake is truly a small gem in the Rockies. Backed by Narao Peak, the clear water shades from olive, to the classic blue-green of a glacier-fed lake. We even saw some tiny fish, though I don’t know what species they are. The trail leading in to the shore is a bit marshy, but there are spots for a small group to sit for lunch. We also followed the boardwalk along the north shore to the start of the trail that goes to Chateau Lake Louise (must try that another day).

After lunch, we turned westwards, towards the Lake O’Hara road. We were back in the forest the whole way, with the occasional glimpse of a mountain peak through trees as we got closer to the gravel road. We saw more of the yellow violets, as well as Lady Slipper Orchids.

Ending Ross Lake Loop
Lake O’Hara Road, colored pencil on paper

I thought the gravel road back to the Lake O’Hara parking lot would be kind of boring, but we discovered that there is a river rushing below the road, Cataract Brook, with waterfalls and a small canyon. You would never see it riding on the bus to O’Hara. You also get open views of Mount Bosworth and Paget Peak to the north, and Cathedral Mountain to the southwest.

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