Bushwhacking is the name my buddies and I use for hiking that goes off the well-signed and well-maintained trails of the Canadian Rockies. These are unofficial trails that require good route-finding skills, as trails are often faint, overgrown, riddled with deadfall, and sometimes forcibly re-routed by flooding, rockfall or avalanche debris. These trails are great if you want to get away from the crowds that sometimes overrun the more popular, maintained trails. We’re fortunate that our local trail-guide authors have found and written up these trails, pointing out good landmarks or cairns to show the way. Many of these unofficial trails are also marked on the GemTrek maps as dotted lines to show the general route (but don’t include information about landmarks). Doing your research before you head out on any of these trails is a great idea, not to mention having good route-finding skills, good maps, good sense of direction and being comfortable with the possibility of getting lost altogether (not to mention being well prepared!).
James Walker Creek is a case in point. Many years ago it was an official trail, but it was decommissioned by the parks, trail signage removed, and it was left to get overgrown and riddled with deadfall. That didn’t stop the locals who were in the know from going there, but the trail has gotten faint with disuse, and if you don’t know what to look for, you’re going to get lost. That’s what happened to us the first time I went up there with a group. We spent an hour wandering along ski trail cutlines in the wrong direction, before we found the infamous gate that marks the start of the trail, well buried in tall grass. None of the official winter snowshoe and ski trails that criss-cross the trailhead area lead up to James Walker. Then there’s the creek itself – you’ll sometimes hear it in the distance, but the trail doesn’t actually follow it all that closely, and you don’t really see it until you’re well up the valley, so the name of the trail itself is deceiving.
But what you do get from this hike is well worth it. First of all, there’s a “lake” of sorts below Mount James Walker, and if you go at the right time of year (mid-July to mid-August), it’s really lovely. It’s not a real lake, more of a “bathtub” with a karst formation in the bottom of it. So in spring runoff, the lake holds lots of water back, often so much that you can’t go around it to access the trail continuing on the other side of the lake. By late August, the lake is often nothing more than a muddy little pond. The first time I went up there was on Canada Day (July 1), and the lake was gorgeous, full of reflections, but impossible to get around. It was a great place to sit and have lunch though.
On another trip, we actually got beyond the lake to continue on the trail along the creek. More route-finding required, as finding the trail requires criss-crossing and rock-hopping the tiny creek and it’s rocky bed several times before you’re actually on a dirt trail beside the creek. Then it was uphill on goat-track, over god knows how many deadfall trees. But there are lots of lovely little waterfalls in the creek as you go.
Eventually you end up below a rockwall, stunning to look at as you hike. We eventually got to another waterfall, which we decided was our turnaround point that day. I didn’t find out until after I got home that it was Grotto Spring, and had we gone a bit further to the top of the fall, we would have seen the source of the creek spouting from the Grotto. So that will remain to be explored on another trip, as will the cirques that can be found even further up.
Only a couple of years passed in between these trips, but the amount of tree growth along the bottom of the trail meant we were pushing our way between spruce trees to get through in places (hence the name “bushwhacking”), which will only get worse as time goes on. Next time I’ll have to go prepared to do a little trail clearing, or hope that someone else has done so, to keep this gem of a trail accessible.
If you’re hoping to do this hike or any other bushwhack hike in Kananaskis Country, I highly recommend Gillean Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide. James Walker Creek is featured on p. 292 of Volume 1. The best maps for hikers, in my humble opinion, are the GemTrek maps, which cover all of Kananaskis and the Canadian Rockies.
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