Challenges: Headwall Lakes

Once or twice a year, I try to challenge myself to do a hike that’s a bit beyond my usual limitations. Headwall Lakes is certainly that kind of hike: 14km and 457 meters of elevation gain, and half the trail is unofficial and unmaintained. I don’t normally combine that much distance and elevation gain (heat exhaustion is always a risk for me in summer), but we’ve had a cool, rainy summer here in the rockies, and Headwall Lakes was a trail I had been wanting to try for a long time.

The day had an auspicious start in that we saw a lot of wildlife along the highway on the drive up – deer, black bear and a grizzly with a collar. Unfortunately, no chance for photos, as I was driving, but it was great to see them anyway.

The first section of trail is part of the official High Rockies trail, a nice wide trail running through the forest above the Smith-Dorrien/Spray road. The turnoff onto the unofficial Headwall Lakes trail is also marked with two cairns, flagging tape, and a large arrow shape made with rocks patterned on the ground, pointing to the turn. From there the trail becomes narrow, with lots of rocks and roots, following Headwall Creek up to its source.

Fossil sketch
Fossil sketch, pencil on paper

Along the way, we spotted some fossils embedded in the boulders by the creek. Further up, in the rock slope below Mount James Walker, we saw and heard a number of American Pikas, and I managed to get a photo or two. We often hear Pikas with their distinctive “eeeep” call, but they’re hard to spot, as their colouring hides them in the rocks so well.

American Pika
American Pika, coloured pencil on paper

Just past that point was the most challenging section of the day, what I came to call the hill from hell. About the only good point was that the steepest sections came in short bursts, with small flats to allow you a break between them. These were steep enough that sometimes the best way to go up was to grab on to nearby trees, roots or rocks, and pull yourself as much as pushing with your legs to go up. There was even a small rockwall that required using narrow footholds to climb. Anyone who knows me will tell you, I am most definitely not a scrambler or climber, and I’m also afraid of heights, so getting up this hill took everything I had. Getting to the top of it took us the better part of an hour, given my frequent need to take huff and puff breaks.

Lower Headwall Lake
Lower Headwall Lake, pastel on paper

The top of the hill from hell saw us above the treeline and into open, rocky slopes. The trail was visible as a faint line of indentation, and it was rough on the feet, even in good hiking boots. Vegetation was limited to short alpine plants, with the occasional small spruce determined to hold on in the limited dirt available. We eventually reached the lower Headwall Lake and skirted around it on more rock slope, arriving at the eastern end of the lake where a dirt slope has given life to more greenery, shrubs and a few more scrubby spruce. The waterfall from the upper lake cascades down this slope and it made an excellent spot to stop for lunch at mid-afternoon, much later than I had anticipated. The hike continues up this hill to the upper lake, but I realized that if I did that extra bit, I’d risk not having enough energy to get myself back to the trailhead, and I was dreading getting down the hill from hell. So I insisted that my hiking buddies go up there to look while I stayed at our lunch spot.

Rough Splendour
Rough Splendour, pastel on paper
Set to Scale sketch
Set to Scale sketch, conte crayon on paper

We started back down in late afternoon, and the hill from hell was predictably scary and rough for me. On some bits, I did a sort of bum-shuffle down, on others, I let my hiking poles slide down to one of my hiking buddies, while I climbed down facing the slope, holding on to trees and rocks. By then, feet and toes were getting pretty sore, and we had yet more rock slope to cross.

Sidestepping downhill sketch
Sidestepping Dowhill sketch, pencil on paper

Back in the trees, we saw some spruce grouse, and startled a huge porcupine, which waddled off in a huff through the shrubbery. I initially thought we a had startled a bear, this thing was so big, so I didn’t have the presence of mind to grab my camera and take a photo.

The remaining trail was a long trudge back to our vehicle, which we reached at 8pm, and it was one of the last two vehicles in the parking lot. Ten hours on the trail – an epic, amazing hike, but for me, a once in a lifetime trip. I’m proud of myself for having done it, but I don’t think I need to repeat it.

On the drive home, we spotted another bear near the road in the fading light, and a snowshoe hare a bit later, which was some kind of record for wildlife spotting in one day for us.

If you enjoyed the artwork, some of it is now available for sale on various products on RedBubble.com Please follow the link to see what’s available: https://www.redbubble.com/people/DrawnMountains

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