Total distance: 61 km
Total elevation gain: 1900 mView mapDownload GPS track
Cairn Pass is an isolated alpine pass located approximately midway along the rarely-hiked South Boundary Trail of Jasper National Park. It is most easily accessed from the eastern edge of the park via Rocky Pass, the trailhead for which is located just south of the Cardinal Divide near the coal mining town of Cadomin.
The route to the trailhead and trail description are lengthy and well described in the Copeland's "Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies"
guide. We chose, however, to access the trailhead from the south rather than via Hinton as described. In retrospect the 150 km or so of travel on gravel roads via this route was probably not worth it, although I was able to hold 80 km/h most of the way in my Honda Civic (and it still works....). The only terrible section of road is between Cadomin and the Cardinal Divide, but it's only 15 km or so. On return we chose to head for Hinton to drastically cut down on the gravel road travel and for much quicker access to fast food!
As the 27 km to Cairn Pass was far too much for us to cover in one day with backpacking packs we split the approach into two days, camping overnight at Medicine Tent campground below the western end of Rocky Pass on the shore of the Medicine Tent River. The campground is about as primitive as they get - the toilet is a log between two trees - and is shockingly poorly designed with the only two tent pads within 10 m of the eating area and bear pole (also just a log between two trees, so bring rope). The bears also seem to have adopted the campground for their own communication purposes as there are several fur-covered rub trees in the campground! Whatever you do, don't do anything that might attract them when camping here!
Our second night we had planned to random-camp at one of the Medicine Tent Lakes, but the shallow water in the lower lake didn't look particularly drinkable and the two upper lakes would have required a significant willow-bash to reach. Instead we continued towards Cairn Pass, searching for an area with water. While the number of creek beds we crossed suggested this would be a very easy search earlier in the season, we ended up about a kilometer into the pass - 4 km distant from the lower lake - before we finally found a small stream. Exhausted and overheated, we pitched our tent right next to it and settled in for the next two nights.
It should be noted that the trail between Medicine Tent campground and Cairn Pass is the most boring, mundane, and viewless expanse we have ever backpacked along. It's also muddy, rooty, rocky, and covered in horseshit. While the environs of Cairn Pass are exceptionally beautiful, you'll need to be mentally prepared for this long valley-bottom slog. Coupled with the approach to Rocky Pass, this means that nearly 40 km of the 56 km round trip are in trees, somewhat the exact opposite of our Devon Lakes
trip last year and something we hadn't fully realized before heading out.
Regardless, Cairn Pass is wonderfully wild and beautiful. It is populated by a vast number of marmots that whistle their warnings whenever they spy you or presumably a bear, which are likely plentiful here as the pass is covered in diggings. The surrounding grassy ridges and mountainsides are home to many sheep as well. We chose to stay two nights there so that we would have a full day to explore the region, but you'd need at least twice that many to hope to see it all.
Our second day in the pass dawned well and we scrambled up Southesk Cairn, a 2550 m peak in the middle of the pass. While it can be ascended from any direction we chose to tackle it via its southeast slope, picking our way up along a sheep trail and avoiding any scrambling. It's only 300 m up from the pass and it took us under an hour to reach the summit. The views from the summit are spectacular and give a good view of the entire region. A large cairn on top was lacking a summit register so I placed a few sheets of paper in an Ibuprofen bottle and secured it near the top of the cairn. If you remember a pencil or pen, you can sign it too! I'd be curious to know how many people visit this summit.
Unfortunately the weather began closing in fast around noon and while the thunderclouds avoided the immediate pass area until late in the evening, their threatening presence all around kept us off any of the other easily-scrambled peaks to the east of the pass. After a long hike the day before and the same awaiting us the next day, however, lounging in the solitude of the wild pass can hardly be described as a waste of time!
The return trip, spread over two days with a night in Medicine Tent campground, was uneventful other than the remarkable coincidence that the rain held off until we were mere feet from the car, at which point it began to pour! While the trip was nice and isolated Rocky and Cairn passes were beautiful, its distance from my current home base of Calgary and the amount of time spent hiking through forest have likely pushed this near the bottom of my re-do list. If I reach the point where the 27 km approach to Cairn Pass is feasible in one day, however, it will quickly move back up that list!