Total distance: 38 km
Total elevation gain: ~1600 m
Trailhead to Cataract Pass meadows (one-way): 15 km, 630 m
Cataract Pass meadows to Valley of the Lakes lookout (round trip): 8 km, 400 m+View mapDownload GPS track
This is a wonderful trip through two passes in Jasper National Park to an unofficial camping area in the White Goat Wilderness Area.
The trip starts at the popular Nigel Pass and Brazeau Loop trailhead along the Icefields Parkway. It is just north of the "big switchback". Currently the initial 2 km of the trail to Nigel Pass is along a dirt road as a bridge has washed out along the usual trail, but this is of little consequence and actually speeds up the most boring part of the trip. The only confusion with the detour may be immediately after crossing Nigel Creek where the trail splits into hiking and equestrian trails. It's signed, but if you somehow end up on the equestrian trail, as two people did, you'll have to cross the creek a few hours later and that might be difficult.
After rock-hopping (easy) across the Brazeau River at Nigel Pass, head upstream (east; to the right) towards Cataract Pass. It is about 5 km from Nigel Pass. There is a good trail most of the way, but when the trail splits or heads up through boulder fields take your time to choose the best route. We moved quickly on the way in, following sporadic cairns through the boulders, but on the return took our time and found better, easier, and more scenic routes. In general, don't trust the cairns unless you're quite incompetent with routefinding. The terrain in this area is spectacular and quite different than most other areas in the Rockies. There are plenty of pikas in the valley and a herd of timid sheep as well.
From a distance Cataract Pass looks quite formidable, but there is a good trail angling up it that is visible from a distance. The ascent is shorter than it looks and took us only about 20 minutes with full packs. The pass marks the Jasper National Park boundary and beyond this point random camping is permitted; the logical place is about 250 m below at the headwaters of Cataract Creek. To get there, follow bits of trail and infrequent cairns through the pass. The descent is slow at first, then becomes much steeper for the final descent into the valley. Take your time routefinding just before the steep descent starts; there are easy routes and steeper routes. There is also a trail, if you're able to find it.
Once at the headwaters of Cataract Creek there are many potential camping areas. We surveyed the area from the pass and chose to camp above the creek on a bit of a terrace, but others in the same area chose to camp lower down near the creek. As there is no campground there are no outhouses or bear-proof storage containers, so come prepared. There appear to be boulders large enough to hang food from and plenty of smaller trees for bathroom shelter.
As a day hike, I'd recommend heading north-northeast to Cline Pass. It is only a little over 3 km distant and the entire route is above treeline. Again, take your time routefinding and explore the area. You can't get lost here unless you're utterly incompetent, but there are easy routes through meadows and undulating routes over rock that are a bit more taxing.
From Cline Pass, near the lakes, the adventurous can ascend a steep, bouldery col for a view into the out-of-this-world Valley of the Lakes. The ascent is more difficult than it looks, however, and the large boulders are loose. Be extremely careful if more than one person is ascending and don't trust the stability of any boulder. For a scrambler this is likely easy and fun terrain, but for me it was a bit iffy. The view into the Valley of the Lakes is spectacular though. The entire landscape - and it's a very large area indeed - has been scoured down to bedrock by glaciers, one of which remains, and the resulting moonscape is dotted with at least a dozen visible lakes of varying shades of blue. It's quite the sight! It is also possible to descend into the valley (and camp, if you want), but the descent is initially steeper than the ascent you just completed.