Distance: 17.5 km
Elevation gain: 1200 mView mapDownload GPS track
With the good fortune of another sunny weekend day during larch season we found ourselves searching for a hike where we'd find both solitude and a good helping of golden larches. After pouring over a few options we settled on the "Opal Traverse", described in volume 1 of the 4th edition of Gillean Daffern's Kananaskis Country Trail Guide
We followed the directions in the book as best we could, ascending to Pocaterra-Elpoca col, traversing over Elpoca-Opal col, and ending our northward journey at Opal-King col. Rather than exiting via King Creek (the description of this route makes it sound terrible even pre-flood) we made our way back down to Highway 40 via the Opal Creek "escape route". While we had intended to hike back to our car (parked at Little Highwood Pass) via the Valleyview Trail, 20 minutes into this journey we ran into a barricade and a sign indicating it was closed due to bear activity. Oddly, neither end of the Valleyview Trail had any sign indicating this closure and the trail was listed as being open on the Alberta Parks website. Angry at this new level of bureaucratic incompetence, we retraced our steps on very tired feet and then trudged 5 km back to the car along Highway 40 as the sun set.
Daffern notes in her guidebook that this trail is for "experienced wilderness addicts who can navigate without trails if necessary" and she is absolutely correct on that point. This was one of the more difficult hikes we have done. The initial ascent to Pocaterra-Elpoca col is murderously steep and a few other sections involve descents on similarly steep terrain. Only about half the trails mentioned in the guidebook for this route actually appear to exist (flood damage may have wiped some of them out) and those bits of trail that we did find were intermittent. The bush was also extremely dense in spots and several large recent avalanches have littered sections of the route with copious quantities of deadfall. To give you an idea of the cumulative effect of these factors, reaching Elpoca-Opal col - a distance of just 5.5 km - took us 3.5 hours. That equates to an embarrassing average speed of 1.6 km/h; since that includes breaks, our actual speed was much slower! Thankfully the escape route along Opal Creek had a good trail - if you can find it - and so this section went by relatively easily and was actually the easiest part of the hike. This section of trail also sees some user maintenance and is sporadically flagged.
All that said, however, this is a fairly nice hike in a wonderful area. Meadows, wildlife, larches, the stunningly jagged Opal Range, and the near complete absence of human sign create a gloriously wild atmosphere anyone daring (foolish?) enough to hike here would appreciate. Unfortunately the larches were a fair bit past their prime - those on north aspects had lost nearly all their needles - but a sufficient number remained yellow to keep things beautiful. Those between Elpoca-Opal and Opal-King cols were particularly nice. On a return visit one September in the future I believe I'll access this region via Opal Creek, hiking a short loop taking in the hill between Elpoca and Opal creeks, Elpoca-Opal col, and Opal-King col. There's certainly enough exploring to do in just this small area to keep me busy an entire day!