Distance: 21 km
Elevation gain: 950 m View map Download GPS track
The valley between Elbow Lake and Tombstone Pass is one of our favorite places for relaxed fall hiking. The late fall colors in the valley are spectacular and its popularity means that any early snow that hasn’t melted away is usually packed solid. We’ve visited it more than a half dozen times – more than any other area in the Rockies – and each time I’ve admired the view towards the “Cat’s Ears” at the head of the Piper Creek valley. Piper Pass lies at the base of that distinctive mountain and was our destination for today.
We started hiking up the icy and steep hill to Elbow Lake shortly after sunrise, moving quickly to stay warm in the -10 C weather. We shortly arrived at a frozen Elbow Lake, then continued down the gentle valley trail. I’d thought it would be sunny and warm along this open stretch, but massive Mount Rae blocked the morning sun the entire way and the temperature didn’t get much above -10 C. There was also a fair bit more packed snow than I had anticipated, but our microspikes had no trouble with it.
A few hundred meters past a large cairn marking a short trail to Edworthy Falls we came across the trail heading to Piper Pass, marked with a small cairn and blue flagging. We descended to the Elbow River on this trail and were beyond happy to see that it was low enough that we’d be able to rock hop across it rather than wade in the frigid weather. Once across we continued on good trail, shortly emerging into a small meadow just as the sun crept over Mount Rae. This boosted our spirits considerably as we followed the trail into the forest. As we gently climbed into the upper valley the snowpack increased in depth to perhaps a foot in the forest, but thankfully the trail had been packed down sometime earlier in the week and this made travel relatively easy.
After several boring kilometers in the forest we emerged into the meadows below Piper Pass. I had hoped for fall scenery, but the meadows were already fully enveloped in winter. Even with white all around it was still incredibly beautiful, however, and quickly made up for the long hike through forest to get there. A nice walk over 2 km of meadow then brought us to the base of the pass, and a steep 150 m ascent later we arrived in the pass. A shockingly strong and cold wind had Sandra quickly retreat while I scrambled up a minor bump to the west of the pass for improved views. This diversion was more difficult than I anticipated with loose shale over solidly frozen mud, but it did offer improved views to the north and west.
Regrouping with Sandra in the warmer meadows below the pass we had a cold lunch in the crappy shelter of a boulder, then headed back the way we came, detouring briefly to visit Edworthy Falls. The gentle terrain of the valley allowed us to make relatively quick progress back to the truck, despite being repeatedly distracted by beautiful scenery now fully in the sun.