Distance: 25 km
Elevation gain: 1700 m View map Download GPS track
Gibbon Pass first caught my eye on a backpacking trip in the summer of 2012
. The pass was as beautiful as any, but more strikingly it was filled with larches and was bordered by an easily scrambled peak. It seemed like the perfect destination for a fall larch season hike, but to get to the pass and back would require at least 24 km of travel and nearly 1400 m of elevation gain, and so I’d been saving it for a day of good weather. (Alternatively, if you’re stinking rich and actually still have time to get out, you can stay at the Shadow Lake Lodge
just below Gibbon Pass and split the hike over two days). Today, however, after two weeks of no hiking and far too much sitting at work, my body and mind were screaming for exercise, and so despite a dismal forecast (after a work week of sunshine…) we decided to head out and hike to Gibbon Pass anyway.
Our hike started at 7:15 am with a gentle 130 m descent to Vista Lake, followed by a 575 m ascent to Arnica Lake. The well graded trail allowed us to make good time to the lake and we arrived at 9:00 am, just as a light rain started. Arnica Lake is pitched by Banff National Park as a premier larch viewing destination, but there are relatively few larches here and the lake isn’t particularly pretty by Rockies standards. It’s not really a worthwhile destination on its own unless you do some significant off-trail exploring.
From the lake we followed the trail up another 120 m to the ridge between Arnica and Twin Lakes. The rain and wind picked up at this point and we were forced to put on our complete rain gear. The ridge had a reasonable density of larches, but we couldn’t enjoy them in the cold rain and mud and instead descended 150 m to upper Twin Lake and its campground, then another 50 m to lower Twin Lake. The lakes broke up the forest walk, but with the exception of a waterfall and a few larches at lower Twin Lake they weren’t particularly striking.
A break in the rain allowed us to remove our sweat…err, rain gear as we began the gentle 260 m ascent to Gibbon Pass. After perhaps 30 minutes we reached the start of the vast larch meadows, just as the rain started up again! A large spruce tree provided shelter at this point and we decided to eat lunch and hopefully wait out the shower. This worked well enough, and 20 minutes later we were on our way again. It was still lightly raining, but the brilliance of the incredible larch forest started to make up for the misery we’d endured to reach it. We reached the pass 4.5 hours after leaving the car, but that included many breaks and for much of the trip we moved slowly to avoid over-sweating in our rain gear.
The scenery at this point was simply mind-blowing and we decided to head up a peak to the east of the pass. I’ve named this peak Gibbon Pass Peak, and as it rises nearly 300 m above the pass it is certainly as much of a peak as many other unofficially-named ones in hiking and scrambling guidebooks. As we ascended on good trail a bit of a miracle happened: The sky brightened, we actually saw a tiny patch of blue sky, and the rain held off for the next two hours! The view back down towards the pass was spectacular, but as we reached the ridgecrest another valley of larch was revealed to the east. I hadn’t expected this and so it was a very scenic surprise. As we reached the summit another
valley filled with larches appeared, as well as Shadow Lake and several more distant larch-covered ridges! Despite the low cloud covering the mountaintops the scenery was absolutely amazing and made me forget the horrible weather we’d endured to get there.
We were certainly in no hurry to leave and so hiked over to the northern end of the same ridge, getting surprised again
by another larch-filled valley and new perspectives on a few others. I couldn’t believe how well this trip had turned out, but as our turnaround time of 2 pm approached we resigned ourselves to the inevitable hike out and cut back down to the trail…just as the rain started up again!
The hike out was largely uneventful, although re-ascending the 200 m to the Arnica – Twin Lakes ridge and the final 130 m to the parking lot was a bit tiring. It also rained heavily for the last 2 hours, turning the steeper parts of the trail into minor streams and making everything quite slippery, but we still made it back to the car by 5 pm. The two hours it didn’t rain on Gibbon Pass Peak and its surprisingly spectacular scenery made this a much better outing than we’d expected. It’s actually on my repeat list for a sunny day in the future!