Saturday, June 9, 2012

Simpson River Trail/Surprise Creek Campground

This is a lengthy hike with very little elevation change, and compared to other hikes in the area, it has fewer natural landmarks. For the most part, it does as the title suggests: it is a trail that follows the Simpson River. The burnt forest from the Mount Shanks forest fire in 2001 allows scenic viewing not possible through the normally dense forest that would otherwise be here. Although the trail begins in Kootenay National Park, the destination at the Surprise Creek shelter and campground lies within the borders of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia. So, make sure that you pay your camping fees for the appropriate park.
The shelter is first-come, first-served, and overflow camping is on non-designated pads in the meadow beside the shelter. Because of this system, it is advisable to bring a tent and not depend on the availability of the shelter. The metal bear boxes outside the shelter are to be used for tenters and not just the occupants of the shelter. More details are at
DISTANCE: 10.6 km
                                               GPS: N50 58.708 W115 56.895
                                               Elevation: 1235 m
Surprise Creek Shelter and Campground:
                                               GPS: N50 58.071 W115 49.298
                                               Elevation: 1410 m
Trailhead: The large highway sign marking the Simpson River Trail is 46.8 km down the Banff–Windermere Highway from Castle Junction and 6 km south of Vermilion Crossing. The gravel pullover is on the east (left) side of the parkway, with minimal parking. The pleasant setting of Vermilion Crossing contains the Kootenay Park Lodge, Kootenay Park Visitor Centre and a day-use picnic area.
Surprise Creek Cabin

From the trailhead, cross the steel bridge over the Vermilion River to access the backcountry trail and the forest of burnt spruce and pine. The long-lasting effects of the fire that ravaged this area are immediately evident and will continue throughout most of the hike. Once more, due to the minimal blockage by the burnt-out forest, you can see Hawk Ridge directly ahead of you, due east.
You’ll see a trail marker sign, the first of many to come, within the first couple of minutes. The straight line will take you down the Mount Shanks trail, with a marked distance of 6.9 km. This same sign will direct you to make a 90° right turn to the desired Simpson River Trail. The sign is a tad confusing, as it states that it is 8.6 km to the “Simpson River Trail” when 8.6 km is actually the distance to the boundary of Kootenay National Park and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. The Surprise Creek shelter and campground are in fact 10.6 km away.

During the next 15 to 20 minutes, you’ll cross numerous minor streams with an easy stride on a trail that remains flat and open. For almost 2 km of enjoyable, wide open vistas, the trail and the Simpson River almost touch. The trail then rises momentarily above the river, only to succumb to the river’s trance once more to parallel it for another ten minutes before climbing above it again.
          With the river meandering below the trail now for the next half-hour or so, its proximity varies, but it is always within earshot. Up here, as you venture farther into the backcountry, the narrow trail becomes even slimmer, but an hour and a half into the journey, the trail widens temporarily at a major creek crossing. The log bridge at this crossing, permits views even more spectacular. From the openness of the stream crossing, the trail moves away from the Simpson River and continues to wander up high for another 20 minutes until gently, almost unnoticeably, dropping back down to the river.
          Gradually, the trail brings the river closer and parallels it for an additional 20 minutes. As it does this, the trail becomes trapped in the incredibly damaged forest, with a high escarpment flanking its left and the Simpson River on its right. This makes for an interesting, narrow, flat flood plain with no escape during flood season, and the terrain through these lowlands can be boggy even during mid-summer. Slowly the trail begins to climb until it eventually settles high above the Simpson River.
          Within 10 or 15 minutes up on the plateau the river becomes distant, and unheard. The scorched forest transitions into a beautiful, lush Rocky Mountain landscape of mature spruce and pine, and you come to the first of many boardwalks. Continue up here through gorgeous forest along many boardwalks covering moist ground until you reach the boundary between Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park and Kootenay National Park. This landmark presents minimal fanfare – just a simple mileage post marking the border. However, there is a swath cut straight through the forest as far as you can see. It seems that the border required marking by harvesting a 10-metre wide strip of forest.
          Two easy kilometres remain to be explored yet to reach the Surprise Creek shelter and campground. Not much changes, as the river continues to follow the trail but remains far below. The main change along the route now is that the forest becomes significantly richer as mosses and ferns dominate the understorey, necessitating the construction of many more boardwalks. Thirty minutes of intermittent boardwalking finally brings the trail back down to the Simpson River. The shelter and campground are reached by crossing a secure, lengthy suspension bridge over the river.
          This tranquil setting is unique. On a cloudless evening, the uncluttered, exposed meadow beside the cabin is a far cry finer than spending the night in the cabin’s dark, dingy interior.
          The closest day hike is a 9-km jaunt into Rock Lake that requires a moderate elevation increase of 608 m. The trail is clearly marked at the Surprise Creek area and the path has no obstacles. This is simply a steady uphill climb to the trail and lake.

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