bugaboo provincial park

a day hike to the conrad kain hut

Bugaboo glacier British Columbia
An overlook of the Bugaboo glacier, from just above the Conrad Kain hut

The Bugaboos and Purcell Mountains

Just west of the Canadian Rockies lie the Purcell and Selkirk Mountains, distinct ranges whose trails are more of a wilderness experience than those near Banff and Jasper. Just getting to the trailheads can be a minor adventure! There is world renowned climbing here in Bugaboo Provincial Park, but there is also plenty on offer for the hiker devoid of ropes and ice axes. I've only done a couple of day hikes in the Purcells, but based on that brief experience they're a great destination for spectacular but less crowded hiking and camping.


Conrad Kain hut, Bugaboo Provincial Park

Trailhead: Bugaboo spires trailhead, at the end of the road in Bugaboo Provincial Park. Although this is by far the most popular spot in the Purcells, it's still pretty remote - you'll need to violate the spirit as well as the letter of a rental car contract to negotiate the 30 miles of dirt roads between Brisco (18 miles north of Radium Hot Springs on Highway 95) and the trailhead. You'll need detailed directions from a guidebook, or from maps available locally, but it's not too tricky to find. In summer 2006 the road was pretty rough, with plenty of potholes, but numerous low clearance 2WD cars and vans had successfully made it to the Park. Chicken wire, posts and stones are provided at the parking lot to fortify your vehicle against critters that might take a liking to critical bits of rubber. We doubted whether such measures were necessary for a day hike but with the thought of a towing bill from hell at the back of our minds we dutifully barricaded our car anyway.

Road to the Bugaboos
Approaching Bugaboo Provincial Park, in the Purcell mountains of British Columbia
Parking at Bugaboos trailhead
Makeshift fortifications at the parking lot. No, I've no idea if this is really necessary!

The hike to the Conrad Kain hut is very short - just a 6 mile round trip - but brutally steep. There's 2200 feet of elevation gain to the hut, all of it attained in the last two miles. In places the route is protected by cables bolted into the rock, and in one spot you climb a steep section with the aid of a metal ladder, but the trail is in excellent shape and at least in dry weather these aids are more for reassurance than for necessity. The views of the Hound's Tooth, with the Bugaboo glacier flowing past the spire and down the valley, are continual and astounding throughout the hike. When we did this in mid-August, there were nice patches of wildflowers in several small meadows along the trail.

The hut is perched on a rocky shelf with a panoramic view of both the spires and the valley along which the trail ascends. It's a great spot for lunch. You can also scramble off-trail without much difficulty to attain a small ridge that allows a closer vantage of the glaciers. This feels about as wild a spot as can be reached by mere hikers. I highly recommend this hike - it's one of the best short day hikes I've done.

Bugaboos wildflowers
Bugaboos wildflowers
Conrad Kain trail ladder
The ladder...
Hounds tooth Bugaboos
The Hound's Tooth

In the same general area (the trailhead is about a mile back along the access road, at the point where the photo above looking along the road was taken) is the hike to Cobalt Lake. This is another short (5 miles one way) but steep day hike to great views of the Bugaboo spires. On the park map it appears as if it's possible to hike further to reach views of one of the Park's other large glaciers - there was no mention of that in our guidebook but it might be worth checking out.

Lake of the hanging
The Lake of the Hanging Glacier - a truly spectacular view on a clear day, which this was not!

Lake of the Hanging Glacier trail

Trailhead:The trail to the Lake of the Hanging Glacier begins at the end of a dead-end road about 30 miles west of Radium Hot Spings. From Radium, you follow Forsters Landing Road and then Horsethief Creek FS road almost all the way, until you reach a signed spur for the Lake of the Hanging Glacier. In summer 2006, this road was in better shape than the road to the Bugaboos.


The trail to the Lake of the Hanging Glacier is another good day hike - from the trailhead it's a 10 mile round trip (with 2300 feet of climbing) to reach the outlet of the lake. For most of the distance the trail passes through dense forest (rather reminiscent of Olympic National Park) with some nice views of the cascading outlet stream from the lake. We saw fresh bear sign here, so take care! Although the trail itself is nothing special the destination, which remains well-hidden until you're virtually at the shoreline, is memorable. Lake of the Hanging Glacier is a large (more than a mile long) turquoise lake set in a spectacular cirque. The ice reaches right to the lakeshore, while above Jumbo and Commander glaciers decend steeply from the mountains. From where the trail reaches the lake - at the easily crossed outlet - it's possible to scramble higher to reach grassy benches that offer a clearer view of the glaciers at the lake's far end (though care is needed when descending as there's no trail and the slopes are alternately overgrown and cliffy). On the day we visited haze from forest fires obscured the view, but on a clear day it would be worth climbing maybe a thousand feet above the lake for a truly stunning vantage.


Where to stay for Bugaboos hikes

When my brother and I visited the Purcells we combined it with a trip to the Canadian Rockies and stayed for just a couple of days in Radium Hot Springs, at the west entrance to Kootenay National Park. It's about a half-day's drive from Calgary. Radium Hot Springs has a beautiful location overlooking the Columbia valley, but apart from the namesake Springs there's not much there apart from numerous motels, one decent coffee shop, and a sprawling timber mill. Although it's very conveniently situated for these hikes, you might consider instead staying in Invermere a few miles further south, which on a brief foray looked like it had a good deal more going on. A ways further north is Golden, which makes a good base for exploring Canada's Glacier National Park which has a number of good hiking trails. You could easily fill a week by combining additional hikes in the Purcells - the guidebook describes several other interesting sounding trips besides the ones we did - with hikes in the Kootenays.

Further reading

Bugaboo Provincial Park - the official website maintained by British Columbia Parks

Gotta Hike BC - guidebook which includes detailed driving directions and trail descriptions for these hikes and others in the Purcells

Hikes around Golden - this is by far the most comprehensive list of hikes in the area