Distance: 42 km o/w
Time: 4 Days Elev Change: 1280 m
Season: July -Sept
Topographical Map: Manning Park 92H/2
Access: See Getting to Manning Park
Backpacking in British Columbia has its ups and downs. Usually, however, there seems to be a little too much of the former.
Nicomen Lake offers newcomers to the sport a welcomed respite. Though long enough at 42 km to present a challenge, the choicest route is predominantly downhill.
The trailhead starts from the parking lot below Blackwall Peak where chubby marmots will doubtless be begging for handouts. From Manning Park Lodge it will be necessary to cross busy Highway 3, heading left on the parallel access road. Find a safe place to hitchhike the 15 km up to the top of the dusty access road.
Buckhorn Birds Beg Bagles: A frisky Whisky-Jack spirits lunch away from one unhappy camper. AKA Canada Jay, Grey Jay and "Camp Robber," the Whisky-Jack amazingly has never developed a fear of humans and will greet hikers, demanding a hand-out, whenever we trespass in their high elevation domain.
Heather Trail starts from an elevation of 1920 metres at the Blackwall Peak parking lot. Hikers will immediately begin dropping into sub-alpine meadows. Soon the path, actually an old fire access road, will level out. By the time you reach Buckhorn camp, just five clicks from the start, you will be gaining altitude again. Buckhorn is the perfect place to stop for lunch if you got an early start or to set up camp if rushing out after work. Expect company at meal time, since whisky-jacks here have long since grown accustomed to begging handouts from hikers. Otherwise known as grey jays, these bold creatures will make short work of any rations left unattended.
Since many day trippers usually turn back at Buckhorn one can expect more solitude from this point on. Expect to do some puffing too since the slope from here is decidedly up for the next five km. This section of trail passes through the site of an old forest fire. Gladly, the forest is slowly reclaiming its own.
A Family of Peaks
At click seven the Bonnivier Trail breaks off to the right, continuing another 22 km towards the park's East Gate. Continue upwards and onwards however, towards the foot of First Brother Mountain. The main trail levels out at this point, skirting the shoulders of Second and Third Brother Mountains, but the truly gung ho may want to shed their backpacks and race to the summit. While a relatively easy climb, leave plenty of time to reach Kicking Horse Camp 3½ km further along.
With ample water, a toilet and even a rustic shelter, Kicking Horse is an ideal spot to camp on the first day out. Building campfires in the fragile sub-alpine is not only considered bad form, it is prohibited. Since most hikers, constrained by the demands of real life, will turn back at Kicking Horse the trail narrows somewhat from this point on. While the scenery has been nothing short of magnificent thus far, the best is yet to come.
The next 7½ km is comprised of gently rolling meadows splashed with every imaginable shade of purple, red, white, yellow, blue and green. Since human traffic is limited hikers can expect to encounter mule deer grazing against a backdrop of distant rugged peaks on all sides. You will be gradually losing altitude all day until reaching the razor-edged summit of Nicomen Ridge. From here the trail plunges steeply down a series of switchbacks for two kilometres to the edge of the blue jewel of Nicomen Lake.
Fancy Stance: Hoping for a career in modelling, this chubby buddy poses for the camera atop Blackwall Peak. A colony of hoary marmots greets visitors throughout the summer, retiring to their snug, subterranean city for the ski season.
Even with restraint your descent will be fast. Loose rock presents considerable hazard here so caution should be exercised at all times. Avoid taking short-cuts between the switchbacks as this will needlessly erode already unstable slopes.
Nicomen Lake is perfectly suited for a second night's stopover. Rustic camping areas can be found at several points along the lake. Rock slides at the foot of Nicomen Ridge are an excellent place to observe the communal activities of large colonies of hoary marmots and pikas, small relatives of the Energizer Bunny that look like rats with big ears, bulbous eyes and furry tails. On one occasion we even spotted a wolverine at relatively close range. Infamous for their ferocity, sighting one of these creatures is sure to send shivers. If you haven't been toting a collapsable fly rod you will now wish you had. Nicomen Lake is home to thousands of small but voracious mountain cutthroat trout. Most are of the catch and release variety but consult Fish and Wildlife Branch regulations for exact details on size and catch limits.
Down, Down, Down...
From Nicomen Lake you will begin losing altitude at a much faster pace. During the next 11 km sub-alpine will quickly give way to interior dry belt forest of pine, fir, spruce and hemlock. On the forest floor expect to find an inordinate variety of unusual moulds and fungi. Be sure to pack ample water since supplies are limited along this section of trail.
Camping on the third and final night is best at the Grainger Creek - Hope Pass Trail junction. Though rustic, this site is equipped with a fire grate and outhouse.
Those with time on their hands may want to explore, unencumbered, along the Hope Pass Trail, a circuitous route horse riders often use to reach Nicomen Lake.
The final leg of this four day route is a mere 8 km, largely downhill that ends at Cayuse Flats on highway 3 near the West Gate of Manning Park. To flag down the bus, look for a section of road with wide shoulders and ample visibility near this day use area. Drivers will only stop if safe to do so. The Greyhound should pass by between 12:30 PM and 1:00 PM each day.