The Abbott Ridge Trail in British Columbia’s Glacier National Park (often confused with Montana’s national park that goes by the same name) is the must do hike in the park despite its length and significant elevation gain. After hiking the Hermit Trail in the park a few years ago, I had an inkling I’d be in for a treat.
Abbott Ridge is named for Henry Abbott, a mountain and railway man who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Abbott Ridge hike in the rugged Columbia Mountains isn’t an easy one, but it is straightforward. There are no route-finding issues or scary moves you must make. But you do have to hike a minimum of 13.6 km return with an elevation gain of 1029 m (3376 feet).
The hike starts in an ancient rainforest and climbs up into the alpine tundra where you enjoy phenomenal glacier and mountain views from your finish on a narrow ridge. Despite appearances from the approach to the ridge, the hike feels like a true mountain-top experience. Some of the highlights of the hike include views of the Asulkan Valley and Glacier, Vaux Glacier, Illecillewaet Glacier as well as Mount Abbott, Mount Sir Donald, and Uto Peak.
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Length – 6.8 km one – way on the short route, or 15.5 km if you go up the short route and descend the long route
Hiking time: 5.5 – 7 hours return depending on your speed
Elevation Change: 1029 m on the short loop, 1059 m on the full loop trail
Trailhead: Illecillewaet Campground off the Trans-Canada Highway
Trailhead Coordinates: 117°29’31″W 51°15’49″N
The hike heads up a road from the campground and turns right. You’ll see signage for the trails in the area almost immediately. If you look left, you’ll also see the A. O. Wheeler Hut, run by the Alpine Club of Canada.
Head for the ruins of Glacier House, a 90-room hotel with a bowling alley and observation tower. It was operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway from 1887-1925, attracting people from all over the world. Swiss climbing guides were brought to the hotel in 1899 to take people up mountain peaks. The railway is responsible for building many of the steep trails in the area as access routes for the mountain climbers. When the railway no longer ran in front of the hotel in 1916, the popularity of the place declined and eventually closed in 1925. It was torn down in 1929.
A short distance after you pass a noticeboard with the latest wildlife sightings and Glacier House, you turn right onto a signed trail for Marion Lake and Abbott Ridge. The climbing starts gently at first on a series of switchbacks through gorgeous stands of old rainforest. There are some monster big trees in this section. Reach Marion Lake after climbing 2.2 km over 425 m.
Take the time to visit Marion Lake. It’s a scenic place for a refueling break, especially at the far end of the lake.
According to Parks Canada, the lake – which is more pond like, was named for the daughter of Reverend William Spotwood Green who climbed Mount Bonney back in 1888. Although we didn’t bother, there is a viewpoint you can visit high above the Trans-Canada Highway where you can watch the trains coming and going into the Connaught tunnel. The tunnel was built to protect the rail cars from Roger Pass avalanches.
From Marion Lake, it’s a short distance to reach a trail intersection. Go right for the short route up Abbott Ridge and left for the long route. We ended up doing a loop hike – going up via the shortest trail and back via the longer trail. (It adds 2 km to the day.) Just know that in the third week of July there was still one significant snowfield that would be dangerous to cross without an ice axe. We ended up crossing at the top of the snowpack – between the snowfield and the rock.
The Abbott Ridge trail above tree line
Once you break through the trees, the hiking gets very interesting. The trail heads for the ridge on an obvious trail through boulders and grass. When you reach the pond, you start up switchbacks, eventually going right around the end of the ridge. The views literally get better with every step.
On the day we did the hike, it was quite smoky but the higher we hiked the windier it got – so visibility improved immensely. It’s a very gradual climb on a good trail around the end of the ridge. Once on the ridge you follow it to reach a sign that says – end of trail – except it’s not and the good stuff lies ahead. Just keep following the well-worn trail until you reach the final blocks at the end. They require some scrambling – and our guide Alison said you should really be roped up to do it – so we turned back.
We retraced our steps to the intersection where the short and long loop meet. This time we went right onto the longer route and enjoyed a different landscape than the one we’d hiked up on. The views of Mount Sir Donald were particularly compelling.
The long route adds a few kilometres to the day but it’s more gradual and a good choice for anyone with knee issues. In July you do have to be prepared for a large snowpack blocking part of the trail. We went over the top and solved the problem. From there it was mellow hiking the rest of the way down.
Map of the trail
Note Abbott Ridge near Marion Lake in the top left quadrant of the map.
Do you need a guide?
John and I were guests of nearby Heather Mountain Lodge for a couple of nights. They were kind enough to organize a hiking guide so I would understand the services they could offer other guests. John and I don’t usually need a guide to get around BUT we loved having Alison with us and learning about the area. Alison Dakin is Golden, BC-based and has been guiding most of her adult life. In the winter she is a heli-ski guide at the lodge and in summer she offers her own guiding experiences through her company Gamut Ventures Inc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For people unfamiliar with the Rockies, or those who are nervous hiking in bear country, a guide is a terrific asset. They come fully prepared with a massive first aid kit along with a means of getting in touch with a park ranger if anything goes badly wrong. Allison also had maps, hiking poles, bug spray, bear spray, water filters…literally everything you would need. Occasional hikers who don’t necessarily have all the gear would also benefit from her easy manner and expertise.
Finding the trailhead
The trailhead is at the end of the road near the Illecillewaet campground, about a kilometre in from the Trans-Canada Highway. The Illecillewaet campground is well-signed in either direction on the Trans-Canada but it can be a bit tricky to access when you’re driving west, especially the first time you do it.
The Illecillewaet campground and trailhead is located 3 km west of the summit of Rogers Pass. If you’re driving east, you’ll simply turn right onto the road that takes you to the campground.
But if you’re driving west, you actually drive past the campground about a kilometre to reach a U-turn-Lane. Be sure that you’re in the far-left lane in advance and there is warning sign that a U-turn-Lane is coming up. Turn left into the U-turn lane and then drive east on the Trans-Canada, getting off when you see the signs to the campground.
Important things to note
- This is major grizzly bear country. Be bear aware, carry bear spray and know how to use it. It should be readily accessible.
- On a summer day, you’ll go through a lot of water. We refilled water bottles at the pond below the ridge but you’ll need either a water filter or purification tablets.
- Don’t forget a wide-brimmed sun hat in summer.
- Take the 10 hiking essentials.
- Glacier National Park is on Pacific time, one hour behind Mountain time. Our car changed the time at the Alberta – BC border – way before it should have.
- It’s hard to find a recent paper map of Abbott Ridge. Check out the Gaia GPS app.
Where to stay nearby
You can stay at the Illecillewaet Campground located 3 km west of the summit of Rogers Pass. It’s the only campground in Glacier National Park that is open right now and is available on a first come-first served basis. Check back with Glacier National Park for what campgrounds will be open in 2022.
The campground is also the trailhead for a number of hikes into the park.
Another excellent choice for a basecamp hiking experience is nearby Heather Mountain Lodge. It’s just a 22-minute drive to the east and is immediately off the Trans-Canada Highway. The dining experience is also tops!
Further reading about things to do in the general area
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