It took a few years but we eventually made it to incredible Floe Lake and, thanks to some excellent luck with both weather and smoke, it did not disappoint. This fabulous alpine lake in Kootenay National Park can be found very close to the Alberta-BC border and is one of the most popular backcountry campsites in British Columbia.
So popular, in fact, that it is nearly impossible to reserve a site there in high season (which is really the only season). You have to login to the Parks Canada reservation the second reservations open in spring, receive a random number in the queue and just hope there is a night or two left when your turn rolls around. And also hope the site works properly and doesn’t glitch or crash on you, which has sometimes been too much to ask.
Three years in a row we came up empty, then last year we finally got a spot, only to miss out again anyway because the trail got shut down due to a big snowstorm. On July 20! But then we lucked out again this year, getting essentially the same dates, leaving plenty to chance, needless to say.
Making up part of the famous Rockwall Trek, Floe Lake is either the first or last stop on this epic 3-5-day journey. Considering our low expectations from a reservation standpoint, we limited ourselves to just two nights – Floe Lake and Numa Creek. The entire 3-day, 2-night trek was gorgeous, full of big mountain views, colourful fields of wildflowers and insane reflections off the glassy lake.
Altogether, we had an extremely successful journey, especially considering just how fickle mountain weather can be and the ever-present threat of smoke from the summer forest fires.
Our optimism level was extremely low considering last year’s Floe Lake snow debacle, then starting this year’s journey by driving through a post-apocalyptic smoke and grasshopper scene in southern Saskatchewan (a veritable locust storm pinging off our vehicle as we cruised through a grey haze), arriving in Calgary on the heels of a massive hailstorm (that devastated our generous hosts’ award-winning garden in the process), all followed by a massive thunderstorm kicking off just as we checked into Banff’s Two Jack Lakeside campground the night before our hike.
Yeah, not exactly promising signs. And don’t even get us started on the very erratic smoke forecasts we were studying hourly. In the end, though, we decided to give it a go and even though a slight char and haze rolled in during our first day’s hike and stuck around for our first few hours at Floe Lake, the wind eventually shifted and, against all predictions, the sky suddenly cleared up and stayed that way for the rest of our backcountry adventure. Cheers, mother nature.
How Do You Get to Floe Lake Trailhead?
The Floe Lake trail starts from a small parking lot just off the highway and is best reached by vehicle as public transport in the area is minimal. It is located in Kootenay National Park in British Columbia, roughly halfway between Banff, AB and Radium Hot Springs, BC. The drive in on Highway 93 is gorgeous from either direction and features several top attractions and other trailheads.
The following are some useful distances to Floe Lake trailhead:
North / East
Lake Louise – 60 km / 40 min
Banff – 65 km / 45 min
Canmore – 85 km / 55 min
Calgary – 190 km / 2 hrs
Radium Hot Springs – 70 km / 50 min
Invermere – 90 km / 1 hr
The parking lot probably holds 40-50 vehicles, which would be plenty to handle the campers. However, since it is possible for energetic types to hike to Floe Lake and back in a single day, the lot can still fill up on weekends or on nice days in mid-summer, so it is a good idea to get there early (we got there at 9:30 and there were just a few spots left). Or late, as most campers coming out from Floe Lake make it down by 11 or 12, which will open up a few spots.
Even if it is full you can park along the highway, that’s just not the ideal place to leave your vehicle if you’re spending a couple of nights in the backcountry.
So, if you are just planning to hike to Floe Lake, stay the night and hike back out, the parking situation is fairly simple. However, if you want to do a loop to Numa Falls, like we did, or hike the entire Rockwall to Paint Pots, you will need to figure out a way to get back to your vehicle.
The simplest option is to take two cars and leave one at the start and the other at the end. If this is not an option, though, then you’ll probably need to hitchhike (public transportation in the area is limited to the area right around Banff). Since we weren’t about to drive a second vehicle 8 hours from Saskatoon just to have a guaranteed ride, we found ourselves in the Numa Falls parking lot at the end of our hike, begging for the kindness of strangers.
Even with me making myself scarce (and trying futilely to flag down cars on the highway), Laynni was turned down by lots of day trippers before a kind couple from Calgary finally offered to take us out of their way the 8 kilometres back to Floe Lake trailhead (they had been on their way back to Calgary).
In general, I don’t think most people understood that this is a common hiker thing and that we weren’t just transient hitchhikers. A girl we met on the trail did the hitchhiking part before starting out and said she came prepared with a sign that said how far she was going and got a ride pretty quickly. Not a bad idea, as I think a lot of people would be much more willing to pick you up if they knew they only had 5 minutes of awkward small talk to deal with rather than “indefinite”.
When Can You Go to Floe Lake?
The best time to visit Floe Lake is from mid-July to early September. In fact, this is really the only time to visit because the trail is typically buried in snow the rest of the year. Much of the trail is on the sunny side of the creek and melts early but once you get up to the lake area the snow can linger in the trees for a long time.
In 2022 we had managed to book a site for one night at Floe Lake in the third week of July and ended up missing out when the trail was closed after a big snowstorm. Then this year we booked essentially the same dates and enjoyed balmy 23C days and endless sunshine. In the mountains, you just never know.
In mid-summer, the area is filled with lovely wildflowers, while waiting until early fall gives you a chance of seeing the vibrant larches at their brightest yellow. In fact, the trail from Floe Lake to Numa Pass is one of the best places in the Rockies to see larches in all their golden glory.
Floe Lake – Numa Creek Loop
26 km / 10 hrs / 1600m elevation gain/loss
Pets: Allowed on leash only
While the entire Rockwall Trek can be done over 3-5 days, we chose a shorter alternative – hiking up to Floe Lake for night 1, over Numa Pass to Numa Creek campground for night 2, then out along Numa Creek back to Highway 93.
This made it easier to plan and get reservations, not to mention carry less food. Regardless of which route you choose for your backcountry experience, be sure to check the latest info and trail conditions on these Parks Canada websites:
Floe Lake Hike
11 km / 4 hrs / 950m
High point: 2,050m
GPS Map: AllTrails
The parking lot has a pit toilet, garbage bins and an information board. Then the trail starts off nice and easy, basically flat until you cross the bridge over Kootenay River, after which you follow a very gradual incline that takes you higher above the river with the impressive Numa Mountain soaring high above to your right.
There is still obvious evidence of the major fire back in 2003 but the newer vegetation has come back quick and lush, especially the huckleberries and bright purple “fireweed” that lines the trail throughout the day.
Between the bridge and the lake you are too far above the river to refill water so be sure to have enough to last you through the hike. The trail itself is obvious and well-maintained, so no issues on that front.
After about an hour you’ll get your first glimpse of Floe Peak and the Rockwall, looming like a Hollywood backdrop over the greenery of the valley. This continues for awhile with a few more easy ups and downs along the way until you suddenly find yourself in the trees and – before you realize what’s happening – switchbacks!
The last hour or so is steep and strenuous, making up the majority of the 950m total elevation for the day. While the smart plan is to just take your time, we almost never follow our own advice, usually finding some reason (excuse?) to rush. In this case, it had gotten a bit Smokey as we climbed (for some reason, Word always insists on capitalizing “smokey” and eventually I just give in as an homage to that old, well-intentioned bear), so were intent on getting to Floe Lake before it got any worse.
After a solid hour or so of climbing you will emerge into a flat area of tree-lined meadows – congrats, you’re almost there! Just a few more minutes and you’ll roll into Floe Lake campground and get your first look at one of the most beautiful lakes in the Rockies (and beyond, to be honest).
The entire Floe Lake hike took us just over 4 hours, including around 30 minutes worth of breaks. However, as with any hike, times will vary with fitness and determination levels. We were passed on the trail by a couple that already had their campsite completely set up by the time we arrived. Meanwhile, we passed another group slumped and sweating by the side of the trail as they glared at their massive backpacks lying on the ground. The point is, just hike at your own pace.
How long is the Floe Lake hike?
11 km one-way and 22 km return. But there are many different viewpoints around the lake itself so you’ll also want to factor in a few extra kilometres of exploring once you get there.
6 km / 2-3 hrs / 340m (return from Floe Lake)
GPS Map: AllTrails
The views from Numa Pass are some of the best on the entire Rockwall. It only takes a little over an hour to get to the top, although there are some pretty outstanding views back to Floe Lake from about halfway up (in case you happen to be short on time and/or energy).
However, if you aren’t doing the full loop but want to add Numa Pass to your Floe Lake hike, you’re looking at another 6 km and 2-3 hours, making it difficult to include in a day hike.
Getting to Numa Pass involves over 300 metres of elevation gain, although the slope is relatively gradual, not overly strenuous and often in shade. Of course, at the pass itself it is possible to climb the ridge for a further 100m of elevation gain to a yet higher vantage point of the surrounding peaks and valleys.
All in all, if you want to make it to Numa Pass you should definitely plan to spend the night at Floe Lake.
Floe Lake to Numa Creek Hike
10 km / 3-4 hrs / +340m (-800m) including Numa Pass
Highest Point: 2,340m
GPS Map: AllTrails
If you are planning to continue on, the hardest parts are over once you cross Numa Pass. After taking some time to enjoy the amazing views, you can start the scenic, downhill walk to Numa Creek campground.
The trail down starts out pleasantly gradual, passing through some beautiful meadows where Laynni wanted to stop for a sunny lay down. Unfortunately, I kept saying “next one, next one” until, predictably, there was no next one, just steeper switchbacks all the way down to the bottom of the valley. Now “the meadow incident” has become a whole thing. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.
Altogether, it is just under 7 km from Numa Pass to Numa Creek campground, enjoying views of Floe Peak, Foster Peak (the highest peak in the Vermilion Range at 3,200m) and Foster Peak Falls along the way.
Numa Creek Hike
7 km / 1.5-2 hrs / +250m (-385m)
+8 km on highway (2 hrs / flat) if you don’t hitchhike or have a second vehicle
GPS Map: AllTrails
The final leg of our Floe Lake – Numa Creek loop followed the river down from the campground to the highway, where you’ll find gorgeous Numa Falls, a very pretty but very popular attraction likely to be swarming with tourists.
Although the overall grade of this hike is down, there is actually a surprising amount of elevation change. There are a lot of downed trees to navigate, as well as landslides and washouts that force you into slightly more strenuous detours and alternate routes.
The views continue to be impressive, though, especially looking back up toward the Rockwall, and after you cross the bridge the last 3 km is quite easy. Nice, smooth trail, very moderate hills, plenty of shade.
Kootenay National Park Backcountry Camping
There are a total of five backcountry campgrounds along the Rockwall Trail but our loop only included the two most southern ones, Floe Lake and Numa Creek. If you want to extend the hike, the three others are Tumbling Creek Campground, Helmets Falls Campground and Helmet/Ochre Junction Campground.
All the Kootenay National Park backcountry campgrounds along the Rockwall have tent pads, toilets, bear lockers and picnic tables. You have to set up your tent in designated spots (no random camping allowed) with a maximum of 1 tent and 4 people per site.
Fire rings are provided in places where fires are allowed (in this case, Numa Creek allows them but Floe Lake does not). Be sure to only use the wood they provide, never cut down any trees and always make sure your fire is fully out before leaving.
All food and anything else with an odour (i.e. toothpaste, bug spray) should be kept in the bear lockers and take care to never eat near the tents.
The Rockwall campgrounds are in high demand (especially Floe Lake) so you usually need to reserve the first day bookings open in the spring. There is also a maximum stay of 3 consecutive nights in any one campground. Sometimes a park warden will come around to check your permit so make sure you have it either digitally or an actual paper copy.
Dogs are allowed on the trails and in the campgrounds but must be kept on leash the whole time. And no drones or firearms.
Floe Lake Campground
One of the most beautiful backcountry sites we’ve ever stayed in – Floe Lake campground has 18 small tent pads scattered next to the gorgeous, emerald-green lake with the Rockwall looming 1,000 metres above.
The first 2 sites you see when arriving from Floe Lake trailhead are pretty impressive – one of which is located on a bluff directly over the lake with easily the best views of any site. Of course, it is also a little more exposed to the elements (mainly wind) but on a nice night it would be a pretty great choice.
The rest are back up in the trees a bit and are all different so it is worth exploring a bit before making a final decision. Unfortunately, the campground map posted right at the start is wildly inaccurate, obviously a holdover from before many changes took place, so don’t put a lot of stock in it.
There are two picnic areas, each with 4-5 tables and its own set of bear lockers. There are no fires allowed at Floe Lake (although a couple of the families there the same time as us apparently decided those rules didn’t apply to them, setting up a late night fire right on the beach and not even cleaning up when they were finished). There is no water other than what you’ll find in the lake, which needs to be boiled, treated or filtered.
There are two pit toilets located well up the hill past the last campsites, one of which provides a somewhat surprisingly grand view of the lake while doing your business. There is a warden hut down beside the lake that is sometimes manned but happened to be empty while we were there.
This is also where you’ll find, in our opinion, the best views of the lake. Not that there are any shortage of options on that score, as the lake is much larger than we expected, making it easy to find a quiet spot. And the enormous Rockwall is so close that, as Laynni somewhat ironically put it while struggling to frame the perfect photo – “the mountain is too big!”
Ah, the struggles and hardships of the travel blogger. But, seriously, based on most photos we did not expect the lake to be so big or have so many different areas to explore. One we missed was the narrow land bridge leading out from the north shore which we didn’t even realize existed until the next day when we got up to Numa Pass. Theoretically, if you walked out on it while someone else (Laynni, perhaps) took photos it might, once again theoretically, look like you were, say, walking on water. Is that something you might be interested in?
Our questionable artistic visions aside, the main reason to spend a night at Floe Lake is to be there for the calm evenings and early mornings. Although never busy, Floe Lake feels even quieter once the day hikers are gone, the wind has died down and the whole place begins to resemble a scene from a movie.
Sunrise was truly exceptional, the Rockwall gradually turning orange as the sun slowly creeped up over the surrounding mountains, all of which was reflecting dramatically off the glassy water In mid-July, 6 am was peak time for views. Stunning and unforgettable, yet somehow only us and 3 others bothered to get up for the show. Guess some were tuckered out from their late night fires.
Previously, people have complained about the flies and mosquitos but we didn’t notice any until it got dark (at which point we were already packing it in for the night) and very first thing in the morning (when we were bundled up in plenty of warm clothes with very little exposed skin to protect).
Numa Creek Campground
Without the spectacular location of Floe Lake, wild and overgrown Numa Creek campground feels a little underwhelming in comparison. However, in relation to most regular campgrounds, it is pretty amazing in its own right, with the lovely creek and some impressive mountain views.
Located at the lowest point of the Rockwall Trail (around 1,500m), Numa Creek has another 18 tent pads and a pit toilet set in a forested jumble right next to the eponymous creek. Meanwhile, the bear lockers, picnic tables, fire rings, socializing areas and another pit toilet can be found on the other side of the creek.
The two sections are connected by a very “rustic” bridge – essentially just a pair of logs lying side by side – and there are lots of places to hang out along the creek and plenty of easily accessible river water (that still should be treated).
Because of the lower altitude, Numa Creek campground tends to be warmer than Floe Lake campground and you will probably find more flies and mosquitos. We enjoyed the constant background noise of the rushing creek, suffered no ill effects from our decade-old bag of dehydrated rice and chicken (which we had been saving for just such a special occasion, apparently) and were proud to reach another travel epiphany – “Camping is really all about doing everything really slowly”
56 km / 20-25 hrs / 3-5 days / +/- 3000m
GPS Map: AllTrails
If our 3-day/2-night loop just feels like an appetizer to you, tackling the complete Rockwall Trail is a fantastic alternative. Some people do it as quickly as 3 days as well (or even a single day like the trail runners we met on day 2) but most take 5 days and stop in 4 different campgrounds.
We personally find 2 nights in the backcountry more manageable since we need to carry less food and don’t face as much uncertainty about the weather. However, we met lots of other hikers who were doing the whole thing and they raved about the scenery along the way.
Floe Lake – Numa Creek Map
Click the star to save this map to your Google Maps – then find it under Saved/Maps (mobile) or Your Places/Maps (desktop)
Kootenay National Park Pass
Everyone needs a national park pass to use the parking areas, trails and campgrounds. You can buy your park pass online or in person at one of the highway kiosks. You have the choice between paying for ___ number of days or purchasing a Discovery Pass that is good for an entire year in every national park in Canada.
Bears are the main concern when hiking and camping in the Rockies, with the general rule being:
Black/brown bears – not bad
Grizzly bears – kinda bad
You need to be careful around any bear but black and brown bears are generally just as scared of you as you are of them (which hopefully is a prudent amount) and they will usually run off as long as you make plenty of noise and don’t accidentally startle or corner them. And definitely don’t get anywhere near a cub.
Grizzlies, on the other hand, are all different but some can be very aggressive and dangerous. If you see or hear one, make yourself scarce as quickly as possible. You should always carry bear spray, also, for those situations when flight is no longer a viable option.
Bears can appear anywhere but be particularly careful on trails through thick undergrowth and in places lush with berries (one of their guiltiest pleasures). The main things to remember are to make plenty of noise while hiking (“Hey bear! Hey bear!” has become the official soundtrack of the Rocky Mountain backcountry) and never keep food or wash dishes near your tent.
For an even more detailed set of rules and recommendations, check out the Parks Canada Bear Safety guide.
Of course, bears aren’t the only safety concern in the Canadian wilderness:
Normally safe and completely uninterested in people, they can become aggressive when they have calves or during breeding season (similar to guys in a crowded bar near closing time).
Mosquitoes, black flies and horseflies all bite but are more annoying than dangerous. Ticks can carry Lyme Disease but you don’t usually see them at high altitudes.
All backcountry water should be boiled, treated and/or filtered, even when it seems clean and clear.
The weather in the mountains can change in an instant so you need to be prepared for anything. Especially in mid-summer when afternoon thunderstorms are both common and frequently violent.
Unfortunately, forest fires are a standard hazard in the mountains and are always a concern in summer. Heavy smoke had been coming and going regularly in the days and weeks leading up to our trip so we were pleasantly surprised when the light haze that followed us up to Floe Lake abruptly cleared off when the wind changed in late afternoon.
From then on it was nothing but clear skies and clear sailing. There are no guarantees either way but it may be worth keeping an eye on the local smoke forecasts:
Obviously, the wildfires themselves are even more dangerous than the smoke so steer clear if any are encroaching on the area. All it takes is a sudden change of wind direction to turn a seemingly safe situation into a dire problem.
And, needless to say, always be very careful not to start any fires yourself.
Floe Lake Packing
I won’t bother with a comprehensive packing list because if you’re even considering a 3-day backcountry mountain adventure you probably already know how to pack for it. There are a few tips we can share for this particular trek, though.
Always bring your own toilet paper as the pit toilets rarely provide any.
Floe Lake is over 2,000 metres above sea level. Meaning, it gets pretty cold at night. Bring warm clothes.
We brought mosquito spray but didn’t use it because we were either in bed or extremely bundled up when the bugs were out.
Packable camp chairs appear to have come a long way in recent years (in terms of both weight and comfort) and we were quite envious of those enjoying theirs as we struggled to get comfortable on the flattest rocks we could find.
Each bear locker is big enough to easily hold two 50L backpacks plus all our food, which made our little tent feel roomier than it might have otherwise.
Despite all our research, Laynni still managed to forget a warm jacket (she still managed to layer up enough but it wasn’t ideal) and I somehow brought not one, but TWO, of the wrong shirts – thinking I grabbed my 2 best long-sleeve merino wool shirts and instead bringing a cotton Henley and 20-year old nipple-hugging merino base layer that combined with my toque to make me look like an extra on The Beachcombers (link provided for younger folks and foreigners).
Hikes Near Floe Lake
Lake O’Hara is one of the best backcountry camping and hiking areas in Canada and is even more in demand than Floe Lake. But if you can get yourself a spot, it is a true bucket list destination.
Stanley Glacier is just across Highway 93 from the Rockwall Trail and is a popular short hike up with reasonable elevation gain and terrific views.
Moiraine Lake is one of the few lakes arguable even more scenic than Floe Lake. The difference is that Moraine Lake is reached by shuttle bus from Lake Louise and can see thousands of visitors in high season, as opposed to the 30-40 you might encounter at Floe Lake. Still unmissable, though, and if you have time to hike to Sentinel Pass and Eiffel Lake you won’t be disappointed.
The best of several excellent trails starting at Lake Louise, the Devil’s Thumb is on the more difficult end the spectrum but provides a truly epic viewpoint. For something slightly less spectacular but much more easily reached, you can go just as far as Big Beehive.
Meanwhile, Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park is outstanding and one of my personal favourite day hikes.
For even more ideas, check out our other lists:
Floe Lake – Numa Creek Loop Summary
This loop is a phenomenal mountain adventure featuring a fabulous mix of good hiking, tremendous scenery and amazing backcountry camping. While the entire Rockwall Trail would be a great experience and is still on our list, this version is shorter, easier to plan and still offers up the biggest highlights (Floe Lake and Numa Pass).
And if you have 2 cars or go as a group, you can avoid begging for rides at the end. Win-win.
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