Backpacking to Island Lake & Titcomb Basin

Pole Creek Trail started as an easy but steady climb. Climb being a bit of an aggressive term as it was a wide, well-worn path. It felt like we were on a casual stroll through a wooded park, going uphill ever so slightly. Not what I expected as our start to backpacking to Island Lake.

I journeyed back to our backpacking trip in Banff the year prior, where the trail was most decisive in its choice to start with some solid elevation gain. No meandering casualness about it. A precursor to the trail and days to come.

Regardless of the start, Banff was epic, and I had no doubt our adventure to Titcomb Basin in the Wind River Range would be as well.

The Start of Backpacking to Island Lake

We had arrived at Trails End Campground Sunday afternoon to snag a good campsite so we’d have minimal travel Monday morning to start our hike. Campsites were first come, first served. But we need not have worried as it seemed like no one else was around, despite two marginally full parking lots.

Each of the 8 sites housed a fire ring, picnic table, and bear locker. The pits toilets were well-maintained, and there was a water spigot at the Elkhart Park – Pole Creek Trailhead (right next to the campground). Unfortunately for us, the spigot was not working at the time of our adventure, but in theory, it would be a convenient feature.

Throughout the evening and into the night, more adventure seekers wandered in. I was glad we’d nabbed a spot early; the campground was full when we rose Monday morning.

Day 1 Hobbs Lake

Our rough goal for the first day of backpacking to Island Lake was to reach Hobbs Lake at roughly 7.5 miles. Up in Banff, we realized we preferred the days with moderate hiking. This allowed more time for relaxed exploring (i.e., enjoying time without packs on our backs). This adventure to Titcomb Basin wasn’t meant to be a suffer-fest.

It seemed as though we saw just as many horse prints (and poo!) on the way up as we saw human tracks. From the trailhead to Hobbs, it seemed like we saw more people than we did during our entire trip in Banff. A fair bit of that traffic included day hikers heading to Photographers Point, 4.5 miles up the Pole Creek Trail. We stopped here for lunch because, as the name implies, it is a great spot to take in the view.

While the foot traffic died down after that point, we did stop to chat with one pair trekking homeward. They recommended we stop at Eklund Lake for our final night. This would put us just 5 miles from the car, which would make for an effortless last day. We tucked that tidbit away for later in the week.

At Eklund Lake, we took the Seneca Lake Trail to continue our route. You can continue on Pole Creek to hit the Highline Trail as an alternate route to Titcomb Basin, but that was more mileage than we wanted for this trip.

Upon reaching Hobbs around 3 pm, we found a great set of campsites. Four of them were clustered together—perfect for our crew. It made it easy to stay the night here versus continuing to Seneca Lake or Little Seneca Lake. We were halfway to Titcomb Basin. Shortly after we set up camp, the clouds started sputtering raindrops, a perfectly timed cue to enjoy a nap before dinner. Everyone dispersed and zipped into their tents just as the clouds really let loose.

It poured. A heavy, drowning rain perfectly enhanced by swift blasts of wind. This had not been in my forecast for the week. Not until possibly our last day or two. But, as we all learned later, the Winds have their own weather routine once you wander far enough into their domain.

One should generally assume there will be an afternoon storm every day around 3 pm, give or take a bit, depending on the mood of the skies. We survived with just minor leakage in one tent and a renewed respect for the epic power this landscape held.

​Dinner was devoured under blue skies.

Day 2 Backpacking to Island Lake

Overnight rain left us with damp rain flies the next morning. But we only had about five miles to cover. So there’d be time for them to dry out at Island Lake. Even with the afternoon storms.

Trekking up to Seneca Lake and then to Island Lake brought more elevation than the previous day. This is what we’d been expecting; I was happy to labor up. The views were outstanding, especially following the trail along a granite cliff overlooking Seneca Lake.

However, my favorite portion of the trail was between Little Seneca Lake and Island Lake. It was nice to head out of the woods and see more wide-open views. Plus: Wildflowers!

And then we crested our final ridge until our hike into Titcomb Basin and caught our first glimpse of Island Lake—what a stunner!

We rambled down the valley, dotted with pine trees and boulders, until we happened upon a good campsite where two men looked to be just finishing their packing. They highly recommended the spot, and we enjoyed a lively chat until they headed out. The best part was learning that they’d been friends for 38 years! Goals!

We set up just in time for the afternoon rain (much less tumultuous than the previous day). Then we spent the rest of the day exploring the valley and Island Lake.

Day 3 Hiking Titcomb Basin

Day three held our only day hike. The actual hike into Titcomb Basin. It felt luxurious to have a base camp and leave the tents in the same spot for more than one night. We enjoyed a lazy morning. Then we set out for Titcomb Basin around 10 am, packing lunch and rain jackets, just in case. The morning had been chilly. But the sun came out and the hike warmed us up. Soon it was t-shirts and tank tops.

Titcomb Basin was quite rad between the lakes and the peaks that tower behind and around them. There were very few people hiking up there even though tents and backpackers heavily speckled the Island Lake valley. It was like we had Titcomb Basin to ourselves.

That was until we ran into several gentlemen at the base of the last lake. They were coming down from the peaks and had all sorts of crazy stories about the weather and conditions. Unfortunately, the start of the afternoon rains cut our socializing short. So, we pulled out the rain gear and hiked our way back.

The rains cleared by the time we returned to Island Lake. So we spent the remainder of the day exploring the waterfall that emptied into the lake. This made the trip to Titcomb Basin 100% worth everything for me. Even considering the thunder, lightning, sleet, and snow that filled our evening later.

Day 4 Hiking Home

In the morning, we shook off the snow. We packed up with frozen fingers and feet and hustled up out of the valley. We were tired and damp when we stopped for lunch. However, we decided to power through the remainder of the miles (12.1 total) to Elkhart Park Trailhead to get hotels and hot showers that evening. We also stopped at Wind River Brewing in Pinedale, WY, for a celebratory burger and beer, which I’d highly recommend.

Backpacking Banff National Park

Make backpacking Banff National Park your new goal. Just trust me, it’s a good goal.

The dogs and I catapulted into camping and hiking with a trip to Banff National Park, Canada. I was instantly obsessed and knew I couldn’t stay away.

I prefer the company of my dogs over humans. However, dogs are not encouraged to accompany backpackers into the Banff backcountry. But my desire to explore more of Banff still prompted me to plan a group backpacking trip.

I started reading about this hike and that hike and those other hikes. There are so many options. ​And yet, I kept coming back to Egypt Lake. I felt like I had to include that area in our wanderings.

Backpacking to Egypt Lake

After reviewing a few route variations, I went with a point-to-point option from Sunshine Village to the Vista Lake Trailhead:

  • Park Car A at Vista Lake Trailhead.
  • Drive Car B and the crew to Sunshine Village.
  • Hike up Healy Pass to Egypt Lake Campground (E13) for Night 1.
  • Take Whistling Pass to Shadow Lake Campground (Re14) for Night 2.
  • Hike Gibson Pass to Twin Lakes Campground (Tw7) for Night 3.
  • Trek out to Car A the following day and pick up Car B.

Backcountry Camping Permits and Campsites

Backcountry permits and campsite reservations are mandatory for overnights in the Banff National Park backcountry. Sites are available for reservation up to three months in advance.

A backcountry site in Banff is enough room for one 3- or 4-person backpacking tent. I don’t know the exact dimensions, but one site can perfectly fit a 2-person Big Agnes backpacking tent and a 1-person Big Agnes backpacking tent.

At the end of June, I called the listed number. I left a message with our requested sites, dates, and quantity of people. Then they called back to confirm details and collect the fees within a day. Easy-peasy!

Packing and Prep for Backpacking Banff National Park

​My spare bedroom soon became a disaster zone as I laid out gear to assess options and gaps. No matter how much gear I have, I always seem to need (want) something new for each trip. Anyone else like that?

I made a list and checked it twice. I went online to order a few items and got sucked into the black hole that is the internet. Aside from purchasing more than I needed, I saw that the Verdant Creek Wildfire spread. It had caused restrictions and closures in the Egypt Lake area. Eek!

The weekend before our trip, I called the backcountry reservation office Saturday morning to alter our plans. Of course, they called back while I was in the shower. I left another message that afternoon and waited for the callback Sunday morning.

Then Sunday morning arrived, and suddenly Egypt Lake was back open! Ten minutes after I saw the announcement, Banff Backcountry Reservations called me back. They confirmed we were safe to proceed with our plans. Whew!

Healy Pass: Sunshine Village to Egypt Lake

We rolled up to Sunshine Village, and I was filled with antsy enthusiasm. The type that makes you continually feel like you’re about to pee your pants. Even after you just peed twice to make sure you really didn’t have to pee. Am I nervous? Am I excited? Do I really just need to pee??

​All of the other hikers pulling up seemed to be taking the shuttle bus up to the top of the gondola. I started to second guess our plans to begin our hike directly from the parking lot.

Two of us wandered up to the ticket desk for a local opinion of our plans.

Them: “We highly recommend taking the shuttle up.”

I felt like I had to pee again.

​Us: “Okay, we’ll hike up.”

Of course we chose to start our hike directly from the parking lot. Because that’s the type of group we were becoming. Go big or go home. And none of us had decided to stay home.

Healy Pass, Banff National Park

The hike was challenging for us, not going to lie. Not difficult like it was tricky footing or scrambling across rockslides. But some folks were new to backpacking, and some were new to the elevation (not even counting the elevation we were gaining during the hike). We started later than planned, and no matter how close we seemed to be getting to the top, it always seemed to be just over the next crest, just out of reach. It felt like a long day.

We were beat by the time we rolled into the Egypt Lake Campground.
But we had made it.

We roamed through the campsites looking for three positioned near each other for our little caravan and dropped our packs as fast as we could shake them off.

As we sat by the river, refilling our hydration packs before dinner, we finally had a chance to sit back to take it all in — the calm but epic beauty surrounding us.

Worth it.

After a quick pack-up of campsites, we meandered along the short hike to Egypt Lake for breakfast with a view. The water was pristinely calm, showcasing a flawless reflection of the mountains surrounding the lake. And what glorious mountains they were! The peace and calm offered a meditation of sorts, a chance to shake off the prior day and start anew.

Whistling Pass: Egypt Lake to Shadow Lake

It was going to be a 10-mile day. After leaving Egypt Lake, the trail almost immediately started going uphill. The ascent of Day 2 was more of a stair climb compared to the gradual ramp up of Day 1. I was partial to the stairs, the definite motion of going up. It gave me a straightforward sense of accomplishment.

Creeping down the rockpile, however, felt like an eternity! Testing the larger rocks for stability and trying to not slide on smaller crumbles and sand – it was a slow and steady journey to the base. After focusing so intently on my small steps down, I didn’t take in the magnitude of this rockpile. Not until I reached the base and turned around. Eyes went wide; mouth opened in awe. This is what I was out here to see.

Leaving the rocks, the trail took us back down into the the trees toward Haiduk Lake. Two-thirds of the way in we saw our first sign of bears: several piles of bear scat along the trail. I tried to reassure myself by noting that none of the piles was ultra fresh, but I still caught myself looking behind me more than I care to admit.

Haiduk Lake

Bears were instantly forgotten though the moment the view opened up to the glacial waterfalls filling Haiduk.

​Stunner. ​

In our awe-induced stupor, we lost track of the trail and opted to follow the lakeshore until we were back on track. Two steps into the chest-high brush was the exact moment we remembered the bear scat. Singing and overly vocalized chatter immediately commenced.

As we tumbled out onto the trail our singing abruptly ended at the sight of seemingly fresh bear tracks in the mud. Excitement. Awe. Wariness.

“Wow, fresh tracks!” “Whoa, look at the size of that print!” “It may be heading away from us, but we should probably still skedaddle on out of here…”

From Haiduk, the trail took us into a mossy floored pine forest and eventually followed along the river leading to Shadow Lake. Along the way we passed the Ball Pass Junction Campsite, which was still closed due to the fires. It had a bit of an eerie feel to it, and whether that was due to the knowledge of it being closed, or because it was seeming out in the middle of nowhere, I’m not sure. I just know I was quite pleased to leave it behind us and I made a mental note to skip that site if I return to this trail again.

Shadow Lake Campground

Shadow Lake almost felt like a false summit to me. Only in that I was exhausted, hungry, and ready to ditch my pack for the evening. As much as I wanted to sit on the bridge admiring the view for more than a short break, I was definitely antsy to reach camp. One more mile to go…

By the time we arrived at the Shadow Lake campsites, I was hungry and tired. Add in lacking signage for tent sites and bear hangs (which we later realized was due to the direction we arrived from) and water that required boiling for consumption, I was grumpy as heck.

Thankfully for my adventure companions, I just needed a little food to calm me down. But that didn’t solve our minor annoyance with having to boil water. There is no easy access to the lake or streams from the campsites. The spigot available for backpackers has a sign indicating you must boil the water before consumption. Rough lives we lead out in the woods (insert overly exaggerated eye roll).

​The guys went exploring around the Shadow Lake cabins nearby. We couldn’t imagine they boiled all of the water needed for guests. There had to be another way to access drinking water. Luckily a friendly employee clued the guys in on a drinking water spigot along the side of one of the cabins. A nice bonus to help us set out on the right foot in the morning. ​

This was a nice campground, but my least favorite of our trip backpacking Banff National Park.

Gibson Pass: Shadow Lake to Lower Twin Lake

We set out as a group on Day 3, climbing up and out of the woods. A solid hike pleasantly rewarded by stunning views (as if there is any other sort of view out there). At 7,500 feet, we reached Gibson Pass.

Three groups hiking up (two on foot and one on horseback) dotted the downward trek from Gibson Pass. We connected with the horse crew right as we came upon a large fallen tree blocking the path. It would have been quite tricky but doable for us to shimmy over. On the other hand, the horses seemed stuck. That is until one of the men hopped off his horse and appeared at the tree with a saw. Ha! Perfectly prepared!

Another highlight from the passing groups was receiving a suggestion for stopping at Upper Twin Lake. “Right before you cross the bridge, take a small path to the left along the shoreline. You’ll wind up in a perfect location for lunch.”

And perfect it was. We settled in for a couple of hours of relaxation. Sam decided he would finish his hike out to the road that afternoon. He’d gotten a somewhat severe cut on his hand, and he was ready for a real shower. Understandable. We said our goodbyes, and then we set out for camp shortly after.

Lower Twin Lake Campground

As it turned out, Lower Twin Lake was equally as perfect as Upper. It had just one slight advantage: it was our campsite for our final night!

TW7 was easily THE best camp of our trip backpacking Banff National Park. Tent sites set back in the trees. A dining area snuggled up to the shoreline. And this view. Oh, what a place of wonder!

We soaked up every last ounce of sun and wild we could experience.

Lower Twin Lake to Vista Lake Trailhead

Our last day was the easiest. Just a handful of miles to hike from Lower Twin Lake Campground up to Vista Lake Trailhead. We encountered a fair amount of day hikers along the way. As well as more fantastic views. There will never be a shortage of great view when backpacking Banff National Park.

Once we reached the car and picked up the other car, we headed into town. Banff is a cute, mountain tourist town with a lot of shops and restaurants. We grabbed lunch and a beer and then started our trek home.

Backpacking to Whipple Valley

I’d categorize Utah as my freshy fresh 2017 love interest (the Supes are my local love, and Canada is my big love). There are lovely national parks in the state, but I’ve found that national parks only seem to have one or two relatively short trails that dogs are allowed to hike. On the other hand, national forests are prime-time adventure dog real estate! Backpacking to Whipple Valley would be perfect.

Trail Details for Backpacking to Whipple Valley

For this trip, my eyes were on Dixie National Forest in the southeast corner of the state – Whipple Trail in the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness, to be exact.

Trail length: 12 miles (O/B)
Elevation gain: 2,890 feet


There is something to be said for planning far enough ahead. We’ll just get that statement out of the way right now.

A week before we rolled out is when I decided we’d be rolling out. The plan was to leave work early on Friday to drive the 7 hours to the Pine Valley Recreation Area. This is where you’ll find the Whipple Trailhead. We’d camp at a designated campsite. Then start hiking right away Saturday morning and sleep in Whipple Valley. Sunday afternoon, we’d hike down to spend the night at the campsite again. And then head home early Monday morning.

Not a bad plan for a regular weekend. But a horrible plan for Memorial Day weekend when everyone and their uncle’s cat decides to go camping and you’re trying to stay at a first-come-first-served campsite and work gets busy, so you can’t leave until Saturday morning.

Spoiler alert!
We still had a grand adventure!

The Hike up to Whipple Valley

We arrived in Pine Valley around 2:30pm. As expected, no campsites were available. Luckily you can park for free at the trailheads if you’re just hiking for the day or doing overnights on the trails.

A three-person family was gearing up as I pulled into a parking spot. We compared notes on what we knew about the trail: Rangers had yet to clear it. Downed trees across the trail. Potential snow at higher elevation on north-facing areas.

The weather was warm, and the elevation hit me a little harder than expected. But it was a beautiful hike with spectacular views and just enough shade to even out the warmth. The hounds were on their best behavior – or maybe the elevation was hitting them a bit as well.

There was no water on the trail until we hit a few streams halfway up. Here we ran into our second human encounter. A couple was setting up camp. They reported that they’d only gone halfway up the remainder of the trail before turning back because it was more challenging than the first portion. Super!

I kept on trekking, taking breaks often, thinking about how easy it would be to turn back or just set up camp at any of the other sites we came upon after that point. We reach the first pocket of snow tucked up under some pines. Then a patch, closer to the trail. Another blob covering half the trail. Just as we came upon the next set of campers, snow-covered the remainder of the trail as it headed from the summit area of the trail down to where the trail spilled out into the valley.

We hopped and slid down to the green space ahead. I stared in awe as we stepped from the trees into the grassy valley that opened up ahead. Green grass, tiny spring flowers, a stream down the center. There was still snow tucked away in the shadows of the tree line, rumpled up dirt where the snowpack had moved along, and water simply flowing out of the ground from the thawing process.

We located a narrow portion of the stream to cross and set up camp across the way. I could see two other campsites when we explored a bit more. The the family of three arrive a short time later. We wound down with a beautiful sunset and retired for the evening.

Shoulder Seasons

The houndy hounds were a bit chilly at night (it dropped below 40) because someone forgot their winter jackets – no names mentioned – okay, it was me!! I covered them in every extra piece of clothing or fabric I had. And I was extra thankful for the morning sunrays that were a toasty piece of heaven.

We explored the valley for a while before making our way back down the trail. Then we were greeted by a dead car battery. I was grateful for friendly hikers willing to give me a jump start. Also for my dad for making me carry jumper cables in my car at all times because the other hikers didn’t have any. If you take anything away from this post, take that: Always carry jumper cables in your car!

Even with a few detours to the original plans, I loved every second of our adventure. And I can’t wait to get back to Utah for another one. I definitely recommend backpacking to Whipple Valley!

Backpacking to Whipple Valley

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