Prolonged winters wreak havoc with would-be wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains, shortening the summer season to a mere interruption between falling and melting snow.
In terms of colour, yes, the golden glow of October larch is pleasant enough in autumn. However, such seasons can leave one feeling chromatically challenged. The hiker in search of a deeper spectrum of experiences beyond white, grey and brown must pick his or her spots carefully.
Thankfully there is a month where mythic pockets of brilliance and vibrance paint dormant fields in a galaxy of colour. Mountain meadows explode in verdant greens, azure blues and crimson reds; a display that can only be described as sublime. Sadly, the colour disappears quickly in September, but the show is worth the wait.
There are several locales in which to spy this display. Healy Pass, via Simpson Pass is amongst the best in the area. There are many options for this route, but the basic in and out trip is about a 20-kilometre round trip hike. Be sure to bring plenty of water, food and of course bear spray. A mother grizzly and three cubs have been sighted often in the area.
There are a few options available to reach the meadows from the trailhead at the bottom of Sunshine Village, eight kilometres off the Trans-Canada Highway. The trail can be accessed by hiking Healy Creek from the base, or walking up the Sunshine ski-out, which is a dusty option on a hot day. In order to maximize wildflower time, I chose the bus option, operated by White Mountain Adventures. The cost is $27 per person, and it saves quite a bit of elevation, hence more time for wildflowers.
Once up top, a two-km hike up a well marked path takes you up by the Wawa lift at Sunshine. In winter, this run is well know for its abundance of young snowboarders laying prostrate in the middle of the hill, often complaining of hang-overs, however, that species seems to vanish in the summer.
Upon reaching the top of the run (the biggest elevation gain on the trail), grand views of the continental divide open up. A diversity of peaks become visible and there is no shortage of photo opportunities. The Monarch, Mount Assiniboine and Citadel Pass are all visible from this site a mere two kms into the hike.
The trail then descends through a small meadow into a larch and alpine fir stand, home to many mosquitos and horse flies. On hot days, the forest offers a cool reprieve from the sun, but be sure to make lots of noise on the trail to alert wildlife of your presence. The odd stream meanders into brilliant ponds
Through the woods, a clearing opens up to Simpson Pass, near the British Columbia border. Healy Creek trail joins the Healy Pass trail, followed by a short, but steep incline. A trail junction to Lake Eohippus, a 3.2-km side trip, branches off after the climb. Rumour has it the remnants of Bill Peyto’s old hideout are found in these parts.
Once at the top, the wildflowers reach their nadir, surrounding with incredible peaks and dotted with lakes.
At kilometre 7.6, another junction to the Healy Pass trail appears which heads back to the Sunshine village parking lot. However, about two kilometres away lies Healy Pass and views of Egypt Lake for a perfect lunch location.
Globe flower, western anemone and paintbrush speckle the landscape as impressive views of the mountainous landscapes open up in one of the most sublime sites in the area. At its peak, the valley floor is blanketed in colour to appease the most discerning taste.
From here, more side trips present themselves, but know the abilities of your group before venturing too far. The last bus leaves at 5:30 p.m., so time is a factor in order to avoid the hike out from Healy Creek.
Again, there isn’t much elevation gain on the trail, however it is certainly a full day’s effort. Yet the payoff, to wander through ethereal plains of colour on the continental divide, surrounded by incredible peaks, is well worth the wait.