Upper Brazeau Canyon: A Sublime Playground

If you look at a map of Jasper National Park, there is a small tongue of territory that sticks out to the southeast between Banff National Park and the White Goat Wilderness Area. This tongue of land is the upper portion of the Brazeau River Canyon, what I'm going to call the Upper Brazeau Canyon.

It's an amazing place, this canyon. The mountains of Jasper are massive, slanted things, and above the canyon an enormous portion of a mountain broke off and spilled into the canyon. If you look in the background of this picture, you can see a notch in the ridge. That might not look like much in a picture, but it is way back there and very tall. The whole missing section to the right spilled down. That's a lot of rock.

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So what you see is this: a wide, glaciated valley typical of the Canadian Rockies with a winding river slowly flowing through it, the whole filled with rubble. It's an unusual landscape, unlike anything I'd ever seen before.

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Upper Brazeau Canyon is accessed from the Nigel Pass trail, which starts in Banff National Park off the Icefield Parkway. Hike a lovely, gentle seven kilometres to the pass and you reach the Brazeau River. We saw a golden eagle's nest during this hike! There is no bridge, but the river isn't too difficult to cross by stepping stone.

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After crossing the river, you get an amazing view both up and down the river. We stopped for lunch by the river and took it all in.

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An official trail goes straight ahead and takes you into the backcountry, a popular multi-day hike. But if you turn right onto the "wilderness trail," meaning the trail isn't officially maintained, a short walk will take you to Upper Brazeau Canyon.

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We walked through an incredible boulder field full of jagged red and blue-grey rock. I know next to nothing about geology, so I can't tell you what kind of rocks there were. I can, however, tell you that there were many wonderful wildflowers growing in this harsh environment, including apetalous catchfly, elephanthead lousewort, alpine bistort, and golden mountain saxifrage, which is the little yellow guy in the bottom left.

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This being a boulder field in the mountains in the northern hemisphere, you can guess who also was there: pikas! These cute relatives of rabbits store grass in the cool larders formed by boulders. They make a loud, nasal peen sound as an alarm, but can be difficult to spot.

I was lucky enough to find a larder and see a few individuals, including this cutie who obligingly posed for a portrait.

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Upper Brazeau Canyon is the perfect spot for hikers like me and my family. Some of us prefer the pleasure of walking, some of us prefer examining every new type of plant (me) or rock (Britt) we come across, some of us take pictures all the time, but all of us agree that climbing around on boulder fields is the best.

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It helps that we were the only people in the canyon, so the hours we spent there were all alone. It's amazing how few people travel off the main trails.

Brittany and Laura climbed way up the slope, while the rest of us stayed lower down. It was a sublime playground.

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The jumbled and jagged nature of the boulders produces a curious visual phenomenon. When you're looking at a bunch of rocks of one colour, even though what you're looking at might extend fifty metres or more in front of you, the scene appears flat. At least it does for me! I tried to capture this phenomenon.

My theory goes like this. Perspective works by giving your eye objects to lead it into the distance and camouflage works by disrupting outlines. The messy outlines of Brazeau Canyon boulders disrupt what your eye expects, giving it nothing to lead it into the distance. The backgrounds in the two shots below extend tens of metres beyond the foremost subjects.

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There is so much to do. You can climb way up the slope, as Brittany and Laura did, or you can hike on into the really out there White Goat Wilderness Area, or you can enjoy the peaceful beauty of the canyon, or you can hunt for fossils among all the broken rock. I probably should look up whether there actually are fossils in that rock, but I'll say this: it looks like there should be! I hope you have more luck than we did.

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On our walk back, we were fortunate to see a female harlequin duck swimming in the Brazeau rapids! I didn't get a picture of the duck, but imagine a small duck diving in this river way up in the subalpine. Very cool.

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In case you can't tell, I highly recommend visiting Upper Brazeau Canyon. It's not a terribly difficult hike, although it is a bit on the long side: somewhere over 16 km round trip.

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If you ever want a nice copy of a picture to have or to print out, just get in touch and I can send you one!