Kakwa Provincial Park – Four Perfect Days in the Northern Rockies
Just back from a great adventure to the Kakwa. This is a provincial park east of Prince George and north of McBride. I had heard people rave about the area for years but you just can't really appreciate it until you go there. This is a bit of a long report but there is little information out there about this park so I wanted to be thorough.
Kakwa has been a provincial park since 2000. It is very appropriately named after the Cree word for porcupine. It contains Mount Ida and Mount Sir Alexander, the two northernmost 10,000 foot peaks in the Rockies. The latter is named after Alexander Mackenzie, who was the first person to cross North America, in 1793.
This is a hard place to get to but it is as beautiful as any place I've ever seen. Kakwa Lake itself is a stunning vista surrounded by pristine forest, inviting peaks and twisted walls of rock. I spent hours sitting on the dock, absorbing the views and just feeling free of any concerns in the world. It has been said that the Kakwa is like what Jasper or Banff must have been like 100 years ago. Besides the camp and the access road (which is slowly being taken back by the river and vegetation) there are almost no other signs of human disturbance. The few people we met there had a contagious reverence for the place and keep coming back year after year.
To get there drive about 135 km east of Prince George on Highway 16. Turn left (north) onto the Walker Forest Service Road (FSR). The Walker FSR was in good shape and drivable in a car. I understand a fair bit of work was done on it this year and it is subject to washouts and erosion so check with the Ministry of Environment office in Prince George about current road conditions. Follow it north to the McGregor River then east for a total of 73 km to the Bastille Creek bridge. Park here as the road is washed out soon after the bridge.
Here the Prince George snowmobile club has an Atco trailer. It was open but pretty dingy and we camped. Kawka lived up to its name the first night as we awoke to a porcupine gnawing on the wooden supports of the trailer. It is important to bring chicken wire to protect the underside of your vehicle as they have been known to chew through brake lines (and bike tires, and boots, and almost anything else you leave out).
The problem in getting to Kakwa is that the final 29 km is not vehicle accessible. Therefore you can hike in (a really long day hike or often two days), or bike in. It is difficult to carry at lot of gear on a bike, but the best way to do this is with panniers. We met two guys from Prince George, one of whom had been up there seven times in the last two years. He had front and back panniers and was able to carry a weeks worth of gear. We had heavy packs and had the incredible fortune of being there when some gear was being brought in by helicopter and were able to send our packs in with the sling load!! The bike down was hard enough with the packs on. If you have any doubts how hard it is to bike with a big pack try putting 50-60 lbs on your back and going for a 1 hour steep, hot climb to get a flavor for this. The road is just too rough in many places for a trailer. Friends of ours had brought one and it broke. I've posted quite a few pictures of the state of the road to make it clear that, in parts, it is in rough condition but many parts are smooth sailing.
The trip from the Bastille Creek bridge to Kakwa Lake is 29 km. Within 1.5 km the road is severely washed out until 4.5 km. Numerous stream crossing are necessary, including one almost waste deep. From 4.5 km to 12 km at Buchanan Creek the road is pretty good with about three washouts, mostly circumvented by ATV trails. The road follows the McGregor River and the surrounding scenery is spectacular.
At the 12 km mark, the old bridge is washed out. In fact it is sitting on the side of the road. The creek is about 50 feet across and in early August it was knee to thigh deep and not a problem. However earlier in the season and on very hot days (glacial melt) it can get quite high and at times, I believe, impassable.
Beyond Buchanan Creek the road is in good shape but it is a long climb to MacGregor Pass and Wishaw Lake at 24 km. Even without our packs this climb was taxing. There are plenty of creeks for rehydration along the way. Here a fork goes to the left about 500 feet to an abandoned quartzite quarry. So, go straight and the road is rolling until another fork at 27 km. The left fork goes to Babette and Jarvis Lakes and the right fork goes 1.8 km down to Kakwa Lake.
There is a basic campsite with a table, fire pit, bear cache and a pit toilet. There is also a horse camp across the stream. In 2007 two log cabins were built. One is for the Park Wardens or Park Hosts who tend to the area. The other is for visitors and is first come first serve. It has four bunks and a loft that could sleep another four. There is a wood stove, table and counter space.
Once at Kakwa Lake there are almost limitless hiking opportunities. We had the great pleasure of meeting John and Joan Vogt from Prince George who were just starting a three week stint as park hosts. They have been to the Kakwa many times and are a wealth of information. In fact, John has put together a trail/route guide that is available online. I'll post the website as soon as he gets back. It is succinct and practical. If John says a route is difficult or a climb is steep, it will be!
We did one daytrip to Babette Lake. A short cut west from camp takes you back to old “tote” road, just beyond the last fork in the road on the way up. Follow it north. At the next junction go straight as going right takes you towards Jarvis Lake. Babette is a beautiful emerald green lake that sits at the base of Mt Ian Monroe. In early August wildflowers were in full bloom. The road takes you about 7 km from camp to the west end of the lake, right at the base of the impressive “headwall”. From there you can bushwack up to the pass and up the back (west) side of Ian Monroe. From camp to the top of Ian Monroe is 10 km (each way).
The next day we went to Mt Ruth, on the east side of Kakwa Lake. From the campsite cross the shallow stream that flows south out of Kakwa Lake. Go through the horse camp and a sign points to Mt Ruth/La Glace Lake. After about 10 minutes the trails forks and a sign points left (east) to Mt Ruth and another sign points straight (south) to La Glace. We headed east up through the spruce following a good trail well marked with orange blazes. In the meadow the trail braids a bit but can be followed easily. Head towards the peaks behind Ruth until you see meadows on your left, this way you will avoid bushwhacking through krummholz. The first part of the ascent is straight forward. Once you hit the second peak stay right. We descended into a gully and encountered some low fifth class scrambling. Following this we gained the ridge again, topping out a few hundred meters short of the summit as the weather was turning for the worse but the views were still spectacular.
There are many other day hikes in the area, including the emerald green Lac La Glace +/- the steep route up to the glacier above it. Also, Corniche Pass to the north of Babette looked spectacular. Jarvis Lakes is probably a bit far for a daytrip but there is a cabin there as well and spectacular views of Mt Ida can be had. We had four days total. With one day of travel on either end three days just doesn't seem like enough to me. It would be very easy to spend a week at Kakwa!
A few other thoughts …
We brought Heidi's dog Ellie. She is getting on a little in age but pretty fit. She made the 29 km trip up with what seemed like no problems. But we realized the next day that all four of her paw pads were worn through in places. I think the speed of the trip up (us on bikes) plus the hard surface (of the road) led to this. We had to tape up her front paws on the way down and were quite concerned about how she would do, though she made it. She also got tangled up with the resident porcupine at Bastille Creek the first morning. Porcupine quills need have the outside tips cut off before removing them, to release the pressure in the embedded backward facing barbs.
No motorized vehicles (ATV's) are allowed in the park during the summer. However, snowmobiles are allowed in the winter. John said there have been reports of up to 200 snowmobiles in the park on busy winter days. You will see a number of trees with tops that have been cut off, now sprouting multiple stunted leaders.
You will need a system to make it through the first 12 km. Strongly consider panniers as they lower the center of gravity and lighten the load on your lower back. This trip can be done with a big pack but the climb up would be awfully hard. Have footwear that you can make a lot stream of crossings in. You don't want to be trying to change in and out of sandals a dozen times. Consider flat pedals with a firm soled shoe or clipless pedals with some Keen commuter sandals, though bike shoes worked fine. We just left them on to ford the creeks. The climb out of Buchanan creek is long and exposed but there are creeks the whole way up for rehydration. It took us 4.5 hours to get up (with just day packs). I suspect the trip up would take 6 – 8 hours with full gear. The trip down with our packs and a slowed dog took 4.5 hours!
I think it will now be clear by now that this is a true wilderness park and one must be prepared. This is grizzly bear country and there was plenty of fresh scat, especially near Babette Lake. There may be a park host there but not necessarily so consider a satellite phone as it is a long way back to the car, let alone the highway. A good first aid kit is a must.
The 1:50 000 topographic maps of the area are Mount Sir Alexander 93 H/16 (south of Kakwa Lake) and Jarvis Lakes 93 I/1 (Kakwa Lake north). Definitely bring John Vogt's invaluable trail guide.
Special thanks to a few other people as well. George Evanoff was a driving force behind so many land use and protection issues around Prince George and was the main proponent for protection of the Kakwa. Also to Mike Nash for continuing to write and speak passionately about the outdoor opportunities around Prince George. And finally Rick and Jim, the current park rangers out of the Ministry of Environment office who have the enviable (“a walk in the park” as one of them quipped) but herculean task of keeping an eye on the local parks of this massive region.
This place is beautiful. The McGregor River is a perfect slate green surrounded by spruce and meadows. You get spectacular views of the surrounding peaks from the first kilometer. We made a lot of stops for pictures on the way down. It had been rather cloudy on the way up so we didn't appreciate the amazing views of Mt Sir Alexander until the return trip. And as a final parting gift we realized the amazing views we had missed from the Walker FSR on the drive in because night was falling. This was our last view of the Northern Rockies as we drove out …. how can you not come back to that!