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post #1 of (permalink) Old 08-27-2021, 07:37 PM Thread Starter
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Default Sawback Explorer, Pt 1: Pulsatilla to Badger

Many times I looked with longing on Sawback Range from Ink Pots, wishing I could continue up Johnston Creek Valley knowing there are many wonders to explore. Main deterrent: Approach requires long forested walk and you must backpack. But there is price to be paid for everything. People usually resort to either full Sawback Trail (Norquay to Lake Louise) or shorter Sawback Loop (starting and ending at Moose Meadows). I never found either option too appealing: 4-5 nights backpack with nowhere enough time to explore the alpine. So I designed my own variation (which raised an eyebrow at Banff Parks Visitor Center where I picked up my camping permit). It was 3 day/2 nights trip, as follows:


  • Day 1: Moose Meadows up Johnston Creek Valley to Badger Junction Campground (JO29)
  • Day 2: Dayhikes from JO29 "basecamp": Pulsatilla Pass, down to Pulsatilla Lake and back, then up to Badger Pass and back for 2nd night at JO29. Probably ~25km day with over 1000m vertical cummulative
  • Day 3: Day 1 in reverse, with side trip to Luellen Lake
This strategy worked well: I smoked 1st day in about 6 hrs (21.2km). Heavy pack was loaded with luxury items - 3 cameras, tripod, e-book readers, beer, soft-drinks etc etc; I can pull something like this off knowing on 2nd day I'd be hiking light. And then on 2nd day, fantastic doesn't even begin to describe it, amazing Banff National Park alpine. View of Pulsatilla Lake from the Pass is one of most spell-binding in the Rockies. One could probably spend couple of days exploring this valley and ridges above the lake on both sides. And then hike to 2560m high Badger Pass, one of highest "hiker passes" in Canada was indeed special; a wild and desolate place, tucked beneath Mt. Bonnet I admired from Skoki many times. Initial photo teaser:


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[Still out there even in advanced silver age; Pulsatilla Lake from Pulsatilla Pass. Fossil Peak in Skoki upper center right in the distance]


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[Hiking around very beautiful Pulsatilla lake. Sawback Trail contours above the lake, right side of photo, but on return I dropped to the lake and hiked by the beach, before reconnecting with main trail]



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[Alpine meadows south of Pulsatilla Pass with jagged peaks of Sawback Range on Skyline. If views like this don't entice you to go hiking, nothing ever will]


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[Above treeline heading towards Badger Pass, low saddle dead center. This is what BNP hiking is all about]


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[Large cairn on Badger Pass; trail drops on the other side towards Block Lakes junction / Flint Park]


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[Luellen Lake on 3rd day; this is very beautiful lake and campground is super nice, but for photos you must be here in the morning (meaning you have to camp here) when sun is way behind, so this shot doesn't do justice. Helena Peak upper left, Stuart Knob just right of center in distance]


More details from each day with photos coming up
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post #2 of (permalink) Old 08-27-2021, 09:57 PM
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[Still out there even in advanced silver age;
If you're still capable of doing such hikes, might as well continue. There was an article in the local newspaper of this 107 yr old woman who hiked until she was 95 yrs old.
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post #3 of (permalink) Old 08-28-2021, 01:47 PM
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There was an article in the local newspaper of this 107 yr old woman who hiked until she was 95 yrs old.
I hope that's me, though I might be happy to cut it off at 90 and grow chickens or something.

zeljkok,
That is a beautiful area! Looking forward to details, with products of photography.
Not too hot?
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post #4 of (permalink) Old 08-28-2021, 03:11 PM Thread Starter
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Not hot, actually quite cold overnight; frost in the morning. Perfect for hiking, no bugs at all. This is now best time of year in the Rockies


Re age, it's a number. There are 20 yr olds 30lbs or more overweight that can't climb flight of stairs (but know how to text on social media with lighting speed lol). You just have to manage your body, aware that everything has expiration date. You lose speed and you recover more slowly, but endurance is still there. It all pays off many times when you crest places like Pulsatilla Pass, first pic on top of post. No pain, no trouble exists anymore; just elation of being able to live in such a special moment and place. Memories like that stay with you forever
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post #5 of (permalink) Old 08-28-2021, 05:11 PM Thread Starter
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Default Johnston Creek

Here's bit more about long travel up Johnston Creek to Badger Pass Junction and JO29 campground


I won't talk much about first part from Moose Meadows to Ink Pots; past Johnston Canyon junction it's a tourist zoo this time of year and I zoomed as fast as I could, triggering muttering comments "He must be training for even bigger hike with this heavy pack" along the way. But as soon as I passed the Pots I was on my own & it stayed that way. Another 2km to Larry's Camp/Mystic Junction (JO 9) was familiar from winter trips, but then it was new territory. It is ~8.5km of forested walk to Luellen Lake junction. Most reports I found label this part as uneventful but I didn't find it too boring; some stretches of forest were quite nice, and there are occasional glimpses to Castle Mtn group on west side. There is Warden Cabin ~3.5km mark, and then bypass for ~1km as old trail by creek level was washed out. Bit more rooty and rocky with more elevation gain than expected led to marked Luellen Lake junction


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[Google Maps mock-up, as I didn't take GPS. Yellow cross is Mystic Junction, and Red cross Badger pass Junction]


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[Typical foreststretch past Mystic junction; very pleasant forest floor walking]


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[Some sort of Horse Corral just before Ranger Cabin, with nice log crossing of mossy side creek]


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[Ranger Cabin on a very nice meadow; one could probably camp here too]


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[Luellen Junction]


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[Park Table at Luellen Junction; as evident very well signed throughout. BNP has invested lots of effort in this area, trails are maintained (and campgrounds very nice)]


I decided to leave side trip to Luellen Lake (1.2km 1 way from junction) for return and continued on main trail for another 5.5km to Badger Pass junction. Trail drops to creek level and crosses bridge to west side, then in ~1.5km exits to open meadows and crosses back to west side. Views really open up, and despite starting feeling a bit tired I enjoyed this last stretch quite a bit with Pulsatilla Pass looming on Horizon. Finally you reach signed Badger Pass Junction; valley floor trail continues straight to JO 29 campground in another 500m, while right fork branches for Badger Pass. Note: Take lower valley trail and then watch for rock arrow in ~5-8min, as campground junction was not signed.



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[Bridge over Johnston Creek crossing back to West side. Note about these bridges: They are quite new, very solid but have quite a high step. With heavy overnight pack impacting the balance you need to be a bit careful stepping up and down]


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[Interesting looking tipi hiking up the meadows towards Badger Junction]


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[Meadows Pano near Badger Junction; JO 29 campground is in that forest stand center right. Pulsatilla Pass distant center]


Word about JO 29 campground: It is super nice! Probably one of nicest BNP back-country campgrounds I've seen. 5 tent pads, very spacious and sheltered with plenty of privacy. I found #3 the best, but they are all nice. Lots of tree logs you can use as chairs, and spiky trees for hanging off your clothes. Water is right below the campground; earlier in season probably even closer water source in meadows on the other side. Outhouse, and food storage metal boxes very far away from tent pads (as it should be). Picnic table with fire-pit, and great views across the meadows to Pulsatilla Range


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[Campground sign -- but not on main trail. All BNP back-country campgrounds now have these nice maps telling you where is water, food area, etc]


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[Fire ring below Picnic Table / Food preparation area]
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post #6 of (permalink) Old 08-28-2021, 05:52 PM
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Another brilliant photo journal and narrative. Nice to see new bridges across creeks in places like that.

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post #7 of (permalink) Old 08-28-2021, 09:27 PM
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Beautiful photos and a great report, always informative and a joy to read.
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post #8 of (permalink) Old 08-29-2021, 12:11 AM Thread Starter
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Beautiful photos and a great report, always informative and a joy to read.

Thank you! Hey, there is "Avens" Gallery on Canmore Main Street. Does that have anything to do with you?
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post #9 of (permalink) Old 08-29-2021, 08:06 PM
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No, my favourite prairie wildflower is Geum triflorum, aka three flowered avens, hence the name. Aka prairie smoke and old man's whiskers.
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post #10 of (permalink) Old 08-30-2021, 05:18 PM Thread Starter
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Default Pulsatilla Pass and Lake

First dayhike from Badger Junction basecamp was Pulsatilla Pass. It's about 3.5km to the Pass from the campground with ~350m vertical elevation -- about an hour. I took longer -- such a wonderful terrain, beauty of the day -- why hurry? Trail initially follows now very young Johnston Creek for about a km, then "disappears". Correct way is to ford the creek to left (west) side where trail re-develops just before unexpected short canyon. This was magical place with lovely cascades, and it felt special to see the birthplace of what eventually becomes Johnston Canyon (and Ink Pots)
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This probably illustrates best why I consider peak-bagging rush senseless nowdays -- you just don't get to enjoy places like this if you are obsessed with goal. Honestly I could have spent entire day right here, doing absolutely nothing. But after about half an hour I got up and continued, first through some semi-open larch forest and then open meadows to base of the pass. Peculiar sign lying on the ground here; I don't think this was its original location, as there was still at least 1.5km to the Pass, not just half a mile as sign indicated
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Heading uphill towards the pass there were some humongous boulders smack across the trail; there was obviously significant rockfall off Pulsatilla Mountain in not-so-distant past
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Trail then crests at 2380m Pulsatilla Pass and Grand Reveal - Delightful Alpine Valley and Pulsatilla Lake on the north side of the pass. Familiar territory in the distance: Fossil Mountain in Skoki I scrambled long time ago, along with long Anthozoan Ridge above Baker Lake
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I made me a nest and sat for second breakfast / early lunch. Considered just staying there for the day; everything so beautiful and I had it to myself, no humans anywhere on sight. To the left (west) is interesting looking ridge system and I considered heading over; visible was also waterfall draining upper basin that contains hidden lake, visited very unfrequently. To the west however was gentle looking grassy ridge system of lower Hickson Peak; whole day could easily be spent wondering around. Eventually I just decided to descend on Sawback Trail to Pulsatilla Lake and made a turnaround point little rise on north side of the Lake, just before trail drops below treeline and starts descent towards Wildflower Creek


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[Lovely descent through meadows and wildflowers towards Pulsatilla lake north of the Pass]


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[Looking at Wildflower Creek drainage from turnaround point. Lower down is presumably worst part of Sawback trail with bushwhack and washed out parts, before conditions improve again as trail approaches Baker Lake. Valley to the left is Baker Creek drainage eventually leading to Bow Valley Parkway; this trail has been obsoleted awhile ago and conditions are now reportedly quite brutal; as someone I know said "not fit for man or the beast". It's a shame though, as it would be good way to approach elusive Mitella Lake; that's another topic though]


On return I decided to drop to Pulsatilla Lake and walked on the beach, before reconnecting with main trail before the Pass. Having sun in my face now, light was not as good for photos, but it was wonderful having different angle and imagine how one must feel hiking Sawback Trail north-to-south and wondering what lies beyond the Pass on south side
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[Heading down to the Lake and little beach; with enough time I'd have walked to the right and circumvented on that side. But that meant I'd have to likely abandon plan for afternoon hike to Badger Pass. Just right of center you can see the notch draining upper basin, where woodenshoes descended from Pulsatilla Mtn down to Sawback Trail]


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[Heading back to Pulsatilla Pass]


After taking another break at the Pass (and snapping another batch of photos), I retraced back to the campground. Beautiful light off Sawback Range and vast alpine meadows also meant big camera stayed around the neck
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[Pulsatilla Meadows on descent to head of Johnston Creek Valley]


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[This is why they call it "Sawback" Range!]


I was back at camp at 4pm, later than anticipated but with still enough time to continue up to Badger Pass. This will be next post.

Last edited by zeljkok; 08-30-2021 at 05:25 PM.
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post #11 of (permalink) Old 08-31-2021, 11:12 AM
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Thank you for another wonderful trip report! My list of “to dos” just keeps growing!
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post #12 of (permalink) Old 08-31-2021, 06:29 PM Thread Starter
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Default Badger Pass

Badger Pass is 5.1km from the Junction (add ~500m from the campground) with ~550m vertical gain. It is the highest point on Sawback Circuit & a must see. Like all high mountain passes you need calm weather as it is very exposed to weather. Climb from Johnston Valley is gradual, while approach from the east is much more strenuous - main reason why clockwise direction is preferred for Sawback Loop. I gave myself 2 hours to reach the Pass & it was about right. Trail is good; initially it climbs bit steeper to ridge overlooking Badger creek then drops to creek level across some meadows. Here trail disappears briefly in a washout; there are some cairns, but basically stay by the creek on left (north) side -- do not cross to the other side, and do not climb to forested ridge above. Bit of side trash and in ~300m trail will reappear. Rest is moderate grade to subalpine (lots of larches here!), then wonderful open hike through the meadows -small tarn here- to the Pass. Trail beaten in scree stays on climber left (north) side; large cairn is visible as you hike up.


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[Shoulder above Badger Creek ~15 min from Johnston Valley]


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[Lovely cascades just past the washout section; there was little nook here & it was quite hard to pry myself away, but I really wanted to see the Pass]


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[Wonderful Ridge on south side as trail exits to alpine]


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[Looking towards Badger Pass, low saddle in center]


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[Looking back to Johnston Valley; while not good photo made against afternoon sun, it gives good ideal of terrain in the alpine]


Once at the Pass I took pack off and ran around with camera like a child, very excited with wonderful views. Short climb on south side yields great aerial views of east side valley leading down to Block Lakes Junction and Flint's Park eventually. Block Mtn in the distance looked very impressive, while Bonnet Peak dominated northerly views. I then settled down for the dinner; mostly windless but already a bit cold as afternoon shadows grew taller


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[Badger Pass Pano looking south, as Sawback trail makes wide talus circuit before plunging in valley below]


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[Block Mtn (center left) and Noetic Peak to its right. Block is straightforward ascent, but approach via washed out drainage from Mystic Pass trail is very long. Alternative is via Block Lakes, but this is multi-day trip + I could not find any info if slope above Block Lakes actually goes as scramble only]


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[Pilsner on tap at Badger Pass!]


Finally bit of discussion for more adventurous, old-time CT crowd that still peeks here on occasion. Looking north from Badger Pass to Mt. Bonnet I noticed curious snow line in talus; typical if there would be some sort of scree trail
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[Mt. Bonnet upper center right, Hickson Ridge upper left]


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[100% zoom -- evidently this is a trail]


This intrigued me & when I got back home I looked a bit around. It is possible to scramble Mt. Bonnet this way; ditto for Mt. Hickson, although it is more technical. Found this report by Ramblers; they did wonderful circuit from Red Deer Lakes valley, up to Bonnet Glacier via St. Bride Meadows and then after glacier bivouac / summit climbs, returned via Badger Pass. See here



https://www.ramblers.ab.ca/RecentTri...pReportID=2328


If I ever return to Badger Pass, I do give Mt. Bonnet a shot - it should be comfortable day trip from JO29 basecamp.
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post #13 of (permalink) Old 08-31-2021, 07:56 PM
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A very beautiful and mysterious, almost sere landscape. I'm fetched by Noetic Peak (Block Mntn and Noetic Peak in that take-no-prisoners declamatory prospect), "noetic" referring to the mind. Wonder why that name was bestowed.
Such a contrast to the meadow wildflowers ("towards Pulsatilla lake north of the Pass") from the previous batch of photos.

The tilted slabs in the Sawtooths seem to be a common formation type in southern CAN Rockies; I've noted them along Icefields Parkway and elsewhere. (I wish Benn Gadd's book, Canadian Rockies Geology Road Tours, could be reprinted with clearer photos. It's a treasure.)

Thank you for another unusual randonnée.

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post #14 of (permalink) Old 08-31-2021, 08:55 PM Thread Starter
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I'm fetched by Noetic Peak (Block Mntn and Noetic Peak in that take-no-prisoners declamatory prospect), "noetic" referring to the mind. Wonder why that name was bestowed.
Such a contrast to the meadow wildflowers ("towards Pulsatilla lake north of the Pass") from the previous batch of photos.

Noetic is 3048m ~10.000 feet. According to some unverified info, it is named due to its proximity to Mystic Pass; the term "noetic" usually used as synonym for "mental" or "intellectual"


Area map with all major peaks, as well as Badger Pass labelled
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and this view of Noetic from Block summit (lifted from Shutterstock of all places, as evident by logo)
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Pulsatilla is lower (2380m) thus more docile environments; Badger is almost 2600m, and this explains why it is quite barren
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post #15 of (permalink) Old 09-02-2021, 06:55 PM Thread Starter
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Default In Times to Come

Last day was simple hike out via Johnston Creek, with side trip to Luellen Lake. For several yrs I planed to backpack to Luellen Lake in late Spring, for pure photography purposes. Optimal light is in early to mid-morning, and with lake still half frozen if you can hit it right it can provide stunning landscape. Hiking out on this trip I made it to Luellen ~1pm it was way too late. I still enjoyed lunch at the shore (after putting out fire previous night campers just left burning in firepit). Rest was uneventful and I admit I was tired by the time I stumbled to Ink Pots; last ~6km bit to Moose Meadows and the car was quite painful


I will finish the post with bit of discussion in reference to "Part 1" in title of this thread. Obviously I plan to return and explore various other areas, some on and some off trail. Here are some ideas/plans.


1. Mystic Junction Basecamp

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Idea is to hike in from Norquay via Forty Mile Trail and set basecamp at Fm19 (Mystic Junction). Then with light pack half-day trip to Mystic Lake and Mystic Pass is obvious choice; this is also on Sawback Trail. In particular in respect to Mystic Lake that, like Luellen, must be visited in mid-morning for optimal photos.


Second option is to continue along Forty Mile, then trash (off trail) to alpine valley east below Mt. Sira that apparently has some lovely alpine tarns ("Sira Tarns"). Even more interesting is drainage on west side to unnamed lake I dubbed "Noetic Tarn". I can find no reference whatsoever anyone went here, so it would be interesting from explorer perspective.



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Perhaps just following drainage would not be too bad, and according to contour maps there is only ~200m vertical to this secluded valley below south outlier of Noetic Peak


2. Block Lakes Junction Basecamp

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This is well-known camp on Sawback Trail. Obvious approachwould be via Norquay / Forty Mile Summit, with side trips to Sawback and Rainbow Lakes (established trails). Then from Block Lakes Junction route that intrigues me for quite some time is breaking into alpine cirque below Block Mountain and visiting Block Lakes. I composed separate thread on this route as knowledge repository, but nobody contributed any additional info so far. Second off-trail option would be to trash up drainage SE of Mt. Bonnet to alpine cirque with what I dubbed "Badger Lake".


Main problem with this is remote location; 2 days are needed just to get in, with a LOT of forest / valley floor walking, then 2 days to get out - even if taking some of alternate routes. But once in, it is wilderness where chance of running into others are slim and you get to see parts of BNP very few others do




3. Flint Park Basecamp

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Similar to Block Lakes basecamp, approach and exit are long, but there are some very intriguing possibilities from there. First is Cuthead Lake that would likely yield beautiful Front Ranges scenery and probably would be just an easy half-day trip from Flint Park. Second, of which I can find no reference anywhere and that might even not be visited ever, is what is labelled as "Goat Lake" on maps. From Flint Park initial approach would be via established North Fork trail, but then one would have to trash up drainage leading to headwall below high cirque containing the lake. Would this headwall go as scramble only? I don't know and the only way to find out is to actually get there.


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I will post separate reports as / when these plans materialize
zeljkok is online now  
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