It’s hard to forget that you’re in bear country when hiking Balu Pass. The name (by Dominion Topographic Survey, whose surveyors camped here 2 – 6 August 1902) is derived from the Hindustani word “baloo”, meaning bear. The trail itself traverses wall-to-wall avalanche slopes flanked with Grizzly Peak, Ursus Major and Ursus Minor and finally ends in alpine meadows – this is indeed bear country! This is why you’ll want to have a guide, knowledgeable in all things “bear” so as to help keep you safe. The minimum for this hike is 4 people and occasionally 6 when required by Parks Canada. Groups of six have never been attacked by a bear… so far!
Your morning begins with a hearty breakfast at Heather Mountain Lodge where you and your guide will discuss the final details of the day. This includes a final gear check including bear spray and binoculars!, and placing your freshly made mountain lunch in your pack. At the time determined by your guide, you will leave Heather Mountain Lodge by car with full instructions on how to get to the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre – an approximately 20 minute drive. You’ll want to start your hike early if the day promises to be hot as once you break out of the forest towards Balu Pass, there is very little shade. You’ll have an opportunity to explore the Discovery Centre fully at the end of your hike.
The trail starts as a forest walk through a stand of mountain hemlock and occasional huge Engelmann spruce. It’s a magical place and you feel as though you are on your way to Hogwarts school of Wizardry. After you break out of the forest you find yourself walking beside the gentle flow of Connaught Creek and emerging into an avalanche zone which affords excellent views all the way to the pass. The creek is an excellent place to see dippers – adventurous dark little birds that hunt for aquatic invertebrates in mountain streams.
One of the highlights of the Balu Pass hike is the unexpected rock work that has been created along the top of the trail. You’ll ascend a staircase of perfectly positioned rocks which turn into a pathway worthy of a historic garden. Wildflowers such as glacier lilies are abundant in the meadows wherever the snow is receding and sightings of ptarmigans is likely at the pass.
When you get to Balu Pass, you can see down the other side onto upper Cougar Creek, a spectacular view in its own right. Even better, turn left and hike up to the crest of the slight hill of Cheops Mountain and you’ll get a fantastic panorama of the Illecillewaet, Lily and Bonney glaciers, as well as Mt. Swanzey and Mt. Bonney. On the way to the crest of that hill, you might notice a green plastic thing to your right. This is a non-covered outhouse. Please use it to avoid polluting the alpine area. When they get around to rating outhouses for views, this one will definitely be in the top five on the planet.
Time for a well deserved lunch break. You’ll want to soak in the 360 degree view, look for bears with your binoculars, and relax before the descent back down the valley. The whole trip is a little over 10km return with 780m (2600 feet) elevation gain to the pass. Expect to be out on the trail for around 4-5 hours.
Once back to the parking area, take time to slip into the Discovery Centre to cool off and see all it has to offer. The centre has a theatre, exhibits about the discovery of Rogers Pass and the completion of the railway, and natural history displays. But don’t spend too much time there. A short drive back to Heather Mountain Lodge rewards you with a well-deserved Apres, hot tub, and massage!