At the end of July my friends and I hiked one of the best backpacking trails in the Canadian Rockies; The Rockwall. It was incredible! We had perfect weather and got to see fabulous wildflowers, countless waterfalls, spectacular geology and alpine views that looked like they belong in a fairy story! This is a trail report from our first day, from Paint Pots to Helmet Falls.
I’m going to jump right in with some panoramas to show you just how fabulous the pay-off was for this relatively easy first day on the Rockwall trail.
Paint Pots to Helmet Falls map
Paint Pots to Helmet Falls – The basics
Distance: 14.5 km
Elevation gain: 336m
Cumulative Elevation gain: Strava says 526m (all trails says 750m, but it didn’t seem that much.)
Highest Point: 1770m for the campground (+300m for the view by Helmet Falls)
Time: 4-5 hours
What to bring: The 10 Essentials, bear spray (have it handy), gaiters were helpful.
Facilities: There are outhouses at the paintpots trailhead, at the Helmet & Ochre Junction Camp and at the Helmet Falls Camp. Bring your own loo roll or a kula cloth.
Dogs: Dogs are allowed on this trail if they are on a leash.
How hard is it?
The Rockwall trail as a whole is challenging, but this first day is relatively easy. We met a few families with small children that hiked in to both Helmet & Ochre Junction and Helmet Falls.
The Rockwall – How tough is it?
I should probably mention that I was equally nervous and excited about this adventure. The snow melted very late this year, so we were not sure if we’d be able to do the entire route, right up until a few days before we left. To add to that, I have never hiked a through-route with 3 nights in the back country before. Lastly, although I attempted to train by hiking, I caught covid-19 twice this year and it really knocked me out. Luckily my hiking buddies were Lisa (from West Coast Hiker Girl) and Shannon (from Must Hike Must Eat.) They are both experienced through hikers and really fun to be with so that reassured me.
If you’re considering hiking the Rockwall but you’re worried it’ll be too tough, I completely understand. I was pretty sure I could manage it – but not totally sure. Whenever I found it tough I just stopped to take photos, enjoy the views and catch my breath. In the end I was proud of my wobbly legs for carrying me so far!
The Rockwall trail – Getting started
The Rockwall is located in Kootenay National Park, with access via Floe Lake, Numa Creek or from the Paintpots. We started at the Paintpots, which is on BC93 (Banff-Windermere Parkway), 35 minutes from Lake Louise, or 40 minutes from Banff.
It is 12.8km (9 mins drive) from the Floe Lake trailhead (where we’d finish) to Paint Pots. Shannon and I waited with our bags at Paint Pots while Lisa drove to the Floe Lake trailhead then made friends with some hikers who had two cars to shuttle over. She managed to hitchhike back to us in less than 20 minutes! She is so friendly and good at spotting hikers, it worked like a dream!
The Paint Pots
One of the fab aspects of following the Rockwall trail from the Paint Pots to Floe Lake, is that you get to start with a natural marvel; Mineral-rich springs that are colourful like bright pots of paint. If you fancy more details, I have a Post about the Paint Pots.
Beyond the Paint Pots
Downhill from the pools, the iron-rich water has stained the surrounding soil a vibrant ochre colour. This slowly begins to fade as you hike uphill away from them.
Easy trail in the trees
Beyond the Paint Pots (1km), the trail is shady and pretty relaxing for the next 4.8km to Helmet & Ochre Junction. Sometimes the trail opens into pleasant wild-flower-filled meadows. You can even see a teeny section of the Rockwall from afar.
Helmet & Ochre Junction
We stopped by Ochre Creek for lunch. The Rockwall trail does have a lot of visiting hikers every day. But as everyone is spread out along the trail, you don’t really notice it until you reach the campgrounds (where everyone bunches up!) There was no space for us at the benches, but we found a log to sit on. We ate listening to the burble of the creek.
Helmet & Ochre Junction Campground Facilities
This is such a gorgeous location! It’s only 5.8km in, so it would be good if you need to start later in the day, or for backpacking with little’uns. There are tent pads (6), pit toilets, bear cache lockers and tables/benches at this pleasant backcountry campground. I met a deer in the berry bushes here (see below.)
Ready for the elevation gain
Once you get past the Helmet & Ochre Junction, get ready to put some effort in, as the trail quickly starts to gain elevation as you hike above Ochre Creek.
The steep part of the trail is not *too* bad as it only lasts for a kilometer, and there are switchbacks so it never gets crazily steep. It is just when you have a heavy backpacking bag any elevation gain can feel tiring.
About halfway along the trail, the creek changes name from Ochre Creek to Helmet Creek. The trail slowly opens out to provide more mountain views.
Just a few kilometers from Helmet Falls Campground you get to cross Helmet Creek on a fun, super bouncy suspension bridge.
After another section in the forest, you’ll emerge in a meadow next to the Helmet Creek Patrol Cabin right in front of Helmet Falls! Woot woot!
Helmet Falls Campground
The campground at Helmet Falls is lovely. Each campsite has its own tent pad among the trees. Ours sat under this phenomenal view of Limestone Peak – squee!
Helmet Falls Campground Facilities
There are tent pads (18 available), a couple of outhouses, food storage lockers, groups of tables and benches (all away from the sleeping area.) You can easily fetch water from the creek along the edge of the campground.
Helmet Falls is magnificent! It’s one of the tallest waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies, dropping 352m down a vertical cliff face. There are three tiered drops (two you can see from below.)
Extra mini hike to Helmet Falls
You can see Helmet Falls from the campground, but it is tempting to hike in closer. We found a path that was 4km (return) with an elevation gain of about 300m. We ended up on a ledge, right next to the top of the lower waterfall.
The uppermost waterfall is enormous. It is hard to see the scale from photos, but this section alone is a 250m-300m drop.
If you follow the trail up, this is where you’ll end up, perched near the top.
Getting up close to the lower falls is impressive. There is just so much water roaring past, it’s easy to forget that the main chute above you is five times larger than this!
Just be ready to get a little soggy as Helmet Falls generates a lot of spray.
The views backdown to the campground from up at Helmet Falls are pretty good too.
Even if you don’t fancy the extra hike to the falls, Helmet Falls Campground is a fabulous place to sleep. I adored the views early in the morning (when the mountains glow a golden colour.)
We had such a great first day on the Rockwall Trail from Paint Pots to Helmet Falls. It may be hard to imagine, but the days after this just got better and better as we walked along one of the most spectacular trails I have ever seen! I can’t wait to show you all the rest!
Have you heard of the Rockwall trail before? Now you’ve seen it, do you fancy giving backpacking a go to camp in the Canadian wilderness. Click on the pins below to save this.