The Simpson River trail might not be on the top of your list of possible hikes in Kootenay National park – but the scenery is pretty amazing. Like the other areas I have shown so far in Kootenay National park, this region was ravaged by wildfires (the fire here was back in 2001.) Those fires are recent enough that there are very few tall trees to block your views of the surrounding mountains. They are also long enough ago that new flowers, shrubs and mini trees have started to grow back.
We did not hike the whole way up to the Surprise Creek Campground – we only had a couple of hours to spare, so we just hiked up to the bluffs overlooking the Simpson River. This walk is good for choosing your own adventure. You can make it as long or as short as you fancy.
Simpson River trail map
This map is pretty close to the path we followed. The path seems different to the dotted line for the route on the alltrails map – but it is well cleared and easy to follow.
Simpson River trail – the basics
Distance: 22.4 km (or as far as you fancy – we only did around 5km)
Elevation gain: 677m (minimal for the first few kilometers)
Time: 7 hours
What to bring:
The 10 Essentials
Plenty of layers and waterproofs.
There is a campsite at the end of the trail if you have a camping permit.
Dogs: Yes (on a leash)
How hard is it? Easy to moderate depending how far you go.
Extra notes: There is no cell service in Kootenay National Park. Download maps and details before you drive into the National park!
Simpson River trail – Getting started
You can park at the Simpson River trailhead on Banff-Windermere Highway (BC 93). It’s about 46km (30mins) from Castle Junction or 54km (40mins) from Radium Hot Springs. There are some lovely mountain views from the bridge across the Vermilion River. This would be good for a speedy scenic stop off, but it’s even better if you go for a walk. If you hike the whole way to Surprise Creek and back, it’ll take 7 hours.
You should be extra careful in areas where the burned trees are still standing. There is a risk that the trees could fall, so it is best to avoid this trail in anything other than calm, sunny weather. If you are in a group you should spread out, and walk fast past trees that are still standing. Don’t stop for breaks unless you are more than a tree length from standing trees.
Having said that, in most places the trees have either already fallen, or been chopped down. There were only a few areas where blackened trees were still standing close to the trail.
Wide views of Kootenay National Park
This area must have been a sad sight 20 years ago, right after the fire. But now with the new growth of wildflowers and diverse saplings it is really coming to life again. I imagine these low areas would have been surrounded by tall forests in the past, blocking out the views of Mount Shanks and Hawk Ridge. We really loved just how many mountain peaks you can see from the trail.
Views of Simpson River
The pathway starts along the Vermilion River, but then turns to follow alongside the Simpson River. You can’t always see down to the river, but when you do catch a view of it; It’s beautiful.
There are a few places (mostly up high on the banks of the Simpson River) where there are still quite a few burned trees that are still standing. These are the areas where you need to be extra careful. You can see the ground is littered with massive blackened tree trunks. It’s a massive tree graveyard.
Here is a photo of Marc, so you can see the scale of the ex-trees. They must have been truly enormous when they still had branches and leaves. They towered over us, even in their sad, topless state.
The one good thing about this tree-graveyard is the lack of tall foliage has made the Simpson River trail into a haven for wildflowers. We saw plenty of the alpine flowers that I am used to (the red paintbrushes and the fireweed) but there was so many more!
As well as the flowers, there was a whole range of grasses. This area is now full of food for insects, small critters and it must be great for larger gazing animals too.
We did this walk on a grey afternoon, but it was still beautiful with the contrast of the moody skies and the bright coloured flowers.
There are a few areas of the trail that are a bit soggy and swampy, but Parks Canada has built some really nice boardwalks.
Bluffs above the Simpson River
We didn’t really have a planned destination for our walk. There is no cell-service in Kootenay National Park, so we didn’t know much about how far this trail would go what else we might see further along the trail. So we decided to turn back once we’d seen the gorgeous views from the bluffs just a couple of kilometers into the trail.
Continue to Surprise Creek Campground?
It sounds like if we had kept going, the trail to Surprise Creek Campground would have been more of the same – pretty views of the Simpson River, the surrounding mountains and oodles of wild flowers. I found another post hiking to the Surprise Creek Campground if you are interested in seeing more.
In the end, hiking along the Simpson River trail was perfect for killing a few hours in the afternoon in Kootenay National Park. To be honest as there are sooo many epic trails nearby, I am not sure I’d have this hike high on my list to return to or for going the whole way to Surprise Creek Campground. I think you can get even more impressive views for less effort nearby. Having said that, this is a beautiful trail if you like wildflowers, or if you want some peace and quiet while you hike – there are very few people in this area.
What do you think? Do you like the idea of a quiet few hours hiking along the river, or would you prefer to save your energy for some of the other more famous Canadian Rockies hikes nearby?