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Hiking to the Illecillewaet Glacier in Glacier National Park | Roadtrip Canada (43)

After we get in Yoho National Park checked off a few easy hikes and enjoyed the beautiful lakes and waterfalls, it was high time to challenge ourselves a bit. We decided to go to Glacier National Park of Canada and were determined to see a glacier up close as well. We gathered information about hiking to the Illecillewaet glacier, asked park rangers for tips and started preparing. Pack your bag, put on walking shoes and go with that banana! So we thought…

However, it turned out differently than we thought. In the end, this turned out to be one of the most challenging and exhausting hikes we ever did. At times it was even dangerous, because we had to cross melting ice a few times on steep slopes. One wrong step there and you just fall hundreds of meters down.

Because this hike was so challenging and because the goal (the Illecillewaet glacier) is so incredibly beautiful, I really want to take you into our experience in this article. So I don't just write about the usual tips & tricks and standard photos, but I will take you through the extreme conditions that we had to brave. I do this by means of (actually private) videos, which we gradually sent to relatives in the Netherlands. However, the videos give a good idea of ​​the whole thing and so I include them in this article. Lots of reading and viewing pleasure!


Plan your vacation to Canada here


Our journey through the United States and Canada

This article is part of a major one-year journey that we (Chris and Malou van Wereldreizigers.nl), are currently making by the United States en Canada† We started in New York City and are through Washington DC en Baltimore (where we shipped our RV), first traveled south (Florida) and then made a full round of the country. At the end of July we crossed the border to Canada via Montana.

Organizing this trip took a lot of time and energy. So we had to US B1/B2 visa of one year and we spent weeks working on it renovating our 4×4 camper† Then we got to work on the RV to America to ship and in hindsight it turned out to be a Dutch vehicle insurance in America to be one of the biggest challenges.

When that was all over, we could finally focus on the anticipation: figuring out and planning all the beautiful places we want to visit. I built the ultimate roadtrip route through America and Canada of roughly 50.000 kilometers in Google maps and we are now making our dream come true! The interactive map can be viewed below.

More blogs from our trip through America and Canada

America

Canada

About Glacier National Park of Canada

Glacier National Park was established in 1886, simultaneously with Yoho National Park in the East. The Canadian Pacific Railway had just completed its transcontinental line connecting the fledgling nation of Canada. The spectacular scenery along the railway was an opportunity for the railway company to attract tourists.

Lodges and hotels were built to lure travelers into what was wilderness just a few years earlier. The famous Roger's Pass is located in the center of Glacier National Park. The pass is named after Major AB Rogers, chief engineer for the railways. It has been designated a National Historic Site in memory of its role as an essential, yet dangerous, link in the construction of the transcontinental railroad.

Camping in and around Glacier

Glacier National Park of Canada, as the park is officially called, does not have many options for camping. With only three official campsites in the park, the number of places is very limited and this is especially noticeable in the high season.

Because we visited the park in high season, everything was full just before the weekend. As a result, we were forced to divert for a day to a location for wild camping outside the boundaries of the park. The receptionist at the campsite advised to come back early the next day as it is a 'first come, first serve' campsite and many campers would be leaving the next day. No sooner said than done.

Official Campsites

There are three official campgrounds in Glacier National Park of Canada, one of which is currently (September 2022) still closed. These are the three official campgrounds in the park:

  • Mount Sir Donald Campground (location here )
  • Illecillewaet Campground (location here )
  • Loop Brook Campground (location here )

Mount Sir Donald Campground is currently closed because an invasive beetle has been found that affects the trees in such a way that there is a great danger of trees falling over. At the moment they are cutting down all the trees in the area in hopes of stopping the beetle. It is not yet clear when the campsite will reopen.

We stayed a total of three nights at Illecillewaet Campground. This was the most logical choice for us because many of the famous trails to the glaciers start here. More about that later in the blog.

Walk Brook Campground is located near the two other campgrounds and here too a few spots are available for 'first come, first serve'. Here too you have a chance to get a spot without a reservation.

Our place at Illecillewaet Campground | Glacier National Park of Canada
Our place at Illecillewaet Campground | Glacier National Park of Canada

De Illecillewaet campsite is located at the foot of the Glacier of the same name, the Illecillewaet Glacier. Camping here costs about 20 Canadian dollars per night and there are no facilities other than toilets. The campsite is located in a beautiful, wooded area with a roaring river next to it. This river starts at the Illecillewaet Glacier. So here centuries-old ice water flows directly past the campsite.

The river at Illecillewaet Campground | Glacier National Park of Canada
The river at Illecillewaet Campground | Glacier National Park of Canada

The water itself is so icy cold that we and (and other camping guests) put the water in our cool box in the morning to keep food and drinks cool. This way we saved some (solar) energy.

wild camping

Before we could go to the campsite, we had to find somewhere to spend the night. Via iOverlander we found only a handful of locations for wild camping in the region. First of all you have to national park leave. It is in fact not allowed to wild camp in the national park and yes, fines are regularly handed out here. So not recommended…

Tip:: Wild camping in national parks is strictly prohibited throughout Canada. This is monitored and fines are handed out to people who do not comply with them.

Wild camping at 'lot 3' of Revelstoke Mountain Resort.
Wild camping at 'lot 3' of Revelstoke Mountain Resort. With a view!

We therefore drove about 50 kilometers to the town Revelstoke. This is because there is a large private car park, part of a large resort, where wild camping is allowed. Yes, it would be a shame to have to drive an extra 100 kilometers (50 there, 50 back) for this, but we simply had no choice.

Tip:: the wild camping location in Revelstoke can be found on iOverlander. For those who do not have iOverlander: wild camping is only allowed at 'parking lots 3' from Revelstoke Mountain Resort.

Preparation hike

In the end, we had really come to this national park for one purpose only. We really wanted to see and touch a glacier up close. I've been on a glacier before Switzerland, that was accompanied by a great bucket list-worthy helicopter flight. Unfortunately no helicopter flight this time, but just on foot. We had to prepare well, because the hikes from the campsite to the glacier are really tough.

Which walking route?

First of all, we had to choose a walking route. Below you can see the map that can be seen on a large information board at the campsite. The size of the Illecillewaet The glacier is best seen on hiking route 15, 16 and 18. However, if you want to see the glacier up close or even touch it, you can opt for hiking route 17.

Map of the hiking trails from Illecillewaet campground
Map of the hiking routes from Illecillewaet Campground

Tip:: that specific numbers in the 'black' are marked, which is for a reason. These walking routes are seen as 'extreme', so very challenging. Walking route 4, 5, 8 and 9 (also shown on the information board) are a lot less extreme.

Because we wanted to see the glacier up close and because Malou really wanted to touch the glacier (she had never done this before), we chose number 17.

Packing list

Walking route 17 is therefore a solid one. With no less than 1300 vertical meters and a total of 18 kilometers (round trip), it is an extreme hike that requires some preparation. Below is an overview of our packing list for this hike.

Note: This is calculated per person.

  • 3 liters of water
  • 1 large lunch meal (tuna pasta salad)
  • 1 healthy sandwich (lavishly filled)
  • 2 muesli bars
  • 1 apple
  • 1 boiled egg
  • Extra pair of socks
  • extra t-shirt
  • Wind and waterproof jacket
  • Mini first aid kit
  • bear spray
  • Bedroom
  • Phone

Information from Park Rangers

After we had packed our things, we gathered some information from the park rangers, who could be found at the campsite. Some final advice; do not drink the night before. Set out early (at sunrise) and take many short breaks to allow your muscles to recover and get used to the thin air at 3000 meters. In addition, it was strongly recommended to also bring bear spray, as the first part of the walk goes through the forest, where bears are regularly spotted.

The hike to the Glacier

On the road early

The alarm went off at 05:00, sandwich and coffee in it and go. At 05:30 we were already on the road and immediately we felt it in our calves. We hadn't even finished the campsite when we were already going up. That will be something, those 1300 altimeters in one day.

After barely an hour we left the dense forests behind us. The climb became more and more challenging while the sun had been up for some time (still behind the mountains). In the distance we already see roaring waterfalls, caused by the melting water of the Illecillewaet glacier.

Malou takes her rest while we already see some waterfalls | Hiking to the Illecillewaet Glacier
Malou takes her rest while we already see some waterfalls | Hiking to the Illecillewaet Glacier

Where we still walked a reasonable hiking trail for the first hour, we then walked and clambered over large stones to continue our way up. Fortunately, you can still see where you have to go from the wear and the mud on the stones.

The 'walking path' up is no longer a path | Glacier National Park of Canada
The 'walking path' up is no longer a path.

Rivers and Waterfalls

We had already been on the road for about three hours and we crossed several streams and rivers of melting water. Sometimes we passed a beautiful waterfall, while the sun was almost above the mountain peaks. It was still very cool and the slope was never ending… The path seemed to go straight up.

The first rays of sunshine

The first rays of the sun shone over the mountain tops, it was already half past ten. In the distance we already saw a part of the Illecillewaet Glacier. We ate an apple and an egg in the sun and continued our way up. The legs were already starting to tremble from all the effort.

We realized we were on the 'snow edge' in August. So we were already really high, at almost 3000 meters. Fortunately, we do not suffer from altitude sickness. At the moment it is still a lot of laughing and enjoying the views behind us. All the way down in the valley, that's where we started out camping.

Extremely steep slope

In photos it is often just difficult to see how extreme a slope can be. When Malou asked if she still likes it after 5 hours of plodding uphill, I got a resounding 'no!' Fortunately, we could still laugh about it.

Meanwhile, we could already see the blue color of the ice of the Illecillewaet glacier in the distance. We already had the feeling that we were almost there, but the most difficult and also dangerous part was yet to come.

the plateau of the Illecillewaet glacier is in sight
The plateau of the Illecillewaet glacier is in sight

Crossing melting ice on the mountainside

In the distance we saw a group in front of us making a crossing over the ice. Some people wear denim shoes for this. The Park Rangers at the campsite had warned us about this part. Still, it would be doable without these shoes.

If anything could go wrong, it's here. A wrong step here can mean that you fall hundreds of meters down. Stopping yourself on the slippery ice is not possible and at the bottom of the ice shelf are large stones and rocks. Not really a pleasant prospect.

Melting ice on a steep mountain slope in the sun, what could go wrong dude?
Melting ice on a steep mountain slope in the sun, what could go wrong dude?

We got the tip to put our heels in the ice with every step. So that your foot is really stuck in a hole, so to speak. But since it's ice, and it was melting quite a bit, this was easier said than done. Keeping your balance here and putting each foot in the right place was quite an exciting challenge.

Malou clambers across the dangerously melting ice shelf while I watch with healthy tension
Malou clambers across the dangerously melting ice shelf while I watch with healthy tension

What we do here is no longer walking. With hands and feet we clamber through the snow and loose rocks and stones. Often the surface seems to be solid, and suddenly everything starts to move when you put your foot on it.

As I say with some surprise in the video, 'this is next-level shit'.

On the ice shelf

After another exciting crossing on another piece of ice on a sloping slope, we finally reach the plateau where the Illecillewaet glacier lies. We've made it! In the distance we can already see the glacier and the flags around the rock indicate the end point of the hike.

The ice shelf with the Illecillewaet glacier in the distance
The ice shelf with the Illecillewaet glacier in the distance
The end point of the hike to the Illecillewaet glacier
The end point of the hike to the Illecillewaet glacier

Lunch with a view

In total we took about 8 hours to climb up. We were glad we made it and it was high time for a big lunch. With a fantastic view of course. We sought out the highest point, to enjoy our homemade tuna pasta salad.

Malou is happy, we made it
Malou is happy, we made it
Malou enjoys lunch on a rock
Malou enjoys lunch on a rock

In the distance we saw the valley with the campsite and next to us the glacier. I walked to the edge for a while to get a good look at the valley below. From the edge I could also see the immense size of the glacier, really cool!

Meanwhile, the clouds slowly began to gain the upper hand. It was still chilly in the shade, so the coats went back on.

Chris walks to the edge to look into the deep valley where we started our hike
Chris walks to the edge to look into the deep valley where we started our hike
Chris with the Illecillewaet glacier | Glacier National Park of Canada
Chris with the Illecillewaet glacier | Glacier National Park of Canada

The Illecillewaet glacier up close

Although in principle we had already reached the end point of the hike, we still continued. After all, we came here to get a closer look at the glacier. The unnamed lake with the melting water was a bizarre emerald green color. Of course we had to admire this up close.

The unnamed lake at the Illecillewaet glacier | Glacier National Park of Canada
The unnamed lake at the Illecillewaet glacier | Glacier National Park of Canada
Malou at the Illecillewaet glacier | Glacier National Park of Canada
Malou at the Illecillewaet glacier | Glacier National Park of Canada

Walking on clay gunk

We saw someone standing on the ice in the lake in the distance. At least, from a distance we thought it was ice. However, this turned out not to be the case. It's a super-fine kind of sand, grit actually. It is comparable to clay, but wetter.

Malou at the Illecillewaet glacier | Glacier National Park of Canada
Malou at the Illecillewaet glacier | Glacier National Park of Canada
Chris walks on the smurry at the Illecillewaet glacier | Glacier National Park of Canada
Chris walks on the clay gunk at the Illecillewaet glacier | Glacier National Park of Canada

Believe it or not; you can best compare it with very thick cornstarch. It is a solid and liquid at the same time. You can walk on it, but if you stand on it too long or stamp a few times, you will slowly sink. It was a bizarre experience to walk on this. Of course, to give you an idea of ​​how strange this stuff is, I made a video of it, which you can see below.

Time to go back

By now it was really time to go back. We still had a long descent to go and the weather seemed to be changing slowly. The sun only came out now and then and in the distance we saw a heavy shower coming. We took some final photos and videos and decided to speed up.

One last photo of the Illecillewaet glacier before we hike back
One last photo of the Illecillewaet glacier before we hike back

What I found really bizarre is the huge difference in color when the sun was shining or not. Slightly up you see a video without sunlight, below with sunlight. What a difference in color.

Remark: None of the videos in this blog have been edited, except that they have been slightly reduced in size. The colors you see are therefore completely natural.

Conclusion

Fortunately, the way back was a lot faster, but it was still a struggle. The following days we both had extreme muscle pain. It was a really tough climb to the top. Like two very elderly people, we hopped in and out of our camper for two days and barely got out of our seats.

Still, this pain and suffering during the hike to the top has been more than worth it. We have another item from Malou's bucketlist stripping off (seeing and touching a glacier up close) and we're treated to epic views along the way.

On the way back down we saw the many waterfalls again, but now full of color with sunlight
On the way back down we saw the many waterfalls again, but now full of color with sunlight

The many waterfalls, the extreme slopes, crossing melting ice with a deep abyss below, it was all part of the experience. And of course the glacier itself, with the bizarre emerald-colored lake. That and the strange clay make this hike in Glacier National Park one to remember!

Plan your vacation to Canada here

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Chris

Owner of Wereldreizigers.nl † Discover the world!

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❌ March 2021 - Hard lockdown
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➡️ 2022 - 1 year United States & Canada

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