Mount Willingdon via North Molar Pass and Pipestone Gap ️️⛰️️

December 02, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

Banff National Park Backpack/Scramble Trip 

Aug 27-31, 2020

Total Distance and Elevation Gain: 80.5km, 3720m

Day 1: Trailhead to Fish Lakes Campground 15.75km, 765m

It was a sunny afternoon when we crossed the Icefields Parkway after parking at the Mosquito Creek Hostel.  The trail starts on the north side of the bridge and heads up through the forest and then eventually evens out for the 5km hike to Mosquito Creek Campground. The campground is situated nicely in the trees with the food prep area beside the river.  Definitely a nice place to stay if you were limited by the distance you could hike or were travelling with short hiking partners with early bedtimes.  After crossing a bridge, the trail became a bit rougher (roots & mud), but we made our way up through the forest and occasional flowery area to a large expanse of alpine meadows and mountain views at around 8km from the trailhead.  Walking slowly on the braided trail, we stopped often to appreciate the beautiful surroundings.  We were also trying to spot the route a person would take over "Mosquito Pass" or "Quartzite Col" although we were fairly certain the route to the latter turned off before the meadows. The outlet of little Mosquito Lake made a good spot to fill up our water bottles and have a snack while we eyed the route to the high pass. North Molar Pass is evidently one of the highest in the Canadian Rockies, at 8500ft (2590m), but the trail appeared to switchback nicely up to the tight col situated at ~12km from the trailhead.

North Molar Pass MeadowsNorth Molar Pass MeadowsIt does take 8km to break free of the forest, but it's a nice hike through the trees. Looking back at the meadows and Noseeum PeakLooking back at the meadows and Noseeum Peak Hiking towards North Molar PassHiking towards North Molar Pass

Pausing to appreciate the view back to the meadows.Pausing to appreciate the view back to the meadows. Popping over North Molar Pass and heading down toward Fish LakesPopping over North Molar Pass and heading down toward Fish Lakes Hiking towards Molar MountainHiking towards Molar Mountain

We crossed the outlet, appreciating all the cotton grass tufts as we hiked up toward the pass. The trail got steeper and the mountain vistas opened up further as we made our way closer.  The surrounding peaks of Mosquito Mountain and the small peak to the SW of the Pass look sharp and rubbly but very interesting. Once at the pass, the views extend down towards Molar Mountain to more alpine meadows.  Down we went the briefly steep trail to the meadows and then we trekked through the green and flowery alpine to a creek that gradually increased in size to a stream that eventually required a bridge to cross.  If you want a good view of Fish Lakes, before the trail turns right towards the bridge, head up to your left to a hill with a fabulous view of the area. See the pics below (second row, middle pic) of the pretty views.
Some more meadows on the way to campSome more meadows on the way to camp Pulsatilla Lined TrailsPulsatilla Lined Trails Backpacking the Canadian RockiesBackpacking the Canadian Rockies  
Hiking trail and mountain streamsHiking trail and mountain streamsBefore this trail bends right, walk left up to the hill overlooking the Lakes. An overlook of Fish LakesAn overlook of Fish LakesThe view from the brief off trail walk up the hill to the left of the trail. Waterfalls head down from the meadows to Fish LakeWaterfalls head down from the meadows to Fish LakeYou can see the bridge at the top of the water

After our brief off-trail break appreciating the high meadows and view down to the lake, we returned to the trail and crossed the bridge. The trail then descended down through sub-alpine forest to finally arrive at the Fish Lakes Campground, at almost 16km.  We picked a campsite, set up the tent, and then went down to the lake for supper. As the evening light descend onto the valley, we chowed down on our yummy meals and enjoyed the scene.

Cataract Peak from Fish Lake CampgroundCataract Peak from Fish Lake Campground Supper time!Supper time! Evening light on the mountains to the east of the Pipestone RiverEvening light on the mountains to the east of the Pipestone River Gorgeous Fish LakeGorgeous Fish Lake Alpenglow in the backcountryAlpenglow in the backcountry

Day 2: Fish Lakes to Devon Lakes + Pipestone Nublet: 18.45km, 695m

Since it was going to be a fairly long day, we were up and on the trail by 9am...which might not be early to some people, but we very much enjoy having a coffee or three in the morning.  And when you are situated by such a beautiful lake, you want to take advantage of that coffee view. And after taking ALL the reflection pictures, I sat down to enjoy breakfast.  Our fave backcountry breaky is the Mtn House Breakfast Skillet - the secret is adding yellow/orange bell peppers, a handful of shredded cheese, black pepper, and instant potatoes (just enough to soak up any extra water).  They are a little pricey, but I made myself sick of oatmeal a few years ago and split between the two of us it's a good hearty start to a day of adventures. 

Happy Moments in the Backcountry   Clear Waters Blue Skies Morning Mountain GoatWe watched this goat traverse the cliffs across from Fish Lakes
Good Morning from Fish Lakes Campground Coffee and SunshineFish Lakes Sunrise Fish Lake ReflectionsFish Lake Reflections Sub-Alpine MeadowsSub-Alpine Meadows Heading NW on the Pipestone HighlineHeading NW on the Pipestone Highline Moose Lake, Pipestone Gap (top right), and the NubletMoose Lake, Pipestone Gap (top right), and the Nublet Cotton Grass and Creeks abounded on the Pipestone TrailCotton Grass and Creeks abounded on the Pipestone Trail Moose LakeMoose Lake The beautiful Upper Pipestone TrailThe beautiful Upper Pipestone Trail
Iceberg LakeIceberg Lake Backpacking panoramasBackpacking panoramas Refilling our water bottlesRefilling our water bottles The peaks of the Siffleur ValleyThe peaks of the Siffleur Valley The red rock around Pipestone GapThe red rock around Pipestone Gap

We headed out of the campground for a few hundred metres and then took a left at the fork in the trail.  The right trail heads down to the Pipestone river and then wraps around to complete the Molar Pass Loop, which we would like to check out in the future. As it was, the trail descended to a warden cabin situated in a beautiful meadow with views of the surrounding mountains.  We hiked past the outhouse and down to the creek.  Some searching had to be done for the best way to rock hop across - which was no easy feat with ice on the rocs and surrounding vegetation - but we made it across with just one wet boot out of four. Shortly after crossing the creek, the trail switchbacks up for about 15-20 min to a beautiful meadow and then travels at a downward trend to Moose Lake, with impressive cliff walls and wet meadows of cotton grass everywhere.  As we hiked along the trail in the sunshine, fully appreciating all the mountain views, we felt SO grateful that we booked into this trip! Maybe it was the great weather, or maybe it was because it was the last of MANY great trips this summer, but this trip felt special.  Hiking past streams and alpine lakes and meadows, we made our way towards Pipestone Gap.  As we neared, we noticed the "nublet" of a bump between the Pass and the Gap and decided we would definitely try to get up it so as to gain a superior view.  We headed up the red trail and wrapped around to the gap - there was a sign indicating that hikers were to take the high route (the one we had been on) as to protect the Grizzly Bears and other wildlife that used the lower Pipestone River route. Honestly, the high route was some of the prettiest country I've seen, so the bears can have the low route! We had a quick break while we eyed a route up to the Nublet Peak, and then headed up! It was a 15min grunt up and wow was it worth it! We spotted some beautiful blue lakes and the wall of mountains that paralleled the Siffleur Valley. After a satisfactory amount of "wows" and "look over theres!" we headed back down to the pass and made a cup of coffee for the last push up and over Clearwater Pass to Devon Lakes. 

On top of The Gap NubOn top of The Gap Nub Gap Nub views of the Siffleur ValleyGap Nub views of the Siffleur Valley We called this North Cracker Lake cuz it reminded us of a lake in MontanaWe called this North Cracker Lake cuz it reminded us of a lake in Montana Studying that mapStudying that map Looking back at where we travelled from.Looking back at where we travelled from.

Although we berated ourselves for not making the coffee on top of the nublet, we were out of the wind and the sun was beating down on us nicely.  Late August in the Rockies is often chilly, and this trip was no different. Caffeinated, we headed back onto the trail and down the valley to the junction leading up to Clearwater Pass.  Around 90min later we were cresting the pass with the impressive Mount Willingdon dominating the scene.  As we paused to take in the scene, a movement caught our eye.  At first we thought Mountain Goat, but then it became evident that the loping motion was that of a wolf.  We watched as the large whiteish grey creature stopped to look back at us, and then turn and bound up into the rocky cliffs at the base of Devon Mountain.  It. Was. Awesome. 

Walking through the Siffleur Valley towards the junction for Clearwater PassWalking through the Siffleur Valley towards the junction for Clearwater Pass Can you see the tiny wolf? It can see you!Can you see the tiny wolf? It can see you! Zoomed at 140mm and then cropped a lot!Zoomed at 140mm and then cropped a lot! Looking back at where we spotted our wolfie friend, beneath Devon Mtn.Looking back at where we spotted our wolfie friend, beneath Devon Mtn. Looking back towardLooking back toward Heading into Clearwater Valley - Looking at Mt WillingdonHeading into Clearwater Valley - Looking at Mt Willingdon   One of the three Devon LakesOne of the three Devon Lakes

There are three lakes in the valley and we had been instructed by Parks to head to the last two for the camp that was in the shelter of some trees. As we headed down the valley, we did find a good campsite that would have been great for our approach of Mt Willingdon the next day, but we trusted the site that Parks wanted us at was better...and oh my goodness it was! Despite hiking a km too far down the trail (head for the outlet of the large first lake and rock hop across), we made it to the upper two Devon Lakes and set up our tent in one of the most scenic places I've ever tented.  Now, remember folks, you DO need a backcountry permit to camp here, and it takes either a 36ish km hike or a sketchy shortcut route, so keep that in mind.  

Heading towards our designated and reserved campsiteHeading towards our designated and reserved campsite Cool rocks at Devon LakesCool rocks at Devon Lakes Mount WillingdonMount Willingdon

After we set up camp we found a good place to stash our food for the night and a good place to eat our meals. Since we were staying in the alpine, there were no trees large enough to hang our food to keep away from rodents, bears, wolves, etc.  For this trip we used a Bear Bin and a Ursack with a scent proof liner, and although both are efficient, the Ursack was much nicer to pack into our Backpacks. After finding a nice spot down by the lower lakes shore, we ate our meals and studied the route up to Mt Willingdon that we were hoping on ascending the next day, and watched the sun set on the valley and its peaks.

Watching the light travel across Mt WillingdonWatching the light travel across Mt Willingdon Supper time!Supper time! We could see our entire route for the next day.We could see our entire route for the next day.

Day 3: Mt Willingdon: 12.85km, 1185m (Aug29)

We slept in a bit due to a horrendous sleep the night before. There was a very strong wind that sent our tarp flapping very loudly and randomly throughout the night. There was a nice layer of sand on top of our sleeping bags from the wind blowing into our three-season tent. The cloud cover seemed pretty thick, but we could see the mountain tops, so after breakfast and coffee, we headed out with our daypacks. 

Morning light at campMorning light at camp Getting some views back to Devon Lakes after the summer blizzardGetting some views back to Devon Lakes after the summer blizzard

We hiked a trail down past the lower lake to its outlet and then followed a faint route down to a rock-hop water crossing, then up the hill to get back to the trail that lead right to Martin Lakes or left to Clearwater Pass. We walked the trail for a few minutes, eyeing up the best approach to head up the long ridge that eventually intersected the summit ridge leading to the peak. Off we went through the willows and bog to climb up to the ridge, noticing as we went the low clouds that were moving up the valley somewhat ominously. As we hiked up, we kept an eye on them and realized that sooner rather than later we would be IN them. It started to snow lightly, so we stopped and decided the weather wasn't going away anytime soon, so we set up a tarp and prepared to make coffee (obviously). As we got comfortable (or as comfortable as a person can be dressed in all their layers and squished under a one-man tarp) the snow started to really fall and our views of the mountain were obscured. After 90min of huddling under the tarp, we decided to call it a day and head back to camp. We took down the tarp and packed everything away and looked up to see blue sky emerging above the peaks. Well then. There was new snow on the peak but the blue sky and sunshine was enough to make us cancel our cancellation and continue on.  The air was very chilly, so we kept most of our layers on as we headed up, taking a few breaks to appreciate the unfolding panorama. We followed the ridgeline pretty closely, and there was a good trail most of the way. Approaching the large rock at the intersection of the approach ridge and the summit ridge, we walked though white quartz rock that was sand like and fascinating.
A chilly WillingdonA chilly Willingdon One of the many lakes from the summit - looking northOne of the many lakes from the summit - looking north

As we popped up onto the summit ridge, a frigid wind poured over from the north. The view was fabulous, with ice and glaciers everywhere, and a few blue gems of lakes. Stepping back not 10ft was enough to shelter us from the cold breeze and we sat looking down onto the valley that we had just climbed out of. We could see the Siffleur Valley to the west of Clearwater Pass, along with the 3 lakes and one tarn at the foot of Devon Mountain. Looking up to the peak we figured it was going to be further than it looked.  Up we went, fighting the bitter cold wind, past rock with icicles and fresh snow from the storm, and up and over the easy cliffs to arrive at the icy crux. We had read that a person could indeed find passage, but the rock faces were pretty sheer with ice, so we took extra care finding a safe route up to the ledge.  Once up, we walked a few meters north and were pretty happy to find a rope that had been fixed into the rock.  We would have been able to get up without it, but getting down would have been almost impossible, especially with the icy wet rock. Thanking however installed it, we pulled ourselves up and onto the final summit route. The trail switch backed a few times before popping up for a view down to Upper Martin Lakes and the MANY peaks to the north. Turning right, we headed up the last few meters to the peak. We made it! It was cold and still breezy, but the views were phenomenal. We spent time identifying peaks such as Temple, Molar, Hector, Ptarmigan, Columbia, and Glaciers/Icefields such as Bath, Wapta, etc.  The clouds had mostly lifted so we could see countless peaks in all directions.  We made coffee and checked out the summit registry and explored around the ridge. After an hour of ooohs and ahhs, we started our way down, enjoying our triumph, especially since we had thought we were going to have to bail earlier.  Persistence and preparation are two of the most important assets when in the backcountry! We made excellent time down, once again mentally thanking the rope installer (otherwise we would have not bagged the peak!), and stopped a few times as we made our way down the ridges to the valley. We arrived at camp late and I was a tad loopy eating our supper. Our celebratory dinner was Stovetop Dressing, Instant Taters, Gravy, and Turkey Jerky ripped up and all stirred together. If that doesn't sound amazing to you, you are missing out. 

Looking NELooking NE Looking east to the prairiesLooking east to the prairies Sunset, backcountry style.Sunset, backcountry style.
Day 4: Devon Lakes to Fish Lakes 17km, 580m

Since we slept in the previous morning, we made a point of being up before sunrise. Mark went to use the bathroom tree as I got dressed and put in my contacts. When he left the tent, I asked him if it looked like I still had a few minutes - he said yes, the sky was still dark.  Not three minutes later, as I was about to pop in my contacts, I heard him calling to me. I stopped my rustling to listen, and heard a faint "get out of the tent! the sky is on fire!" I guess he was mid-pee when he looked up and saw the colour stared to burst and he panicked a bit. I grabbed my camera gear and burst out of the tent still in my long johns and glasses, saw the incredible colour, and started running carefully down to the water.  Red and orange was erupting across the clouds and we were giggling with glee as we snapped as many pictures and compositions that we could until it eventually faded. 

Good morning!Good morning! Devon Lake Waterfalls long exposureDevon Lake Waterfalls long exposure










Mark went and grabbed the cook gear and we had coffee down on the beach - and then we made more coffee because I spilled my cup all down my pants when I was grabbing a few more pics of the sun coming over the peaks.  Luckily I had put my rain pants on due to the chilly morning. We headed back to our food prep area and made breakfast and watching the sun slowly make it's way down the peaks.  We did not want to leave, but we were due to stay at Fish Lakes CG again, so after a leisurely breakfast and another cup of coffee, we packed up the tent and headed back out to Clearwater Pass. I was sad to go, not only because we had had such an adventure in this valley, but also because this was the last backpack trip of the summer before we has to go back to school/work. Hiking past all the Devon Lakes we gently ascended to the pass and then headed back down into the Siffleur Valley. The hike back to Fish Lakes was windy but so beautiful and we decided that we wanted to return very much. Pretty much the entire section of trail from Devon Lakes to Fish Lakes is highly scenic and has a wild feeling about it. 

Happy Campers!Happy Campers! The beautiful Pipestone Trail undulates above the valley floor.The beautiful Pipestone Trail undulates above the valley floor. Cotton grass and impressive peaksCotton grass and impressive peaks
Taking in the views of the PipestoneTaking in the views of the Pipestone We called this guy the TurtleWe called this guy the Turtle

We got to Fish Lakes and had the camp to ourselves, which was quite the change from our way in.  It was chilly as we ate in food prep so we went for a bit of a walk around the campground after supper.  We saw an owl flying around and found what appeared to be older campsites further in, and then relaxed in the tent lamenting a bit that tomorrow was our last day.


Day 5: Fish Lakes to Trailhead + Pass Overlook: 16.45km, 495m

We woke to a fresh dusting of snow. It was chilly but we managed to keep warm as we went about the morning chores of taking down the tent and making breakfast. It was a gorgeous scene to see, the white powder on top of the mountain scene. We headed up out of the valley and made our way to the pass. The views were stunning yet again, and as I looked around I knew that I would be returning to this area. After we descended the pass we decided we wanted to see what was on top of the rise to the south of mosquito valley.  We made our way over the pond outlet and up the grassy hill to find an excellent overlook of the area. We could see the trail coming down from Molar Pass on one side and the one we had just came down from North Molar. We had coffee and a snack up there (it was chilly) and then made our way down to the trail again, through the meadows, and down through the forest to Mosquito Creek camp. There was a large party coming in and I found myself feeling envious that they were just starting their adventures as we were ending ours. As we hiked along the forest and streams, we discussed our beautiful summer of backpacks trips and decided that tis was  one of our most successful backpacking summer to date. Almost to the trailhead, we hiked past mountain photography Paul Zizka, which was much more exciting for us, than him, I'm sure. We got to the vehicle and put down the heavy packs and had a rest.  It was a great trip and a fantastic summer!

A Dusting of Snow at Fish Lakes Camp

Looking to the east at Fish LakesLooking to the east at Fish Lakes The fresh dusting of August snowThe fresh dusting of August snow
Molar MtnMolar Mtn

Heading back up to N. Molar PassHeading back up to N. Molar Pass Looking back down from the Pass.Looking back down from the Pass.


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