Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Overnight hike to the glacier-stacked Purcell Mountains
Crashing milky waterfalls, lush flower-fringed forests, a powder-blue lake framed by ice-stacked mountains... Lake of the Hanging Glacier is a hike worthy of anyone's "Best of" list. Deep in the Purcell Mountains west of Radium BC, it's a modest 9km (5.6 miles) trek with some great views along the way, but the main reward waits at the end of the trail: a steep granite headwall with Jumbo Glacier spilling overtop, groaning and grumbling and occasionally splashing down into the blue lake below.
The Purcells are perhaps one of BC's more unsung mountain ranges, dwarfed in recognition by the Rockies and Coastal Ranges, but they are quickly becoming my favourite. The dividing range between the East and West Kootenays, the Purcells are a truly wild and rugged range, and its trails are quieter than its more famous counterparts so you get all the payoff — big mountains views, sparkling turquoise lakes, picture-perfect wilderness camps — without the crowds.
This past August we teamed up with Kootenay Rockies Tourism to hike and camp and showcase a couple of the under-the-radar trails in the Purcells. Lake of the Hanging Glacier was the first.
We started the day in Radium with coffee and baked goods from the Big Horn Cafe. The western gateway to Kootenay National Park, Radium is a little mountain town with all the services you'd need on the road — gas, restaurants, lodgings — as well as an attraction perfectly suited for weary hikers fresh from the mountains: a soothing hot spring. We took note and headed out of town, turning west onto on Forster's Landing Rd and then onto the Horsethief Creek Forest Service Road.
It's a long 52km drive up Horsethief FSR to the Lake of the Hanging Glacier trailhead, but the dirt roads are well graded and the towering mountain views increasingly resplendant. Dry golden ranchland quickly turns into lush wetlands with calm mountain reflections before narrowing into a raging creek with waterfalls, the craggy peaks looming ever larger as you head deeper up the valley. There is a rec site a few kilometers down from the trailhead, a perfect option if you want an early start, and we found some chicken wire to wrap around the car at the parking lot (apparently local porcupines have developed a taste for brake lines, electrical casings, and even tires).
Lake of the Hanging Glacier is generally considered a dayhike, and usually reserved for late summer as the footbridge over Hellroaring Creek isn't installed until early July and then removed again in late September to avoid losing it in washouts. The trail is well marked, well maintained, and very easy to follow — first on old overgrown logging roads, over old slides, then up switchbacks surrounded by dark forest. The roar of the churning creek is almost always present, and views of white frothing water and cascades are a nice addition to the occasional glimpses of mountains.
After a bit of a slog over a recent tree-strewn avalanche path, the trail levels out to lush meadow and the campsite lays just ahead. There are a bunch of flat areas covered in wear-resistant grass scattered below the lake and perfect for tents, with the biggest tenting area just down from the trail nestled in a little clearing by the creek. We were the only ones there, so we had first pick. We set up camp, secured our food from animals (there are no bear-proof caches provided so bring some rope or your own cannister), and hiked up for our first glimpse of the lake.
For a close-up view of the glacier, follow the left (east) side of the lake over the rocks and boulders. It's a bit of a trek, and including snacks and photobreaks it took us almost two hours to pick our way through the rubble. At the far end of the lake you'll find a little larch meadow nestled below a towering gravelly moraine, a beach, and a great view of the 25m-tall glacier. You can see the compressed layers, winter whites demarcated by dark summer silts, and the broken up craggy end where icebergs break off to float down the lake. You hear the loud crack and boom of the glacier draped high up on the Lieutenants, sheets of powdered ice thundering down onto the floating glacier below.
The lake is shockingly cold, but in the hot summer sun you'll warm and dry quickly should you choose to run in for a heart-stopping dip.
The ridge to the right (west) of the lake offers another great viewpoint. We failed to find a route to the treeless top, but following little cairns and goat paths we managed to make our way to a fantastic vantage all the same. The lake curves out far below you, and you see more of Jumbo Glacier spilling over the headwall.
If you do make it all the way to the top of the ridge fluffy white mountain goats await, as well as views of all the neighbouring peaks and into all the rugged creek valleys. But with light waning and dinner awaiting, we left that promise on the table for next time.
Lake of the Hanging Glacier is a perfect introduction to the Purcells. You'll find thick dark forests, churning creeks, flower-filled meadows, glacier-draped mountains, and a picture-perfect icy blue lake. The only problem is that one taste is never enough... as we began to pack up and slowly hike down, we were already planning our next adventures.
Big thanks to Kootenay Rockies for helping make this trip possible