Lake of the Hanging Glacier

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.

Early morning reflections on the shore of the Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Driving up the Horsethief FSR to the trailhead to Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Little ponds and big mountain reflections on the drive up the trailhead on the Horsethief FSR
Porcupine-proofed the car at the trailhead

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).

Hiking into the mountains of British Columbia
Mountains through the leaves of Horsethief Creek
Hiking over Hellroaring Creek on the trail to Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Hiking the mountain trail to Lake of the Hanging Glacier

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.

Hiking through the forests of BC
Hiking the trail to Lake of the Hanging Glacier in BC's Purcell Mountains
Looking up the mountain valley on the trail to the Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Derp
The trail winds through dense pine forests as you climb towards the lake
Following the tumbling whitewater up into the Purcell Mountains
Lush greenery on the hike to Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Hiking through wildflowers in the Purcell Mountains of BC
Looking down the mountain valley from Lake of the Hanging Glacier

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.

Fields of wildflowers in BC's Kootenay Rockies
Meandering through alpine meadows
Hiking in the backcountry of British Columbia
Big mountain views standing at the shore of Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Preparing dinner in the mountains of BC
Hiking in the Purcell Mountains
Fields of purple fireweed in the mountains of BC
Morning in the mountains of British Columbia

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.

Alpine flowers on the shore of Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Larch meadows and wildflowers on the shores of Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Hiking through flower-filled meadows in the BC backcountry
Glacier views and rockwalls on the trail around the lake
Ice cold dip in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia
Looking back at the Lieutenants and the Jumbo Glacier spilling over into the lake
Hiking through latch meadows on the trail around Lake of the Hanging Glacier in BC's Purcell Mtns
Mountains and meadows in the Kootenay Backcountry, BC
Backpacking in the BC wilderness
Hiking over rockslides on the trail around Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Giant rock slopes in the Purcell Mountains
Exploring the ridgeline above Lake of the Hanging Glacier
High above the Lake of the Hanging Glacier near Jumbo Pass in BC's Purcell Mountains

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.

Sunset in the Purcell Mountain backcountry
Camping in fields before the Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Morning light on the Lieutenants Mountains at Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Dusk in the meadows below the Purcell Mountains

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.

Packing up after camping in the meadows of Lake of the Hanging Glacier
Through larch meadows and towering mountains in BC
Bees buzzing among the alpine flowers
Descending on the trail down from the mountains
Hiking alongside the Horsethief Canyon in the Purcell Mountains
Hiking through the dense forests of British Columbia
The broad mountainous upper Columbia Valley in the Kootenays

Big thanks to Kootenay Rockies for helping make this trip possible

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