As I hiked into Willmore Wilderness Park this August, I met four backpackers from the United States hiking out. I asked them how they had found out about this almost unknown Alberta park. They told me that they had asked a Jasper Park Warden for places where there would be few fellow travellers. The Warden’s response was "If you want seclusion and true wilderness, try Willmore Wilderness Park, just north of Jasper." And, here they were.
I asked them about their trip and they mentioned that they had travelled through Jasper on the North Boundary Trail into Willmore via Little Heaven and Glacier Pass. In six days, they had, admirably, done about 80 miles with heavy packs … but unfortunately, it was all on sometimes wet trails that have been chewed up by horse traffic.
In fact, we were all, at the moment, sporting muddy boots because the initial part of the trail is a dirt road that was bulldozed as part of a fire-fighting exercise in the 1950s and which has since been almost completely neglected by the Alberta Government. Horse travel on the road has created pock marks which fill with water and the slippery Alberta clay-based soil does the rest. The trail that day was wet from the morning rain. Twenty foot long mud puddles stretched from side to side bounded by thick, almost impassable willow groves on either side. I felt badly for them because this typified their experience of the park.
I didn’t mind so much walking the dirt road in because my method of being in the Willmore is to use the road to get into a base camp, either one in Eagle's Nest region or one at the headwaters of Seep Creek, and then to do day hikes with light packs for the rest of my stay. One day’s ante for the gain of a week of pure pleasure in a very beautiful place is a good tradeoff.
To give an example, there are six great hikes out of the Eagles Nest base camp, each beautiful and unique in its own way and each defined only by very light horse trails or by even lighter game trails or by no trails at all … in short, a place as close to true wilderness as you can get.
So, I paid a price to get in, but once in, no more muddy horse trails. These folks, however, had paid the price every day and had not yet hiked a single Willmore ridge, some of which are what I call "walking-in-the-sky" experiences with mountain peaks and green valleys on either side.
The extraordinary aspect of Willmore is its broad willow and grass covered valleys and it’s green sub-alpine and alpine ridges which are generally an easy climb from the valley bottoms.
The horse trails, made first by indigenous peoples and trappers, and later more fully defined by outfitters and hunters, are what you would expect … deep ruts and gouges in an otherwise lushly beautiful place.
In short, it’s not much fun to walk the established Willmore trails, but that’s what most uninformed hikers do. Typically they start at one entrance of the park [entrances are through Jasper, Rock Lake, the Berland River, and Grande Cache] and hike a backpacker’s circuit. Consequently, they miss much of the beauty of the park which involves hiking into the extensive side basins and up on the ridge tops, many of which have either no trails or unmarked trails.
As an example of what they miss, had these four hikers started at the Rock Lake staging area and simply hiked to a campsite on Persimmon Creek [the North fork headwaters of the South Berland River] they would have had access to several uniquely beautiful, cross-country day hikes, each day returning to camp and to their heavy gear which they’d have left behind.
The basin containing the headwaters of Persimmon Creek is about 4 miles deep and 2 miles across. From a base camp, it’s an easy hike up Persimmon Creek and an exquisite walk to either the north or south branch of the basin and then back to camp. The right basin is composed of a creek bounded by dark, rock walls, has a series of lovely waterfalls and ends in a high meadow surrounded by peaks with a crystal clear stream running through it.
A deeper Persimmon Basin hike is go up the creek, enter the middle branch, and climb to the top of the ridge of the Persimmon Mountain Range from which there are spectacular views of the Rock Creek Valley, the Starlight Range, the headwaters of the West Sulphur where Hardscrabble Pass takes you into Jasper National Park, and the Wildhay and the Sulphur River valleys. To get off the ridge top, there are several excellent skree runs that reach nearly to the bottom of the Persimmon basin. Or, it’s possible to travel along the Persimmon Crest to the back of the headwaters basin of the South Berland River and to drop into that basin and return to the base camp on Persimmon Creek ... a very long, but worthwhile day, one that I can safely say will be one of the best days of a hiker's life.
On such day trips, it’s likely that Mountain Goats and Big Horn Sheep will be viewed and with luck, Woodland Caribou, Moose, Wolves and Grizzlys. Of course, the usual array of Pikas and Marmots will also be present. Whereas, from the horse trails, it's rare to see wildlife.
Good places for base camps abound in Willmore. While it’s tempting to camp in the horse outfitters' campsites, it’s legal to camp anywhere in the park. The outfitters often bring in chain saws and utilize dead standing trees for firewood. They need dry trees because the tin stovepipes on their cooktents will clog up if they use punky or wet wood. However, 50 years of unregulated use has made it difficult to find dead standing trees near the campsites, so hikers who typically have neither saw nor axe can be at a disadvantage. On the other hand, there's usually an abundance of deadwood that isn't absolutely dry that can be picked with a small saw or hand axe because the outfitters can't use such wood in their stoves. Any suitable camp site that doesn’t have a outfitter’s camp is likely to have a large supply of easy to get wood that is perfect for a backpacker’s evening and cooking fires. So, the trick is to look for a place along a stream that comes down from a ridge and to make camp. Don’t pick one of the main valley bottom rivers unless you plan to filter or treat the water … the Wildhay, Rock Creek, the Sulphur, the Berland are all Girardia risks.
Starting out from the Rock Lake Staging Area, there are several good places to consider for base camps … places that offer a variety of day hikes: Seep Creek: the East side of Eagle’s Nest Pass: the headwaters of the Wildhay River [also called Hay Summit]: the Place where the South Berland and Persimmon Creek intersect; further on, a camp near Persimmon Creek where a small stream runs through (called the Persimmon Camp); the west side of Eagle’s Nest pass: the western headwaters of Rock Creek: and the North Branch of Rock Creek Summit. All of these base camps are within one or two days from the Rock Lake Staging area.
A second option for hiking in Willmore Wilderness Park is to use the services of outfitters who cater specially to hikers. One such outfit that I frequently use is Tom and Shawn Vinson's Horseback Adventures. Their horses carry our tents, food and clothing duffels while we hike with relatively light 15-25 pound day packs — lunch, camera and survival gear in case of heavy rain or snow. The outfitters travel the muddy roads while we hike the ridges from campsite to campsite. They supply a cooktent and provide meals and firewood. The cooktents are great for drying out if the day is wet and for hanging out in if the day is especially cold and/or rainy. They’re a sharp contrast in comfort from cowering in a small backpacker’s tent while waiting out a heavy rainfall.
If you would like to know more about Willmore Wilderness Park, I've placed several links that may be of use at the right and you're welcome to contact me for information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each year, I guide one or more trips into Willmore that is designed especially for hikers and photographers. Riders are also welcome. If interested, contact me.