Although I had grown up going on backcountry adventures through summer camps (first as a camper, later as a counsellor), it wasn’t until after I left summer camps that I started to explore the backcountry independent of an organization. The first time I stayed at an established backcountry campsite was in 2018 at the Ribbon Lake campsite in Kananaskis. Our trip was over August long weekend and we were blessed with picture-perfect weather. As I have written about my more recent trips, I thought I should also write about where it all started.
There was a group of six of us on the trip; 5 including myself were former camp counsellors. We used our camp knowledge out on our own and it proved mostly useful. Common campers’ knowledge such as keeping smelly items (food, toiletries, sunscreen) out of your bag/tent, practicing leave-no-trace, and learning how to properly fit a backpacking bag all came in handy on our trip. We ran into zero snags along the way which is incredibly rare for backpacking and possibly left us with some unrealistic impressions. Overall, the hike and campsite were stunning, and the effort to get there was certainly worth it.
We decided to take the Buller Pass route, which is 10 km one way, with a total of 1221 metres of elevation gain. Buller Pass stands at 2454 metres, so be prepared for a steep climb to the top, but gorgeous 360 degree views once you’re there. Alternatively, you can enter from Ribbon Creek trail, which is similar in distance but less overall elevation. However, there is a chain section, which we wanted to avoid with our large packs. Hence our decision to start from the Buller Mountain day-use area. The hike begins mostly flat through the forest and gradually gains elevation.
We stopped for lunch around 1 pm at this picturesque waterfall. The swimming hole at the bottom looked inviting, but the weather was not quite warm enough to convince us to brave the icy creek water.
The path was clear and easy to follow. When we arrived in the valley directly below the pass, we decided to eat our apples before the ascent. This turned out to be a brilliant idea, as the steep climb over the pass took us longer than anticipated. The climb has a few shallow switchbacks, but the weight of our bags made us feel nothing but the uphill climb. We reached the top and took in the view, and a few more snacks.
From the top of the pass we had approximately 3.4 kms to go to reach the lake. The initial downhill on the scree felt a little sketchy because our backpacks changed our centre of gravity. We made it down safely though, and walked through the beautiful fields to the campsite. The lake was perfectly calm when we arrived, a glassy reflection of the surrounding mountains. The sunset show on the mountains and lake was spectacular.
We set up camp first, upon arriving at the campsite. There are bear lockers and a designated grey water area here. Ribbon Lake is a very established campsite, and fairly popular, so make sure to follow general camping etiquette. After setting up camp we cooked and ate dinner, then relaxed around one of the communal fire pits. We meet some other groups of hikers, and even got lucky enough to meet a backpacking dog! I always love meeting dogs on the trail.
The next morning was warmer, and we set off to cover the 3 km to the pass as quickly as we could. The sky was bright blue, which made the landscape seem more vibrant than the day before. We filled up our water bottles on the way and started the upwards ascent once more.
As we made our way towards the pass, we encountered a trail runner on his way down to the lake. We were all surprised to see he had made his way over the pass already so early in the day. We were embarrassed when he lapped part of the group before we made it to the top of the pass, lugging our 35 lb. bags.
We didn’t stay at the top long this time, as the wind had picked up and was freezing us as we tried to take photos. We raced through the valley (“Apple Meadow” we had dubbed it the day before). We decided to try to eat lunch again by the waterfall. We made it, but were famished by the time we got there. From that point, it was maybe another hour to the trailhead. We reached the cars and dropped our packs in relief. Our first independent backcountry trip had been a success.