Here’s everything you need to know about hiking and photographing Saddleback Pass for the larches in Autumn.
It’s no secret that Lake Louise is the gem of the Canadian Rockies. It’s far from hidden though, so be sure to get up early for this one. Either that, or be prepared to go late and potentially make it back down in the dark. The parking lot here has been disgracefully busy these past two seasons.
The extra distance from the city, and fighting for a parking stall is well worth it though! There’s a reason everyone wants to be around Lake Louise in the Autumn. Especially hiking up to Saddleback Pass. There is literally no more suiting name for this pass. It’s beautiful during the summer but it’s just spectacular in the autumn. The larches are abundant!
Distance from Calgary: 2 hours 2 minutes Hiking time (roundtrip): 3-4.5 hours Elevation gain: 660m Trail Distance (roundtrip): 8.2
The hike up to the pass starts from the west side of Lake Louise. There’s also a lot of trail right from the parking lot that intersect with the first few hundred metres of the Saddleback Pass trail. The trail is heavily trafficked. There’s no way to lose it the entire way up to the pass.
You gain quite a bit of elevation right away. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’re ascending up into the clouds on this trail. There are a few breaks in the trees where you can look out towards the bow valley and Ski Lake Louise on the other side of the highway 1.
I found the ascent to be fairly quickly and only needed to catch my breath maybe once or twice before reach the pass. The elevation it steep but I thought it was still fairly gradual. It helps that the trail is pretty wide and even.
As you climb higher towards Saddleback Pass, the golden larches will begin become more obvious. The orange and yellow needles will are a beautiful contrast from the other trees around. There were a lot of photo opportunities along the trail right before you actually gain the pass. The last bit of elevation before the plateau has endless compositions waiting to be captured!
Once you get up into Paradise Valley pass, you can see stunning views of Mount Temple. Mount Temple is incredible from any angle, but especially the angle from Saddleback Pass. There are tons of larches in this area too. The larches here make for great foreground before Mount Temple.
Being down in the pass is spectacular, however there is a trail that continues up Mount Fairview. There’s still quite a bit of elevation to gain from the valley, but if you have the time, it’s worth it! The views ascending up Mount Fairview open up to incredible views of the entire valley with countless larches below.
It isn’t even crucial to summit Mount Fairview. Even if you ascend just part way, you will have amazing views of Paradise Valley and Saddleback Pass below.
Glacier running is something I knew nothing about until a few weeks ago. Crossing a glacier without a rope, what kind of crampons would I even wear?
Glacier running is something I knew nothing about until a few weeks ago. Crossing a glacier without a rope, what kind of crampons would I even wear? All of my concerns would quickly disappear with the reassurance of navigating this terrain with the guides at Canadian Rockies Running Adventures.
Blue ice crunched beneath my feet as I carefully ran on the Wapta Icefield. Surrounded by towering mountain peaks, I feel as though I’m a character in some kind of alpine fairytale. Crossing a mix of solid ice and melting ice for the next 8 km. I fill up my now empty water bottle with the melt water pouring off the melting glacier as it heats up from the afternoon sun. I feel as though I’m sipping a piece of Canadian history.
There’s a group of 10 of us runners having the time of our lives, running with micro spikes on our trail shoes, jumping over flowing water and avoiding the occasional crevasse. The sound of the river systems beneath the glacier echoed so loudly it was as if we were standing next to the Niagara Falls.
So it’s Safe Right?
This area of the of the Wapta Icefield is unique because it’s a “dry glacier”. That means that if the conditions are right, there’s no snow hiding the otherwise dangerous cravasses. That means there’s no risk of falling into the glacier never to be seen again. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all though! That’s where the guides come in.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Canadian Rockies Running Adventures invited Ryan and I to come along on their Wapta Icefields Run. “Crossing a glacier? Don’t you need to be roped up for that?” I nervously thought to myself.
Don’t you need to be roped up for that?
Having this kind of glacier adventure without mountaineering experience is nearly impossible for the average runner and adventurer. However, My fears quickly disappeared in knowing that our friends and certified mountain guides James (IFMGA / ACMG MG) and Emily (ACMG AHG) would be leading the way!
Running to New Heights
We started running lakeside from the edge of the Bow Lake. Bow lake sits along the Icefields Parkway in Banff NP. We ran around the lake and then up a relatively flat trail through the trees behind bow lake. We gradually ascended alongside the flowing melt water from the glacier that we would soon be running on. Leaving bow lake behind us, a beautiful scene down the valley began opening up. I had never experienced so much eco-diversity in such a small area.
Hopping over some rocky terrain, small streams, and tree roots. We reached the famous backcountry hut, Bow Hut. We stopped to have some lunch and take in the gorgeous alpine scenery. After a quick bite of gourmet protein bars, we continued to ascend up to the toe of the glacier beneath St. Nicholas peak. Bright turquoise glacial ponds formed right at the toe of where we would start our “glacier running” adventure. We spiked up and got ready to take on the Wapta Icefield!
The Icefields along the parkway are dwindling in size each year. The adjacent Columbia Icefield tracks the regression of its’ glaciers with great detail. The regression is shared with the public and shown by placing markers along the moraine with the dates at which the glacier still reached the markers, indicating the glacier’s retreat and the timeline at which it’s retreating.
The climate crisis can be overwhelmingly large and intangible at times. Spending time near glaciers and on glaciers is the best way I know how to get a “crash course” on our climate and the rate at which our planet is getting warmer.
Glaciers around the world are receding at an alarming rate due to our current climate crisis. It’s sad and sobering, however it’s a fact, and it makes me appreciate our time on the icefield, as it lives and breathes, even more special.
It’s true what they say. When you do something outside of your comfort zone, your comfort zone grows. This glacier running adventure is a low risk opportunity to put that theory to the test. Having professional ACMG guides blazing your trail and upholding an uncompromising ‘duty of care’ ensures your well-being.
Having your safety looked after, you can focus on enjoying a brand new experience. Pushing your personal boundaries and exposing yourself to a brand new experience that might otherwise be unachievable or dangerous. After this glacier running adventure, I have become even more inspired to push my safely boundaries and personal development moving through the mountains. I hope to explore new and exciting terrain that before I thought to be unachievable or out of reach.
The 40,000 square kilometre wilderness region of Iceland is being actively developed for the first time in history. Corporate hydro interests view the desert “wasteland” as a goldmine. Filmmakers, Ryan Richardson and Hailey Playfair, are hoping to make some noise before it’s too late.
The 40,000 square kilometre wilderness region of the Iceland Highlands are being actively being developed for the first time in history. Corporate hydro interests view the desert “wasteland” as a goldmine. Filmmakers, Ryan Richardson and Hailey Playfair, are hoping to make some noise before it’s too late.
The Highlands Project Chose Us
Being Canadian, both Hailey and I recognize that we’re pretty spoiled with nature and wide open spaces. Honestly, I believe that it’s something most Canadians take for granted. Previously living in two Canadian national parks has really allowed me to see the number of people from around the world who travel to Canada to experience even just a small piece of wilderness. I’m truly inspired to appreciate the wilderness even more.
Since taking the leap into the unpredictable path of filmmaking and freelance work, Hailey and I have been fortunate to travel to many of the planet’s few remaining “wild” places. We’re often disappointed by the over commercialization of such places, knowing that we have more untouched wilderness to explore at home.
Iceland has always been the exception. With so few truly untouched areas left around the world, Iceland is abundant in nature and open spaces.
On one of our flights home from a trekking trip to the Highlands of Iceland, we learned about an initiative that was aiming to protect the region from development. The Highlands National Park initiative was attempting to create a park, it would be Europe’s largest national park.
Once we learned of its’ intentions, we felt immediately convicted to help. Having enjoyed the nature and exploration in the Highlands region so much, it’s a place I can’t imagine being lost, especially just for greed.
We Can Film and Walk
Neither Hailey nor I went to school for environmental protection, or nature conservation, etc. We’re just two outdoor filmmakers and photographers who find solace in open spaces, and use the outdoors as our office. Our appreciation for nature overrides our hesitation to do everything we can to help protect it.
The two of us recognized there’s a lot of things we can’t do to help create change. We did, however, recognize there are a few things we can do. We can film stuff and we can walk. Instead of focusing on the accolades we wish we had to help make a difference, we focused on the things we are able to do.
Besides a few weekend hiking trips, backpacking in Europe and a few other adventures, we had never done anything as extreme as this. A fourteen day thru-hike starting in the Arctic, walking through a remote desert, and ending 420 kilometres later, completely self supported seemed beyond the scope of our physical abilities. Did I mention there would be no access to food, shelter, or infrastructure?
“What the hell, we’ll give it a shot” I thought.
Our route started in Akureyri in the northern region of Iceland along the shores of the Greenland Sea. Getting there meant driving around the country for eight hours in a bus or a 45 minute direct flight from the capital, Reykjavik. We chose to fly.
Seeing what would be our route underneath us as we flew over the Highlands was intimidating more than it was inspiring. It looked as if snow was everywhere, the glaciers were massive and the scale just seemed totally enormous. I had almost wished we took the bus there instead.
Once we arrived in the small town of Akureyri, we finalized our gear for the hundredth time. Knowing that the next time we put our packs, would be the last time we have access to anything besides what we bring with us for the next 14 days.
Walking along paved road for 42 kilometres on our first day didn’t exactly feel like the “wild” and “untouched” landscape that we came for. However, we had the idea to start at the coast and work for the journey into the Highlands. Starting any other way wouldn’t have been as rewarding.
The paved road turned to gravel after 50 kilometres, and then the gravel road turn into a 4×4 track after another 20 kilometres. Finally, we felt the slow incline underneath our feet as we began ascending into the Highlands.
The transition from town, to rural farmland, to wilderness, was entirely worth the extra kilometres on our feet.
The Highlands – Central Region
“We earn our stories now” I said jokingly to Hailey as we looked at our current location on our GPS. Heading into the heart of the Highlands. We were completely on our own, self contained, and self reliable, no matter what.
A warden in the north reminded us that hikers go missing every year in the Highlands because of poor decision making. “Make smart choices, and stay alive”, she said. Hailey and I were feeling as prepared as possible, armed with a healthy respect for nature and the extreme environment in Iceland. We were confident we would be alright.
We spent the next week moving through the remote and completely desolate Highlands region. Watching the sun set and rise as we walked alongside ancient glaciers while navigating black sand deserts, and weathering intense arctic storms day after day.
The Highlands – Southern Region
The last few days in the Highlands laid a beating on us. The journey was filled with long days and little rest, if any. Our shoulders constantly ached and our feet were swollen. My feet were so swollen I could barely fit them in my shoes anymore so I didn’t risk taking them off.
Then there were the blisters. My blisters had gotten so bad by the time we reached the south region, I didn’t think we would finish. We arrived in Landmannalaugar after multiple 50+ kilometre days on our feet. We tried getting there as fast as possible because we knew we had our one and our only food cache shipped to Landmannalaugar.
It Wasn’t Going to Get Any Easier
Walking faster was better than rationing food. I can handle long days, but I can’t handle an empty stomach. The sand, wind, and lack of shelter in the Highlands made it impossible for me to take care of the blisters on my feet. I taped them tightly and waited until we were in the Landmannalaugar to look at them.
Hailey and I sat in our tent and began unraveling the tape protecting my toes for days and hundreds of kilometres. As the tape started coming off, the smell hit me before the site of the blisters did. It was bad. After a closer look, I was pretty sure this meant we were going to have to throw in the towel here in Landmannalaugar.
We were approximately 88 kilometres away from the coast to the south. I just couldn’t imagine walking on my feet, as bad as they were, for another 3 or 4 days. However, I learned from my mother, Leanne Richardson, “never quit at night, if you’re going to quit, do it in the morning after you rest”.
There are a few circumstances I would be less reluctant to quit, such as bad weather. If the weather in Iceland shut us down, there’s nothing we can do. Mother nature is always the boss.
Another circumstance would be injury. Not discomfort, or pain, but debilitating injury. If one of us had a stress fracture or some kind of trauma, that’s a no brainer, you pull the plug.
Otherwise, I couldn’t think of many other scenarios where I could imagine being back home, thinking about our trek objectively and being OK with us quitting.
We were in so much pain for so many days, and already achieved so much more than we ever had in our lives. Walking our first marathon distance, our first ultra distance, and then our first 100k, 200k, 300k, multi-day treks while on this Journey.
We couldn’t quit now. What’s a little more pain after so much pain already?
The Light at the End
Trekking through the southern Highlands breathed a new life into us. The ever changing landscapes, being surrounded by other energetic hikers in less remote areas on softer terrain was the medicine we needed. Everything just came together for us. We felt like we had a second wind.
The last few days were cold and wet, but the smell of the ocean was beginning to fill our nostrils. Watching our GPS location on the overall map of Iceland was mind boggling. We couldn’t believe we had nearly crossed the entire country. It was so far beyond what we had expected, in every single way.
We were much more inspired now than ever to get to the coast as quickly as possible. The thought of touching salt water and accomplishing our first objective, crossing Iceland was within reach. It was exciting knowing that this mission was only the first phase of our plan to help protect the highlands.
Walking Across the Country Lends Us a Platform, it Helps Give Us a Voice
Crossing Iceland, coast to coast, 420 kilometres… it was the hardest thing both Hailey and I have ever done, however, it’s just a small part of the bigger picture. Although we set out to capture our experience, the story is more about the human experience in vast wilderness. The relationship between us and nature.
The bigger picture is also sharing the beauty of the Highlands with as many people as possible. So few people will ever experience this remote, far off the grid region for themselves. It’s tough to inspire someone to care about a place they’ve never been to, let alone imagine. Hopefully with our films and with our images, we can close the gap between far-off imaginative places and tangible, beautiful places, places worth protecting. Places worth giving a shit about.
Written by Ryan Richardson, edited by Hailey Playfair.
Special thanks to Pelican for getting behind this project as our film sponsor. Film to be announced soon.
Hailey and I grabbed a red eye from Toronto to Keflavik, Iceland overnight. We arrived in Iceland early this morning and immediately began organizing our expedition.
The Adventure Begins.
Our first stop after arriving at the airport was the BSI bus station located just outside of downtown Reykjavik. The BSI bus station is basically basecamp for all highland access. Their fleet of off-road busses can cross raging rivers and tear through quick sand with ease.
The busses drop off hikers to remote mountain huts, they also deliver packages and food to the huts. Packages like the two that we had prepared to be dropped off five days apart at two separate strategic locations to refill our food supply on route across the country.
As we arrived, we learned that the BSI bus station is no longer servicing the huts we had planned to cache our food at ahead of time. We have approximately 30 pounds of food for the duration of 14 days on the trail. With the addition of film equipment and camping gear, there’s no room for the access food in our packs…
The adventure begins!
Our Route Across Iceland.
We were very intentional about our route across Iceland. It’s important we capture as much compelling footage of key areas as possible. These visuals will aid the conservation group with more eyes on some of these rarely seen areas of Iceland.
Other considerations included access to “bug out” points should something go wrong. We are never further than 15 km away from a 4×4 road that would see at least a few vehicles a day. Additionally, if some rivers are impassible, our only option will be to hike to the 4×4 road, wait for a “super jeep” to give us a ride across the river, before returning to our original route.
We chose to go North to South for a few reasons. The first reason, there are much less rivers to ford compared to crossing from east to west or west to east. The location of the glaciers and their run-off makes traveling across the country more dangerous.
The second reason, The first two days of the route have a lot of climbing. They will be tough days. However, after the first two days, there’s a gradual decline for the next five days. Near the end of our route we connect with a trail called the Laugavegur trail. We are familiar with the Laugavegur trail, and at this point we will be pretty worn out. Knowing what to expect will give us a bit of an edge.
What We’re Taking With Us.
We categorized most of our equipment by shelter, kitchen, clothing, and accessories, and finally camera equipment.
We are using the A7RIII and A7III for photography on our trek. We are filming exclusively on Sony RX0 II cameras for our Crossing Iceland film. Sony was generous enough to lend us the equipment to ensure we weren’t limited by not having access to the right tools for the job.
Not listed below is the Sony camera batteries. We will be caring approximately a dozen for the mirrorless systems and another dozen for the RX systems.
As far as food goes, we are bringing the homemade dehydrated meals for dinner each night. Homemade oatmeal for the morning, instant coffee, salt tabs, and an assortment of vegan meal bars such as Bobo bars, Pro bars, and Cliff bars.
We Met With the Halendid (Highlands) Conservation Founder.
We met with project founder, Árni Finnsson about the Highlands National Park project. Politics and policy have been slow at best. However, Árni is optimistic. Árni started working on the protection of the highlands with the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association in 1997.
The idea of protecting the highlands with a national park was very popular in recent years. But with new governments constantly changing over, it has been challenging to get the idea to take off.
The current government has agreed that there should be a national park in the highlands. However, since that statement, there has been no more information on how much of the highlands region the government plans to protect, or when to expect its’ implementation.
This has pretty much put the Highlands project in another holding pattern. Meanwhile hydro interests and local municipalities continue to plan on development in multiple areas around the highlands.
Ready or Not.
We’re in town for one more day before we fly north to Akyurie where we will begin our trek! To see our progress and fore more updates, visit our facebook page and checkout our site regularly!
TheCrossing Iceland film will be presented by Pelican.
The central highland contains volcanoes, glaciers, voluminous rivers and waterfalls, colorful hot springs, vast lava fields and broad expanses of black sand, all contrasted with oases of vibrant but vulnerable vegetation. And it’s under attack by hydro companies and lack of protection.
Europe has over-developed most its’ wilderness areas
How Much Wilderness is left in Europe?
Europe’s Last True Wilderness is Under Attack. Europe has an estimated 500 or so fragmented wilderness areas left scattered throughout the continent. Most of its’ wilderness areas are in northern Scandinavian countries, and are staggered and isolated from each other. Iceland’s Highlands are really a last hope for Europe’s wilderness. There is really no comparable place like it anywhere, not just in Europe, but on earth. To quote the Hálendið or “Highland” National Park initiative:
“The central highland contains volcanoes, glaciers, voluminous rivers and waterfalls, colorful hot springs, vast lava fields and broad expanses of black sand, all contrasted with oases of vibrant but vulnerable vegetation. Collectively, these natural phenomena and magnificent landscapes form one of the most vibrant areas in the world”.
What’s Special About the Highlands?
The geology, nature, landscapes and sheer epic size is unlike anywhere else. It’s easily possible to wander around the highlands for days, if not weeks without seeing another soul. The earth’s total wilderness areas has decreased from 33% just a single generation ago, down to 23%. The decrease in wilderness is usually due to animal agriculture, mass logging, oil and gas, and hydro. In Iceland’s case, their direct threat to their beloved highlands is hydro infrastructure in the form of dams and electrical pylons.
The Highland National Park initiative is raising awareness and funds in hopes to establish a national park protecting all 40000 square kilometres of the highlands. With Europe’s last true wilderness under attack, protecting only 14000 square km with the current national parks, it isn’t enough. The protection from the park would stop all corporate interest from destroying its’ nature. The national park would have the power to effectively conserve one of the last true wildernesses areas, not just in Europe, but the world.
You Can Help Make a Change
To help with the Highland National Park initiative please sign its’ petition, it takes 15 seconds, and you can help make a real difference. Click here.
Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates on how progress on this matter is going, and how Life Outside plans to help.
There are 2130 fjords worldwide, how ever there are only 38 that are greater than 100 kilometres long. The Fjord-du-Saguenay measures 103 kilometres in length, making it one of the largest in the world.
A fjord is essentially a long narrow inlet with steep cliffs on either side. They’re created by glaciers, and are generally found closer to the poles. Many arctic and antarctic coastal countries such as Alaska, Norway, Greenland, and New Zealand, have hundreds and thousands of fjords along their shores. Northern Canada also has many gigantic fjords, what’s unique about this fjord in Quebec is how south in latitude it is. At 48 degrees North, the Saguenay fjord is one of the most southerly fjords in the northern hemisphere.
The trail systems surrounding both sides of the fjord are world-class. There are multiple accessible summits of nearby mountains, like the one pictured here, near the top of Montagne Blanche with 550 metres of elevation gain.
The park also offers some long distance hiking trails range from 27 kilometres in length to 41 kilometres. The trails are outfitted with primitive huts along the way, making the hike a little bit more enjoyable by eliminating the need lug around a tent.
There are also tons of backcountry camping spots located around various trails in the park. One camp is located just metres from a small sand beach, right along the water.
The highlight for me was being able to enjoy the beach and the smell of ocean spray after a long run along the top of the mountains adjacent to the ocean. The proximity of the trails to the water made running in the summer heat, a little more bearable and even refreshing.
The landscape was also very unique to the area, it reminded me of Vancouver Island… with lush greens, cascading waterfalls and a wide variety of plant life.
With many of the world’s most beautiful geographic attractions, there are often large crowds near by. Fortunately how ever, Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay was extremely quiet, and it was very easy to find trails and views where you could enjoy some solitude among nature.
Luckily, Canada has countless gems that haven’t yet been spoiled by tourism, and commercialism. This park certainly earns its’ spot among a long list of beautiful outdoor destinations in this incredible country.