hiking canada's berg lake trail

mount robson provincial park


mount robson emperor face

Berg Lake, in British Columbia's Mount Robson Provincial Park, is possibly the most spectacular destination in the Canadian Rockies. Nestled beneath Robson's mighty Emperor Face, the Berg glacier descends steeply to the shore of the vivid turquoise lake. If you're visiting the Rockies, it's a place you simply must see. The 26 mile roundtrip to the lake along the Berg Lake trail can be done as a fabulous but slightly crazy day hike (my brother and I did that in 2006), or you can camp at the lake and hike on up to Snowbird Pass.

The Berg Lake hike

The video and the Berg Lake trail map show our 2011 backpacking trip. We did a 2 night backpack, camping at Berg Lake, but lots of other trips are possible.

Trail mileages (one way):
4.4 - Kinney Lake campground and shelter
6.8 - Whitehorn campground and shelter
10.0 - Emperor Falls campground
11.8 - Marmot campground (first lake views)
13.0 - Berg Lake campground and shelter
20.0 - Snowbird Pass

Day 1: Hiking to the Berg Lake Campground

The Mount Robson visitors' center and the Berg Lake trailhead are just off Highway 16, about an hour west of the town of Jasper in Alberta. On a clear day, the visitors' center offers a jaw dropping view of Mount Robson, at almost 13,000 feet the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Starting at just 2,800 feet the trail circles behind the mountain to reach Berg Lake, which looks onto the heavily glaciated northern aspect of the peak. It's 13 miles and about 2,600 feet of elevation gain to the lake.

Kinney Lake Mount Robson park

The first 2.7 miles of trail follow an old road through forest along the river. At the outlet to Kinney Lake the trail crosses the river on a bridge and for the next couple of miles mostly follows the shore of Kinney Lake. If you're here in the early morning - as you ought to be if doing the trail as a day hike - there are pleasingly photographic reflections in the still surface of the lake. Beyond Kinney Lake, the number of day hikers (and mountain bikers, who are allowed to bike the first few miles of the trail) drops off, and the trail crosses the alluvial plain upstream of Kinney Lake to reach the base of Whitehorn Hill at the 5.6 mile mark. This section of the trail is very beautiful, and although you're not really far from the road yet the environs of the lake are as wild a spot as you'll find in the Canadian Rockies.

valley of a thousand falls, robson Emperor Falls Berg Lake trail Berg Lake valley

Diverse weather accompanied our hike in to Berg Lake. There was an affecting light drizzle, steady rain, lashing rain, rain mixed with sleet... you get the idea! The rain was particularly relentless as we crossed the wobbly "one person only at a time" suspension bridge into the Valley of a Thousand Falls, and we took shelter at the Whitehorn campground for a spot of lunch. Ahead lies the toughest and most interesting section of trail. For 2 miles the trail climbs steeply, gaining more than half of the 2600 foot elevation gain to Berg Lake in a single push. It's good exercise - easy with a day pack and moderate with a backpack - and though the ascent is through the trees it's broken up by views of a series of increasingly impressive waterfalls - first White Falls, then Falls of the Pool, and finally Emperor Falls at 9.5 miles. A short spur trail leads to a better view of the Emperor nestled beneath Mount Robson.

Above the Emperor Falls trail junction, a final brutally steep section of trail brings you to the Emperor Falls campground and the upper valley which contains Berg Lake. From here on, with the climbing accomplished, the trail is outstandingly scenic all the way to the lake. Ahead lies the Emperor Face of Mount Robson and teasing glimpses of the Mist and Berg glaciers. Looking back is an equally impressive vista of sharp snowy peaks rising beyond the colorful valley and braided river channels. At least, that's how I remember it looking in good weather! After about a mile the trail rounds a corner to reach a flat, rather barren looking plain, which you cross to reach Marmot campground near the outlet of Berg Lake. The already impressive view of the Berg glacier, which tumbles all the way from the summit snowfield to the water's edge, steadily improves as you hike along the shore toward Berg campground. From the lake, the mountain rises almost 8000 vertical feet to the summit of Robson. It's an amazing sight!

Camping at Berg Lake

Berg Lake sunset iceberg in Berg Lake

There are three campgrounds at Berg Lake: the Marmot campsite at the western edge of the lake (7 sites), the Berg Lake campsite near the lake inlet (26 sites), and Rearguard (5 sites) a short distance beyond the lake en route toward Robson Pass. We camped at Berg Lake, whose selling point is the Hargreaves Hut - a shelter where you can cook, dry your clothes, and generally take more substantial refuge against the elements than is provided by a tent! After a long day hiking in the rain, the hut was a welcome sight for us fair weather backpackers (take a headlamp as it's pretty dark inside). I've read that the Berg Lake campground can get noisy but we didn't find it to be so. The sites are spread out pretty well and where we pitched our tent - just past the bridge - the only sounds at night were the calving of the glacier. If you're a real stickler for solitude, however, Rearguard is the best option. We awoke to find a couple of deer grazing beside the trail next to our tent.

Day 2: A day hike toward Snowbird Pass

Snowbird pass Mount Robson park

The dismal weather of day one cleared up overnight (or so we thought), and the next morning we set off for Snowbird Pass. From Berg Lake campground it's about 14 miles roundtrip, with 2,500 of climbing, to reach the pass. The trail follows the Robson River for a short distance across the plain beyond Berg Lake, before turning east into the barren valley containing the Robson glacier. Signs show how rapidly the glacier has retreated over the last century, but even in its diminished state it's huge - as impressive a glacier as you'll find in North America outside of the icy north. The trail skirts the lake at the glacier's terminus, before ascending along the eastern edge of the moraine. The trail is mostly in great shape - there are just a few sections where you follow cairns across the boulder fields, and another short stretch where chains bolted into the rock provide handrails. The views over the glacier to the backside of Robson are exceptional. Finally the trail climbs steeply through an alpine meadow to reach the pass itself, which offers view in the other direction across the Reef Icefield. A return of iffy weather - including a brief August snowstorm - combined with self-inflicted woes (a late start, stops for photo taking, laziness...) meant we failed to make it to Snowbird Pass itself, but it was still a great day hike!

Berg Lake trail reservations and options

robson glacier

Berg Lake can be visited on a day hike, as a short backpacking trip, or as part of the 65+ mile-long Moose River Route. I've done it twice, once as a day hike and then more recently as a 2 night camping trip. The Berg Lake hiking season is limited by snow, and how early you can hike the trail will depend on what sort of winter its been. Unless you're planning on trudging through snow, mid-June is probably the earliest plausible date, though Snowbird Pass is closed for both May and June to protect wildlife. All things considered, July and August are probably the best time of year for hiking the Berg Lake trail.

Berg Lake day hike: A day hike to Berg Lake is at least 24 miles roundtrip (if you turn around at the shore of the lake), and more like 26 miles if you want to get the best views of the Berg glacier. It sounds like a pretty hard core endeavour, but you don't have to hike the whole way! Mountain bikes are both allowed and very useful on the first 4.4 miles of trail, up to about the Kinney Lake campground, which is generally wide and quite bikeable (though there are some steep sections). 17 miles of hiking plus 9 miles of biking is eminently doable in the long summer days this far north - it took us about 11 hours moving fairly briskly but also stopping often for photos! Mountain bikes can be rented readily in Jasper (just to the east in Alberta), and you can save a few pounds of weight by filtering water which is in munificent abundance along the trail.

2-3 night backpack: The advantage of backpacking - aside from any spiritual joys of camping out in the wilderness - is that from a camp at Berg Lake you can hike on to further spectacular scenery beyond. Aside from the Snowbird Pass route we tackled, there are shorter day hikes to Hargreaves Lake and glacier, to Toboggan Falls, and into the Mumm Basin. There are almost 100 tent sites in the various campgrounds along the trail, which can be reserved through the Discover Camping site. The campgrounds tend to fill up on busy weekends, but at other times you can likely hike the trail on short notice. Be sure to take good raingear, and a stove if you plan on cooking as camp fires are not allowed. Dogs are OK on day hikes, but not on overnight trips.

Moose River Route: Mount Robson park has other backpacking routes, including, for serious hikers only, the 65+ miles of the Moose River Route, which passes Berg Lake and includes sections in Jasper National Park in Alberta. I've not done this, but the Patton / Robinson guide has more details if you're interested.

Bears: Robson and the Berg Lake trail are grizzly country, and a sign in 2011 noted that grizzly bears had been sighted traversing the trail corridor. My unscientific guess is that bears are thicker on the ground elsewhere (in parts of Jasper, for example, or in Kluane), but some care is warranted: all the campsites have bear-proof food lockers (no canisters or tree-hanging gymnastics needed), and we made plenty of noise and carried bear spray while on trail.

Useful references

First off, I'd recommend you check out my brother's Mount Robson photos, taken on the same trip. We normally shoot independently, but amidst the constant rain and humidity on day one my Canon 5D Mk2 photographed its last (credit to Canon though: they repaired it for a very modest sum). So most of the photos and video here were taken with Dave's (Nikon) DSLR and a Canon S90 that kept working just fine. For practical information, I suggest:

Mount Robson Provincial Park - the official website

Canadian Rockies Trail Guide by Brian Patton and Bart Robinson. This is a very comprehensive guide to trails in the Canadian Rockies. Essential reading, especially if you're considering some of the longer backpacking options in Mount Robson provincial park.

Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies by Kathy and Craig Copeland. People seem to have a love / hate relationship with this guide. Our experience was that the hikes they rated as "Premier" or "Outstanding" were, indeed, just that.