Our Ancient Purcells: Hiking the Historic Earl Grey Pass Trail

Our Ancient Purcells: Hiking the Historic Earl Grey Pass Trail

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The authentic wilderness experience is one that very few people truly experience in this day and age. With all the information in the world available to us right in our pockets and with the explosive growth in outdoor recreation, not only is it harder to find places to explore but it is much harder to do it in solitude. There are guidebooks, websites and blogs for nearly anything and everything; and if you can’t find it there, surely someone or something on social media will point you in the right direction.

Mt. Toby in the backcountry (views from the east side); photo by Steve Tersmette

While the Earl Grey Pass Trail may not be an unexplored route across the Purcell Mountains, you are almost certain to experience it alone. The 61-kilometre (40-mile) route is far enough away from the bigger cities and with the added logistics of having to figure out transportation to and from trailheads nearly seven hours apart by car, it is a trip that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves. It is also mostly undeveloped with only unmarked, primitive campsites along the way and with the exception of 5 cable car crossings, has no infrastructure to speak of.
~ Earl Grey East Trail Map
~ Earl Grey West Trail Map

Background & History

The trail is located fully within the northern end of the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Provincial Park & Protected Area, and is one of the largest parks of its kind in the province. While the park was originally established in 1974, its history goes much further back. A rough mining exploration trail was established to connect the East and West Kootenays and used in the 1890s and early 1900s. Prior to that, Indigenous hunters and traders used this mountain route to connect the regions. The first written account of the route was in the mid 19th century when Paul Kinbasket led Shuswap people from Sinixt territory into Ktunaxa territory where they settled near Lake Windermere.

In 1908 the Governor General of Canada, Earl Grey, crossed the Purcells via a pass dividing the Toby and Hamill Creeks. The following year he constructed a cabin in the Toby Creek Valley as a family vacation home, the site of which sits 1.5-km (1 mile) from the eastern trailhead. Although the past 110 years have not been kind to the structure (photo below), it still stands today on the edge of a bushy clearing overlooking the wild Toby Creek valley and views of the impressive Pharaoh Peaks. Earl Grey urged the province’s Premier at the time to have the area designated a "National Park".

Original Earl Grey Cabin; photo by Steve Tersmette

Today, the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy & Protected Area is more than 201,000 hectares (496,680+ acres): a legacy of the people and a wonderful example of the good that has come out of citizen engagement and grassroots initiatives.

The Trail

Hiking the Earl Grey Pass Trail is not to be undertaken lightly, especially if you intend to make the crossing from Toby Creek to Argenta. It requires 'detailed planning' for five days of trekking including clothes, food, tents and gear plus the additional task of arranging transportation to and from trailheads. The reward is hiking one of oldest and most historic routes in Western Canada as well as crossing an entire mountain range on foot.

Views of Toby Creek from the Pass; photo courtesy of BC Parks

Hikers should be prepared for wilderness camping, rough trails, creek crossings, cable car crossings (bring gloves, BC parks recommends two able bodied people to operate cable cars), wildlife and variable mountain weather. As there are very few established campsites and no outhouses along the way, hikers need to pay very close attention to their "Leave No Trace Principles". This includes staying on the established trail and removing any visible signs of your campsite including fire rings. Pack out all garbage and ensure that any human waste is buried in appropriate places well away from water sources (min 60-m) and 15-20cm in the ground in active soils.


One of the cable car crossings; photo courtesy of BC Parks

Trail Distances East to West (distances are approximate):

0.0 km – Toby Creek Trailhead

1.5 km – Earl Grey Cabin

8.5 km – Teepee Camp

14.5 km – Toby Falls Camp

16.5 km – Earl Grey Pass

26.0 km – North Fork of Hamill Creek, campsites available

37.0 km – Rock Creek Camp (24km from West Trailhead)

45.5 km – Boy Scout Camp (15.5km from West Trailhead)

49.0 km – Big Bar Camp, Old Growth Forest (12km from West Trailhead)

53.0 km – Garnet Beach Camp (8km from West Trailhead)

61.0 km – Argenta Trailhead

New for 2019
 - BCA Tours (from Kimberley, BC) will be offering a 2019 guided hiking experience of the Earl Grey Pass in July.  For those who want to add this ultimate hiking experiences onto their 'bucket list'.

(Remember to follow the three T's - trip-planning, training and taking the essentials. #LeaveNoTrace and visit BC Adventure Smart to learn more about being prepared before heading into the outdoors.)

Related Stories
~ How to Prepare for a Kootenay Backcountry Adventure

All words by Steve Tersmette.  Top/cover photo by Steve Tersmette (old Grey Creek Cabin).

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Tags: Columbia Mountains Explore Canada ExploreBC The Kootenays

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