E. C. Manning Provincial Park

Heather Trail

photo of Heather Trail wildflowers From Blackwall parking lot to Nicomen Lake

Rating: Moderate (easy to Buckhorn Wilderness Campsite)

Length: 21 km one way

Elevation Change: 292 m.

Time: Overnight trip 10-12 hours one way; overnight stops at Buckhorn, Kickinghorse or Nicomen Lake Wilderness Campsites

Start of Trail: Blackwall parking lot

Best Time To Go: Mid-July to mid-August

Welcome to E. C. Manning Park’s sub-alpine meadows! It was this beautiful area that led to the creation of this Provincial Park. These meadows were threatened with overgrazing by domestic sheep, but the urging of many concerned and foresighted citizens led to the creation of the Three Brothers Mountain Reserve in 1931. Part of this reserve was included in a new game reserve five years later, and finally in 1941, the meadows and several thousand more hectares of land were declared the “Ernest C. Manning Provincial Park”. Mr. Manning, a Provincial Chief Forester, was dedicated to the preservation and conservation of Canadian wilderness. Visit the sub-alpine meadows and you will discover why they are worth protecting and conserving. Hike the Heather Trail and you will find out why it is so popular.

Leaving from the lower alpine parking lot, your hike begins at the base of Blackwall Peak, at an elevation of 1980 m. Travelling along the western slope of Lone Man Ridge at 2 km the trail from the Viewpoint Loop joins the Heather Trail. From here the trail continues for 2 1/2 km where it reaches Buckhorn Wilderness Camp.

In the summer of 1994 a reclamation of the alpine meadows was started. Please help us by obeying signs and staying off newly revegetated areas. In order to help reduce the destruction of vegetation tent platforms were constructed at the wilderness sites. Remember low impact is the key when travelling in the back country.

The Three Brothers Mountains will come into view soon after you start the hike; glaciers scoured off the tops of these mountains less than twenty-five thousand years ago.

A great variety of flora can be seen along this trail from late June through to August. When the snow is still receding, in late June to early July, the spring bloom is at its peak. The meadows are covered by the creamy crocus-like flower, Western anemone, tiny white spring beauty and bright yellow glacier lily. In mid-summer, the hiker is treated to a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour. Most of the flowers are fairly easy to identify. Cinquefoil looks like a buttercup, but note instead the notched petals. The blue to purple flowered lupine has an unmistakable leaf. If you look carefully, you will notice the lupine ranges in colour from solid pale cream to pink to blue to purple with variegations occurring. Red or white indian paintbrush looks just like the name it describes. There is quite a variation in colour of the red indian paintbrush. Look closely and you will see orange, crimson, scarlet, rose and vibrant red. Mountain valerian has a big white or pinkish cluster of flowers with a very strong scent; this is a favourite food for deer. Mountain daisy is purple with a yellow centre. The sub-alpine plants have all adapted to the harsh mountain conditions (e.g. short summers, poor soil, dry wind). Many grow in cushion or mat-like forms in order to stay out of the drying wind; some grow hairs on their leaves to retain moisture and heat, and a few, like the paintbrush and wood betony, are tinged with excess red pigment called anthocyanin. This pigment absorbs high intensity sunlight and converts it to heat, helping the plant to survive summer frosts. These are just a few of the many flowering plants to be seen along the Heather Trail.

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Vegetation becomes more lush as you walk down the valley. Both indian hellebore, which is very poisonous, and cow parsnip flourish here, and are the largest flowers you will see in the meadows. When you reach Buckhorn camp, there will be a stream in which to fill your water bottle. Please remember that this is a wilderness area, so please pack out all garbage with you (orange peels and cigarette butts take years to decompose in the sub-alpine). Although the temptation, to leave the trail and frolic in the meadows may be there, please do not step off the trail. These sub-alpine meadows are extremely fragile. A footstep can destroy what may have taken twenty years to come to bloom!!
photo of the start of Heather Trail
Now, the climbing begins. The trail winds through a skeleton of a forest, the result of a fire in 1945. Watch for bluebirds and hawk owls. This climb from Buckhorn Camp to the Bonnevier Ridge is fairly strenuous. Take breaks and enjoy the views. The burn area is particularly scenic when the flowers are in bloom. The contrasts of blue sky, charred trees and green foliage and brilliant flowers is exceptional.

Heading towards the First Brother, the trail is often covered by snow patches and tiny seasonal lakes where water pipits can be seen. However, after descending approximately 50 m, you will enter a very dry area. Dwarf lupine and other plants that are much smaller than the same species at lower elevations are clues that you are approaching the alpine zone.

To the north, at 10 km, an orange fluorescent square marks the path that climbs up to the summit of the First Brother (2272 m). Here you are on true alpine tundra; most of the plants grow very close to the ground in order to stay out of the constant wind. The bright pink cushion plant, moss campion, is only found here, and on Mt. Frosty. As the growing season is so short, it spends up to ten years growing a long tap root to secure itself and to capture water before it flowers. From the top, look west and you will see the Second and Third Brothers. To the south, Blackwall Peak, your starting point and now your point of return rises in the distance. The 1km ascent of the First Brother is strenuous with a climb/scramble over rocky sections and loose rocks. Good footwear and caution are recommended to reach the peak.

Backpackers wanting to spend two or three days in the meadows may want to continue west to Kickinghorse wilderness campsite (3.5 km) or to Nicomen Lake wilderness campsite (11 km).

If continuing on to Kickinghorse the trail skirts along the shoulders of the Second and Third Brothers. The hiking along this portion is moderate with a few switch backs just before Kickinghorse wilderness camp is reached at 13.5 km. This is a good overnight destination if you have limited time, if you are returning by the same route or continuing on to Nicomen Lake. Just a reminder that no campfires are permitted in the sub-alpine meadows at either Buckhorn or Kickinghorse campsites.

Although it is possible to reach Nicomen Lake in one day, it would be somewhat tiring and a pity to rush through one of the most scenic trails in the province. Take the time to fully enjoy and absorb the incredible panoramas and floral display that the Heather Trail offers. For the photography enthusiasts, the abundance and variety of flowers to be captured on film (no picking or disturbing the plant life) is endless.

From Kickinghorse to Nicomen Lake, it is a short 7.5 km to the ridge overlooking the lake. It is a moderate hike that follows the high ground. Through a series of switch backs one descends 2km to the wilderness campsite at Nicomen Lake. Although campfires are not banned at Nicomen they are not encouraged. Please use camp stoves.

From Nicomen Lake, a return can be made to Blackwall parking lot via the same route or via the Grainger Creek and Hope Pass Trails to Cayuse Flats on Highway 3. If the latter route is chosen, a two vehicle system is suggested as the distance between the trail heads is approximately 40 km.

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