Hiking 7 of the Canyons at Muncho Lake, BC: Part 1

On Thursday, August 24th, I finished the drive to Muncho Lake with a 270-km (168-mi) leg down the Alaska Highway from the Watson Lake Campground. I parked the motorhome at a huge pullout at Km 717, which would put me in the heart of the best of the canyons that I wanted to explore.

My initial plan to was to spend a couple of days at Muncho Lake and then move down to Summit Lake in Stone Mountain Provincial Park, but as it turned out, I stayed at Muncho for 4 nights, and another few would have been great. I just discovered how incredible these canyons are during a trip two years ago, and now am really anxious to see all of them, and more of each of them (many of the canyons could be multi-day trips).

Tourism Northern Rockies has published a 90-page Hiking & Motorized Trail Guide. I’ve posted a digitized version of it – it’s a 67MB download. As a result of my hikes on this trip, I also have enough material to post my own guide to Hiking along the Alaska Highway in northern BC.

Between Km 726 and Km 697, there are 14 main canyons, of which I hiked 7 (I also hiked two non-canyon trails). Each of the 7 canyons that I hiked will be described below, listed from north to south. None of the canyons except Boulder seem to have names. I’ve added 3 of the significant Km points, including my parking spot, to the map below – click on it to open an interactive version in a new window.


Muncho Lake canyons map

Km 725.6 Canyon Hike

The furthest-north of the canyons was the first one I hiked, late on Thursday afternoon (August 24th). It taught me that the tight canyons are no place for Bella in particular. She hates the rocks, and even Tucker isn’t a big fan. I was going to park at a pullout on the highway, but then decided to drive up the road/trail on the right a ways (a few hundred meters/yards).

Alaska Highway Km 725.6 Canyon Hike
The first few minutes was really nice walking for all of us.

Alaska Highway Km 725.6 Canyon Hike
As we found out later during our stay, violent storms with heavy rain are common here. The rain does a lot of damage within the canyons, and until massive berm systems were built 15-20 years ago, the Alaska Highway was closed a few times by floods.

Alaska Highway Km 725.6 Canyon Hike
The geology of the region is complex and fascinating – a rockhound’s dream location. I took many photos of rocks in all of the canyons.

Alaska Highway Km 725.6 Canyon Hike
This is as far as we went – just 20 minutes from the car. It was just too hard on Bella. The aerial photos, though, show that it splits into a couple of exceptionally interesting canyons further up, so I’ll definitely be back to this one, by myself.

Alaska Highway Km 725.6 Canyon Hike

Km 720 Canyon Hike

From the highway, it can be seen that a wall of rock isn’t too far away, so I left the dogs in the motorhome for this hike on Saturday afternoon (August 26th). The creek is just a few yards south of the Km 720 post. Most of the walk to the canyon is very easy, on the berm along the creek.

Alaska Highway Km 720 Canyon Hike
The first look at the canyon, just over 10 minutes from the car. It didn’t look promising.

Alaska Highway Km 720 Canyon Hike
Going in for a look. I had no real plans for any of the canyons, and was open to anything – these hikes were just meant as initial reconnoitres.

Alaska Highway Km 720 Canyon Hike
That was certainly the end! It must be an incredibly beautiful spot when the water is flowing.

Alaska Highway Km 720 Canyon Hike
Checking out a possible route around the cliffs. It seems doable. The aerial photos show that the cliff section is very short, and getting around them gives you access to a large network of canyons.

Alaska Highway Km 720 Canyon Hike
Walking back to the car, 40 minutes after leaving it.

Alaska Highway Km 720 Canyon Hike

Km 718.4 Canyon Hike

After the 40-minute hike at Km 720 on Saturday afternoon (August 26th), I drove 1.6 km to the next canyon. I expected that this one would take me longer to do my initial exploration of.

Alaska Highway Km 718.4 Canyon Hike
Although the country looks dry and drab from the highway, there are some brilliant colours when you get a close look.

Alaska Highway Km 718.4 Canyon Hike

Alaska Highway Km 718.4 Canyon Hike
The creek has a large double set of berms to protect the highway from flooding. It must have caused some big problems in the past. Neither of the berms are walkable (with level tops) – you have to go up and over them.

Alaska Highway Km 718.4 Canyon Hike
Entering the canyon proper, 30 minutes from the car. The weather had been erratic, from heavy cloud and cold wind to warm sun. Some of the clouds looked like rain.

Alaska Highway Km 718.4 Canyon Hike
Almost an hour from the car, some hard-rock shelves to climb over.

Alaska Highway Km 718.4 Canyon Hike
Ten minutes later, this impressive little slot canyon required me to climb up and around it, but the going was fairly easy, with a sheep trail as a guide. I had learned not to trust sheep trails too much, though – they sometimes lead to places that only sheep should attempt.

Alaska Highway Km 718.4 Canyon Hike
An hour and 10 minutes from the car, the canyon split. The next photo is a panorama created from three 18mm vertical photos – it’s quite tight in there.

Alaska Highway Km 718.4 Canyon Hike
As in all of the canyons around Muncho Lake, the geology is complex, and many of the rocks quite fascinating. The mountains are primarily limestone, but many of the most dramatic parts of the canyons have been created by intrusions of shales and chert.

Alaska Highway Km 718.4 Canyon Hike
I managed to hike up and around this wall, but got stopped by another just a few minutes further along. The aerial photos show that there is a lot of rugged hiking ahead in both the main canyons. By the time I got back to the car, this canyon had taken me 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Alaska Highway Km 718.4 Canyon Hike

Km 716.8: Boulder Canyon Hike

In the late afternoon of Friday, August 25th, I hiked one of the 2 canyons that are signed as hiking routes – Boulder Canyon, at Km 716.8, where I parked the motorhome. The information panel at the trailhead gives it a difficulty rating of “Moderately easy”, which I consider absurd except at the very lowest section. I turned back when the route got too extreme. It was just good luck (or perhaps listening to that “little voice”) that I hadn’t taken the dogs despite that rating, or I wouldn’t have gone very far at all. The panel says that the route is 4.6 km return, which should take 3 hours – I went much further in much less time.

Boulder Canyon hike - aerial photo

Here’s the complete trail description from the Tourism Northern Rockies guide:

The trail starts heading east up the alluvial fan on a road leading to an old quarry. In about 10 minutes you will cross over a berm created to contain the water coming out of the mountains, and take your first turn a tight valley. Follow the creek bed for several turns until you reach a small (4 ft) waterfall or rock wall (depending whether there is still water flowing in the creek). Here you will have to decide if you can climb over the rock (good foot and handholds) or backtrack a short ways and wander up the right side and walk along the top to get over.

Carrying on, you’ll shortly enter a very steep walled section of the creek bed. It’ll lead you to a dead end with sheer, rock walls over 25 ft high. Backing out of this canyon, you’re able to scramble up the right side again and pass over this section. A distinguishable trail is visible in the ground at this point and continues on for a short while before dropping back down into the creek bed.

It’s possible to continue on past this point all the way until the creek bed splits in two or beyond. Be aware, that small waterfalls or rock walls are prominent along the way and you’ll have to climb up or scramble around them to continue.

Special Notes: This trail is best done in the fall when the water levels are low or there is no water running in the valley at all. Don’t be fooled by the fact that there is no water down at the highway level; there could still be water further up the creek bed disappearing into the ground before reaching the highway. Also be careful when clambering up side slopes in this valley. Much of the rock is loose and is easily dislodged. Proceed up side hills one at a time.

The start of the “trail”, at the south end of the huge pullout where I’d parked the motorhome.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
Fifteen minutes along, I entered the start of the canyon proper.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
It got much rougher quickly past that point. I met another couple of hikers at this point who told me that you need to be part mountain goat to do this hike.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
Half an hour from the start, the rock wall described as being 4 feet high (I’m quite a bit taller than 4 feet 🙂 ).

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
After another 5 minutes, this very impressive slot canyon is reached. It isn’t walkable even with no water running, so I backtracked down the canyon to climb around it.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
On the way out, I found that there’s a fairly good route up the slope further down the canyon, but I hadn’t seen it, so used this steep and loose route up to a sheep trail that goes around the slot canyon.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
Dropping back down to the canyon floor, some wonderful sections of rock are encountered, all fairly easy to navigate. I really need to get back to see these when the creek is flowing. I think that this is about where the trail description panel assumes that hikers will turn back.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
Running into another slot canyon, I was back on a high sheep trail at 55 minutes from the parking lot.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
Back on the canyon floor, this impassable wall was soon reached, but a route around it looked fairly easy.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
Looking down from the route around the impassable wall. It wasn’t as easy as I’d expected – it was both steep and loose.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
Forced back down to the canyon floor by cliffs, I soon reached another section that could be considered impassable or just extremely difficult.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike
With the next photo showing the view up from that difficult/impassable spot, this is where I quit, an hour and 15 minutes from the parking lot. Going beyond here is not for solo hikers.

Alaska Highway Km 716.8, Boulder Canyon Hike

I had planned on keeping all the canyon hikes in one post, but this is long enough so there will be a Part 2…




Comments

Hiking 7 of the Canyons at Muncho Lake, BC: Part 1 — 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Hiking 7 of the Canyons at Muncho Lake, BC: Part 2

  2. A fantastic descriptive and exciting read.
    Munchies Lake is the one of the best stops we made on the ALCAN.
    Thanks for the geology shots. Absolutely an A+ example of crushing uplift and later volcanic rise. Nicely exposed and shined up with Glacier activity
    Love it can’t wait to get back there.

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