I had always drooled over images of the Bugaboos but knew they were a climber’s paradise, not a hiker’s paradise. Therefore, David and I did not have a trip to the Bugaboos on our original Canadian Rockies grand tour itinerary. Fate intervened when our Mt. Stephen fossil bed guide told us about a hiker-friendly backpack in the Bugaboos with some epic scenery, and our plans immediately changed! If you are also a hiker-not-climber drooling over images of the Bugaboos, please come inside, take a seat, and I’ll regale you with tales of a hiker-friendly Bugaboos backpacking trip.
As mentioned, our Mt. Stephen fossil bed guide set the record straight and told us that the Bugaboos were hiker-accessible and worth our while! She mentioned that we could hike in to the ACC-run Conrad Kain hut , and camp at either the Boulder campsite or the Applebee Dome campsite. There is also the option to sleep inside the hut, but it was all booked up for the night we were looking at, and anyways, I never sleep well in a room with 10+ other people, since at least one of them is guaranteed to snore like a banshee.
The Boulder camp is located 0.2km away from and 200 vertical feet below the Conrad Kain hut, and the Applebee Dome camp is located 1km away from and ~800 vertical feet above the hut. To get to the hut itself is about ~2400 feet of vertical gain over ~2.8 miles.
Both campsites are first-come-first-serve, and our tentative plan was to get a site at Boulder camp so we wouldn’t have to lug our backpacking packs the additional 1km and 800 feet to the Applebee Dome camp. This turned out to be a very good idea, not only because of laziness, but because Applebee Dome is a veritable tent city, packed to the gills with climbers counting cams, organizing ropes, and soaking up the afternoon sun. Applebee Dome is more popular with the climbing crowd because it makes for a shorter approach to many of the popular climbing spires, but if you are a hiker, stay at the far less busy Boulder camp!
And so, on the last two days of our trip we headed for the Bugaboos, accessed via a logging road 27 km north of Radium Hot Springs. The road is fine for any sedan, just avoid the potholes! After 30 miles on the logging road (takes about an hour) we arrived at the jam-packed parking lot. The Parks Canada website suggests wrapping your car in chicken wire to prevent porcupines from chewing rubber brake lines, and the large majority of cars in the lot decided to take that suggestion seriously, so we did too. There is chicken wire available in little corrals in the main parking lot, and I had to wrestle some tangled wire free and drag it back to the car.
After porcupine-proofing the car, we were off. There is only one trail from the parking lot, and that trail goes to the Conrad Kain hut, so your opportunities for getting lost are few! The first 20 minutes or so are relatively flat and make you think “hey, maybe carrying a heavy pack isn’t so bad” but don’t worry, it will soon get steeper, and then steeper, and then steeper…
The trail is a real slog if you’re backpacking, but at least the view opens up rather quickly. There will be glaciers, rolling meadows of wildflowers (season-dependent), spires, rivers, and mountains! We made our way up very slowly as the trail got steeper. We passed some random chains bolted into the rock that seemed rather unnecessary. We climbed a ladder up a ~15 foot rock face that seemed rather more necessary. After almost 3 hours of slow trudging (+ a lunch break), we were there!
Registration for the campsites is through the Conrad Kain hut, so we went inside and found the on-duty steward. She mentioned that not many people were camped at Boulder so we wouldn’t have a problem, so we paid our $10 per person and descended the 0.2km and 200 vertical feet.
The Boulder campsite has wooden tent platforms, a really stinky pit toilet, and bear marmot boxes. We picked a tent platform and set up shop, noting that there were probably only 3 other occupied platforms by mid-afternoon. We wondered where all of the cars in the parking lot were camping, because it certainly wasn’t at Boulder. After we set up camp we headed up the trail towards Applebee Dome to get some better views. Then we found out where all of the other people were! Applebee Dome was completely packed. There are no tent platforms, just relatively flat, bare rock, and tents were set up ALL OVER THE PLACE. We weaved through the tent city and continued up towards Eastpost Spire, one of the few non-technical spires that can be attained via a moderate scramble.
An easy scree slog brings you to a col with expansive views to the west, north, and east. You get a good view of Snowpatch Spire, Bugaboo Spire, and the tarn just north of the Applebee Dome camp. We could see little specs descending the crazy-steep snowfield between Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires, undoubtedly returning back to camp after a long day of climbing.
I stopped at the col on Eastpost because someone took my helmet out of my backpack because they didn’t want to carry it (me) and David continued the extra 20 minutes of scrambling to the summit. After that, it was perilously close to dinner time, so we descended back to Boulder camp, passing again through the tent city. When we got back to Boulder at 6pm, it was still quiet as a mouse. Score.
After spending the evening rehydrating meal packets, swatting at mosquitos, and listening to glaciers cracking, we went to bed, packed out early the next morning, and were back in the parking lot by 11am. And a porcupine didn’t even eat our break lines.
For hikers, backpacking in to Boulder or Applebee Dome is well worth the effort (or sleep in the Conrad Kain hut, if the sound of snoring doesn’t FILL YOU WITH RAGE). The spires and glaciers make for a really unique view, even among the already epic views seen elsewhere in the Canadian Rockies. And if you feel like it, you can even summit the non-technical Eastpost Spire! Thanks a million for the insider info, Laura the Mt. Stephen fossil bed guide!