Local wisdom has it that Whitewater Canyon is the prime location for grizzly bear viewing across the valley slopes. We saw no bears. Regardless, Whitewater is a wonderful and challenging hike that brings you along the canyon edge to a high alpine pass surrounded by peaks and tarns.
The 4.3km access up Whitewater Creek FSR is relatively short and reasonably signed. And yet, despite the signed junctions, we focused too literally on the written instructions in Where Locals Hike and got completely turned around. Don’t do that. Follow the signs.
The access road is challenging because there are a couple of water bars that are reminiscent of trench warfare. Our Subaru Forrester stalled out on one of worst water bars and created a cloud of foul clutch-smoke as the vehicle struggled to climb out. Our friends miraculously arrived at the trailhead shortly after us in a low clearance vehicle. HOW?? Pure skills!
Because this is prime grizzly habitat, it is recommended to hike with a larger group and make lots of noise along the trail.
From the Forest to the Canyon
The first 2km of trail winds steadily up through the forest at a manageable elevation gain. It’s neither difficult nor interesting, and it goes by quickly as the forest falls behind at the mouth of the canyon.
The trail skirts the left side of the canyon, edging beneath cliffs and over rock slides. Looking across the canyon, you can see distant waterfalls ribboning down the green slopes. You can also see the faint line of the old trail which was closed due to grizzly encounters. And maybe, if you’re lucky (?), you can spot distant grizzlies wandering and munching the far slopes.
After about 4.5km, the trail passes the remains of an old campsite and crosses a small creek. Take a pause because the trail now becomes more challenging, with boulders, steeper grades, and route-finding.
Eastern Island Rock and Boulder Fields
Looking ahead from the campsite, there is a distinctive black rock jutting above the rockslides. Where Locals Hike names this “Easter Island Rock” and it’s a great landmark!
After crossing the first boulder field and ending up below Easter Island Rock, the trail temporarily vanishes along the slope. If you pay attention, there are two faint routes to follow and this is an important choice:
- The bad way – straight ahead, below Easter Island Rock! This takes you across a massive boulder field, marked with cairns. It’s slow going, requiring feet, hands, and problem-solving. We accidentally took this route on the way up.
- The good way – right and up, above Easter Island Rock! This is the best way and re-connects again with the main trail, minimizing the amount of boulder scrambling. We took this route on the way down.
After leaving the boulder fields, the trail resumes in full-force. It’s now a sharper climb as it ascends to the high-point at Whitewater Pass.
At the top of the pass, you can look north down to Cooper Creek Valley or back, SE down Whitewater Canyon to distant Mt Loki. The pass is littered with artifacts from the mining days – a prominent metal pipeline spans the area, but we also found the remains of buckets and other mysterious objects.
Upon reaching Whitewater Pass, you’ve hiked 6.4km and done a commendable 670m of elevation gain.
We went onwards to find Whitewater Tarn behind the glacial moraines pouring down from Whitewater Mountain. This last part of the hike was pure route-finding and involved a bit of a scramble up talus slopes.
The moraine rocks contained lots of green serpentine, shining in fragments and boulders along the route.
It was a hot day and we were excited for a swim at Whitewater Tarn, but upon climbing the final ridge, we found the tarn laced with ice and breathtakingly cold.
Ambitious hikers have another option: Whitewater Col, a further 1.5km and +170m. We looked at it. It was high and far and covered in snow. Ahh, nope!
It had taken us 3:20 to hike from the trailhead to the tarn and we’d had enough! After a nice long lunch break, we headed back down the trail.