June 18, 2021. A bike and hike trip to a true hidden gem of the Southern Rockies.
Region: Castle Wilderness. Traditional territory of the Ktunaxa, Tsuu T’ina, and Blackfoot First Nations
Distance: 23.8 km round-trip
Total Ascent: 1300 m
Elevation of Objective: 2463 m
Total Time: 6h 46m
I decided to visit Middlepass Lakes and Rainy Ridge as my first foray into the area accessible via the West Castle Valley beyond the Castle ski resort. The trip, or versions of it, are outlined in a number of guidebooks – most recently Nugara’s Popular Day Hikes: The Castle and Crowsnest. Much-needed regulation of vehicle access to this valley has rendered older descriptions obsolete. Nugara’s newest book has the most accurate description. I was fortunate enough to have a sunny, nearly windless day as well as complete solitude on this outing.
Access is from the parking lot of the Castle Mountain Ski Resort. From the southeast corner of the large parking area a road leads to a narrow bridge over the West Castle River. This is where the route starts. I brought along my bike for the initial portions of the route. I biked the wide, sometimes rocky road for 2.7 km to a large clearing. In older descriptions they describe vehicular access to this clearing, but that’s no longer permitted (or possible, given the narrow bridge at the start of the route). There is a signed branch in the road here, and I went right – following the signs to Middle Kootenay Pass. Two small bridges immediately followed, and I continued biking for about another kilometre until the rocky terrain and slightly steeper pitch resulted in my walking my bike up a switchback. I decided to stash my bike at that point, though I could have pushed it up a little further and gotten about another kilometre of use out of it if I’d wanted to.
The road eventually reaches the edge of another clearing. This clearing is to the left of the trail with a row of white rocks arrayed across the grassy fork in the road that leads into it. This was apparently and oil well site several decades ago. Nugara writes that most people stash their bikes here. The trail continues to the right, becoming more rough and steep. Eventually a gate is reached (which was open at the time of my visit) and the trail is crossed by a couple of streams. Most route descriptions say there are 2, but there was enough runoff on the day I visited that there was a third (albeit smaller) stream crossing the trail. About 1.5 km from the gate the trail reaches the Middle Kootenay Pass. A small sign marks the edge of the Provincial Park boundary, and thus the provincial border.
There’s the option of going hard left here and gaining the ridge to the east of the pass then following it all the way to the summit of Rainy Ridge. I decided I wanted to visit the lakes first, though. A trail was evident traversing along the open grassy slopes heading southeast. The lakes are hidden from view at this point, but the cascade of Middlepass Creek descending from the first lake could be seen in the distance. I followed the trail with no difficulty as it eventually reached the cascade and ascended alongside it. Soon I was standing alongside the turquoise waters of the first Middlepass Lake. It took 2h 33m to reach the lakes. The trail carried on to the second and third lakes in short order.
To get to the summit of Rainy Ridge, which looks down from directly above the third lake, I crossed over the outlet stream of the third lake and ascended lightly treed slopes directly north to the col. From the col I was treated to views of an adjacent, heavily treed valley containing two small lakes of its own. The Southern Alberta Backroad Mapbook 2nd ed. refers to these as the Rainy Ridge Lakes (not to be confused with the Rainy Lakes, which are in the next valley over). Turning right at the col, I enjoyed some straightforward scrambling up the ridge to the summit. The terrain wasn’t difficult and would at most be considered moderate in a guidebook. There was the option for bypassing rocky sections on scree to the right, but I found it much easier to stick to solid rock whenever possible and scramble up. I reached the summit at 3h 43m.
The summit sits on the continental divide, and the views were phenomenal. British Columbia’s Kootenay region is to the west, the Castle front ranges to the east, the peaks of the Crowsnest Pass to the north, and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park to the south. To descend, I returned along the ridge to a point where I could see an uninterrupted scree slope all the way down to the third Middlepass Lake. This terrain allowed a rapid and direct scree skiing descent. I returned to the first lake and sat for a time watching a bald eagle circling overhead before setting off back to the pass. I encountered a party of two hikers as I left the valley – the only other people I saw the entire day.
Click on the pictures in the gallery below to access full resolution images.