Located in British Columbia’s Glacier National Park, the Perley Rock Trail is an 8-mile (13 km) return that climbs through forests and rocky slopes until it reaches the edge of the Illecillewaet Icefield.
To get to the alpine region surrounding the Illecillewaet Glacier, it’s a seriously steep climb up – with the route gaining around 4,300 vertical feet (1,300 m) in just 3.5 miles (5.6 km). While the first mile is surprisingly moderate, you’ll for sure feel the burn for the next two-thirds of the hike. The climb is worth it, though, with some of the most surprisingly beautiful and otherworldly scenery you’ve ever seen.
With a whole lot of sunshine in the forecast for the long Labor Day weekend, we were pretty stoked to hit the trails for three days of hiking. Unfortunately, though, some seriously suffocating smoke rolled in from wildfires burning hundreds of miles away in the PNW and we ended up just saying screw it. You could barely see your hand in front of your face and I was feeling some respiratory irritation, so it hardly seemed worth it. Our initial excitement turned to disappointment as we instead spent the holiday weekend catching up on chores and playing cribbage (I also spent a good chunk of it pissing and moaning). While I like to think that I at least endeavor to carpe diem, I put my pouty pants on and carpe-d nothing this time around.
With the bulk of the smoke moving out about 48 hours later, and just some intermittent smoke and haze in the forecast for Tuesday, we decided to head over to Glacier to hike Perley Rock. We were both feeling restless after two days away from the trail, and I was determined not to let that last bit of unwanted smoke be the thief of joy for one more day. Decision made, we hit the road and headed west to the Illecillewaet Campground.
Beginning along the banks of the Illecillewaet River, the trail ascends moderately through the forest, crossing Vaux Creek via a series of seasonal bridges. The path then navigates a couple of large boulder fields as it continues to pop in and out of the trees. After about two miles, the largely moderate trail tranforms into a series of steep switchbacks as it zigzags up a hillside of dusty scree. As you gain elevation, you can see Mt. Sir Donald rising overhead.
After navigating a rocky ridge that is typically snow covered well into summer (bring spikes, just in case, regardless of the calendar day), the trail traverses a short section of loose rock before opening onto a rock-strewn, alpine bench. From here, you get your first glimpse of the glacier and vast Illecillewaet Icefield ahead. Perley Rock sits immediately to your right and, if you choose, it’s a super short and easy scramble to the top. From there, it’s a short, quarter mile (0.5 km) walk to reach the toe of the Illecillewaet Glacier.
Standing that close to the glacier is pretty wild. As you near the icy expanse, the pebbly terrain gives way to a beach-like ribbon of glacial flour (rock flour). As ridiculous as it sounds, the abrupt transition to alpine ‘beach’ was one of my favorite parts. While the silt feels like cement under pressure, the finest, most powdery dust sloughs off onto your fingers if you run your hand gently across the top. It’s like the softest sand you’ve ever felt, with a texture akin to talcum powder. If it weren’t for the striking grandeur of the glacier rising overhead, I probably could have just sat there and played in the dirt all day.
Beyond the rock flour beach, a small pool of meltwater sits just below the toe of the glacier. The water is an absolutely stunning shade of turquoise, with rippling sandbars of glacial flour extending into the crystalline tarn. If it weren’t for the thin skim of ice clinging to the surface – and, of course, the hulking block of ice soaring above you – you’d swear you were lost somewhere in the Caribbean.
Clearly, that tropical island feel got the better of us. After being tempted by the few other brave (or foolish) souls who were up there, Stephan and I went for a very quick polar plunge in the gorgeous pool. Because really, what’s a hike if you don’t strip down to your skivvies at the coaxing of random strangers and plunge into frigid water?
Sanchez just sat there looking on completely unamused after digging herself a little hole and taking a rest in the cool rock flour. She refused to join us for a dip herself, instead turning her gaze away like an embarrassed teenager who was mortified by her parents’ humiliating antics. She may have been the fun police, but we felt no shame… well, maybe just the slightest bit of awkwardness as we stood around air-drying in our underpants. Apparently I need to add an emergency towel to our packing list, because the one sheet of Bounty we had on hand didn’t quite do the trick.
If you’re keen to explore the alpine region a bit more, you can climb up a small moraine left over from where the glacier has retreated. It’s a trivial amount of elevation gain, but affords the most sweeping views of the Illecillewaet Icefield. After being so close to the glacier, it’s kind of cool to take a step back for a completely different vantage point.
Being up on that tiny hill was one of those things that made you feel small on a whole new level. While the mountains in general tend to do that to you, standing at the toe of the Illecillewaet Icefield was exceptionally humbling. It was vastness on an almost incomprehensible scale. We felt dwarfed as we gazed up from the water’s edge at the base of the glacier. But after climbing that stunted moraine and looking out over the sprawling icefield, what was moments ago a towering shard of ice suddenly seemed like its own insignificant speck. The whole perspective was kind of mind-blowing.
I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this hike anywhere near as much as I did. I’m usually a little biased toward a good summit scramble and view. However, this one was such a treasure. While we’re not usually ones to fart around too much once we reach our destination (be it summit or other turn-around point), we dawdled like crazy here. Our moving time on the hike clocked in at just over four hours, but we somehow managed to spend another three hours just wandering around the glacier and surrounding area. We never imagined we’d be up there anywhere near that long, so save yourself plenty of extra time if you choose this hike. You may just fall in love like we did. In the end, our Labor Day weekend may have been a total bust, we sure did manage to seize the hell out of that Tuesday.
Total distance: 8.5 miles (13.7 km)
Elevation gain: 4,318 feet (1,320 m)
Know before you go
- This trail has several seasonal bridges. Park staff install the bridges during the summer season when it is safe to do so (depending on snow and creek levels), and typically remove them sometime in late September (again, weather dependent). Consequently, you’ve got a pretty short window if you want to do this hike without any major creek crossings. The national park does post online when bridges are in/out for the season. That information, as well as other trail conditions, can be found here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/bc/glacier/activ/randonee-hiking/etat-sentiers-trail-conditions.
- Glaciers are constantly changing and ice isn’t always stable. Consequently, glacier (ice) caves are prone to collapse. The glacier can also calf unexpectedly, so take caution when approaching. The national park advises visitors not to stand under any overhanging ice.
- Steep and potentially hazardous snow slopes can remain on the upper section of trail through much of summer. This year, hikers were reporting snow slopes through much of August. When we hiked on 6th September, there was still one small section of snow on the trail. While it ended up being easy and safe enough to navigate around, we carried spikes and poles just in case.