Beginning from the shores of Yoho’s iconic Emerald Lake, the Emerald Triangle combines the most scenic sections of Emerald Lake’s shoreline trail with a higher elevation ridge walk along nearby Wapta Mountain. The route is named for the three trails that link together to form the crude yet passable shape of a triangle: Emerald Lakeshore, Wapta Highline and Yoho Pass. Offering some great views of Emerald Lake and Yoho’s President Range, the circuit clocks in at a distance of just over 12 miles (19 km) with about 3,000 feet (900 m) of elevation gain.
We hiked the Emerald Triangle on the 9th of October. It was still unseasonably warm and summer-like in the Rockies, with the temperature hovering around 60F (15C) under beautifully sunny skies. No meaningful snow had yet accumulated at elevation, but we knew it wouldn’t be long before Mother Nature ushered in some more typical weather that would close this rare window of opportunity for late-season hiking. Wanting to get in one last trip over in Yoho, we settled on this little gem.
We hadn’t read much in the way of trail reports about the Emerald Triangle. Rather, we’d heard a quick mention of it by a hiker visiting from France that we met atop Cirque Peak earlier in the summer. I quickly filed it away in the ‘potential trails’ section of my brain, and didn’t think much about it as we continued our quest for summit scrambles. After returning from North Molar Pass the previous day, I randomly thought of this route at about 9 pm. With diminishing daylight hours, we needed something moderately short and this seemed like a reasonable option. It was yet another eleventh-hour decision that turned out to be surprisingly good. For a trail that sits literally on top of one of Yoho’s most popular attractions, we couldn’t believe how few people seem to visit this one.
Always looking to bang out the steeper sections first, we decided to hike the Emerald Triangle loop counterclockwise. Beginning from the main parking area, we headed right along the southern shore of the lake past the quiet cabins of Emerald Lake Lodge. With the shorter autumn days, the sun hadn’t yet crested the mountains even by mid-morning. Still partially in shadow, the lake was quiet and the water like glass… and very few people were around to soak up its stillness.
After about a mile (1.6 km) of skirting the lakeshore, the flat path finally branched off to the right where it began a steady ascent through the forest. From here, the trail became fairly steep, gaining around 3,000 feet (900 m) of vertical over the next 4 miles (6.5 km). Frankly, this was not the most exciting section of trail. The trail was completely ensconced in an impenetrable pine forest, and switchbacked endlessly as it made its way toward Burgess Pass. As I often do, I started counting the switchbacks. I think I lost count somewhere around 50 or 60. Or maybe I just gave up. I’m not going to lie, it seriously felt as if we’d be zigzagging through the forest forever. Not knowing much about the route, I started to wonder if there’d be any view at all.
When we finally broke through the tree line atop Burgess Pass, we were treated to that elusive view… and man was it a good one. The massive summits of the President Range were just staring us in the face. At the southern end, Mount Carnarvon dwarfed unassuming Emerald Peak. Mount Marpole and its southwest summit (SW1) peeked out from behind the snow-capped President. Front and center, the Vice-President and Emerald Glacier were exceptionally commanding. Finding ourselves alone atop the pass, we paused for an early lunch under the warm autumn sun. I mean, could there be a more perfect place to enjoy a PB&J?
As we made our way over Burgess Pass, Wapta Mountain came into view with the Wapta Highline Trail just visible along its western flank. Directly to our right, we also got a glimpse of Mount Field. The more stunted summit is connected to Wapta Mountain by a rocky ridgeline, and was too tempting to pass up. I’d skimmed a couple scramble reports of Mt. Field the night before, and thought we could probably squeeze in a quick trip to the top.
While we initially thought we’d make this a shorter day with just the standard Emerald Triangle circuit, we couldn’t resist the urge to tack on the scramble up neighboring Mount Field. It was right there. We knew we’d probably be pushing daylight since we didn’t get an early start or anticipate a summit scramble, but we weren’t going to just walk past it. At that point, my unspoken goal became to merely make it back to the lake in time for one last ‘summer’ sunset. With that, we headed off trail for the sprawling scree slope.
The scramble up Mt. Field looks short. And at just 0.6 miles (1 km) from the Emerald Triangle Trail to the top, it is short. However it feels much longer. With some loose and dusty terrain and a bit of route-finding – typical of pretty much every scramble we’ve done in the area – it does feel like work to get up there. The pitch is pretty steep, gaining about 1,400 vertical feet (430 m) in just over half a mile.
Additionally, there were virtually no cairns to help guide the way, which also slowed our pace a bit as we scanned around for the best and most efficient way up. From the Emerald Triangle trail, we began by scrambling part way up a gully then making our way hiker’s right across the scree. We then crossed two more gullies before making the final push to the top. The route is basically lots of loose scree and rubble, although the crux requires a quick climb up a short cliff band just below the summit. There’s nothing too exposed, though you will need to use both hands to pull yourself up the rock here.
From Mt. Field’s 8,671’ (2,643 m) summit, we were treated to some even more gorgeous views of the glaciated crowns of The Presidents, now with vivid Emerald Lake visible in the valley below. Directly north, we could look across aptly-named Fossil Ridge (home to the famous Burgess Shale site) to Wapta Mountain’s craggy summit. Just south of us, Mt. Stephen and Cathedral Crags looked pretty imposing rising above the Trans-Canada Highway and town of Field (save for the fact that we were staring/shooting directly into the sun). To the east, we looked out over Mt. Ogden, Wapta Lake and Paget Peak – one of our first summit scrambles here in the Rockies this summer.
Knowing we’d be pressed for daylight on the return, we soaked in the views for a few minutes, scrawled our mark in the register, and treated Sanchez to her special ‘summit snack’ for bagging her 14th peak here in Canada.
After a quick descent down Mt. Field, we rejoined the Emerald Triangle path and headed north via the Wapta Highline Trail along the western flank of Wapta Mountain. This section is pretty flat as it navigates the high ridge above Emerald Lake. Roughly halfway between the summits of Mt. Field and Wapta, the trail passes by Walcott Quarry – one of two Burgess Shale sites you can visit in Yoho via a guided walk. As you pass alongside the shale-strewn slopes, you’ll notice multiple signs warning against trespassing. Be sure to heed the notices here and stay on the main hiking trail.
Walcott Quarry’s Burgess Shale was first named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, before it became incorporated into the broader Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site in 1984. The site preserves the fossilized remnants of one of the world’s first complex marine ecosystems, dating to around 508 million years old. The fossils found at Walcott Quarry are known to be some of the most well-preserved specimens of soft-bodied organisms in the world. Many of the fossils are trilobites – a class of extinct marine arthropods – with the most common examples belonging to the genus Olenoides.
All of the marine creatures preserved here evolved during the Cambrian Explosion, a period of rapid evolution that occurred between 545 to 525 million years ago. The Cambrian Explosion is marked by the sudden appearance of complex animals, with both invertebrates and vertebrates abruptly entering the fossil record during this time. Astonishingly, all of the roughly three dozen animal phyla that exist today had appeared by the end of the Cambrian Period.
You can read more about the paleontology of Yoho’s Burgess Shale from the Royal Ontario Museum. They’ve got some great information on their site. Additionally, if you’re interested in exploring the Burgess Shale in person, you can join a guided hike to either Walcott Quarry (here) or on nearby Mt. Stephen (a shorter and more kid-friendly hike). Although we didn’t fit in a guided hike this summer, we hope to return and check out the fossils on a future trip.
After navigating the Wapta Highline trail, we reached the junction of Yoho Pass in the quickly receding afternoon light. If you’ve got time and are interested, you can hang a right here and head toward Yoho Lake (about half a mile one-way). From Yoho Lake, the trail eventually joins up with Yoho’s iconic Iceline Trail. With no time to visit the lake, however, we headed left at the fork to begin our descent back to Emerald Lake.
We were kind of cranking on the way down, hellbent on making it back to Emerald Lake in time for sunset. Unlike our densely forested ascent to Burgess Pass earlier in the day, however, this two-mile (3 km) section dropping down from Yoho Pass was a bit more scenic. The views of Mt. Burgess and Emerald Lake were gorgeous in the late-day light, and we were even able to look back at Mt. Field’s speck of a rocky summit. An added treat was having the trail pass by the soaring falls that tumble all the way down from Emerald Glacier to feed Emerald Lake.
After a quick descent, the last two miles (3 km) of trail followed a flat, alluvial fan through Emerald Basin, eventually returning back around the northern and western shores of Emerald Lake. Here, a labyrinth of wooden planks and footbridges guide you over the constantly-changing glacial flows. The crossings are continually being rerouted as the water shifts direction and, during the months with high meltwaters, we’d imagine this area is probably really saturated.
Although making it back to the lake before dusk was beginning to look all but hopeless, we somehow made it back as the day’s final rays of sunlight danced off Mt. Burgess. It was so special to close out our summer hiking season with such a gorgeous sunset at Emerald Lake. It was a spot that had become a favorite of ours over the last five months. If hiking season really had to come to an end, I suppose it was kind of the perfect way to go out.
Total distance: 13.6 miles (22 km)
Elevation gain: 4,663 feet (1,420 m)
Know before you go
- Do not enter the Burgess Shale fossil beds. It is illegal and can result in a massive fine. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s absolutely critical to protect and respect this area for its historical and scientific significance.
- The Emerald Triangle loop can be hiked in either direction. Hiking counterclockwise is a steeper ascent, gaining almost the entire 3,000 feet (900 m) of vertical over the first 5 miles (8 km). If you hike clockwise, that 3,000 feet of elevation gain is instead spread out over 7 miles (11 km). The descent will obviously be steeper if hiked clockwise, but those interminable switchbacks which should help spare your knees on the way down.