The following post is my attempt to be the all-in-one-spot information location for the amazing Berg Lake Trail. As of March 2019 I have done several trips on the trail in the past four years.
I’ve done everything from day hikes, to solo overnighters, group adventures and a solo 5 day adventure. I have plans to do another 4 day adventure in June/July 2019.
This post is long and photo heavy. I will do my best to include all of the information I like to see when I’m researching hikes.
I’ll touch on the booking and planning, gear and food prep, the experience and what I’ve done differently over many trips.
I’ve separated the subjects with headings: click on any one to jump ahead.
Booking & Site Planning
First and foremost, the trail needs to be booked online here.
Our first year we saw what happens when you don’t book ahead. A young couple thought they would be able to get a walk-on reservation. The parks employee at the trail registration desk told them no – with it being the long weekend and blue skies in the forecast – there was no chance and she sent them elsewhere.
You’ll need to know your party size, age category of each member (maximum of 12 per party – no dogs allowed on overnights) and how many tent sites you need (max of 6 people per tent pad).
The first, Kinney Lake, is 7km from the trailhead and the last, Robson Pass, sits at 23km.
A total of ninety-eight tent pads are dispersed among the campgrounds (10′ by 10′ – one tent per pad).
I said one tent per pad. Being slower hikers, we reached our campsite late in the day and all but one tent pad were occupied despite us having two reserved. Someone was camping there without a permit.
We didn’t confront anyone, we were exhausted and a little panicky about it since it was our first backcountry hike.
Hiking the 16km to Emperor Falls was too much for our first visit. On paper it seemed we were ready, but we underestimated Emperor Hill combined with the late afternoon heat.
That first trip, we managed to fit both of our tents on one pad and after the initial panic, it ended up being awesome. We loved our site and everyone was comfortable. In fact, that’s proven to be my favourite site at the Emperor Falls Campground.
Later, we ran into a Park Ranger on the trail and we told her about the booking issue so that they could keep track of the problem. I feel there should be more signage at the trailhead about the need to book and why.
Especially since the trailhead is not at the visitor centre, where you register for the trail.
The campgrounds have differing levels of amenities but all have designated tent pads, bear lockers, outhouses and grey water pits.
Kinney and Whitehorn have covered shelters and Berg Lake has the fully enclosed Hargreaves shelter.
A detailed pdf of campground descriptions can be found here.
Bear lockers are shared with the entire campground, be courteous with how much space you use and how well you are organized. Always pack your garbage out, don’t leave it in the locker.
I use a 13L dry bag for my bear locker items. Include all smelly items in the bag; lip balm, deodorant, toothpaste, toiletries and all cooking gear should be in there at night and any time you leave your site.
There are people all over the trail and the campgrounds are nearly 100% booked far in advance, especially on long weekends.
If solitude is what you want, this isn’t the trail you’re looking for – it’s a world-class, world-renowned adventure and if you are looking to be alone in the backcountry here it won’t happen.
I enjoy it. I can control just how much exposure to people I have. When I hike solo, I can hang out in the cook shelter and visit, or I can sit by the river and stare at a mountain. And my family has piece of mind that I may be hiking solo, but I’m not alone.
My first adventure was with my grown son, my best friend and my eleven-year-old nephew … we covered a range of hiking experience and capabilities.
My nephew had never hiked anything like this before, Allison and I were experienced day-hikers … my son, a hiker and naturally fit.
Of the four of us, I had spent one night in the back country prior to this hike. It is the perfect hike for beginners, that have the ability to hike for 6-8 hours a day.
Knowing we were slow hikers who hated hills – we planned our two nights at the Emperor Falls campground at the 16km mark of the trail. Like I mentioned earlier … this was a hard push for our first time.
That distance was attainable (on paper) and by booking two nights at the same campground our second day would just be day-hiking up to Berg Lake … eliminating the need to pack up camp and carry everything to another location. That second point was a great idea.
We were attracted to the smaller size of Emperor Falls campground. With only nine tent pads and no cook shelter, we would get the best of both worlds – enjoying a slightly quieter weekend on an otherwise crowded trail. This continues to be my favourite campground for all of these reasons.
On other trips I have liked spending my first night at Whitehorn Campground at the 11km mark. On the second hiking day moving camp 5km up the trail to Emperor Falls Campground. This makes for a really relaxed adventure. Then I day hike from camp.
Preparation – Gear
Whew … this topic is potentially a tonne of blog posts on its own … being a noob I researched, kept researching, and then read and researched some more.
I settled on gear choices that suited my style of ‘hiker who enjoys camping’ and made my purchases over the year leading up to this adventure. I’m not an ultralight hiker.
I have a blog post with a live, running list of what’s in my pack over here.
I use an online, open source program called Geargrams to inventory my gear. I have no affiliation with them, but I love the tool. I’ve entered all my gear and entered weights using a small kitchen scale.
Leading up to the big day, I went on many trial hikes and tested my gear. I cooked meals over several different stoves to find out what I preferred and I set up my tents in the yard as often as I could.
Our trial hikes out back came in handy when we were utterly exhausted and stumbled into camp that first night. I had set my tent up many times before but that night I was all thumbs tent poles … and swearing. I’ve come to love that level of exhaustion after a day of hiking, but it was mildly terrifying that first night.
Preparation – Food
I cannot tell a lie … I freaked out about food on my first trip. It was one thing to be responsible for feeding myself but I was taking my eleven-year-old nephew … and he’s Celiac. Again, I obsessively researched.
The Backpacking Chef’s website became my new bible for dehydrating my own food. The multi-day meal plans are well laid out and easy to follow.
I bought an Excalibur dehydrator and a FoodSaver and then got to work putting together some homemade meals. Dried fruits like apples and pineapple work well in trail mix for added natural sugars.
Coffee was important to me and while I’d normally go with an instant 3-in-1 for this trip, I took my GSI JavaPress to control the gluten content. I have another post on back country coffee options.
I planned for a lot of small snacks throughout the day. We had candy, beef jerky, smokies, GORP, chocolate bars, Babybel cheese, dry sausage and gummy bears.
Sure, it meant I carried more weight, and I’ll eventually learn to find balance with that but it was worth if for the piece of mind. I probably won’t carry whole smokies anymore but they were nice fried up with rice for dinner.
I have since written a blog post on thermos cooking over here … I much prefer rehydrating my food in a container rather than cooking it over the flame. It uses less fuel and most dehydrated or freeze-dried foods reconstitute better by soaking in hot water for 10-15 minutes.
Now, instead of a thermos, I use a Ziploc Twist & Loc container for rehydrating.
Over the years I’ve switched to hiking in a state of ketosis, or fat adaptation … if this is something you’re familiar with, I have a post with a downloadable self-calculating macros spreadsheet over here.
Prepare yourself, the photos are coming, I repeat, the photos are coming … oh, and speaking of photos, I didn’t bring my big DSLR on my first trip despite being a photographer. I made do with my cell phone and Canon Powershot SX510 on an itty-bitty tripod.
On following hikes I’ve brought everything from my point and shoot to my DSLR with full tri-pod and filters. My full DSLR kit is 10lbs and I don’t think I’ll bring it again. I much prefer to sit back and stare at a mountain on the trail instead of fussing over the photos.
I came away with plenty of photos and video with my point and shoot, I am really happy with it as a hiking option.
I did play around one evening with a time-lapse app on the phone –Framelapse. It created some great sunset sequences. I want to find more of a balance between photos and videos as I hike more.
We spent the night before hitting the trail at the Robson Meadows Campground, across the highway from the visitor’s center. My husband, niece and sister-in-law stayed there while we were on the trail and they enjoyed the campground and all its amenities.
I book a night before the trail here or at the Robson River campground every trip. They are well serviced and even if I get in late after a day of work, I prefer hitting the trail early, and not after a drive.
Every hiker spending the night on the trail must register at the Mt. Robson Visitor Center and get their passes, in the form of tent tags, within 24 hours of their first day on the trail.
You are required to watch a short, fifteen-minute orientation video playing on a loop in the basement.
The actual trail-head is a couple of kilometers further down the road, if you don’t have your own vehicle try to get a ride or you’ll be adding a boring 2km road walk to either end of your trip.
The trail-head is busy. It’s the one access point to the trail for all day-hikers (and their dogs) as well as multi-day hikers. We parked our car and suited up.
Be sure that you have your car keys, and that the rest of the group knows where they are in your pack. The same should be said for your first aid kits and any medical supplies.
The first 4kms of the trail are like a mini-highway, it’s an old forestry road that climbs gradually through an old-growth cedar and hemlock forest. The trees are enormous. Give yourself the chance to enjoy this part of the trail. There is a lot to appreciate and happy hikers are all over the place.
At 4kms you arrive at the south end of Kinney Lake. The trail passes over the Robson River and forks off towards a day-use area in one direction (left) and an outhouse in the other.
A lot of day-hikers make this their turn-around point. There is a day-use area with picnic tables along the shoreline that offer a spectacular view of the lake and ridges.
The trail along the lake, and day-use-area will be flooded out if water levels are high.
The main trail continues along the lake, passing through a slide with signage warning you to continue moving at a decent pace.
The trail becomes far more trail-like and far less old-forestry-road around the lake. However, day-hikers are still all over the place and mountain bikers can continue on until just past the Kinney Lake campground at kilometer seven.
The trail isn’t technically difficult or requiring of a lot of expertise yet but it is mountain hiking and it’s a steady gain in elevation overall with many flat or downhill sections to mellow out the leg muscles.
Just past Kinney Lake campground there is a rack for locking up bikes, beyond this point it is foot traffic only. The trail gets a little bit more technical, but only a little – in that it’s somewhat narrower and uneven.
If you get to a sign that says “Hiker Flats Open” … go that way!
Seriously … flats … they were open in 2016 but not 2015. They were closed again in 2018 and I had forgotten how much elevation gain is added by having to follow the main trail.
The flats are so much easier and the views are amazing. Whether or not they are open is dependant on water levels … being closed means the water crossings are too high.
It’s amazing to stand in the open flats literally surrounded a full 360 degrees by the towering peaks. You still get into the flats, even if you take the main trail … you just have to pay some dues first.
On the other side of the flats the trail climbs up Whitehorn Hill. This is the first taste of real hill climbing. There are switchbacks for about two kilometers. They are hard … but don’t fool yourself, they are nothing compared to Emperor Hill.
Coming up to Whitehorn Campground you cross the river on the iconic suspension bridge seen in photos. I always appreciate a beautiful bridge.
We continued on to Whitehorn Campground, had a quick bite to eat and refilled our water as the next 4km are the only on the trail that don’t have ready access to water.
This is where I like to spend my first night now. I generally get into camp here after about 4 hours of hiking. However, with family groups, young kids or new hikers this can take a lot longer.
The next section, Emperor Hill, is as demanding as it is awesome. After leaving Whitehorn, the trail follows the river, crosses on a major bridge and then starts it’s rise up to Emperor Falls.
Make sure you heed the signs to top up your water, this is the only section of the trail where you don’t have ready access and you need water for this push.
The beginning of Emperor Hill consists of unrelenting switchbacks, it is steep, narrow and a little harrowing in a couple of spots. I can’t lie, there was more than one occasion when I doubted the sanity of the whole trip.
“What have you gotten yourself and your nephew into?”
There was a time when my nephew asked if anyone else was finding the trail a little scary and we told him to just keep his eyes on the trail and move forward … honestly, we were all following the same advice.
However, the entire Emperor Hill is not like the beginning and it does, eventually, become treed and less switchback-y.
And I had to keep telling myself that as hard as it was … grade seven classrooms from various schools have hiked this trail as part of their curriculum for years … well, that and it was 11km back the other direction.
I know it’s a personal preference but they sure helped me feel more secure on the narrower sections of trail.
While the trail continued to climb steadily for the full 4km it did move into the trees and became more secure feeling – there were even a few downhill sections (which we actually kind of stood looking at with exasperation, dreading the downhill knowing we were just going to have to make up the elevation with another uphill).
Be okay with stopping often on this part of the trail, and take your pack off several times. Don’t talk yourself into thinking taking it on and off is too much work. If you need to rest, take a full 10 minutes minimum with no pack on. It will do wonders for resting.
It’s during these resting moments when you really get to soak in what’s happening around you, make them part of the experience. There came a point on the trail when I realized I couldn’t remember not hearing the thunder of waterfalls and it was kind of surreal. It was like the ultimate white-noise machine … that I could hear and feel.
But it was the thunder of Emperor Falls that had been calling to me long before I could actually hear it and my first glimpse of them did not disappoint. I had been obsessively watching videos and looking through photos of the falls for months before the trip.
Off in the distance (and you can’t help but notice at a considerably higher elevation than you currently stand) you finally catch a glimpse of the magnificent falls. It doesn’t matter how many times I go up this trail, I stop and have a bit of a cry when I see them. They call to me.
There were times when knowing I would get to stand directly beside them, unfettered by man-made railings or walkways, was the only thing that kept me going. Emperor Falls called to me the whole way up the hill.
Funny enough, it would be easy to pass right by them – as you get nearer the immediate view of them is blocked by the trees.
Which seems odd as they are 150′ tall and loud enough to make it hard to hold conversation – but as you reach the junction that leads off to the falls you can be so caught up in the uphill slog that you miss the sign and side trail on your right.
Sitting by these falls is magnificent. I have no real words for the experience. They are my Mecca of sorts and my only regret is not sitting there longer. On my last trip I probably hung out here for an hour.
You should know … there’s a small set of stairs cut into the trail just past the junction that inspired one of my most impressive string of curses to date – and that’s saying something.
Emperor Falls campground is 500m further up the trail. In our state, exhausted from a long day (ten hours on the trail) it was truly the longest 500m I’ve ever traveled.
When we got to the campground we tried to find an open tent site as quickly as possible. We needed rest and we needed food. Having never done this before, there was a true moment of panic when it became obvious there was only one available site, even though we had two booked.
It turned out the only site that was left empty was on the one end, right on the river and with an amazing view of Mt. Robson. Our two tents fit snuggly on the one pad, and rules be damned, we set them up as quickly as we could.
After a quiet dinner by the river, we packed up our dinner things and put them in the bear locker. A quick visit to the outhouse, with bear spray in hand as it is a distance to the loo, and then off to bed. It was before 9pm. It’s light out much later in August, but we couldn’t stay awake.
Day two of the hike is where we felt particularly awesome about our plans. While I wasn’t nearly as sore as I expected, the fact that we were leaving camp where it was and day-hiking to Berg Lake was more than welcome.
I had packed a small day-pack like this Marmot Kompressor, and it was a good, no great, idea … a really great idea … my pack is super comfortable but the thought of putting it on again so soon just elicited yet another string of cursing.
We left our packs, tents and sleeping gear behind and on a bright, sunny day made off for Berg Lake.
After the climbing from the day before I think I expected at least a little more but it truly levels out after Emperor Falls Campground. The hike to the lake and back is one of the most enjoyable hikes I’ve ever experienced.
Wide open river flats, wedged between cracking glaciers and mountain-tops tall enough to make their own clouds, creates a freedom to spread out and let everyone absorb what they will of the surroundings on their own. It is a humbling place to be.
We took in the sights around the lake, including one small baby-berg that had broken off of the glacier. We checked out the campgrounds and rested in the Hargreaves Shelter for a snack.
We had grand plans to follow the Toboggan Falls route up to a cave and do some exploring. The routes are well signed and we started our way up the trail … but it was up … it turns out a lot more up than we had any interest in.
There was a point where my screaming legs just couldn’t take any more and I finally cried uncle, “Guys, this is it for me.”
The resulting cheer indicated I was not alone in the screaming legs department. Once again, the unplanned resulted in one of the most memorable moments on the trail.
We relaxed on the fairly steep incline with the water running past us on polished rock, leaving no doubt as to why it is called Toboggan Falls.
I had taken to removing my hiking boots whenever possible and soaking my feet in the ice-cold water and I didn’t turn down this opportunity either.
This was the place where my nephew said,
“There isn’t anywhere else in the world I’d rather be.”
That meant a lot to me and all of the hill climbing was totally worth just that one moment.
We eventually made our way back down, in no real hurry, the bonus to summer days in this area is they are long … daylight starts before 6am and continues until after 10pm.
This time we made our way over to the shoreline for another snack and rest.
It was a good, hot day and part of us really wanted to take a dunk in the lake. The other part of us watched some clouds come down the valley and wondered if we should.
It would be an epically stupid mistake to be caught in a mountain storm right after taking a dip in a glacier-fed lake like that. Especially since we were several kilometers from our gear.
The walk back to camp was more of a leisurely stroll. Again, this day of hiking goes down as one of the best hiking days I’ve ever experienced.
Back at camp we ate an early dinner, Colton had a nap by the river and we explored around our camp and down-river some.
We were pleasantly surprised by what we found.
Although, you would think we’d stop being surprised by the amount of awesome we were surrounded by.
The others went to bed fairly early and I took advantage of that, staying up to watch the last golden sliver of sunlight lick the top of Mt. Robson. I know how lucky we were to have clear sight of the peak every day we were out there.
The next morning we wasted no time getting ready to leave, skipping breakfast for a quick coffee and some handfuls of trailmix. We were unsure how demanding going down Emperor Hill was going to be.
There were parts of the trail on the way back down, especially the top parts, that were like a whole new world to us. At this point had been so tired we had almost developed tunnel vision. Honestly, every visit up the trail has shown me something I missed the last time.
At one point the trail follows along the top of a deep valley gorge. Strangely, you would expect that the Robson River would plunge down and run along the bottom after emptying over Emperor Falls … but it doesn’t. Instead it runs along a ridge on the far side of the valley. It’s a very cool feature.
The hill that took us nearly four hours to climb took us less than two hours to get back down.
We stopped for a more substantial feed at Whitehorn Campground before continuing.
It was right after crossing the suspension bridge that our trip took an unexpected turn.
A young man crossed the bridge behind us and then dashed off the main trail towards the ranger station (and radio). My son is a first responder, a firefighter, and flagged the boy down to ask what was wrong.
He was a part of a larger family group and his father had fallen and badly broken his leg at the most dangerous part of the trail, almost 2kms back.
My son asked some questions and then sent the young man on to use the radio at the ranger station to call for help. We started emptying our packs to build a quick day-pack of emergency supplies for Colton to take back to the injured man.
Paracord, tent poles, first aid kits, blankets, compressed foam sleeping pad … it all made it into his emergency pack.
We spent three hours waiting for Colton, who eventually lead the extraction of the injured, but well, man off the hill and he accompanied the helicopter rescue crew off the mountain.
We hiked out the remainder of the trail and pushed ourselves hard. We were way behind schedule but made it to the trail-head at approximately 5pm.