David Thompson Pass & Rocky Mountain House…A Fur Trade Route To The Mountains

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David Thompson Pass
David Thompson Pass Photo: Bob Kenyon
By: Bob Kenyon

Taking the David Thompson Highway (Hwy 11), west from Red Deer on the Queen Elizabeth II Highway is probably Alberta’s least known, but most scenic route into the Canadian Rockies. The David Thompson Highway joins the Banff to Jasper Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93), at Saskatchewan Crossing. For travelers seeking a more out-of-the-way route, that has abundant opportunities for backpacking and hiking, camping, canoeing, cycling, fishing, horseback riding and other adventure travel activities…go to David Thompson Country!

This route, through west-central Alberta, is named for the Scots born, fur trade era cartographer, David Thompson, who would have used this route to access interior BC many times, going over Howse Pass to bridge the Rocky Mountain range. It was also the route the aboriginal people used to transport their furs to Ft. Edmonton via Rocky Mountain House, both of which are settled on the banks of the the North Saskatchewan River.

As mentioned the David Thompson Highway (#11), begins just north of Red Deer, going west of the Queen Elizabeth II Highway, that runs between Edmonton and Calgary. This route offers the most peaceful access into the mountains and with its wide shoulders, the highway is also excellent for cyclists. For the most part there is little to do, except for a visit to the pioneer Stephanson House, until reaching Sylvan Lake, which offers one Alberta’s few well established beach town resorts.

For those looking for the history of the area, and the fur trade, that had its most western Canada developed from Rocky Mountain House, the town is a definite stop, with the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Park, being the prime focus. If you visit the park be sure to give yourself several hours to walk the trails, back in history, to view the sites of the famous Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Company forts built within the area. The forts were used as collection points for furs bound for Ft. Edmonton, on the North Saskatchewan River. There is also a fine interpretive centre, with examples of the aboriginal and fur trade history.

In addition to the National Historic Park, the town of Rocky Mountain House has many attractions and events to offer to the traveler, including the Rocky Mountain House Museum, Rocky Professional Rodeo, and Rocky Air Show. There’s also a Soap Box Derby, down the main street hill during the annual David Thompson Days Country Fair.

Proceeding west from Rocky Mountain House, the highway follows the North Saskatchewan River. There are many more provincial campsites, but in peak season they can fill very fast. There are, however, much fewer indoor accommodations, so reservations are also suggested. At the Clearwater River, you can gain access to the river’s valley as well as that of the Red Deer River and the Ghost River Wilderness Area to the south.

Big Horn Sheep KidsNordegg Neighbourhood “Kids”
Photo: Bob Kenyon © 2006

The next stop along the way could be at the abandoned coal mining town of Nordegg, which like so many of Alberta’s coal branch towns, that were established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to fuel the coal demands of the growing province and the railroad. With the discovery of oil, in the late 1940’s these towns all went into oblivion. Nordegg, which for the most part functioned as a minimum security prison, begun in 1963, but was closed in October 1994 appears to be making a recovery with the growing tourism trade. Nordegg’s Brazeau Collieries has been designated as a National Historic Site and is operated by the Nordegg Historical Society and is open to the public.

The Nordegg area is also home to many great outdoors joys in and around Shunda Creek and the small mountains in the area. For those looking to stretch their calf muscles, then a hike up either Colosseum, or Shunda Mountain (Old Baldy) would be in order. There is a fire lookout on the latter and during summer months, you can visit with the fire warden, that uses the lookout, as well as the hilarious to watch, hoary marmots that inhabit the top.

There is motel in Nordegg and a campground at Shunda Creek and if you’re looking for rustic accommodations, then try the Shunda Creek Hostel

The Nordegg area is also the intersection of the David Thompson Highway (#11) and the Forestry Trunk Road, which is a gravel surfaced route north to Edson and south to the Crowsnest Pass. This is a rough gravel road, so vehicles must be capable of travel on the roads. 4-wheel drive is not required, if you don’t plan to go off-road. Going south, on this road will take you “impressive” Ram Falls and “pristine” Hummingbird Falls.

Ram FallsRam Falls
Photo: Bob Kenyon ©2005

After Nordegg the highway will lead to the man-made Lake Abraham, which was built in the 1960’s to control spring run-off surges into the North Saskatchewan River system. It unfortunately serves no recreational purposes and traveling along the shore vehicles and cyclists should be cautioned about strong winds.

Lake AbrahamLake Abraham
Photo: Bob Kenyon ©2006

The next point, for a stop and walk would be at the Kootenay Plains, where hikers should take the short trek, to Siffleur Falls. Please use extreme caution near the sheer drops, into the gorge of this fabulous waterfall. If you have children with you, read them the riot act, but don’t let them miss this example of what water will do when it finds a narrow crack between rock!

Siflur FallsSiffleur Falls, Kootenay Plains
Photo: Becky Kenyon

This area is also the main access area into the back country of the Siffleur Wilderness Area. Skilled backpackers and horse travelers can find their way over into Banff National Park. Always remember that a wilderness area means that prior research is important, map, compass, food storage, water purification, clothing and gear and bear avoidance skills are mandatory! Trails in these areas are not groomed, or marked and camping facilities are crude at best. While traveling in this and other forested areas of western Canada, particularly during the months from spring to fall, please be forest fire smart.

Whatever you do, don’t miss the short gravel road drive into Crescent Falls, it’s one of the best in the area. West of the Kootenay Plains is the next route into the Cline River, which heads north to the White Goat Wilderness Area. Many adventurous and experienced trekkers follow the river to Pinto Lake and over Sunset Pass, into the north part of Banff National Park. It’s also possible to make your way via combinations of Nigel, Jonas and Poboktan Pass into the southern part of Jasper National Park.

For highway travelers heading west, you will soon enter the northern section of Banff National Park, where you’ll need to buy a pass, if you plan to stay in the park. You’ll intersect the Ice Fields Parkway (Hwy 93) at Saskatchewan River Crossing.

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