The Earl Grey Pass is a 61km crossing in the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy in Toby and Hamill Creeks. In 1807, David Thompson built Kootenay House for the North West Company near the mouth of Toby Creek. It was the first trading post in the region. From it, Thompson explored the Columbia River from source to mouth. Kinbasket, a chief of the Shuswap Indians, had led his people over this route in the early 1800s to their present home near Invermere. Then in 1866, the route over the Purcells to the head of Kootenay Lake was examined for a possible railway line, but was judged unfeasible because a long tunnel through the divide was needed. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, this trail was an important access and supply route from the east, with cattle even being driven over it from Invermere.
During a visit to BC in 1908, Earl Grey (1904-1911), perhaps better known for his donation of football’s Grey Cup than as Governor-General, crossed the Purcell Mountains form Invermere to Argenta on Kootenay Lake by trail up Toby Creek and down Hamill Creek. He was so impressed with the 10,000 foot peaks and extensive glaciers that he recommended the area for inclusion in a proposed national park. Not only that, he sited and paid for a public cabin near the start of the trail. The cabin was sturdily built and in good condition until the 80s. This trail and the high pass (then called Wells Pass) were later named in Earl Grey’s honour.
Public interest in the pass and trail was revived in 1972 by a group of local students who published the Earl Grey Pass Project.
Location: Purcelll Wilderness Conservancy
Elevation gain: 1525m (5000′)
Key elevations: West trail register 805m (2640′); Earl Grey Pass (44km) 2280m 7480′; East TH 1174m (3850′)
Distance: 61kms (38 miles)
Time: 3-5 days
Season: early July to late September
Maps: 82K/2 Lardeau, 82K/7 Duncan Lake and 82K/8 Toby Creek and
East Access: From Invermere, drive through town towards Panorama Ski Resort. Zero odometer at the bridge where the Panorama road goes to the left. At 19km, where the forest road curves right and continues toward Jumbo Pass, look for a signed, overgrown left (south) spur. Leave vehicles near the horse corral, on a spur road west and below the trail sign.
West Access: From Kaslo: Zero odometer at junctions of Hwys 31A and 31N just west of and uphill from downtown.
0.0 Start north on Hwy 31N toward Lardeau and Duncan Lake.
28.4km Village of Lardeau.
34.5km Turn right onto Argenta Road. Starting east on Argenta Road Zero odometer.
36km Cross Duncan River Bridge. Pavement ends.
36.8km Junction. Right follow the Kootenay Lake shore curving south toward Argenta, Johnson’s Landing and Fry Creek Canyon. (left goes north up the Duncan River).
South to Fry Creek. Zero odometer
0.0 Start right to Argenta, Johnson’s Landing and Fry Creek Canyon
5.4km At the top of the hill, turn left (north) to Argenta and the Earl Grey Pass TH. Right goes south to Fry Creek Canyon.
The road goes through the town of Argenta. Continue beyond the Post Office, following signs to the corner in the logging road. With a HC vehicle, drive the rough road 1km to the trail head.
Trail: Follow the old road down to the trail which descends nearly 300m (985′) to Hamill Creek. At the bottom of the hill, the trail intersects the original wagon road that came up Hamill Creek. Take time to walk back along the moss covered trail t the bridge site. Parts of it may still be standing. After returning to your pack, continue along the trail, crossing Clint Creek and making your way along several renewed cribbed sections. At the cable car, installed prior to 1929, but refurbished since then, zoom across the creek. Remember to leave the cable car hanging free after use. There are six cable cars on the complete trail.
Soon after leaving the cable car, you reach the compressor site. During the 1905-1906 period, a 10 drill Allis-Chalmers compressor was installed, driven by alarge Pelton wheel which originally had a 35m (115′) head of water. High pressure air was pumped 1200 m (3940′) up to the Argenta lead-silver mine on Lavina Ridge above Hamill Creek! All these materials were brought by wagon up the road/trail through the canyon, In the fall of 1907, the mine closed and soon after the lower canyon became impassable for wagons.
From the compressor site, the trail leads on to McLaughlin’s Cabin, built in 1906, and the second cable car. From this point the trail follows the creek, often close to it, but sometimes well back amongst the huge cedars and hemlocks. Some old cabins exist as do remains of OFY trail maintenance camps of the early 1970s. Opportunities For Youth (OFY) was a federal government employment project that saw students working on the trail for one or two seasons. This was the first major work the trail had seen for decades. Numerous large slide paths are crossed; follow ribbons and previously cut alder and be careful at creek crossings. The BC Forest Service maintains the first 14.5kms of trail, the BC Parks maintained the remainder. Because the trail is classified as wilderness, it is not maintained as well as some trails in other provincial park.
At 17km, start the climb slowly to the pass on a rougher trail. At 32.5km, near the end of the valley, referred to as “north forks”, walk through a ancient cedar forest for half a day, and climb about 823m (2700′) in the final 8.5kms to Earl Grey Pass. The pass is underwhelming – below the tree line, straddling the ridge in a tiny notch with poor views. The panoramas are outstanding with chances of seeing mountain goat, elk and bear. Plan on camping at the toe of Toby Glacier below the pass for at least one night, if not two. There is a lot to wander around and see.
For encompassing views, climb Slate Peak from the pass. Fast strong day hikers can make it to Earl Grey Pass via the shorter eastern approach. Earl Grey Pass (44km) 2280m 7480′.
From the pass, one descends into the Toby Valley, passing Toby Falls. The trail follows the original route for the most part, slowly winding down the valley. Parts of the trail are used by guide outfitters and outdoor enthusiasts from the Invermere region. Often the trail is a muddy horse-tromped mess. Because of the frequent creek crossings on Hamill Creek, horses do not go on this side and the trail is better preserved. The predominately spruce forest on this drier eastern side is underwhelming. Unbridged tributaries and overgrown avalanche paths round out the adventure. Near the end of the trail a cabin is passed, built for Governor General Earl Grey. Soon after you reach Jim MacKay’s horse corral and the end of the trail.
Campsites & Milestones: There are few level spots to put up a tent. This is especially so from Rock Creek on the Hamill side all the way over the pass and down Toby Creek. Try to reach and use the established campsites, most small with room for only two tents (keep groups down to 4 or fewer people). There are no outhouses. Leave no trace. There is no water at the pass, except perhaps from a seasonal creek 100m down the west side.
8km – Garnet Beach campsite. 910m (2980′). Creekside. Marked by a yellow blaze.
12km – Big Bar campsite. 966m (3170′). Under cedars and hemlocks.
15.5km – Boy Scout campsite. 1067m (3500′) 6 hours. Under huge cedars
23.5km – Rock Creek campsite. 1311m (4300′). Trees now smaller spruce.
35km – north fork of Hamill Ck. Slick log crossing. Small tent site before this site. This is probably the last campsite before the pass, still 2.5-3 hours away. Last water also. Start 823m climb over 8.5kms to the pass. At 1750m, get first good views of trip.
44km – Earl Grey Pass – 2280m 7480′. Small grassy gap below tree line. Mt Hamill is SW, Mt Lady Grey, Hyak Mt is ESE. Camping at pass not ideal.
Slate Peak – ascend the east side of the pass, reach a knob at 2482m (8140′), descend 43m and ascend to summit 2695m (8841′) 1½ hours. NW is Blockhead (10,050′), West of it is Cauldron (10,500′), backed by Quibble (10,200′) and further NW Ochre Peak (10,100′). On this side of the pass are to the NE Toby Creek valley, SE is Toby Glacier, South is Mt Toby (10,538′).
From the pass, it is 17km and about 6 hours to the east TH. After 45 minutes (2.5kms), an unsigned spur descends right to a campsite above Toby Falls.
1 hour from pass – Beside a cascade, room for 2 tents. North is Redtop Mt.
8km. McKay’s Falls, 3.5 hours below pass.
8.2km. Creekside gravel flat campsite with room for several tents.
4.5 hours. Ford knee to thigh deep tributary.
15km. Earl Grey cabin NW at the forest edge.
16km Park boundary
17km East TH on Jumbo Pass FSR. 1174m (3850′)
Dayhikes? In shoulder seasons, when alpine destinations are inaccessible, Hamill Creek is one of the best day hikes in the West Kootenay. From the west trail head, round-trip distance to Big Bar (the mother of West Kootenay cedar groves) is 24km.
Long day hike from east TH to Earl Grey Pass (34kms).