The Ultimate Sawback Range Backpack

August 8-13th, 2022

Every year, there is a mad scramble to book backcountry campsites. Also every year, there are a lot of very disappointed people! This is because everyone is trying to book the same “hot” spots. There just aren’t enough spots to accommodate everyone.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have been backpacking for over 20 years. This meant I could backpack some of the more popular routes like The Rockwall and The Skyline back when it was a phone call (not a website), and almost no competition.

Not only are Canadians trying to book these coveted spots, but international tourists are also competing for spots. What to do? Get creative! There are hundreds of backcountry camping sites that no one talks about. It’s time to get out of the What’s Hot mentality, and go find your own adventure.

The Sawback Range

This range of mountains is known to everyone, simply because you have to drive past them every time you go to Banff and beyond to Sunshine or Lake Louise. You might recognize Mount Norquay, Mount Edith or Cory Mountain. These mountains are just the tip of iceberg. This range goes north to Mount Douglas, with the highest point being Mount St. Bride, clocking in at 3,312m.

Within this range are two very spectacular passes – Mystic Pass and Badger Pass. Have you heard of these passes? No? Well, read on and see why I’m so stoked about this and how you can do it too.

Mount Louis is probably the most iconic mountain in the Sawback Range. This was taken from near the summit of Mount Edith, but you can hike to the base via Cory Pass and the Gargoyle Valley.

The Mystic Pass – Badger Pass Circuit

When my friend Erin booked this lollipop shaped backpack, we affectionately called it “The What’s Left Backpack”. This is because when the dust settled after the mad rush to book campsites, these spots were still available. Erin did some calculations, and put together a circuit that seemed doable for a week in the backcountry.

Why weren’t these sites snapped up? I’m not sure because the hiking was lovely, the views were epic, and the sites were just as good as everywhere else. Personally, I think it’s because routes like the Skyline Trail have a better marketing team πŸ™‚ What I saw on this backpack rivals the views and scenery at the most coveted Hot Spots.

Gear Necessary for a Successful Backpack

I highly recommend a full backpacking setup. This includes sturdy (high ankle) hiking boots suitable to carry your weight plus your full load. Hiking poles and gaiters are also a great idea, especially if there are water crossings, or if there is wet weather. Dress for success. Rain pants and jacket are a must, as is long underwear. I’ve never regretted carrying a bit extra, as I’ve stayed warm and dry.

I use a lightweight two person tent – the Big Agnes Tiger Wall. It was quick and easy to set up by myself, and it withstood a pounding rain and hail storm. I use a lightweight sleeping bag, with an overbag so I can regulate my heat. A thermarest is mandatory.

Erin and I shared a stove and fuel, and we each carried our own eating utensils and cups.

Backpacking gear and food for seven days. Erin and I are carrying our own tents and thermarests. Sharing a tent can save weight, but having your own private space is invaluable. We are sharing the stove, fuel, and water filter. We have shared dinners (each carrying a portion), but separate breakfasts and lunches.

Mystic Lake – Badger Pass Circuit Overview

The full circuit took us six days, but it’s possible (preferable?) to have a seventh day. Indeed, we did have a 7th night planned, but we elected to hike 19 km on our final day. The trip starts and ends at the Moose Meadows trailhead off the Bow Valley Parkway, just west of Johnson Canyon. The circuit starts at the Jo9 Larry’s Camp, and loops around to this point, with the return back to Moose Meadows.

Distances and Elevations.

Text colours match sections on the map below.
Click each Day to go directly to that Trip Report.

Day 1 Trailhead to Larry’s Camp: 8.5 km 385 m

Day 2 Larry’s to Mystic Junction: 17 km 717 m

Day 3 Mystic to Sawback Lake: 10.5 km 350 m

Day 4 Sawback to Block Lakes: 13.5 160 m

Day 5 Block to Luellen Lake, via Badger Pass: 19.4 km 753m

Day 6 Luellen to Trailhead: 19 km 202 m

Total Distance: 87.9 km Total Elevation: 2,567 m

Teaser Shots

Not sure you want to devote the time and energy? Hopefully these photos will persuade you. Of course, you don’t have to backpack the entire circuit – pick the areas you like best and make your own adventure. Want the full details? Easy – click the “Day” for each section below.

Day One – Moose Meadows to Larry’s Camp
Hiking past the iconic Ink Pots
Relaxing at Johnson Creek at Larry’s Camp.
Day Two – Mystic Pass and Mystic Lake
Panorama view from Mystic Pass. So many incredible views.
Mystic Lake awaits us at the tail end of our day.
Day Three – Sawback Lake
The view from the Sawback Lakes campground is pretty sweet.
A short hike from the camp gets us this spectacular view of the Sawback Range and Lake.
Day Four – Block Lakes
On the way to Block Lakes is Flint’s Peak. Wow. Just wow.
Block Mountain towers above the campsite.
Day Five – Badger Pass to Luellen Lake
From one side of Badger Pass…
,,, to the other side. The scenery is stunningly beautiful and rivals any other backpack in the Canadian Rockies.
Day Six – Luellen Lake to Moose Meadows Trail Head
Luellen Lake is a must get campsite, both for the views, and its ideal location on the circuit.
Almost home! The iconic jagged peaks of the Sawback Range, with the Banff Townsite just on the other side of these beauties.

I hope you enjoyed this overview of the Ultimate Sawback Range backpack! Now get out there, and enjoy an amazing adventure, right on your doorstep.


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Posted in Adventures, Backpacking
14 comments on “The Ultimate Sawback Range Backpack
  1. beauty


  2. wow! lovely, lovely! Especially Block mountains and Flint’s Peak!

  3. Simply stunning, Alisen. Makes me wish I was there 😊

  4. Brenda says:

    Adding this trip to my bucket list..

  5. “Wow” is right. This area is something else. I’ve never been to this part of the globe. Maybe one day . . .

    • alisendopf says:

      So many beautiful places in the world to visit. One has to follow their heart in choosing the best destination for themselves. If this is the Canadian Rockies, then I’ll be happy to be your tour guide.
      With gratitude, Alisen

  6. Widdershins says:

    Oh, I would if I could. πŸ˜€ … but ‘travelling’ with you is the next best thing. πŸ˜€

  7. It’s crazy how camping and all things outdoors have become insanely popular in the last few years. But you’re absolutely right in terms of there being a lot of options. And that some of those options may surprise you in terms of how great they are. Besides, I’d rather take a less known trail if it means there will be less people around. Sounds like this was a successful multi-day adventure in the backcountry.

    • alisendopf says:

      Twas truly a success, and I owe it to my friend Erin for thinking outside the box and finding an interesting and isolated place to backpack. She did a great job!

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