Bulldog Circuit - Canadian Rockies

I recently got back from what I am calling The Bulldog Circuit in the Winston Churchill Range of the Canadian Rockies. It takes you past some of the most spectacular mountain faces in the Rockies, drops you into a beautiful glacier lake that spills from the trench of the Columbia Icefield, and carries you down the first 50+ km of the Athabasca River.

In summary, start on Hwy 93 just north of the Icefield Center and cross over Woolley Shoulder. Descend past the North Twin into Habel creek. Follow the creek to the Athabasca River, then head up-stream to the glacial lake just below Mt Columbia. Descend from the headwaters of the Athabasca River all the way to the Sunwapta and back out to the highway about 45km north of where you started.

Please see the pictures in the following link:


The first leg of the trip involves hiking to the Mt. Alberta Hut – Bill Corbett’s description in The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies (Updated) provides a great description. The hike up Woolley creek is nothing short of spectacular and Woolley Shoulder lives up to its reputation (especially when you are post-holing uphill).

From the hut, descend down the east side of Little Alberta past the North Twin and into Habel Creek drainage. Sean Dougherty has a short description in Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies[/] for the approach for the N. Face of the North Twin Tower and N. Ridge of Mt. Columbia. The most useful piece of information is to look for the cairns in the southwest part of the meadows on the bench under Little Alberta. This leads to a “secret passage” through the cliff bands (which includes one section of fifth class down climbing) that brings you onto the moraines of the “Black Hole.”

Make your way down Habel Creek, making sure to stay on the north side for the final decent into the Athabasca Valley. We were on the south side and found ourselves in a precarious position on loose, steep banks over the raging creek.

Once in the gravel plains it is easy walking up to the headwaters of the Athabasca with numerous crossings of braided streams. I thought it was worth a trip to the back of the lake to see the Columbia Glacier spilling into the water. It is definitely a spectacular lake (as seen in “The Edge”). The first 6 km of the Athabasca is braided and fairly low water until a few more tributaries drain in.

The 8km stretch of water before the confluence of the Chaba River has numerous class 2 and a few class 3 rapids that may take some time to scout and portage depending on your confidence in such a remote setting.

I had originally planned for a day of fishing at Fortress Lake, but there didn’t seem to be enough time in our 4 day schedule. Ultimately I am going to have to do the trip again to go catch some world class Brook Trout at Fortress.

The decent down the Athabasca to the Sunwapta is beautiful and relaxing. A few beers or a flask of Scotch would be a nice addition to these ~15km of slower moving water. We chose to take the Athabasca until it met Hwy 93 to avoid any additional hiking. I am not sure what the river is rated, but it seemed like large class 2 water to me. It was a bit intimidating not knowing anything about the river, but much easier than walking a couple of km to the Hwy at Sunwapta Falls.

The best advice that I can impart is to wait for warm weather (July/August) so swimming in the alpine lakes or wading rivers is refreshing and not tempting hypothermia. Also, wait for a good weather window if possible (we were unfortunate enough to have 3/4 days of rain). If there is a cloud in the Rockies, it will most be definitely be on Mt. Columbia, and it would be a shame to miss the spectacular views of the mountains surrounding the route.

Hi David,

Nice Bulldog Circuit trip. Do you have any route info or topo showing the route you took? Now that UofC has packrafts for rent, I may give this one a go.

And how many days did this trip take?


Hello Alex,

That is great news that the UofC has packraft rentals now! I did the trip in 4 days. I know of someone that did it in 3 days and a couple of people that took 5 patient days waiting for sunshine that never came. If you are a leisurely hiker, I would highly recommend taking an extra day to hike around the upper stretches of the Athabasca.

Look at the trip description in Sean Doherty’s ‘Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies’ for the approach to the N. Face of the North Twin Tower and N. Ridge of Mt. Columbia. It isn’t overly detailed, but is accurate and keeps it exciting.

After discussing with some other people that have done the river, there probably isn’t anything above class 2+ rapids.

Hope you enjoy it!

Hey David, you did this trip in early to mid June? How was the snowpack up high and did you bring or need ice axe? Any idea what cfs was on the river? Thanks for the info! I’m headed up to bulldog this weekend, seems like maybe a bit early still in the season so I’m curious how it was.