Sunday, May 27, 2007

Elbow Valley Madness - May 12, 2007

Ok, maybe not *madness*, but this was our last weekend before the infamous gates at Elbow Falls were opened, and the last week we'd be restricted to the trails nearby. We knew we wouldn't be completing Powderface, but we thought we'd hike until at least the junction of Powderface and the Prairie Creek link. Turned out we couldn't of hiked it even if we'd wanted to -- a co-worker was cycling the area the same day and said the upper parts of the trail were still ice covered. So much for that!

(That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it)

The trailhead itself is located at a simple cul-de-sac just off Highway 66 just west of the Elbow Falls Recreation Area turnoff. And as I've found out since, this shot might be the only time you see the cul-de-sac empty. We didn't see many others on this trail this day, which was surprising, considering it was one of the first geniunely nice days of Spring (and we actually needed sunscreen!), and it was relatively free of snow and mud early on. But I'm never going to complain about having a trail to myself!

Very soon after the start of the trail we encountered our first semi-soggy crossing. Here's where the snow actually worked for us, though I'm not sure I'd recommend standing too close to the edge of that snow ledge if the weather stays warm. A few stabs of N's walking sticks confirmed it was stable enough to hold us for our leap across the creek. Getting back over was a little more complicated. A couple more of those ice crystals were gathering near the bottom of the photo - nothing like the ones we saw at Barrier Lake Dam.

The trail follows along this creek for some time (hence the name Powderface Creek Trail, I suppose), which was more pleasant than I would have expected -- usually I don't even notice the creek. The trail itself didn't have a ton of notable qualities or views for the first little while, but was a great trail for a good pace to cover lots of distance quickly. Half an hour or so in, the views became a little more intriguing and the trail turned away from the creek.

The trail inclined just enough to give us a view of the beginning of the actual Powderface Ridge... something we'd leave for another day. Most of the early part of the trail to the Prairie Link junction is similar to this: a mostly straight path through meadows and dry brush. There is not a lot of shade, so if you're going on a warm day, be prepared.

I often find it amusing that after walking for a while with no sign of civilization, out of nowhere pops a full trail map on a post. If you've come this far, shouldn't you have *some* idea of where you're going? This is the junction -- continuing forward takes you further along Powderface Creek which eventually turns into Powderface Ridge. Turning right, or east, is the Prairie Link trail. This trail links up with the Prairie Creek trail (not to be confused with Prairie Mountain trail -- a mix up I've made a few times -- see below).

With a time constraint on this particular day, we'd previously made the decision to turn around at the link.

As is often the case on return trails, we wound up seeing many things on the way back that we'd completely missed on the way out. The thickness of the ice along the creek was one of those things. It just seems amazing the ice could be this thick, and in the sun for most of the day. The water underneath was running fast and there were holes in the ice where the sun had melting through, but for the most part, the i e was thick enough to see several layers where it had frozen over.

We'd made it back to the trailhead a lot faster than we'd thought, so on the way back to the car we decided to pop into the Prairie Creek trail for the first 15 minutes or so. I had this trail mixed up with Prairie Mountain -- an unmaintained trail marked as "Very Strenuous" on my map. Nothing could be further from the truth. This trail also starts out as a pleasant hike before moving uphill for some great views one could never see from the road. Prairie Mountain on the other hand just goes up from the start and never lets up.

It's easy to miss the trailhead for Prairie Creek. It's just beyond the Elbow Falls turnoff/gates, and has no parking area or road signs. Best bet is to park at Elbow Falls or the Beaver Flats lot. Prairie Creek is on the opposite side of the road, right beside a culvert. If you walk along the path on the north side of Highway 66 from either parking area, you'll easily come upon the trailhead. This appears to be a popular hike and it's very rare when passing by that I haven't seen at least one person at the trailhead either starting out or finishing.

The 15 minutes we did of Prairie Creek were very cool. It's a great hike. It's initially flat, and winds through a mossy forest. The creek is alongside the path for some time. The creek actually runs between two rockfaces, so there is a real canyon feel about the trail for the first little while. The rockface on the other side of the creek is large and obvious for most of this early part of the hike, but the rockfaces on the side of the trail seem to come out of nowhere. This particular rockface was around a corner of the path and surprised us a little, being so close to the path. With the closeness of the rock, and the dampness of the area, sound was just a little bit muted -- making this part of the trail seem a little isolated and very unique. The remainder of this trail is much different, so we enjoyed it while it lasted.

Soon after passing the rockface that jutted out, there was a bridge crossing the river, followed by the end of our forest walk. The path turned dustier and rockier and veered uphill. We wandered up for the view, but knew time did not allow this hike on this day. Little did I know I'd be back in less than a week, and finding out where this very cool trail led...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Elbow Valley Trail - The Full-Length Version

Elbow Valley Trail: Trail parallels Highway 66. One Trailhead is located at Station Flats, the other near the gates at Elbow Falls. About 9km distance. A few good climbs.

Despite the nearly 10km hike the day before in Sibbald, I was all fired up to have another go at the Elbow Valley Trail. Not that we expected this to be a particularly arduous climb, but I thought this would be a nice complement to the other hike. It was, but not in the way I expected. It seemed tougher.

The first part of the hike passed as before: many trees down, some posing a real challenge (see The Elbow Valley Obstacle Course). Other than a few brief steep climbs and mild drops, there were no real inclines or declines along the trail.

Until we got to Canyon Creek Road.

The trail crosses over the road, and immediately dips to what I assume used to be a fairly large creek, but is now a large dry bed. This is actually a nice change to the hike. After spending the past hour winding through the forest, we got to stroll through a bit of a meadow, and the walk along and then through the stones of the dry bed. The sun was just getting to a higher point in the sky and warming up considerably. The break came at a perfect time. Too bad there wasn't just a little bit of a creek.

We crossed over and began what we assumed would be more forest strolling, but we hadn't noticed the fact this path led directly to a fairly sizable foothill... and then the path appeared to go straight up.

Ok, not really, that turned out to be a "shortcut" some previous smartass had cut up the hill. The actual path however, was a series of steady switchbacks up the side of the foothill/mountain. Yes, I know that's the whole point of hiking. Onwards...

The nice thing about those switchbacks and sharp inclines is the feeling of complete and total victory when you get to the top without stopping. And the view. That amazing view is always such a payoff....

Looking West...

Looking South... that is Canyon Creek Road at the bottom, with Highway 66 in the distance

Looking SouthEast...

Following that little workout we did hike at a much more sedate pace along the top of the foothills, mostly through some sparse white birch and fields. The path does drop and climb another large foothill soon after the first one, but the rest of the trail is a gradual decline into a more forest-like setting. The Sulphur Springs trail also spins off from this trail -- we opted to try that one at a later date.

As the trail got closer to Station Flats where my car awaited us, things started to look very familiar. Diamond T also merges with Elbow Valley Trail for about the last half km. It was around this point we found this little guy.

He barely took notice of us he was so intent on chowing down on that little pinecone of his. It actually looks a little like a drumstick the way he was holding it (click photo for larger view).

N and I did this hike in about 3 hours and figured out that was prolly our limit without bringing along a snack and taking a break (D and I discovered about the same time limit on a similar hike). It's not so much that we get tired, but the hiking needs to be broken up a little, or you're just hiking to be done, and that totally defeats the purpose.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Jumpingpound Creek

Sibbald Flats - Jumpingpound Trail - take Highway 1 West to the Sibbard Flats turnoff. Go about 16km on the dirt road until you get to the Pine Top day use area. Trail is about 10k for the full loop, but there is a trail that loops the back to the high way and essentially splits the loop in half.

Sibbald seemed like a good place for a hike. It got us out of the Elbow Valley, wasn't as far as Canmore or Banff and provided some nice, lengthy hikes. We picked Jumpingpound Creek loop since it was a lengthy loop, good for early spring hiking and hopefully would give us a little more workout than previous trails had.

Good to know us hikers rank high in the grand scheme of things... ;-) The trailhead is just beyond this sign, leading up the hill. The parking lot was closed at this point (this was back on May 5... I've been terribly lazy about updating), so we pulled over by the gates leading to the campground, across the street from this cattle sign.

In my mind, the hike was split into quarters. The first quarter was very much as you see here: lots of trees, hills and fields. The beginning of the hike there was a lot of space, little shade, evidence of plenty of gusty days and lots of blue sky above. What a gorgeous day.

The trail ascends steadily up a slight hill for the first 20 minutes or so. It's not intense enough to be a strenuous uphill climb, but over time we noticed how high we'd climbed.

Those looking for scenic vista payoffs are not going to find much to like about the Jumpingpound Creek loop. The trail peaks fairly early on and doesn't give much of a view of the mountains in the distance. This shot was about as good as it got, and it was within the first 20 minutes of the hike. Where the hike truly scores is the range of terrain and areas you find yourself in.

In that first quarter we found it remarkable that in a matter of seconds we could go from the white birch drier terrain to a mossy, green forest terrain in a matter of seconds, with a few meadow crossings thrown in for good measure. A couple of those meadows were already sprouting colourful wildflowers.

The paths were very dry for the first half of the hike, so it was a little surprising when this impromtu creek popped up right along the path. We couldn't establish where it came from -- the path got a little muddy at the top, had some pools of water a little further downhill and was running practically clear water about half way to the bottom. D took this very cool shot of what our trail had turned into.

The pseudo-creek ran along the path until the bottom of that particular hill and then found another way out. As we headed back up another hill, the path dried out again.

The second quarter of the hike was a lot more low-lying and green than the first. The area had a lot more moss and pine trees, and the ground was a lot muddier. Most of this part of the hike was shaded and there seemed to be less hills. Our first snow sighting was actually snow that was completely covering the creek bed. It was a warm day, but we were shaded enough and low enough that just being close to the snow was enough to make it feel like the temperature had dropped 10 degrees. It was a nice reprieve and tough to believe only five minutes before we'd been starting to cook in the sun.

The second quarter eventually climbed back uphill for one last view and then dropped down to cross the highway. The remainder of the hike didn't ascend or descend much more, and stayed close to the campground nearby. In fact, for a good chunk of the third quarter, the hike meandered through a dry field bordering along the forest. With the wind blowing and the long dry grass resting everywhere, the area looked like sand dunes if you squinted just a little.

The fourth quarter of the hike was a perfect way to wind up 10k. It drifed a little away from the campground and towards the creek -- remember Jumpingpound Creek? The name of the trail and all? It wasn't that little stream on the trail after all! Instead we now had the odd bridge and water crossing to contend with. It started out small, like this pretty little babbling brook here, but eventually became a bigger force to contend with.

Most of the creek was free of snow throughout the hike, but in some shady areas some snow would appear along the creek, and sometimes even the trail itself. But nowhere was the snow more impressive than this shady little area near the end of the fourth quarter of the hike. Thank goodness the bridge was resting on top of thick thick snow, or we might not have been able to cross. Even more impressive: the water from the melting snow was running overtop of the bridge. It was tough to take photos of without getting too close, but the water had carved canal-like paths through the snow. I'm not sure how passable this section will be in a few weeks. These shots are not nearly as impressive as the scene itself is, but it gives some idea of what it was like.

Eventually we left the creek behind - it met up with this body of water that flowed several hundred feet the trail for a good chunk of the last part of the hike. We frequently saw it from many beautiful vantage points, but never got anywhere close to it.

There was very little wildlife along the trail. While we saw few people on the actual trail (only one other person if memory serves), the area itself was popular, with a large family gathering at the campground that day. A rifle range is just down the road as well (we could hear some of the gunfire throughout the hike), so I imagine this is never going to be a great hike to see wildlife, but there was some evidence of animal life, like the log which had been carefully emptied out by some sort of little gnawing mouth. I nicknamed it the "Squirrel Condo".

All in all, a great hike with lots of different types of terrain and environments to see. The whole loop is about 10k and takes about 3 hours to complete.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Elbow Trail Obstacle Course

Sunday was back to Elbow Valley to give the Elbow Valley Trail hike a try. This trail meanders along the highway (Highway 66), but sneaks away into the forest once in a while. N and I figured we'd park at the gates by Elblow Falls and hike back to Station Flats where my car was waiting. Barring that, we'd hike to Canyon Creek road and turn around, getting a good 5k in.

Ok.. so it started snowing -- only a little -- as we got out of the car at the gate. Snowing. It's 18 degrees in the city and it's snowing in Elbow Valley. It didn't even snow in Kananaskis!

I just had to get that out of the way.

The hiking itself was great. Perfect weather, not too hot or too cold. It was windy, but once we got into the forest, it calmed down a lot. Lots of deer, birds, even a dead weasel! There are a few inclines and declines, but then the hike levels out again. A perfect combination.

The real story was the downed trees (and me forgetting my keys in N's car, forcing us to use the turn-around at Canyon Creek plan). We barely made it five minutes in before we ran into a monster that forced us back down to the highway to rejoin the path further down. The rest of the trees we were able to go through or around, but they made life interesting.

Despite my ranting, the snow never turned into much, and while it drizzled a little, the rain never really came down either, so most of the air was moist, but in that pleasant forest way. Naturally, I had to give the close-ups another shot. Really pleased with the results of this one.

We eventually tackled the monster that forced us off the path on the way out. On the way back in, we found a way through. It makes a big difference which side the cliff is on.

N is the bird watcher between the two of us, and she saw plenty to keep her amused. We heard rabbits. Not sure if it was the earlier hour, the rain or spring finally taking root, but the forest seemed so much more active this time out... even on a path right beside a highway.

Seven bridges trail

Bow Valley - Heart Creek Trail - Trailhead is just off Highway 1 at Lac des Arc. One way trail, 4 km total (return). Little incline.
Kananaskis - Barrier Forestry Trail - Near Barrier Lake just off Highway 40 in Kananaskis. Look for signs leading to Colonel's Cabin historical site. All three loops are a total of 2.7 km.

Think about the Eagles song and the title makes sense. Really.

What a beautiful day for hiking! I had been bugging D to try out Heart Creek for a couple of weeks now. No real reason, I just wanted to do a hike that was near Lac des Arc, and Heart Creek is an early-spring hike that seemed easy enough, yet interesting.

The trailhead is immediately off the Trans-Canada (you can see the parking lot from the highway) and while this makes it easy to get to, it also means the initial part of the hike is marred by plenty of highway noise. After the first ten minutes or so, the hike veers away from the highway and into the creek. The scenery is still amazing -- this photo was taken from the parking lot at Heart Creek trailhead.

Heart Creek is an easy walk -- few inclines. It crosses the creek many times over the course of the trail and each bridge is a sturdy log bridge such as this one (ok, they're a lot wider than they look in this photo -- trust me!). Each crossing provides a great vantage point of where you're going and where you've been.

D and I dipped down creekside at one particular turn, right beside a huge rock wall. No photo could do the rock wall justice, but you'll know it when you see it. The day had started out grey and misty, but as we walked the sun started to come out, even while a little rain was falling. Inside the canyon, it was a calming yet energizing feeling, if you can have the same two feelings at once.

This photo is from the rock wall, looking North, the direction we'd come from. The skies were just clearing and everything on the trail smelled amazing. It's hard to believe we're maybe only 10 minutes from the highway. We spent a good deal of time at this corner of the trail -- taking photos, testing the water, just looking over the area in detail.

We'd gotten to the trail early enough there was not another soul around, which only added to the moment.

The rain had literally just stopped falling when the sun came out. Droplets were dangling from tree branches, leaves, pine cones, log bridges. I'm still getting used to the close-up feature on my digital camera, but this image came out ok.

Another bridge. I just couldn't believe the care put into building these crossings. Each bridge was sturdy and perfectly maintained.

And, of course... snow. In April I guess no hike is complete without some sort of snow sighting. Can't see it lingering the background against the canyon wall? Here it is a little closer:

There is a waterfall at the end of the trail, but it's hidden from view from the trail. There is a series of rocks one could scramble up, I suppose, if one had that ability. I would have tried to climb further, or make it up another way, but the rock face was way too slick from the rain. Without the proper equipment -- or dry shoes even -- it just wasn't safe.

At least that's what I keep telling myself. Ultimately this is a walk where the journey far outdid the payoff at the end. Those might be the best hikes anyway.

We spotted next to no wildlife on the way in or out, but this little creature did fly by us at one point, only to hide in the grass beside the path. He's tough to see in the first photo, but once he spread his wings...

From there we headed back to Kananaskis. My next bright idea was to do a quick hike to a viewpoint over Barrier Lake, but the gate blocked the access to the rec area and boat launch. 2k of walking on a paved road to do a 1k hike? Didn't really thrill me, so we moved on. Only after did I realize we could have hiked out through the boat launch area, but oh well.... the gate will be opened up on May 11, so we'll head back then.

Just down the road is the Barrier Forestry trails - a combination historical site and forestry education trail. The area was used as a POW camp during the Second World War, and some structures remain, despite going through multiple incarnations and sometimes multiple locations around Kananaskis. The Colonel's Cabin now acts as an information centre for the area. The tower also looks like it houses historical photos and relics. Both were closed when D and I were there.

The trail actually consists of three loops, one historical, one forestry, and one eco-system. The forestry and eco-system loops are actually the same loop -- when you hit the end of one loop you have the option to continue onto the next one, or loop back. The historical loop is a small loop at the beginning, and I hate to say, the most disappointing. After the two buildings, the trail sort of went off in multiple directions and you really only knew which path to take by looking for the next sign. The signs themselves were weather-beaten and some outright impossible to read. I know it's tough to keep up such things, but it was disappointing.

The forestry hike was better -- trail was clearer anyway -- but the signs were not terribly informative, the ones we could read anyway. Now, after the fact, I've found the University of Calgary has a document that goes along with the hike located here: If you're super interested in forest cycles and management, then bring it along. Actually, I'll bet as a guided hike (for schools and such), the whole thing kicks-ass. I imagine there are a lot of things to point out.

D and I? Well, from the looks of it, we even missed the viewpoint of Mt. Baldy. But I did take this lovely photo from another viewpoint of Barrier Lake.

I forgot to mention the any colony right at the beginning of the hike! Definitely cool to watch. I didn't even notice the swarming stump until I started reading the sign and learned there were a few thousand ants crawling around right beside me. I noticed D started scratching as soon as he saw the colony! Clearly not for the squeamish, but I still got a couple of close-ups.

That was to be the end of our hiking in Kananaskis, but we made one last stop at the Barrier Lake Dam turn off. There was still some ice covered part of the lake, and I wanted a closer look. It seemed like the ice was floating on the water. I wanted to see how it all went together.

Sometimes those last minute stops are the most interesting. There's no real beach on this side of the lake, just rocks. But once in a while there would be a collection of ice crystals among the rocks.

When we got to the edge of the water, we saw why. The ice floating on the water wasn't one large sheet of ice, but thousands of little ice crystals, maybe 10 centimetres long at the most. Every time another wave came in (and it was *windy*) these crystals would shift and smash together and some would wash up on the beach. On the biggest waves it would all sound like breaking glass as those crystals smashed together. To be honest, I probably could have sat there and watched for hours (ok, maybe not in that wind).

From there we hit Kananaskis Village where we sampled some of the best desserts ever... but that's a whole other discussion.