Nihahi Ridge - Trail Particulars: Take Highway 66 west to the Little Elbow Recreation Area/Campground. Park anywhere where trailhead parking is permitted (the rest of the parking is limited to campers). Take the Little Elbow trail heading south along the Little Elbow River and eventually west along the campground. After you pass through the gates, look for a sign to the right indicating the junction. Follow this trail through the trees for about 2 minutes, and then turn left at the junction. About 1 minute later there is another junction (unsigned), turn right. This is Nihahi Ridge trail.
First off, everyone should do this trail at least once. It's a lot of work, but the payoff is one of the best I've ever seen.
And we could not have been hiking Nihahi Ridge on a better day. It wasn't too warm, and it wasn't too wet. Just a few days before, the area had been hit with a typical southern Alberta late Spring snow storm -- the kind with the thick soggy snow that takes down huge branches and sticks everywhere.
The previous weekend, D and I had driven out to take a look at the campground, and I snapped this photo from the highway:
Then, the same spot, a week later, after the snow storm:
Absolutely gorgeous though...
We parked at one of many trailhead parking lots (no trailhead parking is available within the campground), and made our way towards the Little Elbow River. From here the trails are all sort of a mash of different short cuts going in all directions. As long as you know what direction you intend to go in, you should be ok. Most trails head along the river, around the edge of the campground and then to the proper trailhead.
This is a great way to start a hike -- snow or no snow. The water was clean and crisp and surprisingly, not running that high (that would change in the coming weeks). This area along the trail is fully exposed to the sun and that made for an extremely pleasant walk. If you have dogs that love to play in the water, this might be the best trail ever. Just around the bend of this photo is a bright pink (yes, pink) suspension bridge that provides access to the other side of the river. It's not really part of the trail system.
Once past the bridge, the trail continues along the river, but ascends. It turns west and skirts the southernmost part of the campground, at one point sharing a road. The trail along the campground is well maintained, and provides some amazing views of the river and the mountains. When I come back here to camp, I am sooooo grabbing one of those camping spots.
The trail eventually leads through a gate and leaves the campground behind. This part of the trail is wide, almost a logging road. This is the entry point for many trails, including some lengthy cycling trails and backcountry trails. The trail for Nihahi splits off not long after this gate. Keep an eye out on the right side of the trail for signs and maps.
Once we turned onto the trail, the climb began. It wasn't steep at first, and there were still a few junctions and turns to be negotiated, but we were in the trees now, and the ground was a lot damper. After we'd traveled only a few minutes, the snow appeared. It was mostly in the trees where it was the most shaded and away from the path. We'd see more of it as we got higher, and to be honest, as the sun got warmer and we climbed higher, the coolness of the snow around was welcome.
From here the trail becomes a steady incline. The views make it worth it. This is just the beginning of what you will be able to see from Nihahi. Actually this is just barely the beginning, but when you're hiking, it's a great motivator. D and I had never done the trail before, so we didn't know this, but the rocky ridge in the foreground of this photo is part of the Nihahi Ridge trail.
This part of the trail does lead to a summit of sorts though. After a good climb, the trail peaks on a knoll beside Nihahi. It's a good spot for a rest, if you so desire, or to just take in the view of how far you've come in such a short time. There's also a small boulder near the top for those who like to pretend they're filming cliche 80s metal videos (no names mentioned).
From here the trail dips down briefly into an amazing valley between Nihahi and the knoll. Make sure to stop and enjoy the view -- we almost missed it and it's worth more than a pause.
Of course, we almost missed it because we were looking ahead to the trail that went back into the trees, and then yes, for the first time, was actually covered in snow. We'd seen patches alongside the trail here and there, but nothing quite as... solid as what we found at this section of Nihahi. It certainly wasn't ice -- more like muddy slush -- and judging from how damp and dark this part of the trail was, it was clear it doesn't see a lot of sun at the best of times, but still.... that much snow on the trail -- in late May. It went against everything I believed in. D threw some snowballs, so one of us enjoyed it.
After a quick jaunt through the snow-covered forest, the trail turns alongside Nihahi and starts going steeply uphill. Since it's a fast rise, and along the side of the mountain, you get a very good look at where you came from. Less than 10 minutes later, we were looking down on the top of the knoll we'd previously conquered. From the photo, it's impossible to spot the trail, but from the trail itself, you can faintly make out the path already taken. And we still had plenty of climbing to go.
The path eventually comes to the southern edge of the mountain and switches back. There's a section of the path with a wire guard rail to help with the rock climb, and then the path splits. Both paths eventually meet up with each other -- one goes around the edge of the mountain itself, while the other travels over the top of the point. Either way you wind up at an amazing view point looking west toward the Rockies. The photos do not do this justice.
This is another excellent place for a quick break. There are plenty of rocks and ledges to sit on. There is also a ledge to climb onto for a slightly different view of the valley below. Many people sit and have a break here -- and why not, with that view -- and they usually leave little scraps of food behind. That's how we met this little character, who seemed to be actually posing for a number of these photos. After he stole a cucumber piece someone had left behind, he would run to various location around the rockpile to peak around corners and strike a pose. He deserves his own little photo gallery (all photos can be clicked for larger versions).
We left our furry friend behind and continued up the trail. The trail now took us directly up the ridge of Nihahi -- the further we pressed ahead, the steeper the trail became. At times I felt if I leaned forward just a little bit, I'd be touching the trail with my hands. We took a few rest stops, but sometimes they were view stops as well. The sights from this vantage point were amazing, which I suppose makes up for the steepness of the latter part of this hike. When you're able to stop for breath and look out onto a vista like this... I think that's the only possible motivator at this point. Ok, maybe it wasn't that bad... but it felt it. Again, we were thankful we were doing this hike on a moderately cool day -- I'm not sure I'd be able to in 25C or hotter.
We climbed through the last of the trees and onto the rocky ridge, but we weren't finished yet. The final approach is along a rocky trail that isn't terribly well defined, but by that point it is pretty obvious where you're going -- the end of the trail is visible from this point, twisting along the ridge to the best view of the mountain range. The trail slowly angles from north to west, and there is a short scrambling climb to reach the end, but eventually you see:
No photos do it justice. The view is breath-taking (the guy beside me said he felt like Maria von Trapp). What a great reward for such a climb.
This is the official end of the trail, however there is a scrambling trail that continues up to the true peak of Nihahi. Unless you're experienced in scrambling or rock climbing and have the proper equipment, I would say this is likely too risky to attempt. On this day there was also still deep snow on the path to the peak and the more hardcore hikers and scramblers were declining to hike it. The photos doesn't look so bad, but the loose rocky, narrow ridge walking and high winds at the peak are enough to make you think twice when you're up there. The snow making it likely impossible to actually reach the peak without proper equipment was the deciding factor.... why attempt something that risky if there's a guarantee we won't make it?
So instead, D and I settled in for a power lunch of granola bars and fruit. This part of the ridge is more of a plateau -- it's flat and wide with plenty of nooks and crannies to settle in away from the crowds. This shot is from our sitting position on the ridge top, enjoying our lunch. I can't think of a better way to kick back and relax. This was looking southwest. The 20-30 minute break we took was rejuvenating, and gave us a chance to enjoy the work we did, rather than just turning around and heading back downhill. I highly recommend bringing a long a snack to give yourself a chance to take it all in. Note all the lovely snow around us.
On the way back down I snapped some shots of the last 1km or so of the hike that was at such a steep angle. This particular view of it was rockier than most, but gives a good idea what what to expect. It may not all be this steep, but after climbing for more than a few minutes, it all feels about this steep. We ran into a lot of people climbing up as we were heading down, and they all looked exhausted. It's fun to see what you probably looked like heading up the trail, sweating and tired. I always want to tell people that it will all be worth it, but they usually don't look like they feel like talking.
On the way down I stopped to look at some of the buds on the fir trees coming in. I'm not sure why they caught my eye, but I got in nice and close for some photos and they turned out really well:
The hike back down took us just over an hour, and by the time we got close to the bottom, we were passing quite a few more people. The hike is clearly a popular one and probably best to try earlier in the morning if you're looking for solitude. However, the number of people on the trail do not distract from the hike itself and in fact can make getting to that final viewpoint even more rewarding. Highly recommended -- I'm hoping we can try it again soon!