Prairie Creek Trail: Trail Particulars - See Elbow Valley Madness (scroll down to midway through the post).
Back on my feet, we wanted to make up for lost time, get a good hike in. The gates to the rest of Highway 66 were finally open and D and I set out for..... Prairie Creek?
Yeah, it's a hike that's less than a 5 minute walk from the infamous, and now open, gates. But I had a *feeling* about the Elbow Valley and the May long weekend.... and it turned out to be right. But more on that later...
N and I had previously begun this trail, thinking it was the much more strenuous (and unofficial) Prairie Mountain Trail. Now corrected, D and I thought we'd check out and see just where this trail went.
The trail begins just off the highway and dips down into a mossy forest, with Prairie Creek running alongside. It's a bit of a canyon-like atmosphere at first, with rock faces close to the trail on either side of the creek. About 15 minutes in, the trail turns along one of the rock faces and this massive stone seems to appear out of nowhere. Amazingly enough, there were plenty of trees growing right out of the rock. We'd thought they'd be awfully susceptible to wind,but these trees sit just below the actual peak of the rock, nicely guarded from the worst of the winds.
Just before we crossed the creek via a log bridge, this little critter came to visit us. This guy was very brave -- I think he was looking for food. He stayed still long us to pose for a couple of photos, determine we were not a food source and fly away. N is the bird expert, so I'll leave it up to her to tell me what kind of bird this is, if she can tell from the shot.
From the creek crossing, the trail leads out of the forest and to a rocky uphill. This was where N and I stopped last time. D and I started up the rockiest part of the trail, only to run into a couple of families heading down. This would turn out to be a common theme of the hike.
For the next 15 minutes or so, the hike continues along the hill, neither rising nor falling, but directly exposed to the sun. Water came in very handy here! Though the path is relatively narrow in many spots, the trail is open to cyclists and horseback riders. It being May long weekend -- the weekend where most of the recreational areas are open for the first time that spring -- I'd expected it to be busy, but I'd also expected most of the traffic to be further down Highway 66. I figured most people would head for the trails they'd had no access to for the past 5 months, not the ones right by the gate. Well, maybe most people did do that, but Prairie Creek was still extremely popular that day, mostly among the cycling sort (most of whom were extremely courteous and friendly). Perhaps something for those of us on foot to be aware of when hiking this particular trail.
The trail continues along, straying a little from the creek in places, and working its way up, until eventually there is a moderate hill that will have your legs working and get your heart pumping. It's worth it. The top of the hill is a bit of a cliff that juts out in the valley, looking over Prairie Creek now far below. Perfect place to catch you breath, have a quick bite, or take some photos. Needless to say, it's a popular stop and on a nice day, the odds are you won't have this area to yourself for long. But the view is incredible. Next time I'll even take a photo of it.
It's also windy. Amazingly, this brave flower was growing right out of the rock itself, apparently not bothered by the wind.
The trail descends on the other side of the cliff, and it descends quickly (look out for the cyclists here!). Within five minutes we were back along the part of the creek we'd been looking at from atop the cliff. And of course, this is where we encountered more snow.
It was a gorgeous weekend and beautiful day, and snow had pretty much disappeared from all the other usual places. Even though it had only been a week since N and I had first checked out the trail, the difference in the amount of snow on the creek between then and now was remarkable -- as in, there was none. So encountering this snow here was a bit of a surprise. It was also cool to see the layers within the snow -- usually it's not so clearly marked. The water in the creek was as clear as it gets, and when I dipped my hand in at the beginning of the trail, it wasn't nearly as cold as I'd expected it to be (of course, I've been accused of having no circulation in my hands....).
The trail meanders along the creek for some time after that -- never going too far up from creek level, and never really turning into strenuous hiking. I can see why it's such a favorite trail for the cyclists though -- there are enough hills and turns to keep it interesting, and you can cover a lot of distance quickly. There are some fabulous places along the creek to stretch out and enjoy the sun and surroundings.
This trail eventually leads to a junction. One way is the Prairie Link trail, which connects with Powderface Creek trail, forming a loop that's a little over 10km. Otherwise it runs for another 3.5 km, ending at a parking lot that also connects to a number of other trail heads, such as Ford Creek trail, a connector to Jumpingpound Ridge trail. We turned around slightly before reaching this junction as the weather was turning rapidly. With about an hour needed to get back to the car, I wasn't too fond of being caught in the rain (or thunderstorm!).
The hike back wasn't much different -- still busy, cliff rest stop still popular. The only real difference was the effect the impending rain had on the look of the forest. Walking back into the forest was very surreal -- everything looked mossy and there wasn't a sound anywhere. Everything felt very closed in and muted. Enchanted forest perhaps? It started to drizzle just a little bit while were walking through. The sound of the raindrops hitting the moist ground and trees only added to the dampening effect. The forest looked completely different than it had in sunlight.
Sadly, this was our only trip on the May long weekend. Too many stories of over-crowding and overly-aggressive recreationalists were circulating, and it seemed like a better idea to let the area clear out and hit the trails again the following weekend.