Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Season's Greetings!

It's been bitterly cold in my part of the world -- probably much like many others (except those lucky people in New Zealand ;-)), and getting out to the mountains has been next to impossible.

Our deep frost broke today, and we're actually going to be hovering above freezing on the weekend, so there's a chance for one last hike of 2008!

It was the end of 2006 that Dave and I hiked an impromptu loop called Alder Trail, close to Bragg Creek. That was the hike that made me realize I wanted -- needed -- to spend more of my time outdoors. Something about this time of year makes the forest magical.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Alder Trail, December 2006

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sulphur Mountain -- July 20, 2008

Sulphur Mountain -- Banff. Trail details: Take Banff Ave through town to Mountain Ave. Park in the Hot Springs parking lot, trailhead is NW part of parking lot.

If you've been to Banff, Alberta -- heck, if you've seen a photo of Banff, Alberta -- you've probably seen a photo of Sulphur Mountain. While not as photogenic as my personal favorite, Mount Rundle, Sulphur Mountain is where all the action is -- the Banff Springs Hotel, the Hot Springs, the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. The Cave and Basin is located on the west side of the mountain -- a historic spot for the National Park system of Canada.

Dave and I had to hike it. What better way to spend a 6 year wedding anniversary?

Sulphur Mountain intimidated us for a long time. It is a long way up from the parking lot, and when thousands of people a year will fork over about $16 a pop to take the gondola up instead of hiking, it makes you wonder if they know something we don't.

One thing I didn't know was that the old ski lift machinery still stands on the mountain. As we encountered what I thought was a fire break, we instead saw relics from a bygone era...(look for the wires among the tree... can you imagine riding a chairlift up this narrow channel?)

Only a few steps later, we hiked under the gondola lift. The trail is largely switchbacks up the east side of the mountain, and crosses under the gondola run many times:

I call this my tourism shot... the gondola backed by Mt. Rundle:

Looking down the Mount Rundle range. Sulphur is a steady climb of switchbacks, but an excellent one for views:

Sulphur is also a very popular hike, so the odds are the only wildlife you're going to see are the little guys who are used to being fed.... like this critter:

The trail has plenty of wildflowers as well. First up the Yellow Columbine (aquilegia flavescens). A little blurrier than I would like, but still a nice shot:

We also saw lots of what appears to be a Dwarf Mountain Groundsel (senecio fremontii):

About halfway up the mountain, the gondola starts to hover awfully close to the trail:

Neat little illusion where it looks like the gondola is coming right at you as you hike by:

One switchback went around the north side of the mountain, and we got a beautiful view of the town of Banff, with a very tiny looking Cascade Mountain in the background:

The top platform of Sulphur Mountain is where the trail ends, as well as where the gondola lift terminates. There's an observation deck complete with gift shop and restaurant. As you can imagine, it's quite busy during the summer. It's a bit of a shock going from mountain hike to tourist crowds in the space of a minute, and it diminishes the payoff just a little.

But the view can't be beat. That "bump" beside the river, in the middle-left of the shot... that's Tunnel Mountain... a short but decent hike in its own right:

The top of Sulphur Mountain used to be a ridgewalk, but the area is extremely sensitive and the trail was destroying the unique vegetation. This boardwalk was built to connect the two peaks of the mountain (the old lookout still stands at the other peak):

Looking back at the Visitor's Centre from the lookout. Mount Rundle in the background:

Again, in the midst of the most popular tourist spot in Alberta, yet there's nothing but pristine wilderness everywhere you look:

It's a beautiful area, and maybe too well loved. Much of Sulphur Mountain Trail suffers from overuse due to its popularity. Also, because so much of the trail is simply switchbacks up the mountain, many people take "shortcuts" which only lead to more trail degradation and erosion. There are signs throughout the trail asking hikers to please not cause more damage, but throughout the hike we saw numerous people cutting through the trail and "shortcutting".

This is what the terrain starts to look like when its eroding:

Despite the crowds, and the popularity and sometimes dismaying disregard for the area.... it's a beautiful hike, and should be done at least once. Especially since the Hot Springs reside right at the trail head!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Nihahi Ridge -- July 13, 2008

Nihahi Ridge has been mentioned quite a few times on this blog, but it's simply one of best hikes in the area -- especially if you have a group of people with mixed hiking ability. It's generally a moderate climb that will get you to some pretty amazing views. The hike is reasonably close to the city, sits at the edge of the Rockies, and gets you to places no road can take you. The last kilometer of the hike is a tough grind, but even if hiking isn't your thing, and you choose not to knock yourself out, the rest stop right before that 1k climb will reward you well.

What draws the more experienced hiker back to Nihahi is the ridge walk beyond the official end of the trail. Nat and I have many times wanted to continue up the ridge, but never felt it was the time to do so.

Until this day.

The first nice touch was a more up close and personal view of one of the area's more picturesque peaks, Mount Romulus. To me it looks like the top of submarine. And no matter what time of year it is, there is always that layer of snow along the top. Part of Mount Remus is in the foreground. The mountains were named for the brothers from Roman mythology:

Another shot of Mount Romulus and Mount Remus. The tall pointed peak in the background is Fisher Peak:

We were also given a different perspective of the view to the south/southeast of us, and the unspoiled terrain that makes up part of Don Getty Provincial Park. These are the slopes of Mount Glasgow, with a rocky portion of Mount Cromwell in the distance. I love that amidst a popular campground and backcountry rec area, there are such huge swaths of land still untouched, with only a river running through:

View from high up Nihahi... with Little Elbow River running through. A popular backcountry trail runs along that river, and everytime I'm on Nihahi, I promise myself I will eventually hike that trail.....

Since the trail at this point is "unofficial" and unmarked, Nat and I actually wound up walking along the ridge as opposed to summiting the actual mountain. This gave us a unique view of the terrain along Powderface Road, and the little "bumps" that take up the space between Nihahi Ridge and Powderface Ridge. One of those bumps is Ford Knoll:

We ran into one other hiker along our "unofficial" trail. This is a pretty nice shot of the trail and the type of hike it is:

Looking down at Little Elbow River from higher up Nihahi. This is always a wow shot for me:

As we began heading down from the ridge, we spied a caravan at ground level along Little Elbow Trail. This hike was during the Calgary Stampede, and even from our high vantage point, we could see the caravan was made of chuckwagons, likely in the area for the rodeo. It was quite the distance to shot from, but I managed these blurry shots (nicely salvaged by my extremely talented graphic design guru hubby):

It took us a while to brave the "unofficial" section of Nihahi's ridge walk, but I think we picked the perfect day to do it!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Troll Falls -- July 6, 2008

After the Hummingbird Plume Lookout hike, Nat and I decided to take advantage of the maze of trails to take a different way back to the car. We passed close to Troll Falls, the short hike Dave and I had checked the week prior, and we stopped by for a look. A lot less bugs, a few more people, and some more nice photos...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hummingbird Plume Fire Lookout -- July 6, 2008

Hummingbird-Plume Fire Lookout. Trail details: Take Highway 40 south to the Kananaskis Lodge/Nakiska turnoff. Drive straight toward the Nakiska Ski Lodge and park at the gates. Trail is behind the lodge, heading north. Take Skogan Pass Trail to Hummingbird Plume Lookout.

So, it took Nat and I some time to clue into the best way to find good solid trails with amazing vantage points, but once we tuned into the fire lookout hikes, we were off to the races.

There are literally dozens of fire lookout trails throughout Alberta and BC. They make great hikes because they're usually accessible by a trail that requires little climbing or scrambling, and since the locations were originally selected due to the expansive view of the area, the payoff for the trail is usually pretty sweet.

Most of the fire lookout hikes in the Kananaskis area are for defunct lookouts. The lookouts have been decommissioned and more often than not, the buildings themselves torn down or taken away.

Hummingbird Plume was a nice exception -- the long abandoned lookout is still standing, and contains a lot of history within.

On the way, we encountered more wildflowers, and I got to attempt to improve on my wildflower knowledge. My not-so-extensive wildflower books didn't have this one, but it very closely resembles the Prickly Rose (rosa acicularis), which tends to cross-breed with other roses:

Once we started heading up hill, the trail was green and lush and utterly deserted:

The hike to the actual structure was a steady climb, but far from strenuous. We came to a small clearing where this small building stood (that's Nat taking a look inside):

Clearly, this particular structure has been around some time. How long? Well, one reference book (Mike Potter's excellent "Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies") mentioned some of the lumber used to build this lookout was stamped from 1915. After some searching, we found that stamp, near the roof:

Inside, more history etched into the walls:

The lookout itself is off to the side, through a small clearing, then suddenly we came to a cliff edge, and the valley was spread out before us:

Hubby kindly stitched together this panorama shot from all my shots from the viewpoint. No photo could possibly do this view justice, but this comes close (please click the photo for a better look):

Beautiful hike without a strenuous workout... we couldn't have asked for more!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Highwood Pass -- June 29, 2008

Our last stop along Highway 40 on this day was at Highwood Pass -- the highest paved road pass in Canada (2227 m/7310 ft). Anything living up here exists under very harsh conditions where there is snow on the ground up to 9 months of the year, and temperatures hover around freezing for a good percentage of that 9 months.

Even in late June, with a few weeks of sunny conditions, there were still patches of snow throughout the area:

Highwood Pass is pretty close to the treeline, and there was plenty of snow high the mountains around us as well:

As we drove away from Highwood Pass, we passed by a historical landmark sign documenting the story of the Lost Lemon Mine, a local historical legend. The sign reads:

According to legend these mountains harbour a motherlode of gold. Is it still out there? Or, was it ever?

In the spring of 1870, two miners, Blackjack and Lemon, passed through the foothills on their way from the North Saskatchewan River to Montana. It is said they stumbled across a rich vein of gold. Overcome by greed, Lemon murdered Blackjack -- an act which was to haunt him for the rest of his life.

The Stoney Indians are said to have placed a curse on the gold in an attempt to keep the white man out of their hunting ground. A number of mysterious events occurred around that time including an unexplainable cabin fire, sudden deaths, and even a rumour of skeleton being found clutching a bag of gold.

Does the gold really exist? Some believe so. But others claim it was a hoax started by a false priest; that the gold was on the other side of the continental divide; or that it had been hijacked from miners who were returning from the goldfield of British Columbia.

We may never know the truth about the Lost Lemon Mine. But if the legend is all that ever comes from the mine, it has greatly enriched the folklore of Western Canada.

I'd always thought the legend was more focused on an area in a more southern part of Alberta. In any case, this was an odd place for such a sign, but still gave me chills, knowing some of the history I read and write so much about may have taken place where I stood.

The full story (legend) is fascinating. I'll write about it in a future post.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Kananaskis Canyon -- June 29, 2008

Peter Lougheed - Kananaskis Canyon Trail. Directions: Take Highway 40 to Kananaskis Lakes Trail. Turn right into Canyon Campground. Look for Loop C and a small turnout for parking. Trailhead is across the road.

Kananaskis Canyon is one of those trails that is beautiful and sobering at the same time. This quick 1.2 km takes you through a stunning canyon carved by water flow, but the very creation of this trail is thanks to the fact the river that used to run through here has been dammed and now flows through a pipeline going directly to a power plant.

The trail begins in a slow descent through forest toward what remains of the Kananaskis River. It was a nice break to be heading *downhill* at the beginning of a trail. After only a few minutes, we were beside the river and the trail was heading toward the canyon.

Then out of nowhere, the canyon appeared, along with a pond, bridge, bench and falls. It was all so park-like:

We crossed a bridge and the trail immediately led uphill to overlook the area. Again, it seemed almost too perfect:

Ironically, just a few feet from this lookout spot, the true Kananaskis River flows by in a pipeline. Amazingly, this is just off the trail itself:

The trail comes back down on the other side of the falls. Once again, we were surrounded by a peaceful quiet setting, calm waters, the canyon walls, the silence.. it was more a stroll than a hike, but it some ways it had the same effect:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Peter Lougheed Visitor Park -- June 29, 2008

... our next stop on our drive was a quick interpretive loop beside the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park Visitor Centre. Unfortunately, when we arrived the trail and most of the area around it had been blocked off due to bears in the area.

Bear warnings aren't terribly unusual in this part of the world, especially in the spring. The big beasts are waking up and they're usually quite grumpy and hungry. It's in our best interests to stay out of their way.

What was surprising though, was the extent of the closures. Many of these trails directly surround the Visitor Centre, an area that has heavy vehicular traffic, not to mention a large parking lot that serves as a trailhead for multiple trails. Not the area you'd expect bears to be spending much time in.

The Visitor Centre itself was a border for some of the closures. The picturesque meadow directly behind the Centre was closed due to bear activity. We could go no further than the gate connecting the front deck of the Centre to the back deck.

Hard to believe such an area had to be closed, but there it was:

Yeah, if I were a bear, I'd wanna live there too...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wedge Pond -- June 29, 2008

Kananaskis Valley - Wedge Pond. Trail details: Take Highway 40 past Kananaskis Village. Look for Wedge Day Use parking lot on left side of road.

We'd never heard of Wedge Pond before this day. It's not even really much of a hike, but more of a 1 km loop around a small pond. It was busy, and there was a lot of activity, but you know what? I'd go back there on a warm summer day in a heartbeat, just for the view:

And we continued along Highway 40...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Troll Falls -- June 29, 2008

Kananaskis Valley - Troll Falls. Trail details: Drive south on Highway 40 and turn right at the Nakiska access road. Take the first right into the Stoney Day Use area.

Some days hubby and I don't feel like going for the full-day, 20k hike. There are so many nice areas just off the highway and so many sights only a five minute walk along a short trail, it would be a crime to pass them up simply because they're not "remote" enough.

So I'll stack up a list of short walks, hikes, or loops in the same general area and we'll check out as many as time permits. It might not be the same exercise, and it might be a little busier than the trails, but there's still so much to see.

This particular journey was along Highway 40, focusing on the area between the Nakiska ski area and the Highwood Pass area. About half this road is closed from Dec 1 to June 15 annually, so this was a rare chance to check out some hiding places along the recently opened road.

Troll Falls trail is part of a maze of different trails scattered around the Kananaskis Village area. One can mix and match to create a loop of almost any distance. This network doubles as cross-country skiing trails in winter.

We chose the 1.6 km route directly to Troll Falls, aptly named Troll Falls trail. This was our view as we left the parking area. This isn't the actual trail (this is Stoney Trail) -- ours begins where the two hikers are standing, checking the map (with the number of trails and junctions in the area, these maps are essential). Mount Lorette is the closest rocky peak:

Our trail took a left and wound up in forest soon enough. On this day there was a prescribed burn at Mt. Nester (about 15 km west of Kananakis Village). The wind was blowing the smoke away from us, but the sun was shining through the smoke, giving the trail a glowing red hue:

Occasionally, we'd also see ash falling from the fire (the burn itself was a response to the pine beetle problem developing in Alberta. For more info, check the Banff National Park Fire and Vegetation Management site, or the Alberta Government Sustainable Resource Mt Nestor page. I have some opinions on the way the Alberta Government is managing the pine beetle threat -- but I think I'll focus on the hiking today).

The wildflowers were fully out on this trail. Again, I'm still working on my floral knowledge (my naming scheme begins and ends at "yellow ones"), but after some debate in the household, we've established this to be a Heartleaf arnica (arnica cordifolia):

These are Bunchberries (cornus canadensis). They will eventually yield bright red berries:

We didn't expect Troll Falls to be much, but it was actually quite impressive (moreso than the photos reveal). We were struck by the power of the falls -- we had to yell to be heard. I'm sure a good reason for that was the late thaw and the spring run off... but it was still something to behold. As were the mosquitoes. There's only one quick shot of the falls because that's all we could get in before being eaten alive!

As we headed away from the falls, we could really see the effects of the burn to the west of us. Everything around us was tinged with red:

We opted to head back a different path, making the trek a 3.2 km loop. We chose Hay Meadow trail, which turned out to be an interesting choice because we didn't see another person on the trail the entire way back. Considering how busy the area was, this was remarkable. Actually, considering that for a good chunk of the way we couldn't even see the trail... that might have more to do with it.

But for a little-used trail, it had some of the best shots of the day:

The trail is directly in front of us, believe it or not...

Next, we moved on to Wedge Pond...