As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been posting a lot about hikes that we did last summer with my recent posts. Part of the reason for that is because, due to one circumstance or another, I have been away from the mountains for (gasp!) a month and a half. And partly it’s to help those of you that are planning trips into our fantastic mountains next season.
Suffice it to say that it was fantastic to be back there this week!!
This hike goes to show you that with a little careful research, it is possible to hike year round in these snowy Rocky Mountains. Not ski: hike. And hike good, long day hikes.
Avalanche conditions and the avalanche forecast in the Bow Valley area were extreme and so, looking for a little safe adventure we turned our sights on the outer mountains in what the locals call K-Country (Kananaskis).
In the outer edge of Kananaskis, the landscape is typically drier (the snow doesn’t tend to fall as much there as it does in the Banff/Lake Louise area, the elevations are lower contributing to less precipitation being wrung from those passing clouds as well, and because it is so dry, the snow that is there tends to sublimate and melt pretty quickly) so you can do a fair amount of winter hiking.
There had been very little snow fall on those outer ranges on the edge of the foothills in recent days, so we thought the conditions would be good for a hike. And we were right! The freeze-thaw cycle of melting had left the trails a bit icy, but that was nothing a good set of spikes couldn’t help.
So on a gorgeously sunny, relatively warm, -7C day, we headed out on the trails, unencumbered by thick, bulky clothing like cumbersome parkas and thick snowpants… just wearing light layered clothing, and packing along thermoses of tea, boots, poles & spikes, a great picnic lunch and (of course) some chocolate.
The trail starts at the northeastern end of the deep & dammed Barrier Lake. You set off from the relative treed shelter of the Barrier Lake Day Use area, and quickly discover the need to brace yourself against the bitterly cold, howling winds that swoop down from those high passes, screaming across the ice of the lake’s surface, blasting your face with surprising strength as you set out, as you walk right across the dam itself. The views of the lake, or what we could see of it through our icy tears, were spectacular, with mountains all around and the weak morning sun reflected on its clear, windswept surface. For the first kilometer or so, you are walking across the thick gravel wall of the dam.
Once across, you quickly turn into the protection of the mixed aspen & pine forest. Admittedly, given that the connector trail is a horse trail and an access route for the power lines that run through, it is uninspiring. Marred by a wide gravel double track, telephone poles, and power lines that obstruct the pristine views, it is still pretty country, so you grin and bear the 2.8km from the end of the dam to the turn off onto the Jewell Pass trail. [That’s one of the trade-offs with playing in K-Country: it doesn’t have the same protected status as the national parks, so there is some resource development that occurs there (like hydroelectricity and forestry)… but it is truly the ultimate playground.]
Even though the falls were deep in the shadow of a gorge at this point, it was hard to miss the brilliance of the blue that came through the ice.
The trail continued its ascent up the slope of the mountain, through the pine forest. Even after the iced waterfall, the trail was well packed and thinly covered in only a couple of inches of ice and snow, making the decision to tuck snowpants into my pack and not on my legs, a good one… and the decision to wear gaiters to keep snow from scuffing into the tops of my boots, a bit excessive. (Anyone who knows me, knows I look for any excuse to wear my gaiters, summer or winter!)
The light filtered through the tree canopy beautifully, even though the trees robbed us of the views for most of this trail. As we came up through a steep part of the forest, we reached a T-junction. There we had the choice of heading down into the Quaite Valley (a popular biking area in the summer, but not a well used trail in the winter), and turning onto the Prairie View Trail to head up into the views of the Lookout point there.
We found ourselves asking WHEN we’d see the Prairie VIEWS of the Prairie View Trail! Up and up we went. So when we came to a spot where the sun broke through the trees and we had a wee glimpse of a view, we took our lunch break. The nice thing about this spot was that even though it wasn’t at the high point peak and lookout section of the trail, we had the place in solitude, and we had a view.
We dug out a patch to sit on, shuffling the light snow aside with our boots, laid out our reflective tarp (to stay warm & dry), and sat, resting, taking in the views, identifying features on our map and eating our delicious Le Fournil sandwiches. (Hands down, Le Fournil is the best French Bakery and they make these delicious Jambon Beurre sandwiches… with thick, sweet chunks of ham, sprinkled with salt crystals, in a single layer on a thickly buttered, crunchy baguette …. Sounds gross maybe? Nah… it’s absolute perfection on a hike!)
The area known as Kananaskis, and this particular mountain on which we were hiking, are in the very eastern outer edges of the Rocky Mountains as they angle their way through southern Alberta. These mountains meet the foothills and then the prairies in relatively short order. And we could see this all from the lookout on the Prairie View Trail.
The Prairie View trail is also a popular mountain biking trail in the summer… at least the downhill part is! Locals have nicknamed the part we descended from the lookout, the “Hike-A-Bike” trail and one look at what they need to come up, hauling and lugging those bikes, makes you easily see why! The part approaching the top is steep and rocky (see the photo with our dog). The part before that is a series of long and gradual switchbacks on a double track trail through the forest… so nothing too arduous (just a boring grunt that I’d happily trade for rides on the spectacular new High Rockies Trail!). We were doing the trail in reverse on this day.
Last year, we were able to do a mountain summit … of Heart Mountain (to come in a later post) on Valentine’s day (February 14th). So you really can hike here all winter long. You just need to be knowledgeable about the trail conditions, check avalanche forecasts & reports, use good gear (layered clothing, a good set of micro-spikes for your boots, take extra mitts & hats, a headlamp, should you get caught still on the trail as early darkness descends …in December, that can be as early as 4pm, and some basic emergency gear), and never, ever skimp on carrying gear with you. Ever.
It may weigh your pack down and feel excessive. (We call that extra weight, the gear we take but don’t end up using, “training.” 🙄😫) But promise me. Never.
A few trail stats:
In all, a 15km loop with an elevation gain of 552m.
From the Barrier Lake Day Use Area parking lot to the Jewell pass turn off: 3.9km
Jewell Pass to Quaite Valley/Prairie View Trail turn offs: 2.7km
From there to the Peak of Prairie View Lookout : 5km
From the Lookout to the Stony Trail Connector: 2-2.5km
From the bench at the Stoney Trail Connector to across the dam & back to the trailhead parking lot: 1.1km.