The Heart Mountain Horseshoe Check-In

The Bow Valley is an incredible playground. A landscape feature that follows the Bow River as it winds its way down from the huge Bow Glacier in the Canadian Rockies near Lake Louise, the Bow Valley wraps Canmore & Banff in pine forested valleys, and protects those iconic townsites with magnificent, towering, sawtoothed peaks like a fringe around its edges.

IMG_3639.jpgWhen it comes to playing in the Bow Valley, hiking and scrambling your way up Heart Mountain is a right of passage, sort of like hiking up Ha Ling, a popular hike that perches you high atop the Canmore Town site. Both are challenging as their elevation gains happen over very short distances, as the ravens fly.

Heart Mountain, and in particular, the more difficult Heart Mountain Horseshoe traverse, is better than Ha Ling. Hands down. With its spectacular views of the outer edges of the rockies extending in 3 directions, and views of the prairies rolling out to the east in the fourth, it is a far more fun “check-in” hike to do each year. It’s slightly more difficult (read that as seriously fun!) with climbing sections that have a bit of exposure…. making it way more challenging, and far more of an adventure than simply a grueling hike…. and it has the bonus of being less crowded, once you leave the Up-To-The-Peak-and–Back-Down-Again day trippers behind.

We were able to do this hike last year on Valentines Day in February, as we had very little snow that year. This year, however, is an entirely different story as we’ve had a tremendous amount of spring snow, and two very large recent snowfalls that make some areas of the mountains here still unsafe for hiking and biking, due to avalanches, this late in the season at the end of May! Ah well, that’s mountains for you!

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Early on in the hike you’re into the views quickly, looking down onto Heart Creek far below.

The Heart Mountain scrambler’s route is relentlessly steep but that gets you up into breathtaking views very quickly (ok… sure… maybe the steepness of the ascent is the breath-taking part!).

You are essentially hiking up the shoulder-ridge of the mountain until you come to the really unique syncline feature of its peak…. a cliff band of rock that dips down, folded by extreme forces deep inside the earth, and then thrust up to look like a heart shape.

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Bill emerges from a scramble section, with the LaFarge mine & cement plant, and the TransCanada highway far below.

This hike has many sections where you can opt to scramble rather than hike up a steep and winding trail. And it is the scrambling, with hands and feet on the rock, that is the most fun.

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A typical scramble section. You can tell where people have climbed before where the rock is more of a tan colour (to the right in this photo).

I see the scramble spots as practice for the via ferrata we plan to do in Italy in the fall, though there you wear a harness and special carabineer straps and link into an iron cable that’s permanently affixed to the mountain. Here you can pick your own route… and it’s a seriously great time!

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Stopping for a tea & cookie break, part way up Heart’s shoulder.

Scrambling up Heart Mountain, there are two “cruxes.” These are the more challenging, difficult sections that require you to tuck away your hiking poles, tug those back pack straps up tight, and then put all hands and feet on the rock as you climb up. If you don’t feel comfortable with this level of exposure, heights or this type of scrambling activity, don’t do this hike: there’s no way to get around the two cruxes. And don’t take a dog with you unless you are prepared to climb and lift at the same time.

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The views from on top of Crux #1

To put it in perspective, the first crux, though short, saw us doing it in stages so we could lift and haul poor Seamus up. With Bill hoisting Seamus over his head from the ground below and me wedged into a good spot, half way up, giving a good yanking haul on Seamus’ harness, we got him up up. Seamus was a good sport about it, but really didn’t help much by going all limp, submissive noodle on us!

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The views from on top of Crux #1.

The second crux comes just after this where we had to climb up, w-a-y up a really fun, long section of cliff band.

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Looking back down from above Crux#2. Look into the distance of the photo and you can see the mountain shoulder we’d been ascending. Crux #2 lies in the dark shadow of rock to the right in this photo.

Picture three layers of rock, like a grilled cheese sandwich: the melted cheese layer, slightly softer & more eroded, is held in place by the wonderfully crispy whole wheat (no, let’s say sourdough), layers. Up turn this sandwich on its side, and you have what we were scrambling up.

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The scree bits are loose chunks of rock that lie deep & scattered at the base of the cliff. There are 2 people heading up into crux # 2’s formation ahead of us.

First, you climb a bit of scree… the cheese bits that have escaped the clutches of the sandwich. They are a bit loose, and a bit deep, but not a serious problem. Then you are at the base of the cliff on the slightly firmer crust layer of the sandwich, looking up at the cheese you are about to climb. Climbing up this section is really neat, and Seamus had no problem finding his way up on his own. As for us, we just chose our hands and feet carefully, making sure not to grab loose rock-cheese, sending it down onto people below, and it was all good!

Yup, that’s me, grinning from ear to ear as I scramble up this second crux… my favourite part of this hike.

Here’s Bill making crux #2 look easy-peasy.

Once up this second cliff section, you are on top of Heart Mountain. And this is where most people stop (though between you and me, I’d rather add 3 hours to our hike doing the entire horseshoe than down-climb those crux sections!).

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The views, looking back toward Canmore, of Mount McGillivray are tremendous!
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The peak of Heart Mountain makes for a perfect lunch spot.

Hiking the horseshoe, a “suggested route” versus a true trail on the Gem Trek map, you journey beyond the peak of Heart Mountain and walk along the narrow saddle that joins it to MacEwan Peak, the mountain that lies behind it. Bang that peak, and then you dip down onto the saddle that joins MacEwan to “Unnamed Peak” (seriously, I ask you, how can a mountain so majestic be unnamed!?). After ascending the third peak you head down its long, steep, crumbly ridge of a shoulder to the forest again. The entire route resembles, in its elevated section, the shape of a horseshoe.

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Bill studies our route and identifies the mountains we’re seeing around us from the gem trek map.

The beauty of a hike that takes you along ridges is that you are in the views most of the time, and those views are really incredible. Come along with us on the rest of our journey from our lunch spot….

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As you walk along the shoulder that links Heart Mountain to MacEwan Peak, there are some spectacular drop-offs.
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Looking back at Heart Mountain… even the backside of its peak has a heart shape.
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The shoulder between the two mountains has some gentle, forested sections. There was still a little snow in there.
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This is the ridge line we were following to get to MacEwan peak, the next mountain on our journey. Look carefully and you can see the trail. The ridge is quite narrow here.
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You can see where our route will take us… first to the bump that is MacEwan peak, and then turning left to the knob that is “Unnamed Peak.”
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Bill starts out along the ridge with MacEwan peak, part 2 or our journey, straight ahead.
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Views down the side of the ridge… a little dizzying, no?
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Coming through the forest, just below the second peak. This was just before I went up to my thigh in snow! Yup, I was post-holing it!
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Looking back over the landscape we’d been hiking through, with Lac Des Arcs off in the distance.
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Heading up to MacEwan’s summit.
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It’s steeper than it looks!
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Looking back at the heart shape and the unique layering of Heart Mountain’s cliff bands.
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Standing on the summit of MacEwan Mountain (the black canister beside the summit cairn holds the register, if you want to sign it or look through past entries, you can).
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Coming down from the summit saw us going through and around some deep snow.
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The next part of the route saw us crossing a grassy meadow….
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…a meadow dotted with the crocuses of early spring.
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Bill looks out over the trail to come…
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We’d been hiking along the ridge line meadow behind Bill in this photo.
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There was still a ways to go before reaching our final summit of the day.
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Getting closer to the final summit…
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One tradition in the mountains has you adding a rock to the peak cairns you pass.
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Looking down the ridge-line we were to descend… what comes up must come down!
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The descent had some knee jarring scree, but it wasn’t too bad.
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A sort of sideways-stepping works well in the loose scree.
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Soon we were back down in the forest with its stunning moss-covered floor. And nestled in that thick carpet were flowers, scattered like hidden gems….

And that’s it! A long day’s hike & scramble, the first of the season, in our much-loved Canadian Rockies! We were soon back, exhausted but happy, enjoying a lovely drink on the deck with some much needed salty snacks.

There we plotted our bucket list for this coming hiking season… a little ambitious, to be sure… but there’s no point dreaming anything bit BIG!IMG_3932.jpgHappy Trails, wherever your spirit of adventure takes you… from me, Bill & Seamus.IMG_3842.jpg


Click here for more terrific hikes in Kananaskis Country (Canmore Area). And check out more hikes from Canada and our adventures around the world here.

9 Comments on “The Heart Mountain Horseshoe Check-In

  1. That’s some seriously spectacular countryside. But I have to admit your idea of “fun” is a bit intimidating. Just half of that hike would leave me in an exhausted heap.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sheri! Loved this post. Your descriptive style coupled with gorgeous photos took me back to some of the more challenging ascents I faced in New Hampshire and Maine. I really need to get out for another challenging hike again. I don’t know if my expanding belly is up to the task, but it’ll sure be a lot of fun to find out! (And I suppose you could always put a harness on me and I cold take turns playing the part of Seamus;)) In the meantime, I’m happy to live vicariously through you 3.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I KNOW I would… even if only to meet the characters you encountered along the route. Do you have any hiking plans for this season? Anything in the works?

        Your Venice trip took me by surprise… I’ll need to pick your brain a bit before we head out there this fall.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s great Sheri! Hope you both have an amazing trip. (If you get the chance, you might enjoy a quick tour of the Murano glass factory. This post ran way too long as it was, but seeing the masters create a glass pitcher, and tour the gallery, was well worth it)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Your spectacular photos of the view and the elevation made me weak at the knees. It’s funny to hear that at some point Seamus decided to go limp and had you guys pay for taking him on this hike. Looks like you have ambitious hiking goal for this year. I forget about your trip to Italy. When are you going?

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ll head out in September. I think you’re going to love K-country, now that you’ve made it to Cochran. Keep an eye out for bears. There are a number of trails that were closed as of yesterday due to bear activity. Go to the Bow Valley Wildsmart Facebook page for updates. Stay safe, enjoy the views & have a blast!

      Liked by 1 person

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