Old Goat Glacier on a Smoky Afternoon

The smoke from the forest fires has been a bit much here, lately. It’s certainly a natural part of our world, living where we do, perched on the edge of vast wilderness areas. But it has a profound effect on what you can do physically, where you can go, and what views you can see.

In the evenings, the smoke sinks into the valley bottoms, coating things in ash, and creating such a thick, masking blanket that the mountains that normally dominate our landscape, disappear and flit in and out like ghostly shadows on the horizon.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, we had to set out late in the day, arriving at the trailhead at about 3pm, opting for a late hike up to Old Goat Glacier and a dinner picnic. Of course there was a traffic jam that held us up!

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A traffic jam on the Spray Lakes road on the way up to the trailhead… Canmore style.

We chose the Old Goat Glacier hike, as we knew the trail, knew it could possibly get us up above the smoke, and that it would be fun to explore it once again. I was also really curious to see what the glacier looked like, as we’d seen it last 3 years ago, almost to the day.

A little trail beta: The trail begins along the shores of the Spray Lakes Reservoir. The guidebooks are a bit out of date now, so rather than having to park in front of campsites at the campground there, there is now a dedicated trailhead parking lot. Park there, and head into the forest on the track at the south end of the parking lot.

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The sky above us, as we caught glimpses of it through the forest canopy, was an apocalyptic scene… given that this was 3pm.

Smoke in the air made the sky look on fire and the forests at the beginning of the hike seem bathed in a warm orange glow. It was beautiful. It was eerie. It was definitely otherworldly. And it made us feel as if we were walking in that magical sunset moment… you know the one I mean, where the sun dips below the horizon and disappears and the world is bathed in the softest, warmest light…. a warm light that lasted for most of our hike!

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When you break through the forest, you see the source of the creek you’ve been following, to your right. It is a large waterfall, coming off the glacier… and this is the destination, for most people, on this hike. Notice the yellow smoke sky on the right, and the bluebird sky on the left!
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But if you are heading further, you go left and up this slope, past those huge boulders (which have been “cleaned” and developed into great bouldering routes, for any climbers reading this).
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The light stayed weirdly orange as we headed up the steep slope. The smoke was high enough in the atmosphere that it only affected the quality of the light and not our breathing.
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As we got higher, we could see the smoke filling the valley behind us, and snaking through the mountains to the north and east of us.
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But our way ahead looked clear, with bright blue skies.
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Next up: we crossed the snow that filled the dip between the valley’s top ridge and the top of Old Goat’s nearest lateral moraine…. look to the right in this photo and you can see trees brought down by winter avalanches, tossed aside like matchsticks.
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… and then we emerged up onto moraine itself.

The moraines up there are enormous: great, towering piles of gravel rubble, they are the remnants of the mountains hemming us in, ground down by the movement, flow and erosive action of the glacier over a millennia, the rock, sand and gravel bits pushed to the side of what was once the glacier’s path. You really get a sense of the power of nature up here.

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Trees are no match for the power of an avalanche.
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It’s hard to get a sense of perspective here, but these moraines are enormous! There’s a good 3-5 story drop down to the glacier’s meltwater stream from where we walked along the top of the moraine.
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The landscape may look barren, but there were little flowers scattered throughout the rock rubble of the moraine.
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Flowers are stunted up here in this higher elevation, harsh environment. Normally this fireweed would be almost above our thighs in height, but it has the amazing adaptive ability to grow to suit its environment.

Old Goat is a very small glacier with very little ice left… it’s a disappearing dinosaur so it’s good to see it while it’s still there. But much to our surprise, looking back at our old photos, the Old Goat is much as he was three years ago. (Below left is 2017; below right is 2014… they’re not identical photos, so you have to use your imagination, but we were shocked that there was so little difference.)

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Seeing the glacier from above is a very neat experience. There are masses of stones that lie atop the ice sheet, having fallen off the slopes of the cliff above in avalanches or freeze-thaw cycles that shatter rock and shock it into tumbling from great heights, like the fresh pile in this photo to the right of centre.
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Looking closely, you can see the crevasses. And though we couldn’t see it, we could certainly hear the water rushing far below us.

It was a lot of work, hiking up that moraine to the end. We had a picnic dinner, followed by a restorative nap! The great thing about a late in the day start is that there is no one else on the trail. We had the entire place to ourselves!

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And right beside where we napped, we found this rock with a perfect, embedded red heart!
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Soon, the light started dimming with the dipping of the sun. It was time to head back down.
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The shadows were getting long over the hump of the moraine.
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We decided to go back a slightly different way, walking along the remaining snow that was nestled between the moraine and the cliff face.

If you pick up speed doing this, you can have a blast boot skiing…

As we approached the view of the valley, we saw that the smoke was thick enough to obscure the valley bottom and the gigantic reservoir lake that we’d normally see.

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You can just barely make out the reservoir lake down there.
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And there’s one thing the smoke is good for… spectacular sunsets! This was our view as we headed out and along the Spray Lakes Road, back down into Canmore.

Old Goat trail mapDistance: 10.5km

Elevation Gain: 620m

If you’re keen to go hiking in the Kananaskis area, check out these links for smoke & fire updates: Verdant Valley Fire (Parks Canada), Crag & Canyon (newspaper), Kananaskis Trail Reports, Fire Reports and an Interactive Smoke Map. And when in doubt, carry an InReach or Spot beacon. Happy trails, everyone!


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.

16 Comments on “Old Goat Glacier on a Smoky Afternoon

  1. Good that there is still some snow left in that little glacier. The snow seems to be in the shadow of the mountain in both your photos.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Looks like another great hike, Sheri. The smoke certainly made the sky and the lighting spectacular. Glad to know that it didn’t affect the air enough to cause a problem with breathing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome pictures. The fire/smoke coloured sky and scenery reminded me of the awful bushfires we have here in Australia. Do you know if there fires there were natural or lit by arsonists? We are getting an increasing number of the latter 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another fantastic place to hike. I’ve hiked in the Sierra Nevada for about 7-8 days with large fires burning. Sometimes we could see open flames across the valley. The smoke seemed to be everywhere. Worrisome yet beautiful skies, especially at sunsets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a strange experience, that’s for sure. And sometimes the smoke can come from hundreds of kilometres away. Like it or not, it seems to be part of our summers here. We just did an amazing trip up to Abbot Hut (I’ll blog about it soon) and the first day was smoky, obscuring the views, and the next was spectacularly clear! Some days you only see it, and some you can smell it too, and then it affects what you can do. Hiking the Sierra Nevada would be really something!

      Liked by 1 person

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