Friday, August 07, 2020

First Summits - Devil's Thumb, Lake Louise

This trip starts with an easy hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House at Lake Louise followed by a steep hike up to the Big Beehive lookout. From there the scrambling and fun begins en route to the summit of the Devil's Thumb, an amazing viewpoint over both Lake Louise and Lake Agnes.

The incredible view of Lake Agnes and Lake Louise from the Devil's Thumb summit

Introduction to the Devil's Thumb Hike

This is a premier hike in the Lake Louise area for experienced hikers who can handle some easy scrambling with mild exposure, steep hiking up a loose dirt and scree slope, and a few hands-on moments. 

If you like to stick to official trails, skip this outing. Route finding skills are required and you'll appreciate having a 1-1 ratio of parents to children. Otherwise, I suggest hiking in a group with experienced hikers to help you and your family.

We guided a gaggle of kids up the Devil's Thumb with good team work and patience

Stats for the Devil's Thumb 

Height Gain: Approximately 900 metres according to the All Trails app. (Our own tracking devices however recorded 1100 metres of height gain.)

Distance: 12-14 km total depending on which return route you take.

Time that it took us: It took us nearly 8 hours for this one! (5 hours moving time.) A faster group could easily do it in 6 to 7 hours. We stopped a lot, took many breaks, and waited often to regroup when we got spread out on the trail.

Age of kids we hiked with: Our two youngest hikers were 9 years old. From there the kids ranged in age from 10-14 years old.

Recommended age for this hike: It really depends on experience! My son could have done done this hike by age 7 or 8. Many teenagers could not do this hike. (Heck, many adults would be freaked out on the ledges.)

Prerequisite hikes should include Ha Ling Peak, Lady Macdonald to the platform, East End of Rundle to the summit, along with other beginner scrambles. 

This is NOT a beginner hike.

All Trails Link: Follow this link to see the route on the All Trails website. I downloaded the map before our trip so that I'd have a route to follow without cell coverage. (Note you have to pay for a premium subscription to download maps.) 

The Devil's Thumb is a rewarding but challenging hike at Lake Louise

Hiking to the Big Beehive Junction

Your hike starts at Lake Louise and the crux of the whole trip might be finding parking. I recommend going mid-week, avoiding weekends, and arriving early. We were in the parking lot by 8:30am and had no problems getting spots.

From Lake Louise hike up to the Lake Agnes Tea House on the official trail, a distance of 3.8 km. Here you'll gain your first 400 metres of height on the well switchbacked gradual trail. Consider this your gentle warm up if you're not quite awake yet.

You'll pass by Mirror Lake on your way, where we stopped for rest break number one. When you reach Mirror Lake, make sure you look up and you'll see your first objective: The Big Beehive! 

Mirror Lake en route to Lake Agnes with the Big Beehive in the background

We stopped for rest break number two at the tea house. This will be your last chance for bathrooms if you want them. After this, it's ducking behind trees until you hit the ledges.

Lake Agnes with the Devil's Thumb summit above (flat top at the left)

From the tea house, proceed around the right hand shoreline following the trail towards the Big Beehive lookout. It's a scenic hike around the lake and there are fun boulders to play on at the back of the lake. (The kids wanted another rest/play break here.)

Walking around Lake Agnes to the start of the climb up to the Big Beehive

From the back of the lake, climb a series of steep switchbacks up to the junction of the Big Beehive (to your left) and the Devil's Thumb (to your right.)

Rest stop at the back of Lake Agnes

Recommended tip here: Visit the Big Beehive before going up the Devil's Thumb trail. We did it in reverse and the view was rather anticlimactic after being on top of the Devil's Thumb. We would have appreciated the views from the Big Beehive more at the beginning. (And the kids would have had more energy for the quick jaunt too.)

So far you have hiked 5 km total to reach the Big Beehive and you have gained 650 metres of height! From here, the climbing comes in traverses, short spurts, quick grunts, and a final push. You've done most of the hard work.

Gazebo at the top of the Big Beehive looking over Lake Louise

Scrambling and Route finding to the Summit of the Devil's Thumb 

From the junction with the Big Beehive you'll go right (stepping over a log on the ground meant to discourage the casual hiker from accidentally taking this path.)

From here there are three distinct sections that you'll have to conquer as you climb to the top of the Devil's Thumb.

Short hands-on scramble section to gain the ledges 

1. Traversing the Ledges 

Almost immediately you'll be faced with a short hands-on scramble up a small cliff band as you gain access to a system of ledges that you'll follow. For me, this was the highlight. There was no climbing, the walking was generally flat with gradual height gain, and the views were spectacular. I wasn't particularly worried on this section and I found it easy enough to pass other hikers going the opposite direction.

The beginning of the ledges starts here

While I loved the ledges, others in my group found them to be mildly scary and said that they had to pay very close attention to their footing. This is a place where you'll want to make sure your children are walking slowly (not running,) paying attention to their surroundings, and not talking to their friends. The goal is to look at your feet and to stop if you want to look around.

The ledges were a scenic way to traverse to the Devil's Thumb
The ledges were never overly exposed, but you had to pay attention (T. Keller)

I would recommend that when passing people, insist that your children always hug the cliff and that other hikers take the outside to pass.

The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is far below us here to the left (T. Keller)

This photo captures the narrow nature of the ledges

2.  Clawing our way up to the Saddle below the Devil's Thumb

Sadly, the ledges end and you're left with a short but nasty section where you have to crawl, claw, and grovel you way up a loose section of dirt and scree (fine rock.)

None of us liked this part but it was relatively quick and painless (and shockingly, nobody fell on the way down - though some of the kids did slide down on their butts.)

Recommended Tips: You'll probably be using both hands here to haul yourself up the steep slope. Make sure you stick to the far left beside the trees, and do not go straight up the scree gully!!

Please also make sure that you do not knock rocks down on people below you! Be careful of your footing. And if you do dislodge a rock, scream "ROCK" loudly!!

I recommend wearing helmets for this part. We did not bring helmets and I was regretting it on descent when rocks were coming down towards us from above. (A good reason to do this hike mid-week when it's less busy!!)

And when you descend, again, stay out of the gully please! If you choose to come down the middle of the gully you'd better be able to confidently say that there is nobody below you! You will knock rocks down.

Clawing our way up a loose section to the saddle below the Devil's Thumb

3. Scrambling up boulders to the Summit

Once you reach the saddle, it's a short fun scramble through giant boulders up to the summit, a flat plateau where you can have your lunch, rest, and take photos down over Lake Agnes and Lake Louise.

There's a rough trail through the boulders so look carefully and pick your way up. You should not be doing any real climbing, so if the going gets too rough, it means you're likely not on the trail.

The final climb up to the saddle below the summit

Finally at the summit cairn of Devil's Thumb
Some of our mighty youth hikers

Descending back to Lake Louise

We made our way back down to the saddle and then butt scooted or slowly inched our way down the steep dirt/scree slope to reach the ledges. As mentioned above, rock fall was a hazard here from hikers above and I was never so happy to see the ledges where I felt safe again.

Hiking down to the saddle below the Devil's Thumb
Scrambling down the boulders from the summit (K.Anderson)
A final look at the ledges on our way down

We carefully made our way down the ledges and back to the junction with the Big Beehive. And this is where you have two options for your descent back to Mirror Lake.

From the Big Beehive junction you can either return the way you came (which I strongly recommend) or you can descend down the other side to the Highline Trail (immediately opposite the way you came up.)

We took the Highline Trail and it added both distance and height!! The descent trail should never add height! Sadly, you drop down below the height of Mirror Lake and have to climb back up a ways to reach it. I will never take this way back from the Devil's Thumb again.

So, lesson here: always return the way you came!

Regardless of which way you choose to descend, you'll end up at Mirror Lake and then make your way down to Lake Louise.

Looking down on the Big Beehive from the top of the Devil's Thumb

Please send me a message if you have additional questions.

Recommended Reading 

First Summits for Families in the Canadian Rockies - a complete guide from easy lookouts and viewpoints to intermediate challenging scrambles. I update this guide annually. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Mockingbird Lookout - Family Hiking in Kananaskis

The Mockingbird Lookout is an active fire lookout with a house perched at the top. This means you'll be rewarded with a great 360 view in all directions and you can expect easy hiking on the same road that the lookout attendant drives to reach his house.

The Mockingbird Fire Lookout in Kananaskis

Why you Need to add the Mockingbird Lookout to your Family Hiking List

  1. You only gain 355 metres of height on this hike, making it a great option for young children or for the whole family to enjoy together.

  2. Hiking to a fire lookout gives you a "summit" type experience and most children will feel like they've reached the top of a mountain.

  3. The hiking is easy on a wide gradual road the whole way to the lookout. It's also perfect for physical distancing (plenty of room for passing other groups.)

  4. The lookout is located in the Ghost Public Land Use Zone, a lesser visited area of Kananaskis. As long as you stay away from the random camping areas and leave your ATVs at home, hikers can expect a greater degree of solitude on hiking trails in this area than you would in other areas of Kananaskis. 

  5. This is a great opportunity to explore a new area of Kananaskis. Leave the hikes along Highway 40 for another day and enjoy checking out a more remote corner of Kananaskis.
Great views from the Mockingbird Lookout

Stats for the Hike

Distance: 5.8 km return

Height gain: 350 metres

Time it took us to complete the hike: Approximately 3.5 hours including a stop for lunch at the top.

Rating: It is an easy trail.

Best Guide Book: Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Volume 3, Gillean Daffern - Amazon affiliate link

All Trails Link - Mockingbird Lookout

Mockingbird Lookout, Kananaskis 

Trailhead Information for the Mockingbird Lookout

I suggest downloading the All Trails route for this one to help with finding the trailhead. You'll have to purchase the premium version of the app to do this, but I'm finding it very useful these days as we go in search of more remote (less crowded) hikes.

Without the app, here are my best directions to find the trailhead:

  • From Calgary, take the Highway 1A past Cochrane until you come to Highway 40 North. Turn right here.

  • Drive through Waiprous Village and keep going.

  • Turn left on Waiprous Valley Road (Google maps can help you here)

  • Drive past Camp Mockingbird (which shows up on Google maps and is reached in approximately an hour of driving from Cochrane)

  • Continue past Camp Mockingbird following signs for Camp Chamisall. Turn right just before the final stretch to the camp, staying on Waiprous Valley Road. Here's the google map route from Cochrane to Camp Chamisall.

  • Once you've made that final right hand turn, start watching for the fire lookout road on your right hand side. There should be other vehicles at the trailhead. 

If you don't want to download the All Trails route before you go, I suggest at least looking at the route before you leave cell coverage and you'll have a good idea of where you're going

Total driving time will be just over an hour from Cochrane and know that you'll be on gravel roads. Have a spare tire, know how to change a flat (trust me on this one,) and be prepared for some rough driving at the end once you turn onto Waiprous Valley Road. It's doable in a car if you drive slow.

Following the easy road up to the fire lookout

Hiking to the Mockingbird Fire Lookout Site 

There's not much to say here other than to follow the wide road all the way to the lookout. You'll know you're getting close when you see signs reminding people that somebody works/lives there and that you should not be firing guns.

Then you'll see the actual lookout sign and the short trail up to the top.

Note that the lookout attendant has a dog and he's often off leash (just letting you know in case you have children scared of dogs.) It's a lovely dog, but he could be scary to young children if they aren't prepared to have a dog running down to greet them on the trail.

Since this is an active fire lookout, please respect the lookout space. The outhouse is for private use only and you should ask permission to approach the house or the helicopter pad. There is a picnic table that is open for the public to use.

The attendant up there is very friendly and will often come out to chat with hikers.

Reaching the official lookout sign

Recommended Reading 

First Summits for Families in the Canadian Rockies - a complete guide from easy lookouts and viewpoints to intermediate challenging scrambles. I update this guide annually. 

Friday, July 17, 2020

First Summits - Jumpingpound Mountain, Kananaskis

This hike had been our list for a while, and we finally tackled it this summer. We checked off another family summit, and it was an easy one! This is the perfect "first summit" for families wanting to get that "we just climbed a mountain" feeling without a lot of effort or a huge time commitment.

Jumpingpound Mountain Summit, Kananaskis 

Introduction to Jumpingpound Mountain

The Jumpingpound Summit is located along Jumpingpound Ridge off Powderface Trail, a gravel road that makes its way through the Sibbald Creek Region of Kananaskis. 

The ridge itself is 13 km long, and you can access the summit from either end of the ridge. Most people however, use a shortcut trail to reach the summit directly at the midway point along the ridge. 

The Jumpingpound Summit Trail is a short easy way to get to the top of Jumpingpound Mountain without having to traverse the entire ridge.

Jumpingpound Mountain is a gorgeous objective for a family hike!

Stats for Jumpingpound Mountain 

Height Gain: 415 metres gained 

Distance: 6.5 km return 

Time that it took us: 3.5 hours including rest breaks and a relaxing lunch stop on the summit. (2 hours 40 minutes moving time.)

Age of kids we hiked with: Two boys, ages 10 and 11 

Recommended age for this hike: Fit children 5 and up could easily complete this trip if they like hiking and have done other trails of this nature. There is nothing technical about this trail and you follow a good path the entire time.

Best Guide Book: Family Walks and Hikes in the Canadian Rockies by Andrew Nugara (Affiliate link)

All Trails Link: Follow this link to see the route on the All Trails website. I downloaded the map before our trip so that I'd know where to park. (Note you have to pay for a premium subscription to download maps.) 

Most families should have few problems reaching this beautiful summit

Trailhead Location 

Drive west from Calgary on Highway 1, passing Calaway Park and the turnoff for Bragg Creek/Cochrane. Continue for another 15 minutes and turn onto Sibbald Creek Trail (Highway 68.)

Drive approximately 20 km until you reach Powderface Trail, shortly after the turnoff for Sibbald Lake. Powderface Trail is a rough gravel road so take your time and keep your speed in check. 

Once you're on Powderface Trail, it's about 18 km to the trailhead (just a pullout on the side of the road with no obvious sign.) - Why I downloaded the route from All Trails. 

If you follow this link, I have the directions in Google Maps from Calaway Park to the Jumpingpound Summit Trail. 

Traversing open meadows en route to the summit of Jumpingpound Mountain

What to Expect from the Hike to the Summit of Jumpingpound Mountain

The first part of the trail is a well traveled path through the forest with no views, and you'll gradually gain height the entire time. This is where you'll gain 90% of your height and where you'll want candy or other motivational treats. The terrain is never overly steep, but the kids will remind you that you're going uphill.

Expect this part to last anywhere from an hour to two hours depending on the speed of your group.

Finally you reach the ridge trail though and things improve quickly! In early summer you'll be rewarded with meadows filled with wildflowers, and the walking gets easier with most of the height gain behind you. You finally get to enjoy some pleasant traversing along the wide ridge.

The hiking gets much easier when you reach the ridge

You'll turn left at a trail sign to follow the ridge trail until you come to another junction where you turn right on the final trail to the summit. One short steep push, and you're on top of the beautiful summit where you'll definitely want to spend some time enjoying the views.

Note this summit can often be very windy so choose a calm day!! Other than that, there are no technical challenges for this hike. The trail is never narrow and there is no exposure. This is purely a hike.

The final summit push on the Jumpingpound Ridge

Tips and Suggestions

Hike this trail mid-week if you want a more peaceful experience. It has become quite popular this summer. I also recommend hiking this trail when the wildflowers are out. (I've done it in fall and it was less inspiring at that time.)

As mentioned above, you'll want to choose a warm sunny day so you can hang out at the summit. This  is not a place you'll spend much time at if it's windy or cold. 

Hiking along the rocky ridge crest from the summit

Recommended Reading

First Summits for Families in the Canadian Rockies - a complete guide from easy lookouts and viewpoints to intermediate challenging scrambles. I update this guide annually. 

Parting shot on the Jumpingpound Ridge Trail

Friday, June 12, 2020

Wild Adventures in the Elbow Valley, Kananaskis

We've all been to Elbow Falls,  the Fullerton Loop was probably one of your first family hikes in Kananaskis, and maybe your kids have even climbed Prairie Mountain. So let's drive a little further into the Elbow Valley and let me tell you about some of my favourite wild adventures where the pavement ends.

The best Elbow adventures begin where the pavement ends (Powderface Ridge)

Staging your Adventures from the Little Elbow Campground 

The Little Elbow Campground is very close to Calgary for a short weekend getaway. Located in the Elbow Valley outside Bragg Creek, you can be at camp Friday night in time to roast hot dogs over the fire for dinner.

There are 64 sites suitable for RVs or tents, along with 30 walk-in tenting sites. The campground is rustic with no showers, pit toilets, and only unserviced sites. All roads are gravel (so leave the scooters and skateboards behind.)

The Little Elbow Provincial Recreation Area is an amazing destination for a weekend trip with great trails you can access without ever having to leave your campsite.

The Elbow River is a lot of fun to play in with sandy beach areas and enough rocks to entertain the children for hours. The area under the suspension bridge in camp is especially fun.

The Little Elbow Provincial Recreation Area  is a great place to explore near Calgary

Hiking the Nihahi Ridge Trail 

This hike starts from the back of the Little Elbow Campground and it's a great tent to trail hike. If you're not staying in the campground, you'll have a kilometre long walk or bike ride to reach the trailhead from the parking lot near Forgetmenot Pond because there is no parking in the campground itself.

I love this hike because it's a great "choose your own adventure" outing. Start off on the official maintained trail and you can complete a relatively easy 5 km round trip hike (400 metres height gain) to a beautiful viewpoint along the ridge. There are a few steep parts so hike as far as you feel comfortable and turn around.

Hiking the Nihahi Ridge Trail in the Elbow Valley 

Continue beyond the end of the official trail and you can scramble up to a higher viewpoint along the ridge where most children will feel like they've climbed a mountain.

Note there is a hands on scrambling section you'll have to tackle to reach this viewpoint where there's a short cliff band resembling a staircase. There is also loose rock and scree along with steep hiking on unofficial trails.

The photo below is from this viewpoint after climbing up the first cliff band.

Nihahi Ridge viewpoint along the lower ridge

For families with significant scrambling and hiking experience you can scramble further to gain the actual ridge, climbing up a second cliff band (significantly more challenging than the first one.) From here it's a short walk along the airy ridge to the South Summit.

Going to the South Summit requires an additional 4.4 km of hiking (return) from the end of the official trail along with an additional 400 metres of height gain.

Read more here:

Airy ridge walking to the South Summit (our son was on a rope here)

Here's the Nihahi Ridge route on All Trails (which goes beyond the end of the official trail.)

And here's the Nihahi Ridge hike on the Alberta Parks website

Glorious ridge walking on Nihahi Ridge near the South Summit

Hiking Forgetmenot Ridge 

This is another great hike that starts right from the Little Elbow Campground. If you're driving out for the day, park at the Forgetmenot Pond day use area and hike across the suspension bridge to access the Big Elbow Trail. From there you'll start with a chilly ford of the Elbow River (for that reason alone I like to save this hike until later in the summer/fall when the river is low.)

This is a very steep hike and you'll gain 600 metres of height climbing up to the North Summit (as far as you'll want to go with children.) Round trip distance is 9 km.

The giant summit cairn on the North Summit of Forgetmenot Ridge 

Fortunately, the trail is relatively free of any technical challenges. There are no cliff bands, you won't have to use your hands at all, and you definitely won't need a rope to reach the summit!

Want to go further? You can hike an additional 3 km along the ridge to reach the South Summit (total distance of 15 km round trip.) Personally, the North Summit was plenty for us when we did the hike.

Crossing the Elbow River (which is quite low in fall)

Read more here:

Read: First Summits: Forget Me Not Ridge, Kananaskis 

Here's the Forgetmenot Ridge Route on All Trails (which goes beyond the north summit)

Hiking along the top of Forgetmenot Ridge 

Hiking Powderface Ridge

This official trailhead for this ridge starts at the end of highway 66 where the pavement ends (right before you drive into the Little Elbow Campground.) From this parking area it's a steep 600 metre climb (10 km round trip distance.)

For an easier outing, we always do a traverse via Three Trail Pass allowing us to gain only 400 metres of height, hiking across the ridge, and descending the official trail in a complete distance of 7 km.

The ridge walk is easy and very beautiful along Powderface Ridge

I love this hike because it's never very steep if you start from Three Trail Pass and there are no technical challenges.

Start and end from Three Trail Pass for the easiest hike (6 km round trip.)

Main Summit of Powderface Ridge

Below are the trail resources for this one:

This is the route for the official trail from Highway 66 on All Trails  (the distance assumes you are both ascending and descending this way.)

This is the route from Three Trail Pass on All Trails (the distance assumes you are returning the same way and the route goes beyond the main summit to the East summit.)

Put the two routes together to create your traverse from Powderface Trail to Highway 66. (note you'll need two vehicles.) If you don't have a second vehicle, I recommend starting and ending from Three Trail Pass because it's a steep slog from Highway 66.

This is the description from the Alberta Parks website (where there is a good map showing both trailheads.)

All kids love this big boulder that you'll pass by on your descent down to highway 66

Biking the Big Elbow Trail 

If you like mountain biking, you can bike a section of the Little Elbow Trail or the Big Elbow Trail, both wide gravel roads that start from the Little Elbow Campground.

We personally like biking on the Big Elbow Trail until we reach a beautiful viewpoint along the river. It's 8 km one way to the Big Elbow Campground but we've only biked the first 5 km for an easy round trip distance of 10 km.

Biking on the Big Elbow Trail from the Little Elbow Campground

We've also done this as an easy chariot hike and it was one of my favourite trips we did when my son was a toddler.

See the Big Elbow Trail on Trail Forks

Chariot hiking along the Big Elbow Trail in the early days 

Other Adventures near the Little Elbow Campground

We still have many trails that we haven't explored as a family. Below are a couple that you can check out if you want more suggestions for adventure from the Little Elbow Campground:

Ford Knoll Loop hike - 5.3 km loop with 200 metres of height gain. Starts from Forgetmenot Pond. This is a great option with little kids who aren't big enough for Nihahi Ridge.

Nihahi Creek Canyon bike and hike - Bike the Little Elbow Trail until you reach Nihahi Creek. Hike up the creek to the canyon for a fun adventure. All Trails says it is 16 km return but you can turn around before reaching the end of the canyon.

Forgetmenot Pond is a beautiful picnic area for a day trip

Picnic, paddling, and fishing at Forgetmenot Pond - This beautiful day use area has picnic tables, fire pits, easy trails for walking around with young children, and a small pond for fishing. You can also bring the stand up paddleboards or sit on top kayaks for the kids.

There's also a fun area to play at under the suspension bridge where there is a rocky beach area.

Beach below the suspension bridge in the Little Elbow Campground