Wednesday, July 05, 2017

First Summits - Little Lougheed, Spray Valley Provincial Park

We are always looking for relatively easy summits that we can hike up with children, and it's always a bonus if we can find a trail that we don't have to share with dozens of other groups. The reality of doing easy hikes though is that you're almost never alone. The easy summits are always crowded and solitude can be hard to find.

Summit of Little Lougheed, Spray Valley Provincial Park - and we had the mountain to ourselves

A couple of weeks ago we found a hidden gem in Kananaskis, a trail that has somehow escaped guidebooks, and a summit that we had all to ourselves. We didn't see a single other party on our hike the entire day until we were well on our way down the mountain and ran into a small group who'd stopped halfway up and was taking photos before returning to their vehicles.

Little Lougheed is a fabulous hike, an easy summit with very few hands-on moments (none if you're comfortable scrambling up boulders,) one of the most scenic trips we've ever done in Kananaskis,  and completely off the grid! Trust me, try to find this hike in any of the local guide books. (I only found it in one -and it was a book on snowshoeing!)

You'll be rewarded with gorgeous views the entire ascent of Little Lougheed

Introduction to Little Lougheed

Mount Lougheed has several summits, one of which is the tiny peak, known as "Little Lougheed." The trailhead is found near the Spray Lakes West Campground in Spray Valley Provincial Park off of Highway 742 (the Smith Dorrien Trail) out of Canmore.

Hiking to the summit of Little Lougheed with the Spray Lakes Reservoir below us

Complete directions to the Trailhead:

Head south of Canmore on Highway 742 and pass by the turnoff for the Spray Lakes West Campground. (don't turn in, but drive past the dam.)

The trip starts at Spencer Creek (not shown on most maps) and is 2.8 km south of Spurling Creek (which also might not show up on many maps.) What I did find though on Google Maps was a faint line going up to the summit of Windtower (which is the trail for West Wind Pass,) and another faint line to the south heading up to the summit of Mt. Lougheed (which is where you'll park.) - And honestly, we parked the car right at the exact trailhead just by using the dotted line on  Google Maps for Mt. Lougheed.

You'll see the trail heading into the trees right where you park your vehicle on the side of the highway. (This is a great trail and it leads straight to the High Rockies Trail above you, paralleling the highway.)

And if you reach the Sparrowhawk Day Use Area, you've gone too far. It is further south of the trailhead for Little Lougheed.

If you're coming from the South, from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, aim for Sparrowhawk Day Use Area and then look for the dotted trail line on Google Maps for Mt. Lougheed to the north of you.

Trailhead location (courtesy of Marko Stavric)

Stats for our Summit of Little Lougheed 

Height Gain: 780 metres (but felt like more!)

Distance: Approximately 5 km return (again, felt like much more)

Time it took us: 6.5 hours total (4 hours up and 2.5 hours down)

Age of kids We hiked with: Two 8 and 9 year old boys. We also had two younger children with us but they stopped at the ridge.

Best Guide Book: More Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies by Andrew Nugara. (Amazon affiliate link.)

You will  be tired when you reach the summit!

Hiking up from the Highway to the Boulder Field

The first part of the hike was delightful. We got on a good, easy to follow trail, right from the highway and it led us through this magical world of moss, a meandering creek, and a beautiful little forest. (I honestly expected to see fairies or elves.) Make sure you save some time to play here on your way down.

The magical mossy forest
After a very short walk, we intersected the High Rockies Trail which starts at Goat Creek and continues down to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. We turned left onto the High Rockies Trail (a very wide double track bike trail) and had very easy travelling for ten to fifteen minutes.

We jumped off the High Rockies Trail at a small marker on the right hand side of the trail. It was a small rock cairn with flagging where a good trail headed up into the trees. The trail was easy to follow (at first) and was relatively gradual for height gain. So far, it was all a walk in the park.

Gradually, the good trail began to disappear and we had to watch attentively for flagging. This is the point where I became glad we had two excellent route finders in our group. If I had been on my own, I would have been quite nervous picking my way through the forest on what had become a very unofficial trail. (I'm surprised it shows up on Google Maps because I wouldn't call this a trail!)

Heading uphill through the forest eventually led us to a very large boulder field. Here you have choices. Head up through the boulders (which we did on the way up) or hike beside the boulders through the forest for easier traveling (which we did on the way down.)

You might not get further than this once the kids start playing in the creek

Hiking through the Boulder Field to the Ridge below Little Lougheed

We decided to hike straight up through the boulder field and the kids loved it! It was tedious and took a long time picking our way through the giant rocks, but at least the kids were entertained. I'll take this any day over a boring plod through the trees.

Hiking up through the boulder field en route to the ridge on Little Lougheed

Alternately you can bypass the boulder field on the right hand side by just hiking beside it.

The map below from fellow scrambler, Marko Stavric  shows three routes to the ridge.

"Green is probably the best path if people are looking for a faint trail. Red goes right through the boulder field, which is fun to explore. Purple stays on the amphitheater trail for a little while before a short bushwhack to gain the faint trail up Little Lougheed.

Various route options up Little Lougheed (photo: Marko Stavric)

We followed what would have been Marko's green line on the High Rockies Trail and forest trail above, and then up to the base of the boulder field. From there we took his red route to the ridge, straight through the boulder field angling to the left to avoid a sub peak you want to miss. On the way down we followed the green line the whole time going around the boulder field.

The boulder field was challenging but fun!

And while I wish I could provide a more detailed description to get you to the ridge, the reality is that this is a scramble on a very unofficial trail. If you do not have good route finding skills, this is not the hike for you or your family.  I would never have chosen this hike for a family outing had I not have been with a very strong, accomplished group, led by two dads who both have extensive mountaineering experience.

Finally reached the ridge!

Hiking up the Ridge to Treeline below the Summit

We reached the ridge and had fabulous views down to the Spray Lakes Reservoir. This was a great spot for one family in our group to stop as they had two very young children with them (including a 3.5 year old who'd hiked most of the way on his own up till this point) and it was a very hot day. Google Maps also showed us half way at most and we knew we still had a lot of height to gain!

Group photo at the ridge before we lost four members and split ways (photo: Sean Strang)

We continued with the two 8 and 9 year old boys up the ridge towards treeline. This was one of the "easier" parts of the hike in terms of route finding. Head left and go UP.

The challenge at this point though was that the trail was very steep, unrelenting, and suddenly not as interesting without the boulders to pick our way through.

Thank god for the views!!! It helped a lot as we plodded our way to the summit

Both boys lost steam as we hiked up the ridge and it almost looked as if our journey would be cut short half way to the summit. Fortunately, my son Noah caught a second wind shortly up the ridge and took off at a pace I could hardly keep up with. His friend slowly plodded on and both boys made treeline where the views became even more spectacular.

Following the ridge to treeline below the summit

The Final Summit Push

We left our friends at the bench below the summit where the trees suddenly ended. Noah's friend had run out of energy and at this point, it was 100% mental. Either you pulled deep from your energy reserves and continued, or you didn't.  Both boys were tired and it took sheer will power at this point. (Something Noah's been building one trip at a time over the last few years.)

Treeline and the final summit approach ahead of us (which looks easy, right?)

The final 50 metres or so to the summit honestly didn't look too bad from below but the trail grew steeper, very rubbly, and loose. It wasn't too bad on the way up, but it was very sketchy on the way down and we had to be very careful not to slip and fall on the rocks constantly turning under our feet.

Climbing rubble on the final scramble to the summit

You'll be bashing your way through rubble to the summit, veering to the left to avoid cliff bands. Once we reached the final summit ridge, it was a fun little walk (airy in spots) to the summit cairn. While it was never extremely exposed, attention certainly was called for and a slip could have been fatal if a child fell off the far side of the ridge in spots.

Reaching the summit ridge - at last!

The Summit of Little Lougheed

Never was victory so sweet! The summit of Little Lougheed is one of the prettiest in Kananaskis (in my opinion) and we worked our butts off to get here.

The summit of Little Lougheed

Never in a zillion years would I call this a "kid hike" or a "family outing" but my son Noah crushed it and was honestly still running when we hit the parking lot after catching a second wind on his way up the ridge. He was a power house this day and I hope to see this side of him on our future hikes this summer.

Summit Victory!
Appreciating the views from the summit of Little Lougheed

The Descent

We could have stayed on the summit for hours on this beautiful day without a hint of a breeze and barely a cloud in the sky. Unfortunately, we had to eventually start the dreadful process of going back down the steep trail we'd come up.

Walking back along the ridge on Little Lougheed
Pausing before the descent of the rubble slope off the summit

There's not a lot left to be said at this point but both boys were very perky on the way down, running, jumping off of rocks, and stopping only occasionally for a quick sip of water. They made short work of the 800 metre descent and arrived back at the creek in good spirits.

Running down the boulder field to reach the highway

 Sadly, we didn't have time to stop and play in the creek on our descent so we'll have to come back sometime (with bikes) to explore the High Rockies Trail.

The moss beside the boulder field was as soft as a bed! (and very soft on the feet on the descent)

Is your Family is Ready for Little Lougheed?

  1. How are your route finding skills? You'll want and need them for this outing. If you don't have a strong background in off-trail hiking and scrambling, you'll want to choose something with a better trail for your family outing.

  2. How are your kids on steep terrain? Little Lougheed was relentless at times and I won't lie - it was a bit of a slog near the end.

  3. What other summits have you done as a family? Good prerequisite trips would be nearby Windtower, Heart Mountain, the East end of Mount Rundle, or some of the big hike-up summits near Lake Louise such as Mount Fairview or Mount St. Piran.

  4. How do your kids do on boulders, scree, rubble, and loose rock? You'll need sure footing to get up and down Little Lougheed safely.

Much of the trail on Little Lougheed looks like this!


Recommended Reading

Read my last story: First Summits - Heart Mountain Family Scramble. This story has a giant list at the end containing all of my other "first summit" stories. (Including many that are great for beginners.)

I also recommend reading Family Hiking at the Next Level - Scrambles and Summits. I write about our hike up Nihahi Ridge to the South Summit in this story and provide a good overview of the sport of "scrambling," adding plenty of notes on how to do it safely with kids.

Another story I recommend is my First Summits - The East End of Mt Rundle Summit as a Family. In this story I cover several reflections I've learned while hiking difficult trails with children.
Each reflection or lesson has helped us learn how to have more successful outings.

My boys on Little Lougheed

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