Thursday, September 21, 2017

Pocaterra Ridge - Family Hiking in Kananaskis

Highwood Pass is a glorious place to hike in the fall when the larch trees are turning golden yellow. We timed our visit a little early before the trees had reached their colour peak, but it meant we could enjoy our 5 km ridge walk without snow or ice on the steep sections.

5 kilometres of high alpine ridge walking on Pocaterra Ridge

Pocaterra Ridge Overview

There are several ways to hike this ridge but our favourite always requires a car shuttle and a one-way traverse from Highwood Pass to Little Highwood Pass. Start high at Highwood Pass and you'll save yourself some height gain. Hike with friends, park a second vehicle at Little Highwood Pass, and you'll enjoy a glorious one-way outing without any backtracking. You'll also get to hike the full 5 km ridge if you do the traverse.

Looking ahead at our next two summits on the Pocaterra Ridge Traveerse

The hike starts from the Highwood Meadows Day Use area on the Highwood Meadows Trail, and finishes at the Little Highwood Pass Day Use Area.

Hiking along Highwood Pass from the first summit

The Stats on the Hike

Total Distance from Highwood Pass to Little Highwood Pass: 10 km (with 5 km on the ridge)

Height Gain: Approximately 900 metres gain and 600 metres loss (but numbers vary depending on which website or book you look at.)

Time that it took our group: 5 hours (but we were moving at a pretty decent adult pace with two very strong 8 year olds.)

Our guide book that we used: Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Volume 1, by Gillean Daffern

High alpine ridge walking across Pocaterra Ridge

Approaching the Ridge Via Pocaterra Cirque from Highwood Pass

The hike starts from the Highwood Meadows Trail at Highwood Pass. Follow the interpretive trail until you reach a a sign that mentions staying on official trails and respecting the environment. There is a smaller dirt trail heading left here through a meadow. That is your trail. (And yes, you are allowed to hike it

Pocaterra Cirque Trail heading towards the pond below the ridge

Follow the unofficial trail into the cirque, heading for the pond shown in the photo below. The rough rooty (and often muddy) trail is relatively easy to follow for those who have good route finding skills. It is approximately 2.5 to 3 km to the pond.

The pond at the base of Pocaterra Ridge in the background

Once you reach the pond, continue on the unofficial trail through a gorgeous little larch forest until you reach the base of the ridge. You'll come to a junction where the Grizzly Col trail heads off to your left (you'll see the steep trail heading up the scree to the ridge) and that is not the way you want to go.

Continue past the Grizzly Col junction until you are at the bottom of the ridge you see in the photo above with the pond. From there, it's relatively straight forward. Climb UP and you'll know when you've reached the top of the first summit. From there, there's only 3 more summits to go (and 2 smaller bumps.)

Hiking through a small larch forest en route  to the Pocaterra Ridge slopes

Climbing up to the First Summit of Pocaterra Ridge 

This is where you'll gain the majority of your height in a steep push to the first summit on Pocaterra Ridge. From the top, you'll still have to go up and down over three more smaller summits, but you'll have done most of the hard work.

Climbing the steep slopes of Pocaterra Ridge to the first summit

For those who don't want to set up a car shuttle, or if you are starting to realize that the kids will never make it over 3 more summits on the full traverse, you can always tag the first summit and head back the same way. This would  be approximately a 9 km hike. (Really, not much shorter than the full 10, but at least you wouldn't have all the height gain to contend with going over the rest of the summits. And it's easier hiking through the cirque than it is on the ridge)

Climbing the rough trail up Pocaterra Ridge

Hiking the 5 Km Traverse of Pocaterra Ridge

I LOVE ridge traverses, and Pocaterra Ridge is a great family one with no narrow sketchy parts. The ridge is generally quite wide most of the time, you likely won't have to put your hands down too many times to scramble over anything, and there are no steep cliffs for the kids to fall off of.

This is as narrow as it gets on Pocaterra Ridge near the first summit

The most challenging part of the ridge walk is that you'll have to go up and down over 4 summits total (with 2 smaller bumps.) For us, it felt like there were 6 peaks. And towards the end, the kids were not happy when they saw more bumps they had to go over. (Each one requiring more climbing.)

Standing on the first summit, you can see the next three bumps you'll go over along the ridge

And for families wondering if they can do this hike carrying babies or hiking with toddlers that will require some carrying as well, know that it is very steep and loose coming  down off of the first summit. We saw one lady descending on her hands and knees in total fear on this part (though I'm suspecting her friends may have chosen a hike that was a bit beyond her comfort and experience level.)

My kid always likes to be on the very top of the ridge

The Basics for What you're Getting Yourself in for on the Ridge Traverse:

  • It is a very steep climb up to the top of the first summit from the cirque below.

  • It is rough hiking and not a beginner trail. Basic route finding is required for the entire trip and it's recommended you have done other ridges walk as adults before bringing the kids along.

  • The trail is very loose and steep coming down from the first summit on the traverse. Previous hiking experience on unofficial, rough, scrambly trails is recommended.

  • Make sure your kids will be able to make the full traverse before you leave the first summit. Go too far, and it will be a long hike back if you decide to turn around.

  • This ridge is usually covered in snow by mid to late September (as it already is this year.) Bring ice cleats or micro spikes if you are hiking it in fall.

Traversing around the side of the ridge as we head towards the next two peaks in the distance

This hike was extremely challenging with all of the ups and downs for each peak, but it was also very rewarding! How often after all will you find a ridge walk with 5 kilometres of high alpine hiking above tree line. (That only requires 10 km of total hiking for the day!)

The boys hiking towards yet another bump along the ridge that we'll go up and over

More Photos from the Pocaterra Ridge Walk 

Looking back on two of the summits we climbed up and over on the traverse
Rest break on Pocaterra Ridge
One of the high points looking down towards the Elbow Lake Valley
My boys hiking along the top of Pocaterra Ridge as we  get back to tree line
Always a new pose
Nearing the end of the ridge and the trees are starting to reappear

Back in Tree Line and the End of the Ridge Traverse

This was probably the hardest part of the hike because by now, the boys were starting to get tired, and we still had one more summit to go over.

Fortunately, the larch trees were starting to change colour here, and it was quite pretty along this section.

Larch Trees on Pocaterra Ridge
By late September, this whole forest would be a bright golden yellow
Pocaterra Ridge is glorious in the fall
Forests turn magical in September

We enjoyed the end of our ridge traverse and made it to the final summit just as the wind was picking up. We could smell rain in the air and knew we'd best hurry to get off the ridge.

Looking back on a large part of the ridge we'd just traversed

Note for families contemplating hiking this ridge (or any ridge really) - always check the weather forecast. You don't want strong winds or rain showing up when you're on an exposed ridge.

Last shot on the ridge before the wind threatened to blow us off

Hiking off Pocaterra Ridge to the Highway and Little Highwood Pass 

From the end of the ridge, there's a good trail that leads you all the way down to the forest, half a kilometre from the highway. And while it's steep, it's never loose. It's actually a really good trail that I wish we'd find at the end of more hikes!

Final bump before we left the ridge

Down in the forest off the ridge, you'll have to do a bit of route finding to find the highway, but just head for the creek, cross it on logs, and then head for the sound of the road. We found a pretty good trail and didn't have any problems with not getting lost.

Hiking through the forest down to Little Highwood Pass

Now hopefully you've got a second car parked at Little Highwood Pass or else you're going to have to try hitchhiking back to your vehicle. Fortunately, most people are pretty good at giving hikers a ride between parking lots in this area.

For more suggestions of hikes to do this fall, check out my Gotta do THIS September story. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Family Touring around Nelson and the West Kootenays, British Columbia

We'd been wanting to spend some time camping in the West Kootenay area of British Columbia for years now. We finally added it to the calendar this summer and chose to camp near Nelson so that we could spent lots of time at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park (even if we couldn't get a campsite there.)

The amazing Sandspit Beach at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park

By staging our West Kootenay summer vacation out of the Nelson area, we would also be able to try biking a new rail trail, we'd get the opportunity to paddle a section of the TransCanada Trail, and we'd be super close to Ainsworth Hot Springs (my favourite hot springs in all of BC.)

Biking across a trestle bridge on the Great Northern Rail Trail outside Nelson

Below are our highlights from four nights camping in the Nelson area this past summer.

Beach Time at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park

We had hoped to camp at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park but apparently you can't show up on a Saturday of a long weekend or even make a reservation unless you can commit to being there on Friday as well. We were coming from Kelowna and unfortunately had planned poorly to be arriving in the middle of the August long weekend. Fortunately for us, there are tons of private campgrounds around and so we camped 10 minutes away from Kokanee Creek, and made day trips to Sandspit Beach.

A little sandy island in the middle of Kootenay Lake, Sandspit Beach

The highlight of our time in the West Kootenays was spending afternoons at Sandspit Beach in Kokanee Creek Provincial Park. True to its name, there is a giant sandspit stretching out into Kootenay Lake. You can walk out into the lake for several hundred metres before the water goes anywhere near knee deep.

My  boys running across Kootenay Lake (the beach way in the background)

It was absolutely surreal to be able to walk across a lake, to be able to play games of catch or tag in the middle of the lake, and to just have fun playing in the extremely shallow water. Step off the sandspit though, and the water immediately plunged much deeper.

This was in the middle of Kootenay Lake on the Sandspit

My son made a friend at the beach and the boys loved playing on their own little private island they found out on the sandspit. They built sand castles and fortresses, and I created my own little hot tub. It was magical and we can't wait to go back next summer!

Our own private island in the middle of Kokanee Lake

Biking the Great Northern Rail Trail

One of our summer goals was to bike a new rail trail. Lucky for us, there are several to choose from in the West Kootenays.

Riding across a trestle bridge between Cottonwood Lake and Nelson

We decided to do a section of the Great Northern Rail Trail from Cottonwood Lake down to Nelson. This is a section of the TransCanada trail that crosses our entire country. The biggest challenge in the end was finding information on the trail.

Through a combined assortment of resources and research, I finally put together some basic beta on this ride.

Cottonwood Lake to Nelson: Cottonwood Lake to the parking lot at the top of Elwyn Street in Nelson - 8 km one way at a 3% rail grade all downhill.

We enjoyed awesome downhill coasting from Cottonwood Lake to Nelson (we barely had to pedal) and we were in town in no time! We "truck dropped" the trail with my husband riding back up to get the truck once we reached the Nelson city limits. (which made my son and I very happy.)

On our ride we crossed 3 trestle bridges (of note because the Visitor Centre told me there were none on this section!)

One of the trestle bridges we rode over on our way to Nelson

While waiting for my husband to meet us at the parking lot at the top of Elwyn Street in town, my son and I decided to ride a little bit further to see how far we could get towards Troup Beach (the end of the trail.)

Nelson to Troup Beach: Starting at the top of Elwyn Street in town, it is an 8 km ride one way downhill to Troup. This is again rail grade, and you'll have to bike back up again because there is no parking lot or road access for Troup Beach.

The bridges were definitely a highlight of the ride

We rode 6 km towards Troup Beach, stopping a couple kilometres short of the end. We rode over 3 more trestle bridges (for a total of 6 bridges) and then turned around to bike back up to Elwyn. The return ride was uphill, but never steep. It was very doable for my son and I, and we never struggled with the easy rail grade.

In total, I'd estimate we rode 20 km and only had to bike 6 km uphill. The rest was all down. (and note, I use the word "estimate" because I didn't have anything on me tracking our distance, and I've found conflicting numbers in my research.)

Happy Biker on the Great Northern Rail Trail

The Rosemont Mountain Bike Park in Nelson

We love visiting mountain bike parks, skills parks, and pump tracks when we travel. And the one in Nelson was something else!

The Rosemont Bike Park was rather "Epic" for a bike park. And I'd highly suggest elbow and knee padding for the kids (possibly a full face helmet.)

Flowy downhill riding at the Rosemont Mountain Bike Park in Nelson

This park has a nice pump track but it would be very dangerous to just play around on it without starting at the very top of the park and riding down. Older riders bike up a steep course to ride down one of several mountain bike trails, ending at the pump track (which they circle before finishing.) If you have young children wanting to just play on the pump track, make sure no older kids are riding down from above.

This park is basically a miniature "downhill mountain bike park" as you'd see at a ski resort. (without a chairlift.) Ride up, choose your path, and bike down. Repeat multiple times.

Riding down one of the intermediate features at the bike park

There are many different technical trail features, wooden features, and paths to choose from. (all rated as beginner, intermediate, or advanced.)

There is also a really fun skate park beside the mountain bike park. My son enjoyed riding on both.

The Rosemont Skatepark, Nelson

Paddling on Kootenay Lake - TransCanada Trail Paddle Route

Most people don't realize that the TransCanada Trail, a fabulous network that crosses our entire country, is made up of both land and marine sections. And while we've hiked several sections of the trail network, we had never paddled a section until this trip out to Nelson.

Kayaking along the West Arm Paddle Route outside of Nelson

We kayaked a very short section of the West Arm Paddle Route between Balfour Bay and Kokanee Creek Provincial Park. In total, this route is 29.63 km from Balfour to Nelson. And some day it would be fun to do the whole thing.

Kayaking from Balfour Bay along Kootenay Lake

I would have loved to have done our short outing on my stand up paddleboard, but I had a shoulder injury I was dealing with the whole time we were in Nelson, and so had to content myself with playing princess in the bow of our tandem kayak.

Kayaking down Kootenay Lake from Balfour towards Nelson

Ainsworth Hot Springs

The Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort was at the top of my list for places I wanted to visit on our trip. While I always love hot springs, I especially enjoy these ones because of the natural cave located beside the hottest pool. You can swim/walk through the cave, crawl up into little rocky nooks (giving you a sauna type experience,) and stand under a hot waterfall inside the horseshoe shaped cave. It's truly a magical experience to walk through a cave filled with hot mineral water!

Standing in the hot pool at Ainsworth in the entrance to the natural cave

I also like that the water at the Ainsworth Hot Springs is actually HOT. I find some hot spring pools to be too chilly for my liking. Ainsworth however, has three different pools, and the hottest one is just perfect for me at 42 degrees Celsius. (the same temperature as it is in the cave.)

For those who don't want a prolonged soak in 42 degree water, there is also a main lounging pool that's only 35 degrees Celsius. (much more comfortable for extended soaking.)

And, in between walking through the cave, soaking in the hot pool, or relaxing in the main pool, one definitely has to take a quick dip in the plunge pool (with water straight from nearby Munn Creek, and freezing cold!)

Paradise at Ainsworth Hot Springs

We only had four nights in the Nelson area, so we only covered a very small amount of activities that one can actually do in this area of the West Kootenays. For more information or travel suggestions, consider visiting the Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism website.

Parting shot of Kokanee Creek Provincial Park and Sandspit Beach

Disclaimer:  This trip was not sponsored by any tourism bureau, park, or business. All opinions are my own.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Rawson Lake and Sarrail Ridge - Family Hiking in Kananaskis

We're usually busy climbing mountains and chasing summits, but Sarrail Ridge has been calling out to me for a few years with its stunning vantage point over Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes.  My son had also never hiked to Rawson Lake in summer before, easily one of the most popular hikes in Kananaskis Country.

Sarrail Ridge, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis

Hiking from Upper Kananaskis Lake to Rawson Lake

Quick Stats:

Parking Lot and Trailhead - Upper Lake Day Use Area

Distance to Rawson Lake - 3.9 km one way

Height gain to Rawson Lake -  320 metres

Sarrail Falls en route to Rawson Lake

Rawson Lake, Kananaskis
The hike starts with an easy walk around a short section of the Upper Kananaskis Lake Circuit (in a clockwise direction lest you take the wrong trail and end up at the Point backcountry campground instead.) En route you'll pass by Sarrail Falls and a new bridge, recently built since the last flood.

The waterfall is reached in a short 1.2 km walk on a very easy, relatively flat, well marked trail. After this, you come to the junction with Rawson Lake where you'll leave the lakeshore trail.

From the junction with the Rawson Lake trail, you begin to climb on a well switch-backed trail with tons of zigs and zags. It is steep to begin with, but rest assured, it does level off a bit after the initial switchbacks.

Beyond the description above, there's not much else to say because this is an official, well marked trail. It would be near impossible to get lost, and you'll share the trail with many other users most of the year (including winter when it's a popular snowshoe trail.)

Gorgeous Rawson Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

Hiking around Rawson Lake to the Slopes of Sarrail Ridge

We stopped to have lunch beside the lakeshore before continuing our hike. From here, we followed a good trail around the left hand side of the lake (always accompanied by dozens of other hikers,) until we reached the far end.

Hiking on a narrow rock trail around the left hand side of Rawson Lake

It became quickly apparent what our objective was for the day as we looked up at Sarrail Ridge at the far right side of the lake.

Hiking around Rawson Lake with Sarrail Ridge behind us

If you start hiking around the lake and realize that the ridge looks too steep, too far away, or just too much of an undertaking, you can always stop at the back of the lake, and still have had a lovely hike up to this point. - That's one of the best parts about this hike! You don't have to make it to the top to have enjoyed some quality scenery.

Hiking to the far end of Rawson Lake
No bad scenery as you hike around Rawson Lake

Climbing Up Sarrail Ridge from Rawson Lake

Quick Stats:

Distance from Rawson Lake to the top of Sarrail Ridge: 1.4 km one way

Height gain to the top of Sarrail Ridge: 366 metres

Climbing straight up the steep dirt slopes of Sarrail Ridge
Climbing up Sarrail Ridge

You will know you're in for a slog when you see the people ahead of you climbing up the slopes of Sarrail Ridge, on a trail that goes straight UP. There are no pretty little switch backs, no meandering trail through the trees, and the trail is far from maintained or official.

I honestly hated this part of the hike and was never so glad as when I reached the top of the ridge. The trail was loose, dirty, slippery (even worse on the way down,) and plain nasty! There is nothing fun about the slog up Sarrail Ridge.

The only good thing about the climb is that it's quick and dirty, meaning you'll be at the top in less than an hour. And then the views quickly make up for the work you just went through.

I highly recommend bringing hiking poles (useful for both the way up, and down,) and some light  gloves in case you fall. They also help keep your hands clean because there are several hands-on moments as you claw your way up steep parts on your hands and knees.

Looking down on Rawson Lake way below you

 Sarrail Ridge in all its glory!

The views are what you've climbed up here for, and they do not disappoint!

Looking  down on the Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes from Sarrail Ridge

It's quite surprising to look down on Upper Kananaskis Lake and to realize that you were hiking around that lake at the beginning of the trip. And, that's where your car is parked! Way down there.

No better view in Kananaskis

From the top of the ridge there's nowhere to go really, but I do recommend hiking along the ridge a ways to the right as you chase better and better viewpoints. Just keep a close eye on little kids because the ridge drops straight off into the lake. (and there are no guard rails!)

It's not an easy hike but we got 5 mighty kids up here

Spend as much time as you want on top of the ridge and then slowly, very slowly, make your way back down again. And sadly, it's not much easier on descent. The slope will feel even steeper as you go down.

Not a bad destination for a hike!


The Cool Down! Swimming in Rawson Lake

No words necessary for this part. Except one: BRRRRRR...

And no, I didn't jump in here! I left that to the kids.

Cooling off in Rawson Lake at the end of the hike

For more information on the trailhead or the hike, please visit the Alberta Parks website

Also, please know that while Rawson Lake is a popular snowshoe trail in winter, Sarrail Ridge is NOT. There is avalanche danger as soon as you start walking across Rawson Lake to the far side. Please enjoy this hike responsibly and either head out this fall before the snow comes, or plan to visit next summer.

And, know that you are in prime grizzly habitat on the slopes of Sarrail Ridge. Bring bear spray, make lots of noise, and travel in a tight group of 4+ people. (This isn't the place to let the kids run wild and free.)