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. 

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