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 (13 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 8 km.

To access this shortcut trail and by far the easiest access for the ridge, turn right on to the gravel Powderface Trail (road) when you get to the Little Elbow Campground and the end of the paved Highway 66.

Drive up the Powderface Trail road for approximately 6 km until you reach Sacramento Pass. You can see the Google maps location for the Three Trail Pass trailhead here. 

Main Summit of Powderface Ridge

Note the All Trails link above has you starting at Highway 66 but this is where you want to END. You want to start high, finish low. You should be starting from the Powderface Trail road and then ending on Highway 66 at the entrance to the campground.

Because the All Trails version of this hike is done in reverse, the numbers for height gain will be off. The distance is also a bit high.

Follow this link to a good 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

Hiking the White Buddha and Vents Ridge Trail

This is a great hike near Elbow Falls starting from Powderface Creek where you'll ascend to the climbing cliffs of the White Buddha. From there, climb up to the top of the ridge where you'll be met with gorgeous views.

An optional descent allows you to connect the White Buddha climbing crag with the Prairie Creek climbing crag where you'll hike under giant cliffs before crossing the creek and returning on the Prairie Creek Trail.

Gorgeous scenery on Vents Ridge in the Elbow Valley 

Hiking the Canyon Creek Ice Cave Trail

This adventure starts from the Ing's Mine parking lot in the Elbow Valley. You'll start with a bike or hike on the closed gravel Canyon Creek Road for 5.5 km.

After that, you'll hike ~1.5 km to reach the cave. All added up, your adventure will come to roughly 14 km round trip.

It's a fabulous spring adventure when the trail becomes snow free by late April, and the cave still has lots of ice in it from the winter.

Canyon Creek Ice Cave Adventure 

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

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