Tuesday, June 08, 2021

First Summits - Junction Hill, Kananaskis

Junction Hill had been on my hit list for years until we finally checked it off our list this past week in the early part of June. It's a great hike for late spring once the snow has melted, and the hills were a vibrant green all around us with flowers everywhere we looked. Many people hike this trail earlier in spring, but I'm glad we waited because I prefer hiking on dry rock that's not covered in slippery ice.

Climbing the East Ridge on Junction Hill 

Know going in that this is not a hill. This is definitely a mountain despite the name. I also recommend doing the loop counter clockwise as you'll see described below so that you'll get the steepest part of the trail out of the way at the beginning. By going up the east ridge you'll also be climbing the short scrambly bits, which is always easier than going down short rock bands.

Finally, the route finding is more complicated on the west side so depending on how you're feeling when you reach the summit, you can always choose to descend the same way you came up. But at least you have that option. Going up and down the west side would suck.

We enjoyed our hike up the beautiful east ridge of Junction Hill

Stats for the Hike 

Distance: 9 km loop

Height gain: 725 metres

Time it took us to complete the hike: 3.5 - 4 hours moving time (hiking with youth aged 11-12)

Rating: It is a difficult or strenuous hike with several steep sections. Route finding is required and there are a few scrambly places with large rocks and slabs.

That being said, as far as summits go, it's one of the easier summits my family has done and I'd compare it to Prairie Mountain in terms of difficulty. The only big difference is that the trail is less defined than Prairie Mountain. We appreciated having our route downloaded ahead of time and consulted our map often!

If you don't like route finding I would recommend avoiding the west ridge. The east ridge is much more straight forward and could be used as both the ascent and descent route (without making it a loop.)

Recommended age: This is a good hike for fit school aged children or youth who have previous hiking experience. 

Best Guide Book: Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Volume 5, Gillean Daffern - Amazon affiliate link 

All Trails Link - Junction Hill Hike 

Climbing the steep east ridge trail of Junction Hill 

My route in this story is based on the loop that you'll find on All Trails. If you use the Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, you'll see that the author recommends using the west ridge both directions (and only presents the east ridge as an optional descent.)

In recent years however, most people complete this hike as a loop, going up the east side and down the west. If it is early season you'll definitely want to use the east ridge trail (up and down) because it dries out faster than the west side.

Junction Hill Summit (and there's a pink geocache on top!!)

Parking and Trailhead for Junction Hill 

This hike starts from Highwood Junction west of Longview. From Longview, head west on Highway 541 into Kananaskis until you come to the Highwood House General Store. This is the junction with Highway 40 and Highway 940.

Park across the road from the general store where there's a parking lot. People often park along the side of the road as well (especially before Highway 40 opens on June 15th for the season.)

To access the east ridge of Junction Hill, walk back up the highway a short distance (towards Longview) until you see a dirt trail climbing the hillside on the north side of the road. We had the route downloaded on All Trails (which requires a premium membership) to make finding the trailhead easy.

The general location of the trailhead is also on Google Maps.

At the end of your hike, if you descend the west ridge, you'll be up the road a short distance on the other side of the winter gate. Parking at Highwood House puts you in the middle of the two trails.

This is the start of your trail and you're heading to the ridge at the top of this photo

Climbing the East Ridge to the Summit 

This trail wastes no time with height gain! I'm pretty sure we gained 300 metres right off the bat just reaching the ridge. The trail is not technical in any way though so just take your time, go slowly, and stop to breathe often. 

Once you reach the ridge it's a fun hike and the views help with motivation. 

The views are phenomenal once you reach the ridge

Our happy group once we reached the ridge top

The grade of the climb eases up once you reach the ridge and then it's much more gradual with the occasional steep pitch. The final 400 metres of height is relatively "enjoyable" as you wander along the top of the wide ridge (only narrow in the occasional spot.) 

Near the top there are a few minor rock bands for scrambly fun but nothing exposed you really have to worry about. There are also a few rocky/slabby sections that were fun.

Much of the lower ridge looks like this with a decent trail

A few minor rock bands add entertainment

The upper ridge gets increasingly rocky with giant slabs

Route finding is always generally easy as long as you stick to the ridge. We had the map downloaded and consulted it once or twice before we reached the ridge. Once on the ridge we never had to look at it, as we found the route straight forward. 

Climbing rock along the crest of the east ridge

One of the narrowest parts of the ridge (you can always walk lower down)

Know that this is a route, and I stress the word "route." This is not a maintained hiking trail. There are zero signs on the trail!! The  trail is often undefined and you'll have to use basic hiking sense as you climb the ridge, always taking the path of least resistance. 

If the ridge gets too exposed, simply go into the trees beside it where the trail is likely hiding. If you're met with a cliff band, look for a way around it. You should never be truly scrambling or climbing anything.

The ridge is always easy to follow and never very technical

The final push to the summit!

Junction Hill Summit 

The summit was a beautiful spot and you'll know you're there when you've completed a very short (easy) downclimb and you see the flag with summit cairn.

There's also a pink summit register you can sign and if you like geocaching, know that it's a geocache as well so you can log it on your app (and even bring tradeable items for it if you want.)

And a quick note about the register/geocache, the mountain ones have been known to contain some very "interesting" items so I highly recommend an adult open it first before letting the kids at it. I've heard some pretty scary stories. We got lucky and found a cute stuffed toy in ours.

The Junction Hill Summit 

Descending the West Ridge of Junction Hill 

From the summit you have two choices. Either descend the same way, or drop down the west ridge to make a loop.

The west ridge route starts just below the summit. Do not walk off the far side of the summit. You must climb up the short rock band you stepped down to reach the summit until you're reunited with the east ridge trail first.

Hiking down loose rock from the summit on the west ridge

And if you think that the photos here look pretty, that's about it for views on the west side. You start by hiking down a big rocky field with some awesome slabs, and then it's in the trees for most of the descent.

Hike along the top of the west ridge through the rocky terrain until the trail disappears into the trees. Here is where we suddenly had to rely on our downloaded map and consulted it every few minutes. There is intermittent flagging to help you, and sticking close to the ridge is also a good idea. However, we lost the route more times than I can count.

Eventually it becomes very important that you find the trail, because it climbs up and over a tree covered bump, and I imagine it would not be fun if you were off route.

Looking up at the summit of Junction Hill and the west ridge descent

The trail is easy to follow (when you can find it!)

Fortunately, if you find the trail, it becomes very easy to follow once you get to the bump, and then remains easy to follow down the other side.

At the very end, you'll follow an old road for a short ways before making your way down a grassy slope  (highway in sight.) At this point, it doesn't matter that the trail has disappeared again because you can likely see your car. 

The trail disappears at the end, but at this point you can see your car

The west ridge route finishes with a steep hike down this grassy slope

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