Monday, October 18, 2021

First Summits - Mount Burke to the Cameron Fire Lookout, Kananaskis

This has been the summer of visiting fire lookouts for us (three so far by September.) Mount Burke gave us the opportunity to visit the historic Cameron Fire Lookout in Southern Kananaskis, decommissioned in 1953 when the Raspberry Ridge lookout was built instead.

Reaching the summit of Mount Burke and the Cameron Fire Lookout

Stats for the Hike 

Distance:  11 km return

Height gain
: 900 metres 

Time it took us to complete the return hike: 
It took us 5.5 hours (just over 4 hours moving) with two youth ages 10 and 12.

Best time to do this hike: This trail is accessible between May 15th - September 1st each year when the gate is open past the Cataract Creek Day Use Area. After that it is still possible to hike to the summit in later fall (or early spring,) but you'll have to walk an extra 1.7 km return from the gate. (Bring a bike and a lock.)

: This is an intermediate hike. While the trail is steep at times, there's always a well defined trail and you'll never have to use your hands to scramble up anything. There is no exposure. Note that this is still an "unofficial trail" meaning there are no signs along the way to guide you.

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

All Trails Link 
- Mount Burke on All Trails. I recommend using the All Trails app so you know where to park at the Cataract Creek Campground in South Kananaskis. Once you get on the trail though it is relatively easy to follow it all the way to the summit.

Note to download the map, you'll need to have a premium paid subscription. I find it to be worthwhile, even just so I can see how far I am from the summit every time somebody asks "how much further?" 

The Cameron Fire Lookout on Mount Burke in Southern Kananaskis

Parking at the Cataract Creek Campground

The trailhead for Mount Burke is at the entrance of the Cataract Creek Campground (Google Maps link.) The campground is south of Highwood Junction at the intersection of Highway 40 and Highway 541 west of Longview.

You can either access the area from Longview or from Highway 40, driving all the way south past Kananaskis Village and over Highwood Pass. At Highwood Junction you turn south on the Highway 940.

Note if you are choosing  to access the trail via Highway 40 from the north, there is a gate past the junction for the Kananaskis Lakes and it's closed between December 1st and June 15th each year. You likely won't be hiking up Mt. Burke in winter, but if you're doing an early spring hike, make sure you drive down south towards Longview.

And as mentioned earlier, there is a gate just off the Highway 940 at the Cataract Creek Day Use Area until May 15th when the campground opens. It closes again on September 2nd when the campground again closes for winter. When the gate is closed you have to walk down a short road to the trailhead (1.7 km return.)

Once you get inside the Cataract Creek Campground there is a small parking lot on the right hand side of the access road that has a sign for Mount Burke.

Mount Burke as seen from the parking lot at Cataract Creek

Step One: Parking Lot to Ridge Line

This was the most painful part of the hike for me, and honestly why we probably won't repeat this hike very often. Once you reach the ridge, the hike is gorgeous! Getting to the ridge however is a loooong boring slog through the trees.

I still recommend doing this hike at least once though because it is very beautiful once you get up to the ridge, the fire lookout is very cool to see, and as with all things, the best achievements have to be worked for. It's also a great spring hike when you're ok with a long hike through the trees because it feels so good to just be hiking again.

Hiking towards Mount Burke out of the parking lot

The hike starts with a flat walk across a meadow out of the parking lot. You then climb up through the forest where the trail has a couple of short steep hills (in both directions.)

You can see the trail as it follows along the edge of the trees above

Then, comes the part that honestly sucks. I don't think I'll get any opposing opinions here. Bring candy because you're going to be heading up an old cut line (in a complete straight line) which goes up with no switchbacks, no turns, no views... just straight up for a full kilometre! And it's steep at times!

There's also one hill that you'll have to climb back up on the return. (Save some candy!)

Head down, straight up for a kilometre here

Finally, however, you get to the switchbacks and then the grade eases up a bit. Apparently there are ~ 30 switchbacks, but it felt like 100. Thankfully they weren't that steep and it was actually a great way to make progress climbing the mountain.

The switchbacks were annoying on the way down though because they were too gradual and we wanted a more "direct" route. If that's you too, you will find short cuts through the trees which bypass the switchbacks. (I'm not sure if it's recommended to take them or not, but I'll leave that to you.)

I didn't actually take a single photo of the switchbacks because trees, more trees, and just more trees. Thankfully my girlfriend took the photos above because I actually didn't take a single photo until we reached the ridge. (I guess I wasn't inspired until then.)

Hiking distance from parking lot to the ridge: 4 km. So allow for 90 minutes to reach the ridge at a good pace. This does however mean that you'll have 4 km of "boring" hiking before you reach the 1 km of good hiking. Thankfully that one kilometre is spectacular so keep reading. 

We finally reached the ridge and it quickly becomes much rockier

Step Two: Climbing the Ridge to the Summit of Mount Burke

The final kilometre becomes more scrambly but you'll never have to use your hands. There's always a good trail through the rock, and the ridge is never overly exposed. Best of all, there's no nasty scree. This is always a hike.

Starting up the ridge where the views finally appear

Following a good rock trail up the ridge

You'll know you're almost there (maybe 100 metres vertical to go) when you get your first good glimpse of the final push to the summit and the lookout.

Chances are you'll stop here, and at least one person in your group will loudly scream "I have to climb up there?!!" 

Rest assured it's not as bad as it looks in the photo below and there's always a good trail through the rock and scree.

Our first glimpse at the final approach to the summit

The final trail up to the summit of Mt. Burke

Reaching the historic Cameron Fire Lookout on Mt. Burke

Mount Burke Summit 

Everybody loves fire lookouts (they do tend to have good views after all, typically being perched on top of mountains.) The Cameron Lookout is no exception and it really makes you wonder how somebody could live in this tiny little shack for at least 4 months out of the year, all alone! There are no trees so the house would have been completely exposed and at the mercy of every storm that blew through. (No thank you!)

The lookout looks a little worse for wear since being decommissioned in 1953

Careful where you walk inside the lookout

The Cameron Fire Lookout perched on top of Mt. Burke

We truly lucked out upon reaching the summit after hiking up the trail in thick smoke from forest fires. The smoke lifted and the sun came out as we approached the top allowing us to enjoy our summit experience and the gorgeous views.

This is why you hiked all the way up here!

Fire lookouts are amazing destinations for a family hike!

The Return Hike Down from Mt. Burke

Maybe it's just me, but I tend to take a LOT more photos on the hike down because I can finally breathe, relax a bit, keep up to my son, and actually feel motivated to stop without the pressure of reaching the summit.

Enjoying the interesting ridge walk on our way along the Mt. Burke trail

Hiking down along the ridge (You go up and over the hump in the background)

On this particular hike the sun had finally cleared away the smoke too so suddenly we had amazing views for the return trip down the mountain. (We probably took more time on descent than we did on the way up because we stopped so often to take photos!)

The hike goes up and over the bump in this photo as you hike along the ridge

Hiking along the ridge of Mt. Burke with all the misty mountains in the background

On this particular day, the surrounding mountains had an ethereal look to them, all misty and layered with dozens of unique shades of blue! I had no idea blue had so many different hues.

Looking back up at the summit, the fire lookout, and the final approach

A brief narrow section on the ridge was my fav. part of the entire hike

There was one short section along the ridge where it gets narrower and this was my favourite part of the entire hike. It wasn't exposed, but you actually felt like you were on a ridge! And there were dozens of fantastic photo opportunities in this section (as in the photo above.)

One final look back at the summit of Mt. Burke

Back down to the grassy slopes at the bottom of the ridge (and about to head into the trees)

The photo above is the last one I got before we hit the trees again because motivation to reach the parking lot was renewed once we left the views behind. It took us about an hour to bomb down the trail from this point.

Want to discover more first summits to tackle in the Canadian Rockies?

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