Sunday, June 12, 2022

Porcupine Ridge - Family Hiking and First Summits in Kananaskis

I'm always looking for a good ridge walk, and Porcupine Ridge in Kananaskis doesn't disappoint. The initial ascent is steep, and you'll need some basic experience with off-trail hiking, but the ridge is never overly airy and the hike is generally free of any technical scrambling.  

Porcupine Ridge is a fun adventure near Calgary for strong hikers 

Stats for the Hike 

Distance:  10 km return

Height gain
: 700 metres to the large rocky pinnacles that most people consider to be the ridge summit. (The true summit is about a kilometre further away and looks like a tree covered bump in the distance.) 

Note that the All Trails app says there is 900 metres of height gain, but I used three different tracking devices and none of them recorded more than 700 metres.

Time it took us to complete the return hike: 
It took us 5 hours with our 13 year old son.

Best time to do this hike: Wait until late April / early May to make sure the snow has melted from the trail. Even then it's suggested you bring ice cleats or spikes for any lingering snow. 

It's a great shoulder season hike, but come summer, I expect the ridge would be greener and even more lovely.

: I would consider this an easy scramble. You aren't following an official maintained trail, but there's a decent trail the whole time and it's not hard to stay on route (once you find the correct trail to access the ridge.) Once on the ridge, it's relatively easy going and never very narrow.

There are a couple of optional cliff bands you can play around on while traversing the ridge but there are bypass routes for everything. The only actual "scrambling" we did was once we had arrived at the pinnacles where you find a rocky overlook/summit which you have the option to climb up onto. Beyond the first big overlook there is a second one a short distance further along the ridge that definitely required a few hands-on scramble moments.

All Trails Link 
- Porcupine Ridge on All Trails

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?" 

Note for this hike that my preferred parking location is different from what is shown on All Trails. I like to park beside the highway at the start of the rocky creek. All Trails suggests parking at Wasootch Creek further down the road. (See more below where I've described how to find the trailhead.)

Recommended Guide Book - Kananaskis Trails Guide, Volume 1, by Gillean Daffern

Porcupine Ridge is generally easy to follow and never overly airy

Finding the Trailhead 

There are a couple of options here. The shortest (and my preferred option) is to park just off the road at the entrance to Porcupine Creek. You can see where to pull off on Google Maps. Note it is an "interesting" drop down off the highway to a rocky pullout area where you can park beside the creek. 

It's difficult to drop down off the highway if you're heading south bound because the creek is on the east side of the highway. We find it easier to drive a bit further to the south, turn around at Wasootch Creek, and then approach the trailhead heading north so that it's on the right hand side and you don't have to cross the centre line of the highway to drop down off the road. 

Alternately if you want an official parking lot, you can park at the Wasootch Creek Day Use Area and take the connector trail to Porcupine Creek. Unfortunately this also adds an extra 2 km round trip distance.

Make sure you use the bathrooms at Wasootch Creek before parking at Porcupine Creek. There are no facilities at Porcupine.

Trying to keep our feet dry by scrambling along the cliff bands beside Porcupine Creek

Segment 1: Hiking along Porcupine Creek to reach the ridge ascent trail 

If you've parked just off the highway beside Porcupine Creek, begin your hike by following a nice flat easy-to-follow trail just beside the creek for 0.8 km until you reach a bridge. Do not cross the bridge.

If you've started at the Wasootch Creek Day Use Area (as shown on the All Trails map,) follow the connector trail until you arrive at the bridge over Porcupine Creek. Cross the bridge so that you are hiking further up creek on the left side.

The next part of the hike is possibly the crux of the entire trip as you cross the creek at least a couple of times, making your way to the ascent trail for the ridge.

At first you'll be on the left bank, and with some minimal scrambling along the edge of the cliffs, you should be able to stay on the left bank for at least 20-30 minutes.

Eventually you'll likely have to cross to the right side using rocks or fallen trees. Keep following the creek though until you come to the fork where it splits into two different channels.

At the fork, the trail up Porcupine Ridge can be found in the middle of the two channels. Do not try to gain the ridge early! You want to reach the fork first. And you should be following a steep, but very easy to follow trail up through the trees.

We were able to keep our feet dry the entire time, but you may want to bring sandals for this section if the water is high. And note that if we've just had an epic period of rain for a few days, you might want to skip this hike until water levels go down. Otherwise, expect to get quite wet if the creek is high.

This section of the hike is ~ 2 km in length starting from Wasootch Creek. It is just over 1 km in length if you start directly from Porcupine Creek.

One way to get kids across creek crossings (note the sandals worn by dad!)

Segment 2: Climbing up to the ridge from the creek 

In the next kilometre you'll climb steeply up a forested trail, gaining 300 metres of height. This is the most difficult part of the entire trip and you'll feel it on the way down where it seems much more loose than it did on the way up!

Fortunately it should only take you an hour at most and you'll be on the ridge, ready for beautiful traversing and more gradual height gain for the next 400 metres.

On top of the ridge and we finally got views (and a more relaxed trail grade)

From where you gain the ridge you'll be heading to the high point in the background

Segment 3: Following the ridge to the rock pinnacles (and popular summit)

The ridge was never overly narrow and when you arrive at what appears to be a cliff band, you can either scramble up it directly, or traverse around to the right side where there is a good trail. The same can be said for the second cliff band where there is a good bypass route, again to the right. When in doubt, always look for a bypass route to the right if you reach a scrambly cliff band on the ridge.

One of the scrambly spots that can by bypassed on the right

Other than the two cliff bands, it was pleasant meandering along the scenic ridge with no technical difficulties. The trail was always easy to follow, route finding challenges were non existent, and there was only one major bump that had to be descended from, only to climb back up again. My son was not impressed having to lose height (that he knew he'd have to gain on the way back out.)

Any scrambly parts can always be bypassed and you don't have to stay on the narrow ridge

Porcupine Ridge is a popular early season hike

I had long put off doing this hike because I was nervous about route finding challenges, but honestly, there were none. And should you ever feel nervous, go on a weekend when the trail will be busy. Wait 10 minutes and somebody will definitely come by to offer direction.

Most of the ridge is rocky but never exposed

Looking back at the lower ridge from near the pinnacles

Most people stop when they reach a rocky outcropping resembling a summit and the large rock pinnacle or tower looming beside the ridge

See the photos below.

The popular ridge summit where most people turn around
The popular summit is the small rounded bump to the left of the two large pinnacles

The first "summit" is easy to reach but there is not much room on top so I would urge hikers to please not have their lunch here so that everybody can enjoy the view without having to step over you.

In the photo below, my son is standing on the second rocky outcropping and you can see all of the hikers having their lunch on the first one.

Most hikers make their way to two rocky outcroppings beside the large pinnacle in the background

5 minutes beyond is second higher summit that requires some light scrambling to reach. We headed here to take our photos because there were too many people occupying the other summit and they were in no hurry to move on. (Definitely a party summit vibe here.)

Mild scrambling is required to reach the second rocky outcropping

Note, do not attempt to go past these rocky summits. If you want to continue to the true summit, you need to go back down and go around on a trail that bypasses them to the left.

Everybody hikes Porcupine Ridge to see the large pinnacles on the ridge

Segment 4: Traversing to the "true summit" 

Here I leave you on your own to explore the route to the true summit because there was too much snow when we did the hike, and nobody had broken trail beyond the rocky outcropping that we stopped at.

The trail to the official summit does not go up and over the pinnacles or summits mentioned above. They are purely optional viewpoints. To reach the true summit you need to take a trail below the pinnacles (left hand side) to what appears as a forested bump in the distance.

I look forward to enjoying this hike again later in the season to see if there's a better vantage point from the official summit. I do suspect that most people stop at the large rock outcropping where we ended our hike.

From the true summit it's apparently possible to continue exploring further, but this puts you outside the scope of casual hiking and strongly into intermediate/advanced scrambling.

Porcupine Ridge would be a beautiful place to spend a summer day

Making our way back down the ridge

Return the same way you came.

I can't wait to do this hike again when the trail to the true summit is snow free (as it most certainly would be now) and I want to repeat the hike on a sunnier day. I'm also planning on going mid-week next time because the trail was too busy for my liking when we went.

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