A Summer of Smoke and Flame – Hiking the Elbow Valley Loop

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This summer, Western Canada (particularly the province of British Columbia) has been experiencing one of the worst wild fire seasons on record. Thankfully no lives have been lost as of this writing (our thoughts go out to those in California where thing havn’t been as fortunate), however countless people have been impacted through evacuations and in many cases loss of property and homes. Our hats go off to the many many teams of fire fighters, pilots, volunteers and others who have worked so hard and put themselves at risk to protect the rest of us. From the Verdant Creek fire in Mount Assinaboine Provincial Park and Kootney National Park, to the record size monster fire near 100 Mile House, and most recently, the devastating fire that ripped through much of Waterton Lakes National Park it has been a summer of smoke and flame.

In Calgary, our experience has mostly been with smoke (breaking a record set in 1969) and fire bans. With many mornings require us to brush ash off our vehicles. As a result we’ve had to be more flexible when it comes to backpacking. In fact most of our camping this summer has been in the front country  (with the Elf spending a week in Yellowstone), and only a few short overnights. Our original plan was to hike the Kootney Rockwall in late July, yet smokey conditions led us to cancel (portions of the trail closed the week after we had planned to go due to fire risk). As an alternate we decided to reattempt the Northover Ridge in Kananakis in early September, however on Sept 2, BC made the reasonable decision to close large sections of the south east backcountry due to fire risk (including Height of the Rockies Provincial Park). As the Northover Ridge route crosses into Height of the Rockies, it was a last minute scramble to find someplace new.

In the end we chose the Elbow Valley Loop, an easy 3 night, 4 day loop just west of Bragg Creek in the Elbow Sheep Wildland Provincial Park . The trip starts at the Little Elbow Campground (which is a great place to car camp) at the end of Alberta Highway 66. The route we chose took us up the Big Elbow River Valley, crossing over Tombstone Pass into the Little Elbow River Valley and hiking back out. It’s a hike I’ve wanted to do ever since I first read about it as a Scout in Gillean Dafern’s Kananakis Country Trail Guide. The trail is mostly on fire roads and is well used by both mountain bikers and equestrians.

DAY 1 – TRAIL HEAD TO TOMBSTONE CAMPGROUND

The day before we headed out, the weather turned. The high temperatures of the summer were replaced with well needed rain (and snow at higher elevations). While the forecast had called for some rain/snow on our first day, the rest of the trip looked to be clear (if not significantly colder) than the previous week.

With this change in conditions, we closely  watched regional fire ban notices to see if they would be lifted. The night before was conflicting as Alberta Parks still showed a fire ban in the Elbow Valley, while Alberta Fire Bans showed it having been lifted. It’s always important to carefully monitor (and obey) any fire restrictions and bans in an area you’re planning to visit. We decided to stop in at the park information center to get the latest scoop, but they didn’t have much additional clarity.

As we drove down highway 66 we could see the increasing accumulations of snow as we gained elevation and by the time we pulled up to the trail head, the parking lot looked more like December than September.  Trudging through the snow and approaching the Harold Chapman suspension bridge over the Little Elbow River we saw an unambiguous notice that the fire ban remained in place . Crossing the bridge, the trail heads south and climbs gently through forest. Low clouds unfortunately  hid most of the mountains to the west, the first real peaks of the Canadian Rocky Front Ranges.

About 30 minutes into our trip we encountered an Alberta Parks truck heading the opposite direction. As we talk to the driver, he let us know that the fire ban had in fact been lifted the night before and he was in the process of delivering firewood to several of the back country campgrounds. This definitely buoyed our spirits and what we anticipated would be a chilly evening.

Soon the terrain opened into meadows and braided channels of the Big Elbow River. Before we knew it we arrived at the Big Elbow Campground (just after noon). This was a really good example of how terrain and elevation can have such a big impact on travel time.  With the trail being a well maintained fire road, and only ~150m elevation, we had covered the 8.3km in just over 2 hours. Compare this to the much more rugged West Coast Trail where it took us 5 hours to cover 5km. Stopping for lunch, we decided to push through to Tombstone Campground. We knew it would make for a long day, but we weren’t exactly sure what we would do for the rest of the afternoon if we decided to set up camp.

Snowy start

SNOWY START

Fire roads in the snow

FIRE ROADS IN THE SNOW

Big Elbow Campground

BIG ELBOW CAMPGROUND

Approaching Tombstone

APPROACHING TOMBSTONE

Approaching TombstoneFrom the Big Elbow Campground, the trail takes a more westerly track and enters the Rockies proper weaving back and forth in narrow valley between Cougar Mountain to the south and Mt. Cornwall to the north. The trail gets a bit steeper and you can see   evidence of repairs made as a result of the 2013 floods. The first bridge at the 1.6km point from Big Elbow Campground remains out and a ford is required. It was easy enough to balance on rocks to get across, however gaiters would have made it a true breeze. The second bridge at 3.9km remains intact. At the 10.1km point there is an option to take the road/horse/bike route, or the hiking trail. The hiking trail is shorter with less elevation, but it is more technical and a few stream crossings are required. This was where one slippery rock led to some wet feet on my part. By 6:30 we arrived at the Tombstone Campground and out 18km day. We lit a fire, started my boots drying and got dinner going.

Since the trip was less strenuous than our typical adventure, we decided to take the opportunity to experiment with a few things that we normally wouldn’t take. The two of us don’t count every gram, but we do try to minimize what we carry. For this trip, the main luxury was my new Jet Boil Frying Pan. Dinner was a PakitGourmet Bigun Burrito, which I pan fried (yum). With night falling quickly and the temperature dropping below freezing, we took a moment to admire the stars and crawl into bed.

DAY 2 – TOMBSTONE CAMPGROUND TO MT ROMULUS CAMPGROUND

We awoke to a chilly morning and admired the alpenglow of the rising sun on the snow capped mountain peaks before starting breakfast. Our pancakes with McDonald’s syrup (or more like taffy in the cold temperatures) and powdered butter turned out pretty good (if not messy). After that it was a quick tear down and time to hit the trail. From Tombstone campground the road climbs sharply with the hiker trail to the Tombstone Lakes branching off shortly afterwards. This trail is a little bit longer,  has a higher elevation gain, but includes the added benefit of experiencing these beautiful lakes. As we climbed we could tell that most of the earlier precipitation had fallen here as snow. It made for some beautiful scenery as we climbed towards the lakes.

Tombstone campground

Tombstone campground

Climbing to the lakes

CLIMBING TO THE LAKES

Climbing to the lakes

Tombstone Lakes

TOMBSTONE LAKES

Tombstone Lakes

Tombstone Lakes

TOMBSTONE LAKES

Tombstone LakesOnce at the lakes we stopped to take a few pictures and admire the scenery. From there the trail climbs over the Tombstone Pass (the high point of our trip) into the Little Elbow River watershed. At the pass we were greeted with several Larch in their fall colors. It wasn’t long before we regained the road stopped for lunch. I decided to make up the Packit Gourmet Pumpkin Cheesecake dessert I had planned for the night before (OMFG it was good, so far, all of their desserts have been hits). After the junction the trail gently slopes on an easy road all the way down into Mt Romulus Campground with only a steeper section right before the Campground itself. Views of the valley were pretty nice as we made good time.

Tombstone pass

Once we arrived we checked out the newly rebuilt hiker and equestrian campgrounds. One thing we noticed was that in the hikers campground, Albert Parks had separated the tent pads quite away from a communal eating area and fire pit. On the equestrian side however, each site had its own picnic table and firepit. With the comparative luxury of the equestrian sites, I’m not sure why someone would want to stay at one of the hiker’s sites. In fact, one of the groups we met up with had decided to pitch their tent in the communal area so they’d be close to the fire. With plans to reconstruct the Tombstone Camground, we hope that Alberta Park’s won’t follow the same pattern.

With only 2 other groups at the Campground, we grabbed an equestrian site, started a fire and made dinner

DAY 3 – MT. ROMULUS CAMPGROUND TO TRAIL HEAD

The second night on the trail was much warmer, and we enjoyed a quick breakfast and packed up for our final day on the trail. The last 12km was pretty easy with the road holding generally higher line up on the north side of the valley with the Little Elbow River rushing down below, quite a bit different than the the little creek we first encountered on Day 2. The first day of hiking had given me something I havnt encountered in years, blisters and by day 3 they were really starting to bother me, but we still made good time, crossing the new bridge over the river. Before long we began to encounter mountain bike riders and day hikers heading the opposite direction. It took us a moment to realize we had made it back to the trailhead as conditions were so different from when we started. All the snow that had greeted us on day 1 was gone, and the low cloud and fog had been replaced with a beautiful bluebird fall day. Overall, it took us just over 3 hours to make it out and by 1:30 we were eating pizza in Bragg Creek.

Mt. Romulus

MT. ROMULUS

Mt. Romulus

Looking up the Valley

LOOKING UP THE VALLEY

Looking up the Valley

Bridge over the Little Elbow River

BRIDGE OVER THE LITTLE ELBOW RIVER

Bridge over the Little Elbow River

Back to where we started

BACK TO WHERE WE STARTED

Back to where we startedAll in all, it was a fun little trip that would make a great introduction to multi-night backpacking. The route is easy to follow, not very technical with nice campgrounds along the way. The fire pits and lower overall elevation make it good for a shoulder season activity. It’s something we may look at taking our kids on in the future as I still need to stay at the Big Elbow Campground in pursuit of my goal of staying at every backcountry campground in Kananaskis  (currently 8 out of 14)

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Kelly McDonald

After spending 12 years in Ottawa Kelly returned to Calgary in 2012 and decided to pick off where he left off by roping his closest friends into some new back-country adventures (some more fun than others).

Kelly McDonald is a father of two hobbits ages 12 and 13 and tries to get them out into the wilderness as often as he can.

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