Sat. 28 April: Grass Pass: Bull Creek Hills
Never believe the weather forecast. Or at least give it to the last moment to change its mind. A couple of days ago, Saturday’s forecast called for rain, then it changed to cloud. Finally on Friday night it showed sunny skies. A quick call to J and we were set for today’s adventure. Selection of destination was somewhat random. We wanted to stay far enough east to take advantage of the more hikeable terrain. Down in the Kananaskis Valley, for example, the snow was still deep on the mountainsides. So we chose the Highwood Valley, and the familiar route up Grass Pass. From there we would see if the Bull Creek Hills were snow-free.
It had cleared overnight, but the roads were still damp from the rains of the previous day. The views westwards to the mountain wall were superb today. We were first to arrive at the Sentinel parking area (gate still locked for the winter), but almost immediately we were joined by three carloads of kayakers out for a trip on the Highwood River. We exchanged greetings and I asked them if they knew M – which they didn’t. As they started to prepare for their river trip, J and I wished them luck on the water and then we strode off up the road with our snowshoes strapped to our backs.
The Grass Pass Trail is a favorite with hikers and horseback riders. It was already snow-free in its lower sections where it climbs up the creek through the woods. Unlike my last visit here, there was virtually no wind today. This trail climbs to the low Pass before turning to the right up the open hillside towards the Bull Creek Hills above. You don’t get a view of these hills until you are a few hundred vertical feet above the Pass, but then every footstep you take gives you more spectacular views backwards to the mountains. Directly behind the Pass is Holy Cross Mountain, named for the rock strata on the east face which is shaped like a cross and holds the snow well into early summer. Today the entire mountain was plastered with snow.
We came up onto a ridge, below the Bull Creek Hills. The east side of the ridge held deep snow drifts, but our trail was snow free along the top of the ridge. However, we soon ran into deep snow. The trail dropped down through the trees and here we were thankful for having brought our snowshoes along. It was a short descent, ideal for snow shoes, and impossible without them. Nevertheless, it was quite hard work to step through the snow.
Once down the slope, we continued on up the mountainside where we no longer needed the snowshoes. This section of ridge gave good views down to Fir Creek and the Highwood River far below. By this time we had done about as much as we wanted to for the day. We were a couple of hundred feet below the summit ridge, and still a fair distance from the actual summit. But here we had a superb vantage point west to the mountains, framed by rugged limber pines. It felt warm, and so it was the ideal spot for our lunch break.
After a relaxing break, admiring the view, we returned down the hillside. We successfully navigated the short snowy hillside, this time climbing up through the tracks we had made coming down through the trees. After that, it was all downhill.
Instead of retuning down Grass Pass, we stayed up on Fir Creek Ridge, dropping down the wide, bare hillsides. This was about as perfect as hiking gets: a warm breeze, lots of blue sky, sensational mountain views, sweeping grassy ridges. Further along the ridge we came to the famous Boundary Pine. This tree has survived for centuries, and makes a perfect setting for scenic mountain photo shots! Further down the ridge we came across the “celebrated” Douglas fir, which has a big bend halfway up it – a perfect demonstration of the tearing winds which blow across these hills all year long.
We dropped down through the pretty hillsides all the way back down to the road far below. By now it had really warmed up and we were rewarded by the first signs of Spring – the purple crocuses. In fact, we have to take care not to step on these colorful wildflowers, respecting the fact that they had survived so far, and didn’t deserve to be squashed by a large hiking boot.
Back down at the road, it was a short stroll back to the car. We stopped beside the Highwood River to admire the peaceful mountain scene. The waters were starting to rise as the snow melted on the mountains, and already it might be a tricky crossing. By this time a few other cars were also parked beside the gate, but we had only seen three other people on our route, and then only from a distance.
J and I do a good job of judging when we have done enough, and we got it right again today. That’s the secret of hiking “beyond sixty”.
Post-script: Statistics can drive a person to do strange things, and so tonight I just had to camp out, so that I could maintain one of this year’s goals to camp out in every month of the year from March to November. This was my last chance to declare April a success. So later this evening I headed out to the Elbow Valley where I thought that Gooseberry campsite was due to open today. The website was wrong, as the site was not yet open, so instead I headed up into McLean Creek, which is open year round. What a surprise! The large campsite, with three of its four loops open, was jammed with campers. This is well known as the centre for off-roaders, year round (snowmobiles in winter and quads or trail bikes in summer), and it seemed as if everyone was there tonight! By good fortune I found a quiet corner and was soon fast asleep in the back of the car. The advantage of a car over a tent is the spectacular view all round of green treetops, a bright moon and a sky full of stars. I hardly noticed the loud revving of a bike engine nearby and the thumping of music late into the night. When I awoke, the sun was up and silence had fallen across the campsite. And I was able to declare another statistical success.
Grass Pass/Bull Creek Hills
Sat. 28 April
9.0 km (hike) +
1.0 km (‘shoe) =
5 hrs. 23 mins.
Start hike: 8.20 am
High pt: 10.50 am
Bdary Pine: 12.06 pm
Ret. to car: 1.43 pm
Start Temp: + 3 C
Finish Temp: + 12 C
Thin cloud, increasing sunny spells. Cool breeze.