Hanneke had a rare opportunity to join me for a hike on Sunday, May 6th 2018 so I figured I should take advantage of that. I was determined not to make her wade through the knee deep snow drifts that I kept ending up in over the past few weeks and decided that surely Stony Ridge in the Highwood area of Kananaskis would be dry by now? Yeah...The past few weeks have seen me drive past Black Diamond and Longview a few times, including a solo jaunt up Three Cairns, Hell's Ridge and Mount Mann. Looking over towards Junction Hill and Bull Creek Hills, that area seemed pretty dry so I figured I'd give Stony Ridge a shot. The bonus was that I also hadn't had any ticks from this area yet - sort of surprising.
The drive up to the trailhead was, as expected, beautiful and quiet. Hann commented more than once how there was nobody else around. Indeed, this area of the Rockies sees far fewer visitors than around Kananaskis Village and of course far less than Banff or Lake Louise - one of the reasons I'm liking it more and more. We parked along hwy 541 just off a gated access road and started up the road towards a large clearing. The clearing must be some sort of Alberta Parks storage area, as there was a good number of discarded picnic tables and other campground detritus laying around. We hiked through the clearing and up valley, following an obvious trail through the forest. Everything was going really well until we started encountering snow! Darn it. I've really been underestimating how much snow the forested areas of the front ranges have been holding this year! The snow wasn't horrible, but it was a bit of a bummer considering how dry everything else around us was. Thankfully I knew that our route eventually crossed to the east side of the valley and would likely dry out. The trail ascended fairly consistently, with the amount of snow increasing as we went. Thank goodness someone else broke trail which saved our feet from getting wet first thing in the morning. Eventually we finally worked up towards a drier section of the trail where the forest thinned a bit and we started getting views back over towards the southern Highwood area. The weather was gorgeous, birds were chirping and the smell of Spring was wafting through the air. It was a good day.
[From the first picnic table clearing the first highpoint of the day is visible - looking deceptively snow free.]
[Although the trail starts out reasonably dry, there are lingering patches of freaking snow almost right away.]
[Dang it! Notice how there's only snow on the freaking trail?! Grrr. So annoying to be stumbling around on snow with perfectly dry forest right next to you on either side. ]
[I shouldn't complain too much about a little bit of now. It was a gorgeous, windless day and I was enjoying it with Hanneke.]
[The trail is pretty obvious as it's part of an old road bed.]
[We break out of the lower forest and onto our first grassy, open ridge. Mount Burke lies in the distance at center to the south.]
[Looking across a gap between the first high point on approach at the next one. Essentially this hike navigates over a series of ridges to the high point on Stony Ridge. Junction Hill at upper left here with Mount Head and Holy Cross at right. ++]
After reaching the first high point / open area we noticed that our route once again looked very snowy. In order to avoid losing major height between the first high point and the ridge next to Junction Hill, the access road / trail traverses the eastern slopes of Junction Hill - which are, of course, among the last to melt off, especially as it's largely treed for some reason. Again, thankfully someone else had recently broken trail. It looked to me like they were likely following a bear, since we saw very distinct bear tracks in the snow every once in a while. This was the worst section of the day because of all the snow - but it wasn't difficult. Soon enough we traversed one last avalanche gully and were once again looking at mostly bare, grassy slopes to the second ridge.
[This is the second ridge of the day that we have to get to somehow.]
[Urg. At least it's warm outside!]
[Looking back as Hann crosses the avy slope / gully along the approach road on Junction Hill's east aspect.]
After a slight height loss, we started ascending the dry south slopes of the second ridge, directly east of Junction Hill. From here the route no longer followed the road, which switchbacked very steeply up the eastern slopes of Junction Hill before petering out under the summit. We did, however, have a trail most of the remaining route - likely from the many ungulates in the area. As we navigated along the second ridge, our views over Cat Creek Hills and towards the High Rock Range were fabulous! This was unexpected, as Bob hadn't really sold the views from Stony Ridge in his trip report that I'd read beforehand.
[Views back to the south over our first ridge / highpoint (C) from the second ridge. Note the approach road running along Junction Hill at right.]
[Grunting our way up the grassy slopes of the second ridge - Junction Hill at left.]
[The views start improving dramatically from the second ridge. The High Rock Range is visible at center with Cat Creek hills in the foreground.]
From the second ridge there was again, a slightly height loss (that we avoided on return) in order to attain a neighboring ridge to the east (climber's right). This third ridge involved the only scree and the only easy scrambling of the day. I enjoyed this ridge the most, while it made Hann slightly nervous. We ascended to the ridge and followed it through a nice little gap before following a sheep track to it's northern end from where we could finally see the fourth ridge and our summit.
[On ascent we took this steeper line up the third ridge. On return we managed to find a better route a bit further south than this.]
[Hann follows up the third ridge with Cat Creek Hills in the background.]
[This is looking awesome! A short scramble along the third ridge awaits with excellent views to the Continental Divide at left. ++]
[Views from the third ridge looking past Junction Hill towards Mount MacLaren and Strachan.]
[Hann follows through the small gap on the ridge.]
[Hanneke surveys the landscape from the ridge crest looking west and back to Junction Hill. ++]
[We managed to stay on the dry west side of the third ridge, following a sheep trail and running into the sheep.]
[Finally we spot our summit and the fourth ridge - really a part of the third but still distinct.]
We ascended to the open west side of the summit to some pretty sweet views all along the Continental Divide from the Highwood Pass in the north to the Crowsnest Pass to the south. Views were much better than I expected. Of course the true high point of Stony Ridge is buried in the trees so we didn't linger there. After a nice lunch break at the top - in warm, almost windless weather, it was time to return.
[Almost as high as Junction Hill now as we traverse grassy slopes to the summit.]
[Great views from the open grassy slopes just west of the summit. Cat Creek Hills at left with the High Rock Range in the distance at Highwood Pass peaks at distant right. ++]
[Excellent views west (L) and north (R) over Cat Creek Ridge towards Horned, Abruzzi, Bishop, Hill of the Flowers, Loomis, Odlum,Storelk, Highwood Ridge, Mist and Eagle Ridge. ++]
[Mist Mountain with Storm and Rae to the right.]
[The High Rock Range to the west consists of some fantastic peaks including (L to R), Baril, Cornwell, Armstrong, MacLaren, Shankland (false summit), Strachan, Muir and McPhail. ++]
[Looking south (L) and west (R) over Junction Hill at (L to R), Plateau, Hell's Ridge, Isola, Monad, Pasque, Raspberry Ridge, Junction Hill, Farquhar, Etherington, Coyote Hills, Baril and Cornwell. ++]
[Looking over Mount Mann towards Mount Burke and Plateau Mountain.]
[Mount Bishop is very distinctive, as is Mount Abruzzi looming behind it at left. Hill of the Flowers is in the foreground.]
[Mount McPhail is easy and quick from a camp at the McPhail Creek headwall. I blasted up and down it in 3 hours and enjoyed the views from the summit immensely.]
[Mount Baril and Cornwell with Courcelette just peaking up at right of center.]
[The transition from the fourth ridge to the third is pretty tame - maybe there's only three ridges? Whatever. We obviously worked around the snow here on the right.]
Descent was quick and easy. We continued to enjoy fantastic weather and conditions - not to mention scenery until we were back in the trees on the first ridge again. We did find a few ticks crawling around but this wasn't a huge shocker considering we'd taken a few extended breaks on various grassy slopes.
[Descending the fun, third ridge.]
[At the col between Junction Hill and the 2nd ridge we found scattered bones from what is probably a bighorn sheep.]
[Positioned as a skull, but likely the hip of the animal.]
[Looking back at the 2nd ridge from the first.]
[Looking south off the first ridge / highpoint. Holy Cross and Gunnery at left.]
[Back among the campground detritus near the trailhead.]
[Where picnic tables go to die? Or at least are stored for winter.]
Stony Ridge is never going to be a super popular outing, but I rather enjoyed it. Partly, I'm sure, it was due to the company as I love getting out with Hann. It's a bit more engaging than some of the other ridges and hills in the Eyrie Gap area with several ridges, easy routefinding and scrambling and some great views. For an early season hike, I highly recommend it - just expect snow and you won't be disappointed while you're wading through it.