After squandering a perfectly good weekend, followed by a disappointing May long weekend, I was more than ready for some time away from the rat race in Calgary by the time the last weekend of May rolled around. Both my kids were also ready for a break and with Hanneke home studying and writing assignments, we decided that a two day trip to the Castle / Crown area was just the ticket for us.
The original plan - given a sunny forecast - was to scramble Southfork and possibly Barnaby Ridge on Saturday, followed by something short and easy on Sunday. We planned to camp at either Beauvais Lake Provincial Park, or the Beaver Mines Campground in southern Alberta on Saturday night.
The drive to Pincher Creek went pretty smooth early on Saturday morning. As we opened the truck doors at the gas station we were surprised by the strength of the wind. My doors have reminders of the strong southern Alberta winds thanks to this very gas station! (Tip: Use caution when opening your vehicle doors in the area as they could fly open a lot harder and quicker than you realize. ;)) The strength of the wind combined with a surprising amount of clouds to the west prompted me to pull up some alternate plans on my iPhone. I love the ability to save web pages as .pdf documents on the iPhone, this allows me to have alternate plans without an internet connection.
After debating a bit and looking at various options we decided to tackle Prairie Bluff first. If that went well we would attempt Mount Backus in the afternoon on our way to set up camp at Beaver Mines Lake, since it was literally right off the highway on the way. We got back in the truck and headed south on Cowboy Trail from Pincher Creek and towards the Victoria Peak parking spot past the Shell Waterton Complex.
We walked the road that I used to access Victoria Peak and Ridge in 2012 until an obvious cutline opened up on our right. We followed the cutline up to another road. After the upper road curved sharply left, we followed a trail through scrub bush heading east towards Prairie Bluff. The trail we found ourselves on was very easy to follow. A myriad of wildflowers kept us entertained as we enjoyed warm sunshine and delicious smell of the wild and lack of annoying technological distractions. I love watching the kids as they get back into nature after being cooped up in the city for too long. I'm a realist. I get that cities are part of making a good living and that video games and social media aren't inherently evil or even bad (Niko has every gaming device known to modern kids) but there is a lot of value in connecting kids with the natural world. We ARE nature ourselves after all! ;)
[Walking the access road for Victoria Peak (rising above us), Victoria Ridge and Prairie Bluff (out of sight to the right).]
[The first cutline on our right (north) that we followed to an upper road.]
[Looking back down the road - the access cutline down to the left. Pincher Ridge in the background here.]
[Looking east up the road. We followed this road until it curved sharply left where we found an excellent trail leading to Prairie Bluff - visible at center here.]
[The trail leads through some low scrub which would be problematic to bushwhack through.]
[Lovely rolling terrain leads towards Prairie Bluff at upper left. Note the obvious trail we followed. ++]
[Tons of wildflowers kept us busy on the way.]
After hiking along very pleasant rolling terrain it was time to earn our peak. The bowl leading up to the peak was gorgeous, with cascading waterfalls and a bubbling brook heading south down to Pincher Creek far below us. The red rocks of the area combined with deep early season greens and carpets of wildflowers made the hiking very pleasant. The scree leading up to the south ridge of Prairie Bluff was significantly less pleasant. We bashed our way up on easy slopes, breaking a cliff band via an obvious (and annoyingly loose) scree cone before being hit hard by the vicious winds that southern Alberta is famous for. Snow pellets were being blown out of the storm clouds many kilometers to the west which made for interesting photos. At first we could clearly see the impressive eastern cliffs of Castle Peak and Windsor Mountain but as we gained the summit apex the stormy clouds started to cover everything to the west.
[We saw tons of Glacier Lilies all weekend on every hike we did.]
[The bowl lying south of Prairie Bluff is a wonderful place to whittle away a sunny day. We followed obvious terrain into the bowl before cutting up slopes to the right (east) to gain the ridge south of Prairie Bluff.]
[There was no obvious trail once we gained the south bowl but the terrain was easy to hike and the route was obvious.]
[One of the series of small falls draining down towards Pincher Creek.]
[Kaycie and Niko enjoy the views south as we get further into the south bowl. ++]
[There are many options to the summit from here. I wanted to avoid the loose orange scree so we cut up to the right before then.]
[Classic Castle landscape. Brightly colored rock and dead trees.]
[Niko 'enjoying' the scree bash to the east ridge. At least the views behind us are opening up. ++]
[Niko and Kaycie heading for the scree cone 'notch' at upper right.]
[Closer to the scree cone now.]
[Kaycie enjoys the views towards Pincher Ridge (c) with Drywood Mountain at left. Chief Mountain in Montana is barely visible in the far distance at left. ++]
[Kaycie and Niko head for the summit of Prairie Bluff (r) with Victoria Peak rising just left of center. ++]
[KC on the ridge.]
[The weather to the west is looking pretty wild as we gain the summit. Our approach valley at lower left. Windsor and Castle now visible at distant center to the right of Victoria Peak. ++]
[There is lots of human detritus in the Castle Wilderness.]
[KC enjoys a wild scene.]
[Almost at the summit, looking south along the Rockies towards Waterton. I love the green prairie leading up to the colorful peaks. ++]
[A great view of Victoria Peak (l) with Windsor Mountain (c) and Castle Peak (r). Our descent route goes down the foreground ridge before following an obvious road to the left (south).]
[The incredibly green prairies and rolling foothills to the east of the Castle Wilderness Area. ++]
[The views from Prairie Bluff do *not* disappoint. Looking south and west, summits include (l to r), Drywood, Pincher Ridge, Loaf Mountain, Victoria Ridge and Victoria Peak, Windsor Mountain and Castle Peak. North Castle and Gladstone at far right in the distance. ++]
After enjoying the summit as much as we could in the relentless gale, we started down the broad west ridge towards a very obvious and wide road that would guide us down the alternate return. After passing an installation of some sort we continued down a very well built road. The road was almost too tempting as we followed it too far and had to backtrack slightly before finding the trail leading back into the east bowl that took us through a nice valley and back to our ascent route and the lower cutline and road. We stopped often along the way down to take photos of wildflowers and just enjoy the scenery.
[Heading down the broad west ridge. I'm still not convinced whether clockwise or counter-clockwise is best for this peak. ++]
[We weren't sure what the weather was going to do as we descended but it made for some dramatic scenes. ++]
[Interesting landscape looking north off the west descent ridge of Prairie Bluff - visible at upper right here. ++]
[We're still in sun but it's snowing / raining to the west.]
[The route is obvious - follow the curving ridge until it heads towards Victoria Peak, then drop left (south) towards the ascent road - not visible here yet. ++]
[Windsor Mountain and Castle Peak (r) are the most impressive and recognizable summits in the area.]
[If it wasn't for the intense (cold) wind this hike would have been even more pleasant than it was.]
[Bypassing an installation of some sort (out of sight on the left) as we head to the obvious road.]
[Following the very robustly built road as it curves back east. Prairie Bluff looks a long ways off at center! ++]
[This is the escape gully that will lead back to our approach road lower down. If you pay closer attention to the terrain than we did, you can save a few hundred meters on your hike. We got lured by the road, which should not be followed as it heads directly towards Victoria Peak. We had to get to the red colored scree visible at center before finding the trail again. ++]
[The trail in the scree is more obvious than it appears here. It roughly descends along the green boundary until cutting right to the parking lot visible in the distance here - you cannot drive to this parking lot unfortunately.]
[It's still a chilly wind as we descend the loose scree trail.]
[Where trees go to die.]
[Looking back at the escape gully - the trail is visible running along the scree at right. I'm still not convinced counter-clockwise is the best way to go. It might be better to ascend this way and descend loose scree that we ascended. Either way works. Obviously. ;)]
[My kids take after me - they love photographing wildflowers.]
As we walked along the road back to the truck, I was reminded again how much I love the southern Alberta Rockies. I could do without all the gas exploration roads and random installations with their flare stacks and other detritus but looking past that this area is so much less traveled and busy than either Kananaskis or Banff / Jasper that it's worth the long drive. Colorful rock cliffs, untold amounts of wildflowers, small streams, easy access and a myriad of easy ridges and peaks to climb - it's no wonder than Andrew Nugara has two guidebooks on the area and chose to build a home down here. Who knows? I could certainly see myself living down here some day.