Friday, October 28, 2016

Stewart Canyon

Trip Date: October 2016

Stewart Canyon is a family-friendly hike in Banff National Park. Up until recently I had avoided this hike due to the overwhelming crowds, but recently I found myself in Banff with a couple of hours to spare so I thought I'd give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised with the beauty offered by this hike and in the middle of October I basically had the entire place to myself! The hike is 1.5km one-way, but that distance can be easily extended. The elevation gain is negligible, which makes it perfect for an easy outing. The trailhead for this hike is the Lake Minnewanka Day-Use Area.

Lake Minnewanka definitely isn't hard on the eyes!
Before reaching the trailhead you'll pass a set of Parks Canada's Red Chairs on Minnewanka's shoreline. You can read all about the Red Chair Program right here.
The trailhead for Stewart Canyon
The trail follows the Lake Minnewanka shoreline and ends at a bridge that spans the steep walls of Stewart Canyon. Beneath the bridge the Cascade River flows into Lake Minnewanka. Officially this marks the end of the Stewart Canyon Trail, but is also the beginning of the Minnewanka Shoreline Trail, which continues for another 15km until reaching the backcountry warden's cabin.

A typical section of the trail
Another section of the trail with a great view of Mount Inglismaldie
The bridge that spans Stewart Canyon
Looking up Stewart Canyon
The Cascade River flowing into Lake Minnewanka
Just past the bridge you will find an unofficial trail junction. Going right will keep you on the Minnewanka Shoreline Trail while heading left will take you on a more rugged trail atop the eastern side of Stewart Canyon. I opted to go left and trekked along a trail that featured great views of the crystal clear water of the Cascade River far below. After approximately 1.2km the trail abruptly drops down to a boulder field with a shallow creek running through it. From here it's easy to rock-hop your way down to the Cascade River and is a perfect spot to stop for awhile. Due to my late start, the quickly fading light, and the ever-present threat of rain this was also my turnaround point. I spent a short while relaxing by the river and snapping a few photos before hitting the trail once again and heading for home.

The boulder field with the Cascade River down below
The Cascade River flowing beneath Mount Astley
Keep in mind that the Minnewanka Shoreline Trail is a multi-use trail and is open to other recrationalists other than just hikers. There is also an seasonal restriction in place from July 10 to September 15, so be sure to check the trail report before heading out.

The setting sun made for some interesting light at dusk
Sunset in the Rockies
If you're like me and want to avoid the crowds give this hike a try in shoulder season or maybe even in the winter for a completely difference perspective on things.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Pocaterra Cirque

Trip Date: October 2016

If you're looking to view the golden Larch Trees in the fall but want to avoid the crowds in Larch Valley you should try Pocaterra Cirque. The trail is located in the Highwood Pass area of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, which is in Kananaskis Country. It's worth mentioning that at 2,206 metres (7,239 feet) Highwood Pass is the highest paved road in Canada. Please note that a section of this highway (Highway 40) is closed from December 1 to June 14 between the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park entrance and the Highwood House Junction. This means that this hike and others in the area are inaccessible (at least with vehicle assistance) during that timeframe.

The sign at the summit of Highwood Pass
The trailhead for Pocaterra Cirque is the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area, which is the same as the Ptarmigan Cirque trailhead. Ptarmigan Cirque is more popular than Pocaterra Cirque, so don't be too alarmed if the parking lot is full when you arrive. The trailhead is approximately 140km southwest of downtown Calgary. Pocaterra Cirque is considered an unofficial trail and you won't find it listed on the map at the trailhead. It is clearly marked on the Gem Trek map we were using and the trail is well-worn and easy to find. This trail is also a great jump-off point for longer day-trips including Pocaterra Ridge, Grizzly Col, and Mount Tyrwhitt. We only went as far as the Cirque on this trip, which was approximately 7km roundtrip with about 400m gained in elevation. The parking lot was fairly empty when we arrived at about 9:00am and the temperature was hovering around -3 degrees Celcius. The sun was quickly rising and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, so we were expecting a great day outside.

The trail through Highwood Meadows with Storm Mountain in the background
The trail starts on the Highwood Meadows Interpretive Trail but you'll quickly reach a fork. If you go right you'll access Ptarmigan Cirque whereas left will take you to Pocaterra Cirque. We opted for the left fork and began our day. If you've never been on this trail before (which we hadn't) you might find it a bit confusing at first. The trail is quite braided in areas due to running water and muddy sections. As far as we could tell all of the braids eventually lead to the same spot so don't be too concerned. After a short time you'll reach another unsigned fork in the trail. This fork didn't appear on our map so we were a bit worried about it. There's a faint arrow carved into the tree bark pointing left and a small piece of flagging tape on the left side of the tree, so we opted to go left once again. Eventually we arrived at the Cirque so we assumed we had made the right decision. It wasn't until we were on our way back that we discovered either trail would take you to the same destination. If I were to do it all over again I think I would go right as it felt like the easier of the two trails. Please be aware that there are numerous trails winding throughout the forest regardless of your choice at the fork so some basic route finding skills are required.

Here's the fork in the trail. If you look closely you can see the arrow pointing left carved into the tree.
Christine on the trail
The Cirque and a few larch trees peeking through the forest
This is where the trail opens into the meadow before crossing a few avalanche slopes
The first section of the trail is in the trees without much to see, but it eventually opens into a lush meadow with spectacular views. The trail follows an unnamed ridge on your left with unmatched vistas of the Kananaskis Valley and Pocaterra Ridge on your right. In front of you lies the Cirque with countless Larch trees shining in the sun. We continued along the open trail until we reached a small unnamed lake. It's a perfect spot to stop for a snack and snap some photos as the scenery here is gorgeous!

You're rewarded with great views down the valley of Mount Rae (right) and Elpoca Mountain (centre)
Even though the trail was covered in Larch needles many of the trees were still clinging to theirs!
Elpoca Mountain
The small unnamed lake with Pocaterra Ridge on the right in the background
The final push to the Cirque is pretty straightforward. As you approach the Cirque the trail has a couple of options. The trail to the right eventually leads to Pocaterra Ridge (I hope to be back next year to tackle this), while the lefthand option takes you up to Grizzly Col. We went left for a short distance before branching off and finding a big boulder in the Cirque to sit on and enjoy lunch in the warm sunshine.

The final push up to the Cirque. Here I am looking back down the trail with Mount Rae in the background.
Another small meadow immediately below the Cirque. That's Mount Rae peeking above the Larch Trees.
The view from the Cirque
Rome and I standing in the Cirque with Mount Tyrwhitt in the background
Even thought it was warm in the sun the wind coming off of Mount Tyrwhitt was very chilly, so after a quick bite to eat we were back on the trail and headed for the truck. The trail is equally as beautiful on the way back down and the sun that was now above the surrounding peaks made the hike out all the more enjoyable.

Golden Larch Trees
Back at the small lake
I could have spent all afternoon sitting beside this body of water
Christine standing amongst the Larch
One last look at the Cirque before entering the forest-covered section of the trail
Once back at the truck we realized just how popular Ptarmigan Cirque could be. The parking lot was completely packed and there were dozens of vehicles parked on either side of Highway 40. It didn't feel like the Pocaterra Cirque was very busy so most people were likely headed to Ptarmigan.

I can't wait to come back here next year and explore beyond the Cirque. As I previously mentioned Pocaterra Ridge looks like a great day-trip and it's now firmly on my adventure list. We couldn't have asked for a better day at the beginning of October when the weather can be notoriously unpredictable. If this was the last hike of the season we definitely picked a great one!