Our first summit of 2014! Yeah! This day’s objective is the Bull Creek Hills, located in the foothills in the southern half of Kananaskis Country. It’s an interesting and not terribly hard climb and along the way you’ll pass through dense woods and hike up grassy open slopes. Once at the top, you can stay put or can continue on to explore a series of connecting summits or high points. It’s up to you.
It’s sometimes very windy in the area. Fortunately, on our trip things were for the most part calm. Let’s hope that’s the case if you should visit. The first part of the route is along the Grass Pass trail. The remainder is a mix of faint trails, game trails with some route-finding thrown in for good measure. There is little chance of getting lost, however.
To start, park on the side of the highway, just under 4km west of the Kananaskis Park boundary sign. In the past, you’d start at the Sentinel day use area nearby, but it was washed away (no, obliterated) in the spring 2013 floods. I am not sure if it’ll be rebuilt.
Follow the obvious path heading north into the trees. Almost immediately, you’ll start gaining elevation, and with the exception of a few short flat spots here and there, that is how things will be for the rest of the trip. To the pass, you’ll be travelling along an old exploration road.
This is a horse trail, also frequented by cows, so expect mud and poop. Spring melt also means in places it’s more like a stream. Overall though, it’s fairly well drained and not terribly bad, all things considered. For a time, we’re in the woods. In one spot we pass a small grove of giant trees right alongside the trail. Soon, things open up.
Making our way up a grassy draw, in no time we’re at the trail’s namesake, Grass Pass (an aptly named place). From here one can continue up and over the opposite side or you can head directly west to claim a modest ridge, or you can go in a southeasterly direction to the famous “Boundary Pine” located on a small hill overlooking the highway and the Highwood River. Or, like us, you can head up the grassy ridge directly to the east. You can tackle it head on, or traverse it some (using another old exploration road) before turning north and heading up that way. The latter allows you time to rest your legs a bit before getting back to the climbing. After all you’ve just gained several hundred metres of elevation.
Along here, we have a view of the Grass Pass trail below and see a good dozen or so hikers making their way up. Some went up the smaller ridge to the west and some went towards the Boundary Pine. Others must have turned around. They were all gone when we returned.
Soon the day’s goal comes into view. The trail here is intermittent, but the route is always obvious – go up. It’s mostly open and grassy but here and there we’ll have to pass through some dense groves of small trees. In one spot, there ridge undulates a bit, losing perhaps 40-50m in the process. Not a big deal though. In the trees we have to contend with some deep snow pack however. Along here, we find an odd cage-type structure. We’ve seen these elsewhere in Kanasaskis, often high up on a hillside or ridge, and frankly are not completely sure their purpose. Research tuns up nothing either. Anyone care to chime in?
Next up is the steepest part of the route. There is some loose rock, but nothing too worrisome. A long rib of the Bull Creek Hills can be seen in east and looking close, we see a hiker heading down it.
For a time we’re back into the trees (and deep snow) but before long we break out onto the ridge top proper. To the left (west) is two high points, which we’ll visit shortly. For now though, we’ll head east for the time. At the middle summit, Connie decides to stay put while I continue on.
There are three more high points to the east, two roughly the same height as the one we’re currently on and one a bit higher (or so it looks). I hope to bag all, but manage only two. The third and what appears to be the highest point (but only by a little bit) is inaccessible due to very deep snow between myself and it. In fact, along this section of the route, there is waist deep snow in many, many places. More postholing!
Back with Connie, we head to the the first of two westerly high points where we find a nice sheltered spot to have lunch. Soaking it all up, we enjoy the views, with some wine – champagne actually, celebrating our first summit of the season. We always bring wine. While Connie relaxes further (and she deserves it), I head to the most westerly summit, a rocky spine mostly in the trees.
Heading back, I take an inventory of known peaks that can be seen around us. To the west is Holy Cross Mountain and beside it, Mt Head. Both can be summited by competent scramblers. Further north is Patterson’s Peak. We don’t have a view directly north or northeast due to the trees. To the south and southwest are an endless sea of modest ridges and low rolling hills. Many, like Mount Mann not far away as the crown flies, will likely be objectives for us in the future – I understand most can be climbed. Directly south, the tallest mountain seen in that direction is Mt Burke. To the southeast the hills turn to prairie. There is still lots of snow on the higher mountains but lower down, things are greening up well.
Heading back, we follow the same route we came up on. We make one exception and near Grass Pass we head down a steep grassy slope, instead of the lesser slope with a traverse we did coming up.
In no time, we’re back in the trees. The warmth of the day has melted more snow and the trail-cum-stream we came up earlier in now more like a river in places. We have to rock hop at times to keep from getting wet feet. Along here we see a huge fungus on a tree – it’s easily a metre in height.
Before long we are back at the car. When we started were were the only vehicle at the trailhead and on ending it was the same. Those other hikers we saw earlier were long gone.
We did the Bull Creek Hills as an out and back. You can also do a horseshoe shaped route, heading up the way we did, while going down one of two easterly ribs (remember we saw a lone hiker on one earlier). Once at the bottom, you will have to walk down the highway a bit to get back to your car though.
There are many, many great hikes in this region of Kananaskis. So many in fact that we’ve only just scratched the surface in respects to exploring them all. Some of the favourites we’ve visited include Mist Ridge, Picklejar Ridge and Mt Lipsett, all summits you’ll want to check out too.
The Bull Creek Hills often come into season early, thanks to the prevailing winds that keep the slopes clear most of the time. In fact, they can often be climbed all year round.
On this trip we saw a lot of Prairie Crocuses. They are a sure sign of spring and are often the first flower seen. They are sometimes so eager to bloom, they will grow through the snow.
A creek to the north was formerly known as Bull Creek and it’s here where the hills took their name. Unbeknownst to me until I wrote this report, there is nearby the remains of a crashed airplane. Fascinating, I’ll keep it in mind for next time.
I have to say I am proud of Connie this trip. She’s still suffering from our 2011 car accident, but last year also got diagnosed with Grave’s disease. This makes it hard for her climb (a symptom is muscle weakness), but in spite of that she did it and did it well.
If you wish more information on this trail, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Kananaskis AB, west of Longview.
Height gain maximum: 730m
Height gain cumulative: 830m
Technical bits: Some loose spots.
NOTE: all heights and distances are approximate.
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.