This hike I visit Prairie Mountain solo. It’s a relatively modest sized bump, west of Calgary but still close to the city and it has pretty decent views from the summit. It’s a well used trail, so much so that I’ll only consider it as an objective at certain times of the year when things are relatively quiet. Either during the week in summer, like this day (even then it was busy), or in the off season. I don’t dig crowds.
Prairie Mountain is popular for many reasons. It’s quickly and easily accessible all year round and for one this makes it a good early season conditioner when other mountains are inaccessible. The views from the summit are nice enough, I liked them, and its modest size means that getting to the top is not terribly difficult work, nor does it take much time. You can be up and down in a few hours if you wish. I hear people do it after work.
There is one downside to the hike, well two if you count the sometimes crowded trail and summit, and that’s the route up. It’s not that it’s hard or technical or anything like that. It’s just that the whole time you’re in the trees and the views are either limited or totally nonresistant, save for one or two spots where the forest thins a bit. In fact, you’ll almost have to reach the summit before you’re out of the woods.
This trip was a solo outing. Connie is still recuperating from a broken toe. Ouch!
A number of forest fires in other parts of the continent caused a pale blue haze to hang in the air. It was not hard to breath but it sure made getting a good photo a bit of a challenge.
The trail starts near the Elbow Falls day use area. You can park at a designated spot just west of the trailhead.
Just east of Prairie Creek (marked with a road sign), take the trail heading up and north. Until you get to the summit this trail-within-the-trees is a pretty mundane affair. It’s steep in places, less so in others with few flat sections, save for one good sized stretch about a third of the way up. Catch your breath here. For the most part the trail is well packed down, but there are a few loose rocky sections and in many places it braids. Don’t worry all routes eventuality meet up. In a couple places there are some rock steps but they are nothing to worry about.
Our last and only other visit was in November a few years back. If there is snow, like there was then or if the trail is wet, expect slippery sections. That’s common sense anyway.
If one is in reasonable shape, the trail up can be done in short order; an hour or so for really fit people, or a couple hours for slow pokes like me.
With most of the elevation gained, the trees thin and the grade eases. From here one need only follow a gently inclined grassy open slope to the summit. There are few trees islands here and there along the way. And there you have it, you’re done. You’ve summited Prairie Mountain. Sit back and enjoy the 360 degree views. There is a lot to see at the top.
Directly to the north is Moose Mountain. If you look hard you can see the fire lookout on its summit. To the west is a long rib connected to that same mountain. Further east, the hills and ridges transition into the prairies. Normally one can see Calgary, but with the haze, visibility was limited. Directly below to the north and east is Canyon Creek. The celebrated ice caves at the base of Moose Mountain and a good number of gas wells can be seen too.
To the south is an endless sea of rolling hills. In the west, we can spot two ridges we’ve been up – Forget-me-not Ridge and Powderface Ridge. In behind and forming an almost impenetrable wall are the barren limestone peaks of the front ranges. I won’t bother rattling off their names since they are too distant and too shrouded in haze to see clearly.
The summit of Prairie Mountain has a huge cairn.
After lunch, I decided to follow a short ridge that heads north from the summit. It’s not a long one but some elevation is lost following it. It ends a high point, with a good view of Moose Mountain directly to the north. Hmm, it’s been a while since we visited that peak. Time to maybe hike it again.
Heading back to the summit, I admire a series of cliffs on the mountain’s north face. There are more cliffs on the east side too. The grassy west face in contrast, falls away gently before becoming wooded.
After spending an hour or so at the top it was time to head down (reluctantly). In just over another hour, I’m back at the car.
This trip I saw a number of other hikers tackling the mountain. Included in that group were two fellows who ran up and down it – twice – in the time it took me to get to the summit. I feel so inadequate! Also seen was a good sized youth group, heading up while I was on my way down. Some did not look happy to be there. And for some the physical effort required was clearly too much. You could see it. A few looked a little green. On a busy weekends I’ve heard things can get pretty crowded on the trail. I saw one picture of the busy summit and there must have been several dozen people there. Yikes, that’s a bit to busy for my tastes.
The mountain was named in the 1920s according to most sources I’ve found. It’s not known if the moniker was a nod to the nearby plains or if the top, which is relatively flat and gassy and I guess somewhat prairie-like, was the reason.
You’ll never hear us say that Prairie Mountain is on our list of favourites. The trip up is just a bit too mundane. Even so, it does have its charms, like the views at the top. With that, any mountain is a good mountain.
To see our previous visit to Prairie Mountain, click the link below…
If you wish more information on this trail, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: August, 2014.
Location: Kananaskis AB, Elbow River area.
Distance: 9km out and back (8km to the summit, 1km more for the north ridge).
Height gain maximum: 710m (a previous trip the GPS said 725m – the mountain is shrinking!).
Height gain cumulative: 780m.
NOTE: all heights and distances are approximate.
Technical bits: a few loose sections of trail.
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.