For this delightful foothills hike we follow the Elbow Valley trail east from the Ing’s Mine day use area, then loop back to where we started using the Sulphur Springs trail on the return leg. While much of the trip is in the trees, every now and then things open up nicely and we catch glimpses of nearby hills and rolling ridges and mountains far off in distance. Near the end of the trip, there is a stunning viewpoint looking west. While the maximum elevation gained is only a couple hundred metres in height, the trail overall has a roller coaster profile, so cumulative adds much more. It’s a fair workout.
This trail is popular not only with hikers, but also those on bikes, so keep an eye and ear open for our two wheeled friends. We’ve walked this route before, but not recently, and never at this time of year. We’ve typically visited early in the spring when things are an ugly grey and brown. This fall day we were blessed with lovely blue skies and trees turning a stunning yellow. Much nicer this pass.
The loop portion of the trail is best done in a counter-clockwise fashion. There are many places where one can start this trip, but we choose the Ing’s Mine trail head, for two reasons. First it sits lower then other starts giving us a better overall workout and second, I could then visit the old coal prospect for which the trail head is named. I can’t resist holes that head into the ground.
The start point for our route begins just off highway 66 at the old ice caves road (gravel). Turn right on it and head in to the gate and parking spot a click or so away. At this point you are just below the east flank of Prairie Mountain.
Head to the south part of the parking lot and intercept the Elbow Valley trail. Go east and cross Canyon Creek, which is most often dry (but which shows scars of having flooded in the past), and find the trail on the opposite bank. Follow it, passing a marked junction soon off, as it zig-zags up.
Along here, right below the trail in fact, you’ll pass Ings Mine, named for George Ings, its owner. This operation which dates from the early to mid 1910s, lasted only a short time, just long enough for a 30-ish metre long tunnel to be dug. They hoped to intercept a workable coal seam, and coal does exist in the area, but did not find one that was economically viable. The plan was to supply local petroleum drilling rigs (I see the irony) with fuel to fire their boilers. Clearly nothing much came of this “mine”.
Normally I don’t suggest that anyone enter a coal mine, but given this one is so short and seems to be dug into fairly solid shale beds, the dangers, while still there, aren’t terribly bad. Rock fall is not so much of a problem but given how low the tunnel is, hitting one’s head on an outcropping is. Take care and duck.
Back on the trail, head up further then turn east. In no time, you’ll come to a signed junction. Continue east here. The trial to the left is where you’ll come down on the return leg. The trail here undulates and wanders, passing through lovely meadows and groves of trees. At one point you’ll come to Moose Mountain Road (gravel and dusty), which you’ll cross again on the return loop, only higher up.
The Elbow Valley trail drops down to a draw, then heads back up to a low ridge top. Look for the creepy clown in the trees along here. You will no doubt notice many side trails crossing your path. These are mountain bike routes, few of which are marked. Our trail however is, and at all important junctions there are signs and along the way, red diamonds to guide you. If in doubt, our route is wider and more defined then any others.
Dropping down again you get close to the highway (you can hear it). Pass a large blow down area, then a junction (marked) and shorty after, come to a bridge. Just past it, at another junction, make a hard left and loop back. You’re now on the Sulphur Springs section of the trail and are heading west.
The path travels through a deep and dark draw. The understory is comprised of moss with a good number of mushrooms growing in the moist material. The woods are dense. At an “S” bend, you can cut back for a few dozen metres, following an obvious path to a boggy area and find a sulphur spring for which this trail is named. A stream of water with a slight sulphur smell and faint petroleum slick, bubbles up from inside an old gas well casing left behind many years ago. Drilling for petroleum has been taking place in the area since the 1910s, but it’s not known what date this relic is from.
By the way, Sulphur can also be spelled Sulfur. Either is correct, in most people’s minds anyway. Many signs along the route, use the spelling Sulpher, which is in error of course.
In short order the trail heads up, steeply at times, before levelling out for a bit at a pipeline right-or-way crossing. Shortly after, with a few ups and downs along the way, you come to Moose Mountain Road again. Look both ways before you cross, it’s a sometimes busy road. Along here, as on the Elbow Valley section, you’ll intersect many mountain bike trails.
Turn south-ish and pass through a parking lot. The trail heads up some more, topping out at a wonderful view point overlooking the Canyon Creek Valley. To the north, we catch a glimpse of Moose Mountain, or rather one of it’s many ridges. Directly west is Prairie Mountain, a place we’ve been up to a couple times. To the south is a hill named Iyarhe Ipan, in the local Stoney First Nation’s language, but what many others call Quirk Ridge. Myself I am confused, since it seems the latter, I thought, was the hill just to the left. Any experts care to speak up?
Many other rolling hills and ridges can be seen all around and in the west, far off, are the barren peaks of the front ranges. The viewpoint is a good place to have lunch. We had ours down lower however – sometimes you just get hungry and can’t wait.
After soaking up the views, zig-zag down, mostly in open meadows, to a junction you passed earlier. Turn right heading towards Ing’s Mine and later your car.
We saw perhaps a dozen people this trip, half on bikes, the other half hiking. One some days, the place can be super busy I am told.
If you wish more information on this trail, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: October, 2014.
Location: Elbow River area, Kananaskis, AB.
Distance: 12km part loop, part out and back.
Height gain maximum: 220m.
Height gain cumulative: GPS failed to record, but easily a couple hundred metres more.
NOTE: all heights and distances are approximate.
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.