It’s a modest-sized lump of limestone in the foothills of Kananaskis. That’s Gunnery Mountain and hiking it is nothing short of pure and unadulterated fun. Sure, it’s a bit rugged looking as seen from the highway, what with all those steep cliff bands, rock outcroppings and scree slopes. But…using a back side approach one can gain the summit quickly, simply and easily. If your wuss meter is easily set off, like mine, you need not fear. There are no worries at all. The going is easy.
Great rewards await you at the top. Enjoy far reaching views extending off in many directions of low rolling hills, treed ridges, river valleys, endless forests and even the plains to the east. Throw in some towering peaks for good measure and it’s scenery overload. It may be a small mountain, but is a giant when it comes to enjoymnet.
Some of the route used here is off-trail with some minor bushwhacking, so be sure that’s in your comfort zone. It appears a bear or bears frequent the upper valley used on the ascent (we saw many signs) so keep your eyes and ears open.
The trailhead is along the highway just east of the old Eyrie Gap day use area – gone after the 2013 floods but still marked on most maps. There is an obvious cairn at the start just to the right of a small creek. Look west-ish and up and see your goal for the day directly above.
Head up the initially steep-walled valley, Gunnery Creek far below in a rocky canyon. The grade is mostly gentle with occasional steep parts and very rarely some loose bits. Dip down to the same creek (often dry this high up), crossing it and recrossing it many times. The trail braids at times. Trees thin in places.
About half way up the valley widens. Break out to a meadow and enjoy the first views to the south. To your right is a long ridge which can be hiked. We visited it last year: Ridge 710871 – Gunnery Ridge?
To the left is your objective. Make a note of a break in a cliff band. This is where the trail you’ll soon be on bypasses all the hard stuff. Holy Cross Mountain, higher and even more rugged, connects with Gunnery here (technically, Gunnery is a simply an outlier of Holy Cross – a lower connecting peak that’s part of the larger mountain…now you know!).
At one point, at a small wet draw, the trail splits. Take the left branch.
Now here’s where it gets a bit tricky, the off-trail part. Look up at Holy Cross and spot a deep gouge high up. Line up with it and head up into the woods (occasional game trails). Trend a little left, jumping over deadfall the whole way. aiming for the base of an obvious scree slope where the trail reappears – faint at first but better and more defined as you travel south and upwards. I fully expect, as this route becomes more popular, that a more established trail will form in this gap over time. At this point your traversing the lower and sometimes very steep slopes (don’t trip) of Holy Cross.
Look down at the valley you came up earlier. We spotted some hikers below but they must have had another objective in mind. Maybe Holy Cross Mountain, Gunnery Ridge, the saddle between the two? They didn’t come up our way and we had the summit of Gunnery to ourselves. In fact beside that group we saw only one other hiker this day. Nice solitude.
You can see the top of Gunnery Ridge now. In behind, the Bull Creek Hills, a hiker’s playground, comes into view.
Head up steeply through a gap in the cliffs. This is what hiking legend Daffern calls the “Notch”. Go up and up, then level out at a saddle between Gunnery and Holy Cross. Some rudimentary trails head up in dense trees aiming for the summit (I guess), but we elect to circle round a bit, hitting slopes that are less wooded with many interspersed meadows.
Views to the west open up here. Just to the left of Holy Cross is Junction Hill. Notice the old coal exploration roads on its east facing flanks. See the post: Junction Hill recon to see what they look like up close.
The grade is easy. There is no trail, but the way is clear. Just keep heading up. In no time, top out at the summit. There are a few trees here, but it’s mostly open. You can continue down Gunnery’s south ridge for a bit, losing some elevation in the process, or simply enjoy the views from this high point.
Directly south, across the highway and Highwood River directly below, and with Gunnery forming Eyrie Gap (or Highwood Gap), a small opening in an otherwise impenetrable wall of rock, is Mount Mann. On either side are numerous ridges. Directly south is the flat top of Plateau Mountain. Beside it is Mount Burke, home to an abandoned fire lookout.
We can also see Raspberry Ridge (we’ve been), Coyote Hills (we haven’t been) and a wall of barren and very rugged mountains in the west (we’ll never be). Holy Cross dominates the view in the north. Looking a little to the right, are a series of treed ridges in a near inaccessible and hence seldom visited part of Kananaskis.
Don’t leave yet. Summits are made for lunch…and wine! We take time to enjoy both. Do the same or just sit and relax. When ready, retrace your steps back to the car. I understand it’s possible to drop down to the highway on Gunnery’s west flanks, if you want to mix it up. Not sure how easy or hard it is.
Naming conventions: Gunnery Mountain (unofficial), after the fellow who built the road below the mountain – the present highway follows much of his grade. Holy Cross Mountain, by the way, is named for a snow formation that appears on it each spring, that takes the shape of a cross.
If you wish more information on this route, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2016.
Location: Highwood area, Kananaskis AB.
Distance: 10km return.
Height gain maximum: 610m.
Height gain cumulative: 620m
NOTE: all distances and heights are approximate.
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.