Let us be your guides to the summit of Moose Mountain. Located in the extreme front ranges of Kananaskis, just west of Calgary, it’s a popular destination and understandably so. It’s nice and close to town, the trail is easy going and the views from the top are simply amazing. For little work (really) the rewards are pretty incredible. Sure there is the mundane walk-in-the-trees at the start and some elevation loses – meaning an uphill plod on the way back – but overall it’s a real pleasure. A working fire lookout at the summit adds to the interest.
To avoid the crowds come on a weekday. We visited on a Friday but even then it was still pretty busy at times (saw maybe two dozen folks). Some people bike most of the route, a nice option if you want a shorter day. Only the final half click or so has to be done on foot. The route described is accessible (as of 2016) from mid-May into late November, the road leading to the trailhead being closed outside those dates.
Getting there. Not far past the marked Paddy’s Flat Campground, on Highway #66, turn right (north) on the Moose Mountain Road (marked by a gate). A gravel affair it climbs up steadily to the top of a ridge – added bonus, your car gained half the elevation of Moose Mountain for you. There is ample parking at the trailhead, but even then on weekends, space can be tight.
Find a trail, far end of the parking lot, and intercept the fire road. The latter was formerly used as a supply route for the lookout, food and whatever being brought up pack horse. Today helicopters do the same thing. The path is wide, well drained and for the most part packed down with a few loose sections here and there. For about half the time, it’s deep in the trees, with little to see.
At one point the trail drops down about a hundred metres (Booo!), elevation that will have to be regained on the return. At the bottom, join up with the Moose Packers Trail, another route in. Following a ridge top, the trail slowly gains elevation back, opens up for a bit (left, there’s Moose), turns hard left and then not long after leaves the trees completely behind.
Welcome to “Brokeback Meadows”. Doubling as the namesake mountain in that production, many scenes were filmed right where you stand. Ahead, notice the zig-zag road climbing Moose Dome, a rounded hump you must go up and over before getting to Moose Mountain proper. It’s often windy as hell up here, so come prepared. Even on warm days it’ll often feel bone chillingly cold. Turn around here if a thunder storm threatens.
Topping out on broad topped Moose Dome, finally you have a good clear view of the lookout, straight ahead and a little higher up. Protected by cliffs below, it’s seems to barely fit on the summit. That final path leading to it appears a little “airy” but is not too bad.
Look around. To the right are lots of low rolling hills extending off as far as one can see. To the left, there’s a deep canyon below and in behind a long ridge that in spite of appearing as though a second mountain is actually part of Moose.
Drop down to a col where the road ends. From here on it’s a narrow trail that’s sometimes loose. At one time horses were left here, supplies then being taken in the last bit on foot. The trail traverses steep south facing scree slopes and is “tingly” in places. Don’t trip, it’s a long drop down! Climbing, pass below the summit, double back and arrive at the lookout. The building itself is off-limits, unless the spotter invites you in (but they’re usually busy). In addition there is a small living quarters here, their (private) biffy with an amazing view (and cable stayed to keep from being blown away), a helicopter pad and other stuff. It’s about all that could fit on the summit given the limited amount of space here.
A mail box holds a guest book. Looking at the entries, on some days the summit of Moose Mountain is a happening place. Some rock shelters allow one to take refuge from the always constant wind if you want to linger for lunch or whatever.
Take the obligatory group photo or selfie on the copter pad. The view, let’s check them out. To the east is Moose Dome the fire road being very obvious. Behind it, look towards the plains. You can see Calgary if it’s clear.
A wall of barren summits are far to the west. Between them and you is a couple places of interest. A bit to the north is Cox Hill, and to its left Jumpingpound Mountain. They’re lower, mostly treed with grassy summits, a distinct contrast to Moose Mountain which is rocky and devoid of any vegetation and a fair bit higher. Further that, Moose is sort off by itself, away from other peaks like it, and surrounded by less rugged and less lofty hills. This makes it really stand out and it feels much higher than it is.
Notice all the connecting ridges extending off in many directions from Moose Mountain. It looks like most of them could be hikable. In the southwest, we can see Powderface Ridge, behind it Forget-me-not Ridge, and sort of visible to the south, Prairie Mountain. To the southeast, one can follow the ridge that was used to get here from the trailhead. You’re parked right beside of that one big hump.
There has been a fire lookout on the summit of Moose Mountain since the late 1920s. The current structure dates from the 1970s. Perhaps seen as an anachronism of sorts given all the technology available today, these facilities still serve a valuable purpose, the fire spotter tirelessly scanning the hills for signs of smoke or fire day in and out. It requires an incredible amount of patience. There is a whole network of these lookouts in the Alberta front ranges. We’ve visited a few.
As crazy as it sounds, there is a sign at the start of the trail asking hikers to not ask the lookout staff for food and water. Does that even happen? Perhaps a lot of newbie hikers, which this trail can appeal to, don’t come fully prepared. Still, sheesh!
Only when your good and ready – it’s hard to leave such a wonderful place – return the way you came. Don’t forget that section of up at the end. I bet you’ve forgotten about it. Damn!
If you wish more information on this route, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: June, 2016.
Location: Elbow River area, Kananaskis AB.
Distance: 16km return.
Height gain maximum: 500m
Height gain cumulative: 650m
NOTE: all distances and heights are approximate.
Technical bits: tripping on loose stuff.
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.