The Indian Oils Trail in Kananaskis is most often done as an out and back. Nice enough, but why not mix it up a bit? Try a far more interesting alternative making a modest length loop using the official route for the ascent leg then a connecting ridge for the descent. The rewards? Nice views and more of them, varied topography, and some fun off-trail bushwhacking and route finding (the way is fairly obvious).
This trail is kind of short and easy to access (it’s not too far from Calgary) meaning it’s a good choice if one lacks ambition or time…or both. We only had half a day to play in the woods, so it fit our needs perfectly. Something short, quick and close. The trail is official, so it’s signed with maps at strategic locations. It’s popular with equestrian riders so expect to see a horse or two when hiking it.
The trail head is at the Indian Oils day use area, highway #546m, along the Sheep River in Kananaskis just west of Turner Valley. From the parking spot, find the trail at the northwest corner of the lot. At the first junction, very soon in, turn right and not long after cross the highway.
Trend left and climb a little. In no time come to a good-sized cut exposing a coal seam. In years past the land here was home to several small coal mines or prospects, one of them called Indian Oils and years earlier, an oil well operation of the same name. The whole Kananaskis region is underlain by numerous coal seams and was explored early on, before it became a recreation area of sorts, but few mines were ever put into production. Today, they’d never allow it.
Cross a small creek and soon on come to a four way junction. Other paths are alternative starts to the same Indian Oils Trail. Bend right (north-ish) and start climbing. The grade is mostly gentle with a few short steep pushes here and there. A creek gurgles below in a deep canyon. It’s soon out of ear-shot.
After a time, always climbing, come to a switchback. Since the coal mine the trail has been in the trees, but now things open up a bit. Trend right and reach the ridge crest. There’s a bench here, fully occupied by other hikers on our visit, and a place to tie up one’s steed. To the left the ridge rises a bit to a mostly open summit. It beckons but we ignored the call (stifling heat left us unambitious). Next time.
Check out the views. All around are rolling hills, most of them heavily treed. To the west and southwest are a wall of tall peaks – Shunga-La-She, Bluerock Mountain, Threepoint Mountain and many others. A obvious gap in them allows the Sheep River to exit the mountains. No views to the north or east – too many trees.
From here, turn right leaving the official Indian Oils Trail (if you’re curious, it continues east dropping down into the next valley over) and go off-route into the woods. Make sure you’re comfy travelling sans trail. Keep close to the top of a cliff band, west side of escapement, for the easiest going (fewest trees) and most things to see (those peaks in the west). This section of the ridge ends abruptly. To continue skirt left below the cliff band there, on steep grassy slopes and enter a meadow.
Mount Hoffmann (oftentimes spelled Hoffman – one n – I believe our usage is official) comes into view in the south across the river. We’ve been up it. It’s mostly treed like but has an open top and is a nice outing. Access is via an old logging road. Other green bumps surround it.
Back into the woods the lower ridge broadens. The trees are dense (and small) but the going is easy. Keep a roughly south-south-east trending line. At top of more cliffs, you could continue straight, picking your way between the rocks, or seeing a good opportunity, drop down left on shale slopes. Soon on, intercept the trail you came in on, turning left.
It’s a short hop, skip and jump back to the car, another fun and interesting woods outing under the belt.
We saw perhaps a dozen other hikers while on the official Indian Oils Trail, but none while bushwhacking. Recall, horses use this route. Be careful not to spook them on passing.
If you wish more information on this route, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: July, 2016.
Location: Sheep River area, Kananaskis, AB.
Distance: 8.5km loop.
Height gain maximum: 500m-guesstimate (our GPS said 725m but that’s highly suspect).
Height gain cumulative: 550m-ish.
NOTE: all distances and heights are approximate.
Technical bits: Some loose stuff, off trail navigation.
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.