A good hike can’t be beat. All that fresh air, scenery, each step the blood pumping and the body feeling fine…an amazing wilderness high. Sorry, too busy to die, I’m out walkin’ in the woods. Taking it to the next level, making it all the better, a history angle, something from long ago that ties in with the outing. Now that’s the proverbial “icing on the cake”. Here, a great honour, the chance to view some First Nations artifacts, at the very end of the trek, ancient Pictographs dating back hundreds of years, the setting, a deep, remote canyon.
West of Longview, Highway #40, a couple clicks inside the K-County Boudary, park on the south side of the highway. This is the former Sentinel Day Use area washed away in the 2013 floods. You’ll know it’s right spot though – the river’s gets very close to the road and lots of people park here, hikers, angles and sightseers. Don some sandals and cross the river. Aim for a point just east of where little Cataract Creek comes in from the south.
The river is wide and cold as ice no mater the season and can only be crossed in times of lower flow – IE, not in the spring during run off. Look at all that damage from that flood mentioned earlier. Undercut banks, fallen trees, flood debris. Yikes! Expect to see lots of anglers here. Fine fishing on the Highwood I’m told.
Find the sandy trail heading into the trees. Right at a meadow, into the trees again then take the path heading up and left. Top out at another meadow, home to First Nation’s ceremonial site (still used). Prayer Cloths adorn trees and in the grass one can find remains of small shelters (Sundance Lodges). Please show the place the respect it deserves. Take only photos and touch nothing.
Spin around…those views! To the west Mount Mann looms above. Opposite and across the Highwood is Gunnery Mountain and directly behind towering Holy Cross Mountain. Directly north is what we call (and no one else does) Gunnery Ridge and to the east Bull Creek Hills. Turn more and face south and see two ridges extending off to the south – left one’s called North Limestone while the one to the right has the moniker Lookout Range (both in Daffern’s Hiking Books). Both are heavily forested down low and quite rugged.
Head for the narrow valley between them. There’s not much of a trail in the meadow, but it’ll get better once in the trees. This is the Zephyr Creek Trail.
The route from here on is easy to follow and gains elevation at a nice easy pace. There’s not much room in the valley, so it keeps close to Zephyr Creek most of the time. Occasional meadows allow for a view of North Limestone Ridge. Amble along. This is hands in pockets hiking. A curiosity – a length of cord, strung from tree to tree above the creek, extending for many kilometres. What the?
Come to a junction marked with a cairn. Turn shallow left, cross the creek, turn hard left and cross a second smaller creek (dry on our visit) then bend right just beside it. This is the Painted Creek Trail. There’s lots of off-shoot trails here heading in the wrong direction – who knows where they lead. Stay beside the dry creek and you’ll be fine.
Climb a bit more steeply – still it’s a gentle grade – cross and recross the creek, the canyon getting more narrow with each step, and soon on, come to the pictograph site. There’s two separate “paintings” to see, one showing that of a stick figure next a horned animal (Buffalo suggested) and another that of a bird. Well half a bird…some rock has broken away at some point.
In times past there were others Pictographs here, obliterated when the rock wall they were on partially collapsed in the 1970s. Untouched and higher up, there’s some markings that look like nothing more than smudges. But clearly they’re man made.
In addition, there are many other Pictographs, far greater in number and more elaborate high up the ridge to the north. These, I understand are challenging to get to, their location almost kept a secret, and were not visited this trip. We know where they are and these may be the subject of a future article. Collectively, the Alberta Register of Historic Places calls them one of the largest collections of Pictographs in the entire province.
In modern times the Pictographs first make mention in publication in the 1950s. In following years they were thoroughly studied. It’s said they date from the 1700s if not earlier, most likely prior to contact with Europeans. It’s thought the Pictographs were created over a fair span of time and perhaps not all by the same person. Further, it’s said they were created not by the local Plains First Nations but rather others from the Interior of British Columbia. Perhaps they were in the area to trade? Curious.
Please don’t touch the Pictographs as this will lead to them degrading. Did we really have to say that? It’s a given right? Well, just to make sure. These are rare – there’s so few things connecting us back to First Nation’s Culture from long ago – historically significant and have great meaning to First Nations Peoples. Respect folks…it’s not hard to do.
Stand there in quiet awe pondering those who made these Pictographs. What inspired them? Why place them in this hard to get to, near inaccessible setting, this out of the way place? Why this spot? It’s well hidden today and likely no different way back when. The reason for the Pictographs? And what was used for “paint?” Ochre? Where was it sourced? The questions come hard and fast, the mind races. Are these things we’ll ever know?
Maybe, maybe not.
Retrace your steps. The Highwood Crossing is a welcome diversion on a hot day, but in the cold of fall, it’s frigid and stings. No bother, the subject matter of this hike make it easy to forget such unpleasnatries. You we’re witness to something amazing.
If you wish more information about this trail, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: September, 2017.
Location: Kananaskis AB, Highwood River Area.
Distance: 10km return.
Height gain maximum: 200m-ish.
Height gain cumulative: 200m-ish.
NOTE: all distances and heights are approximate.
Technical bits, warnings and notes: The Highwood River crossing.
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.