This trip has us exploring the flanks of Junction Hill in the front ranges near the Highwood River area of Kananaskis. A reconnaissance mission, one goal we had was to see if we could gain said summit via a series of old coal exploration roads on the east side of that hill. A powerful electrical storm keeps us from succeeding, but other wise the route seems doable, if not a bit challenging due to some loose and steep terrain, cliffs and rock bands. If anyone has done this route, this author could find no such evidence online or in any hiking books.
We also wished to check out the route for Stony Ridge, a series of bumps to the east that are connected to Junction Hill by way of a saddle. This will be our goal for a future trip and we had no intentions of doing it this trip.
This trail is not official and is rarely mentioned online or in guide books so given that few hike it, it is faint in places and route finding challenges can be expected.
We start at a side road that heads south just west of the old Sentinel Ranger Station. Parking along the highway, we jump the fence and follow the road for the next kilometre or two. There are some large interconnected meadows here, the former location of the coal exploration camp, now used to store firewood and old picnic tables and the like. We follow them to the last meadow, and turn left up a faint cat road. At this point, Stony Creek to the right can be heard but not seen.
The primitive road heads up, generally at a gentle rate, and is easy to follow here. At other times it’s overgrown or very faint. After a few hundred metres we come to a easy-to-miss junction. We elect to take the left route, knowing that it switchbacks up to a point high on the flanks of Junction Hill. This, I hope, will provide us easy access to the aforementioned summit. No one seems to have documented this as a possible route up but from my research it seems possible.
For the next few kilometres, the route switchbacks, gaining elevation steadily. This section is not that badly overgrown but later as we gained height, the trail would become clogged with small trees or alders. Thankfully there is very little dead fall.
After the last switchback, the trail generally hugs the sometimes treeless hillside in an undulating fashion. Along here one can see the reason for these crazy roads and coal seams and evidence of same can be seen in some deep cuts.
At times other old roads cut across the route we are one, but given how overgrown they were, they can be ignored. if you even see them. Our route is overgrown too, but for the most part passable and obvious. There is one big slump here, where one section of the road has dropped away, so be careful.
At one high point we drop down a little, joining another obvious road coming in from behind and below. This one must be the road we left at the last junction, and on the return trip we follow it down, confirming that hunch.
Mostly out in the open here we travel on grass covered hillsides before coming to a saddle that separates Junction Hill and Stony Ridge (not an official name BTW). From here the beckoning summit of the former appears close at hand. Connie decides to rest at this spot and I continue on solo. I tackle a grassy slope and before long I am surprised to find yet another exploration road heading in the direction I planned to go. Taking it seems like a no brainer and I follow it up and up.
It’s heavily overgrown with fir and spruce trees in places but is otherwise mostly passable. Higher up, a hundred metres or so above the lower road, it ends unceremoniously directly below some cliff bands. Who ever cut this path with a cat was crazy, it’s steep and exposed!
Gauging my possibilities, I try to flank left, heading for a group of trees in what looks to be a weakness in one cliff band. However, an electrically charged storm quickly rolls in behind me and I retreat back down into the trees, not wanting to be a lightning rod (as it turns out, I was too cautious). I head back to Connie to have some lunch at the Junction Hill/Stony Ridge col, with hopes to retry after eating, but by the time I am done, the storm has passed (actually it never really came) and I lack the energy to retrace my steps. This makes it a good reason to return.
After lunch we head back down, enjoying the views as we go. Before long we are at the last junction mentioned and knowing that the lower road leads back to the same place we started from, we elect to take it instead of the route we came in on. Just to mix it up. It heads down more steeply than the latter and before long we at a small knoll that should provide some good views (I hope).
I climb it leaving Connie behind and on topping out I am not disappointed with what I see. There are good views of the first road we came up and I study possible routes to the top of Junction Hill and Stony Ridge. To the east Holy Cross Mountain and Mt. Head dominate the view and they remind us how insignificant the bump we are on is.
Rejoining Connie we head down once more. Sometimes in meadows the route is easily lost, and other times dense growth prevents using the road, and so we bushwhack beside it at times. In other places it’s boggy and easily lost in the wet mess. None the less we always get back on it with a short order.
At one point we come across the location of an old sawmill with weathered planks and discarded cut offs scattered about. It was not a big operation based on the modest size of the waste pile.
Before long we are at the first junction we spoke of and minutes after, those larger interconnected meadows near the start. It’s a short hop to the car from there.
The cat road we see dates from 1944-45 and was made by company by the name of Ford Highwood Collieries. There are many coal seams in the area and lots of exploitation has taken place but there have never been any producing mines as a result of such work. The coal looks to be of reasonable quality, but given the primitive roads at the time, transportation must have been a big challenge.
Markets were far away and along rough roads. A railways is really needed if coal is to be moved economically and none were nearby, although some were planned but never built. The lack of cheap transportation clearly doomed any chances this company had. In modern times, mining would not be allowed in Kananaskis, and even logging is mostly restricted.
A number of other mountains, hills and ridges in the area have been explored for coal in a similar manner. Various caterpillar roads can be seen zig-zagging across their sides in the hopes that a coal seam would be exposed. These roads, once ugly scars but now grown in, make easy access routes for those hiking to summit these hills. In many cases, the cuts take you to within mere metres of a summit. These old cat roads can be found on Mist Ridge, on Picklejar Ridge and Mt Lipsett, and Pasque Mountain among others.
We saw some fresh bear poop and diggings on this trip, so we made sure to make lots of noise as we travelled through the dense brush.
I hope to return one day, to summit Junction Hill, or maybe to do Stony Ridge.
If you wish more information on this route, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2013.
Location: Kananaskis, Highwood River area.
Distance: 14km combo loop with out and back section.
Height gain from start: 580m.
Height gain cumulative: 680m.
NOTE: all heights and distances are approximate.
Technical bits: Little used and little known trail with some route finding challenges.