In the winter there are a limited number of mountains that can be climbed easily. Many are inaccessible or too difficult or dangerous. Prairie Mountain is an exception to this rule and so it becomes our pick for this day. I doubt we’d ever consider it in summer, as it is far too busy. Even on this November date, deep in the grips of winter, we shared the trail with many, many people. One wearing open toed sandals!
The trail starts right at the highway, close to the winter gate by the Elbow Falls picnic site. Immediately you go up without any breaks, save for a few short flat sections mixed in here and there. At one, you get a brief glimpse up Prairie Creek. Otherwise the views up are limited due to trees and only at the top do they thin out. While never that steep there are some sections that were snow covered and the footing was sometime tricky or slippery. Mostly however the footing was good and the path easy to follow.
Breaking out of the trees, you are not quite at the top yet. The grade here lessens and you follow the obvious path as it heads north above a minor cliff band. There a few tree islands here and there that help block the wind. As the grade levels even more the true summit comes into view. Actually it’s quite flat and it hard to tell where the actual highest point is. But who cares, it’s still a fun place to be.
It’s often windy, as it was on this visit, and we had to huddle behind some scrub trees near the summit when we had lunch (sushi with wine!).
There is a large and ever growing cairn on top.
Looking around we spot Moose Mountain to the north. It dominates the view and has an active fire lookout on top. Connected to it is the barren Moose Dome. There is a nice wide trail here that takes you up both of these mountains and this is another popular route (even in winter). Movie buffs may recognize Moose Mountain by it’s Hollywood name, Brokeback Mountain. Meadows on its east side were used in the film.
Prairie Mountain’s top is broad but if you head to the north side and look down you may see the famous Canyon Creek Ice Caves. They are situated lower on Moose Mountain’s south-ish facing flanks below you. You no longer can drive up to these and now must hike or bike in for several kilometres. That’s good anyway since it limits the number of casual visitors coming to the fragile site.
Back at the summit, to the southwest Forget-me-not Ridge (also called Forgetmenot Ridge) can be seen with it’s distinctive flat top. I have been there and it’s amazing how level the summit is. You could land a plane there. It used to be home to a fire lookout – actually it was Forgetmenot Mountain that housed the lookout – but the ridge and it are almost the same height and are connected together so they appear as one. To it’s north is Powderface Ridge, one day hopefully a destination for us. Behind, are the big mountains which are too far away to be seen clearly.
Immediately south, east and west, smaller rolling hills and lesser rocky ridges can be seen. Most are either nameless or have names that escape me or are too far in the distance to worry about. To the south, just beyond the Elbow River is the McLean Creek OHV zone. It’s an area used by quaders and dirt bikers and it’s a noisy place in the summer but quiet today.
Also notice the numerous gas wells in the area. The whole area is one giant gas field. At one time some small scale coal mining took place here too, including one mine directly below the north edge of Prairie Mountain near its base.
After Moose Mountain, the mountain you are on is the highest in the immediate area. However, that does not mean much since these are all very modest summits. If you wish to go higher, you need to tackle mountains further to the west. But they are rarely in season in November.
On the day of our trip the weather was dull and grey and blustery. A sombre day, which was fitting since it was November 11th, Remembrance Day.
If you wish more information on this trail, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: November 2008.
Location: Kananaskis, Elbow River area.
Distance: 7km return.
Height gain from start: 725m
Height gain cumulative: 725m
Technical bits: None.
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.