Sep 252014
Elk River Valley

This trail takes us to the end of a ridge overlooking the town of Sparwood BC. The route is a mix of old logging and coal mine exploration roads and oftentimes steep and rough ATV tracks, and doesn’t appear in any hiking books or guides. We’re the first, as far as we know, to document it. Once some elevation is gained, we had good views of the mountains and valleys in the area and of massive working coal mines that feed the local economy. There is also signs of coal mining activity to see right along the trail.

The motivation behind this adventure was the huge Terex Titan dump truck on display in downtown Sparwood. Let me explain – I wanted to see what it would look like from somewhere up high. It’s big enough for that to work. It’s been photographed to death up close but I bet no one has shot its huge bulk from a nearby mountain or ridge top. That’s what I wanted to do. Mix it up.

Researching a number of possible routes it became clear that by using some old roads and quad tracks we could get to a high point directly south of downtown and above the truck. Perfect, we have a plan. Unbeknownst to us, some trees would end up blocking the view! All that work!

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But was it so bad? Not at all, not for a second, and the views of Sparwood itself, the Elk River Valley extending north and south, that of an operating coal mine on a nearby mountain, and all the lovely fall colours and the stunning blue sky more then made up for it. It was good, real good, and I soon forgot that disappointment I felt.

The trailhead is some five kilometres south of town. It’s the obvious logging road on the east side of the highway. The branch heading off to the right is the one to take. High clearance vehicles can drive this section for a couple clicks, shaving off some elevation gain as well.

The road initially heads away from our objective, gaining elevation slowly. The route is in the trees and for some time we can still hear the busy highway not that far away. The road turns back on itself heading up more steeply now (but it’s never that hard). A junction with the Coal Discovery Trail is passed. It’s a long distance hiking and biking route connecting Sparwood with Fernie. I knew nothing of it until this trip. Mental note, see if it’s something we can do.

The views start opening up and we area able to see south down the Elk River Valley. We also have a good view of the ridge directly across from us and the Elk River below.

At a cut block where the road levels out, an ATV track heads up and to the right. Things get a bit more challenging along this stretch – it’s steep in places and there are some loose spots. Along here we bump into some hunters who make mention of a Grizzly with cubs (four of them) and a resident black bear that’s been seen in the area. It’s a bit concerning for us, but not enough that we turn around. Later on we saw evidence of cubs prints, bit no signs of bigger bears.

The ATV track zig-zags a couple times. Ignore any side roads. Where it levels out, just past a coal outcropping, take the less travelled road heading hard left. The route to the right appears to head higher up the ridge in a southerly direction.

In less then a click, the track enters a larger meadow and it’s here were we start encountering evidence of coal mining activity. A large cut on the right and another further back have exposed seams and evidence of being worked. This was not a true mine, but rather a test or prospect operation, where they examine the quality and properties of the coal and the potential reserves. This work, I believe, was done many decades ago and while nothing has happened since, it’s likely at some point this whole ridge will be mined. Evidence shows there are many good thick seams here.

At the north end of the meadow is a wide well graded but grassed over road that will take us the rest of the way to the overlook. Nearly all the elevation needed has been gained already and this final section is for the most part flat and the going super easy.

Here and there we pass side roads, all which can be ignored. An old sign warning of working equipment is passed and is marked for the defunct Elkview Coal Corporation. The views really start opening up. Above us we can see the top of Sparwood Ridge, which looks like it could be easily gained. Below that a thick coal seam has been exposed by nature.

The further north we travel the more well packed down and less grown over the road we’re on becomes. It appears that occasionally trucks, presumably from the company that now owns the coal rights here, travels along the road from time to time. We found a good number of mushrooms along this section, including many Lawyer’s Wigs, so named because they resemble that form of headgear. An old power line is also seen.

Passing through a large yellow gate we’re soon at another prospect pit, our planned destination. As test pits go, it’s a pretty big one. Looking down, recall we’re just above downtown Sparwood and the Titan truck, I am disappointed that what we came to see is blocked from view. Damn it, a small grove of trees atop a low rise has ruined it for us. Oh well, there is still lots to see – mountains all around (Mt Kuleski across us is the most prominent), the Elk River, the town of Sparwood and a huge open pit coal mine to the north. The latter really grabs my attention. It’s huge and is full of giant machinery. Some would say it’s ugly too, but let’s face it, it’s all necessary.

This is the massive Teck Elkview Mine (check it out from Google Earth), which has been in operation for decades and has many more decades of reserves to go. Over the years they have been slowly chipping at the mountain where the coal seams are located on and based upon old pictures, it looks like it’s lost half it’s original height. The operation is so large it’s hard to describe.

At the west side of the operation are some huge silos, where coal trains are loaded. The valley heading north of that spot is where most other Sparwood area coal mines are located.

After lunch I explore the test pit some more. One can see the many coal seems and how the strata tilts and twists. A lot of old metal bits and machinery lie about. A well travelled road comes in from the east and it appears to be used by crews who maintain a nearby transmitter or recorder station.

Across the way I see what looks to be a large screen on a high ridge. It’s not the world’s highest drive in theatre, but rather is used to bounce radio signal in a specific direction.

We take some time to enjoy the views of downtown Sparwood before heading back. The return trip was quick and uneventful. Outside the hunters, we saw no one else.

I doubt this trail will ever become popular. Sparwood is just not known as a hiking designation. We do however recommend it if you’re in the area. The views are nice! There are lots of other old coal roads in the area which presumably can be hiked as well. Also, the ridge top looks like a nice easy objective. Who’s to say what will happen if mining ever takes place here? That will put the area off limits, should that ever happen, so maybe catch it while you can.

To see some old coal mine remains found nearby, go here…
Hosmer Mines Ltd., Hosmer BC.

We haven’t hiked the Sparwood area before, but to see some trips we did in the nearby Crowsnest Pass, follow these links…
One Mine Ridge.
DC3 plane crash.
Turtle Mountain.

If you wish more information on this trail, by all means contact us!

Date of adventure: September, 2014.
Location: Sparwood, BC.
Distance: 16km out and back.
Height gain maximum: 390m.
Height gain cumulative: 420m.
NOTE: all heights and distances are approximate.

Sparwood overlook trail

We start off on this old logging road.

Elk River Valley

Our first view of the Elk River Valley.

Coal Discovery Trail

The Coal Discovery Trail crosses our route.

Sparwood BC overlook trail

The going is easy along this section.

Sparwood hiking

We turn right here onto an ATV track.

ATV trail Sparwood

It’s steep and loose in places.

Sparwood BC hiking

The autumn colours were amazing.

Sparwood hiking trail

Pleasant hiking.

Coal prospect

A coal prospect or test diggings.

Sparwood hiking trail

From here we follow an old coal exploration road.

2001 bone scene

Cue the “2001, a Space Odyssey” music.

Elkview Coal Corp

An old sign from a now defunct mining company.

Lawyer's Wig mushroom

Lawyer’s Wig mushrooms.

Sparwood Ridge

A coal seam is spotted above (below rock outcropping).

Old coal road Sparwood

The view along the road.

Bear cub print

The print of a bear cub.

Coal road gate

We come to a massive gate.

Coal mine junk

Old mine junk.

Big spider


Wine on a mountain

Some wine with lunch.

Coal prospect Sparwood BC

A test pit below – the Elkview Mine can be seen in back.

Elkview Coal Mine

A better look at the mine – it’s on such a huge scale that’s hard to describe.

Coal mine equipment

Large equipment at work.

Coal mine scars Sparwood

They’ve torn this mountain a new one.

Elkview Coal Mine loadout

The silos on right are used to load coal trains.

Sparwood BC

Downtown Sparwood BC.

Mountain drive in movie

The world’s highest drive in theatre…

Elk Valley Sparwood

Looking southwest.

Old coal road Sparwood BC

Back on the road.

Coal outcropping Sparwood

Looking down from atop a thick seam.

Coal seam Sparwood

There is coal everywhere in the area.

Autumn hiking Sparwood BC

Stunning colours on the return trip.

Sparwood overlook route

Our route. Note the huge mine scar in back.


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4 Comments on "Sparwood BC overlook"

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Lila C
Lila C

Beautiful Autumn scenes.

Aileen L
Aileen L

Great pictures…awesome.