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Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Walls of Stone - Return to the Highwood

As I tucked myself in for the night, I could hear the sound of drums resonating from across the river. I smiled.  We were camped in Eden Valley, west of Longview Alberta and our neighbors were members of the Bearspaw Nakoda Sioux First Nation. I have always loved this valley surrounding the Upper Highwood River and it was my last night of four spent back at this gateway to the Rocky Mountains. It had been a good few days.
Mount Armstrong
We were there to hike and Wednesday we wandered up Highway 40, which is closed and gated for the winter at Highwood House. It was nice to be able to walk up the paved road past amazing views of the Highwood River and Mount Armstrong. The rocky great divide summits of Mounts Muir and McPhail (known as the Pyramid) were visible above the grassy open slopes of the Strawberry Hills. We made a return trip to Strawberry Equestrian Campground under Azure skies. It was cool as it usually is in the Highwood, even under the uninterrupted glare of the sun. The day's outing was an unusual type of hike, but a good warm-up with a backpack at mountain altitudes. I found myself thinking of the possibilities of making a lengthy backpack up the Highway that is closed until June 15 and the many possible side trips that radiate from the roadway. It would be nice to have the valley to oneself.
The second day began with an abortive walk down Cataract Creek from the campground. We decided to cut that lackluster thrash short and instead venture up Fir Creek in the Bull Creek Hills. That turned out to be an excellent choice. It had probably been over twenty five years since I had ventured up Fir Creek and I had honestly forgotten what a pretty hike it was. The display of early season wildflowers was the most amazing one that I have ever seen at an altitude lower than subalpine. We counted over twenty varieties of  flowering plants. The compressed growing season means that one can see early spring flowers, such as prairie crocus (anemone) on a hillside next to the first few red paintbrush. We spent hours hiking and stopping to identify flowers.
Day 3 was definitely the most spectacular of the bunch, as we returned to the Bull Creek Hills and headed north up Pack Trail Coulee to the aptly named Grass Pass. From the pass, I looked south down the u-shaped glacially carved valley to the river 450 metres below. Across the river another valley mirrors Pack Trail Coulee - Zephyr Creek valley cuts south between the Bear Creek Hills and Mount Burke. Looking out of the mouth of either valley provides excellent views of the opposite one. We have spent many days over the years wandering both valleys in spring, summer and fall. I must caution those that might be tempted to cross the Highwood in the spring. The river may be higher in the afternoon and evening than when you initially forded its ice cold waters in the early morning light. There's nothing more galling and potentially dangerous than being stranded for a cold night within sight of your waiting vehicle.
Looking down Pack Trail Coulee toward Highwood River and Zephyr Creek valley.

I have used the trail to Grass Pass and beyond as an early season conditioning hike over the years, because it is usually snow-free due to the Chinook Winds that rip through the Highwood Gap. The Chinooks are a major component in the shaping of the stark environment of this unique section of the eastern slopes. The strangely beautiful and twisted limber pine that dot the summits of the hills are evidence of the power of these warm westerly winds. The most celebrated of these ancient trees is the "Boundary Pine", a particularly old and gnarled specimen, which features in Raymond Patterson's bestselling book "The Buffalo Head". It was once the southern boundary of the old ranch that reached well into the Bull Creek Hills in older days. We climbed up from the pass and walked along Fir Creek Point (peering down on the previous day's setting) until we found the famous tree and I took some time to shoot video from various angles. I plan on using the footage for a segment in an upcoming film.

Looking toward Grass pass from the Boundary Pine.
Holy Cross Mountain and Mount Head in the background.
As I drifted off to sleep that final spring night in the Highwood, I felt an elation that has eluded me for some years. There are so many magnificent places in the Rocky Mountains that (after a time) one can't help becoming jaded. Life itself can tire a person and make them more cynical about the world. Depression is like wearing blinders that shield us from the beauty all around us. After a few days in the Rockies under azure blue skies, surrounded by wildflowers, trees, meadows and those lovely hills and mountains, the old thoughts and dreams began to return. Once again I can look at these mountains and valleys and see the possibilities. Excitement is building knowing that very soon I will be returning to these mountainous heights to begin the journey of a lifetime.


  1. One of my all time favorite experiences was to ride my bike up to Highwood pass. Oh, I also had 37 gr sevens with me. It was a grunt getting to the top. Coming down was terrifying. I was doing 50 and some darn kids ,most darn kids, passed me!

  2. 50 on a bicycle would be fast enough for me too! The first day out, we talked to two guys who biked up the closed highway to the Highwood pass. They said it was still covered in snow. It is an excellent bike ride if you can hear yourself think above the noise of Harley Davidsons.