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Sunday, 17 January 2016

Walls of Stone Part 2 – Little Elbow

The City of Calgary is built at the confluence of two rivers – the Bow and the Elbow. Most non- Calgarians are more familiar with the Bow River, which follows the TransCanada Highway west and stretches back into the main ranges of the Rocky Mountains, through world famous Banff National Park. The Elbow is the lesser known of the two, but as a kid we used to go on drives with my parents out to Elbow Falls and the Moose Mountain ice caves. As teens we would have rowdy, random camping trips on the May Long Weekend along the nearby Elbow Valley. I remember camping below the ice caves and watching a long torch light procession of kids climbing up the mountainside to the caves. This was all before the establishment of Kananaskis Country. Calgary has grown a great deal and there are many more facilities and regulations in the Elbow valley these days.
Elbow Headwaters Group in Center of image - bracketed by the Elbow(on the left) and Little Elbow(on the right)   Google Earth   

Southwest of the outlier of Moose Mountain, the Little Elbow meets the Elbow River. The confluence of these two rivers is at the eastern foot of the spectacular “Elbow Headwaters Group”. Visible from Calgary, these mountains include Banded and Outlaw Peaks, Mount Cornwall and the striking pyramid and bowl of Mount Glasgow. The Big Elbow trail follows the Elbow River around the south of this massive collection of limestone peaks. We were following the Little Elbow River around the north of Mount Glasgow.

There was nothing difficult about this preliminary hike into the mountains. We traveled westward along the old road, which has long been closed to vehicles. Many people day hike from the Little Elbow campground up onto nearby Nihahi Ridge. We were quickly past the turn off to Nihahi Creek - a dry rocky valley which branches north and far back into the Fisher Range. The outflow from an ancient extinct glacier has carved an interesting canyon through the limestone headwall not far from the trailhead and is worth a visit.

The only real question mark was the crossing of the Little Elbow about halfway to camp. It was an icy, but easy crossing on that July 11th day. The bridge had been washed away in the catastrophe of the 2013 floods, which did so much damage downstream that year. We removed our boots and put on our sandals to make the crossing. While we were preparing ourselves, a mild rain shower began. It had been a very dry, hot summer up to that point. A smoky haze due to forest fires in British Columbia and Northern Saskatchewan hung over Alberta for weeks. I had prepared myself for a possibly sweltering backpack trip by walking to the bottom of the Red Deer River valley and climbing back out again several times a week on the hot days of June and July. Both Don and I had braced ourselves for the heat, but now after only an hour or two it was cooling and beginning to rain.

We talked to a mountain biker who knew the trail quite well at the crossing. We found it amusing to count the many different machetes and buck knives the well-bearded individual was carrying. He became “knife-man” whenever we talk about our journeys. 
Mounts Romulus and Remus

As we made our way west, I could see my first close-up views of the limestone cliffs of Mounts Romulus and Remus. It was exciting to see the eastern face of the familiar and magnificent Opal Range looming above the West Fork. I had never before seen the backside of Mount Blane and “The Blade” – its west face is well-known to those familiar with King Creek Canyon and Ridge off of Alberta’s Highway 40.

The backcountry campground at Mount Romulus was officially closed (due to flood damage), but we found there were actually quite a few camping pads available. The bear-proof food bins were still intact. Clouds were billowing east over the Opals toward us, as we set up camp. I shot some time-lapse footage of Don raising his lightweight “MSR Hubba-Hubba” two man tent. We strung up my silicone tarp above the picnic table. That turned out to be a good thing as rain began to pour down almost immediately. This was a complete surprise. The temperatures were in the 80’s when we set out and it had cooled considerably. 

It rained that night and well into the next morning. What we didn’t know was that this was a turning point in the weather pattern. Almost the entire trip took place in cool, wet conditions. There was at least some rain almost every day after that. Many of the nights were extremely cool, especially at high altitudes. This took away from the pleasure of our journeys, but one should always be prepared for any eventuality when traveling the mountains. That said, we were already enjoying ourselves.

We both appreciated the beauty of this quiet front-range valley. I was delighted to be back in the Rockies!


  1. I can almost feel the rain.

    1. Well i better hone up my precipitous descriptions, because there was plenty of rain along the way!

  2. Hi Phil. I enjoyed reading your post and seeing your photos. I came over after reading Red's post today.

  3. Glad I was sent here by your blog friend at Hiawatha House. I look forward to your photos.

  4. Magnificent countryside! It's been years since I've been in those mountains.