We had been looking forward (perhaps with some trepidation) to the second day out. I had planned on taking the West Arm of the little Elbow and crossing Piper Pass into spectacular Piper Creek (one of Don’s and my favorite valleys). It was so warm when we set off that I never expected that we would need to take our alternate route across Tombstone pass. The clouds were low on the peaks and the rain continued to fall that morning, so we decided the alternate route was our best option. Piper Pass from the north can be tricky even in good weather; though I am sure it is a viable option.
|Upper Tombstone Lake|
The road toward Tombstone Pass was steeper than I expected, but the going was easy. Just before the pass, we branched off onto a trail that took us to Tombstone Lakes. This was our first visit to the subalpine zone and we found ourselves walking among one of the largest alpine larch forests in Kananaskis Country. I have often thought that it would be well worth a visit in the autumn. We emerged at the upper of the two lakes and talked to some would be fishermen who were trying their luck. It appeared that the fish in that lake had been winter-killed, because there was no sign of strikes on the lake at all. I have heard this is often the case in the Tombstone Lakes and they sometimes need to be restocked (once with golden trout, I believe).
|Slabs of limestone give the mountain its name|
Both upper and lower lakes are tucked under the jagged cliffs of Tombstone Mountain. The mountain gets its name from the limestone slabs at its summit, which are visible from the other side. I recalled the last time I visited, half a lifetime ago. It is probably just a little too far from the highway to do as a day hike and I never expected to revisit this spot, but here we were. Don had been to nearby Piper Creek many times, but had never been to these pretty lakes. As I found out, it was difficult to find many places in the Rockies that he hadn’t been…
Between the two lakes we passed through a “rock garden” of sorts, which was populated by three of my favorite alpine flowers. The limestone was dotted with yellow columbine, blue alpine forget-me-nots and pink moss campion. At the lower lake, we saw the fishermen again and this time they were busy catching pretty cutthroat trout.
|Lower Tombstone Lake|
The trail descended a ridge into the Elbow valley and we made camp at Tombstone Creek backcountry campground. This site is on the western edge of the Elbow River Headwaters Group of mountains. The Big Elbow and Little Elbow trails rejoin and can be hiked as a loop trip. It is an excellent place for some of the base-camp type backpacking that I used to enjoy and there are many interesting trails and scrambles that radiate from this location in every direction. Many “Canada Days” weekends ago my future wife and I landed at this spot to find that there was a conflagration of hundreds of backpackers, all looking to make camp. The next morning they had almost all departed except for two other young couples, who put on a spectacular (if not ill-advised) Sunday night fireworks display.
The clouds had cleared off by the time Don and I got to camp and we had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the environs of the Upper Elbow valley. We were in the midst of a wide montane vista, adjacent to the large willow flats surrounding the river. I could see Tombstone and Elpoca Mountains to the north and west, Mount Rae to the southwest, Cougar Mountain to the southeast and the backside of Mount Cornwall to the east. Several mule deer hung around the camp and we watched a robin defend its territory from a red squirrel. We both were surprised by the ferociousness of the robin’s repeated attacks. This was something I had never before observed, but I had read that the mortality of snowshoe hare young is due almost entirely to squirrel predation - so the confrontation did make sense.We had the campground to ourselves again that night, so it would have been a quiet night except for the fact that we were under the western flightpath of the Calgary airport. As we lay in our sleeping bags, there was an almost constant roar of jets overhead.