The Crowsnest Pass area in southwest Alberta does a great job of hiding its special places. For anyone who has regularly made the drive from Calgary or Lethbridge to Fernie, there’s a good chance that all you’ve ever seen of the Crowsnest Pass area is a gas station, Tim Hortons and of course the infamous Frank Slide. You wouldn’t guess at the hiking treasures it harbours.
But dig beneath the surface, speak with the locals, check out the book – The Southern Rockies Trail Guide by Joey Ambrosi and you’ll find that there are loads of excellent hiking trails. I only had time for three of them but there are another half dozen I’d happily do.
Here are 3 of what I think are the best hikes in the Crowsnest Pass area across a range of difficulties.
Miner’s Path Hike, Crowsnest Path Area
Why you should do it: Easy, family friendly, mining history, nature, easily accessible
The Miner’s Path, a heritage and nature trail, is short and sweet and perfect for breaking up a drive along Highway 3. You’ll find the trailhead in Flumerfelt Park at the western end of Coleman, just off 76 Street.
The trail, now called the Miner’s Path was used for almost 50 years by the men working at McGillvary Mine. Every shift up to 200 men trudged up the path – which was a strenuous undertaking before bridges or stairs were added – or when it snowed. For some miners the hike took as long as 9o minutes one way, depending on where they were living in town.
Walk the trail today and you may have a hard time imagining hundreds of miners carrying lunch buckets and wondering if they’d even return from a day in the mines. Today the trail begins in the quiet of the woods beside a number of huge Douglas fir trees that are up to 250 years old. It climbs gently beside Nez Pearce Creek up to an intersection over the falls with a set of stairs. If you climb the stairs and follow the trail for another 200 metres you will arrive at the McGillvary Mine Site. There are some remnants to be seen.
We chose to continue to Rainbow Falls, about 20 minutes from the trailhead. By the falls are some stairs that beckoned us to explore. Once at the top we continued through fields of grass before crossing the creek on wooden planks. At the top of a steep hill we turned back in the direction of the trailhead and enjoyed delightful cliff top walking with some peek a boo views to the mountains. In short order we found the stairs and completed the loop. In under 10 minutes we were back at the car.
In reading the guide book it suggests that beyond Rainbow Falls you are on private property. There were no signs – and there were newly built stairs and trails – so decide for yourself whether you should go.
This is a terrific, family friendly hike that will take 45 – 90 minutes depending on how many side trails you take and how much time you spend looking for mining structures or enjoying nature.
Window Mountain Lake, Crowsnest Pass Area
Why you should do it: Beautiful lake, fishing, swimming, camping, moderate hike with loads of wildflowers and only 210 metres of elevation gain
With a glittering blue lake surrounded by mountains on three sides, this is a beautiful summer time hiking destination. Once you get here you’ll want to spend the day lounging near the water, fishing for rainbow trout, swimming or walking around the entire lake on an easy to follow path. In early August the wildflowers are stunning.
Although it’s only a two kilometre one way hike from the trailhead, not many people actually drive the whole of the final two kilometres. I was a complete wimp and parked my car on a huge shoulder on the Atlas Road and walked the two kilometres to the trailhead rather than risk bottoming out. (I have a new car and have had a few bad experiences in the past.) Most people seem to drive the first kilometre, park and then walk the second kilometre. You could save yourself a lot of grief if you do this.
The trail itself is extremely steep as you climb a 150 metre escarpment right off the bat. We had some teenagers in front of us who did a lot of whining about the initial part of the hike. But really, you can dispatch with the steep section very quickly. And then it’s a gradual walk through woods that reminded me more of BC than Alberta until you reach the lake.
There are several primitive campsites on the lake and they’re free. The lake is a popular spot and once you get there you’ll certainly see why.
To get to the Window Mountain Lake trailhead it’s a bit of a drive in from Highway 3. Drive four kilometres past Coleman and look for Allison Creek Road. Turn north and follow it for 4 kilometres on pavement. Continue straight when the pavement dies on the Atlas Road for a total of 16.5 kilometres from Highway 3. Turn left at that point – if you don’t mind driving over a gully. Continue for 1-2 kilometres depending on what kind of vehicle you have. Alternatively park across from the road in a huge turn-off area. Supposedly this is a logging road so be prepared to get out of the way quickly.
Turtle Mountain (from Blairmore)
Why you should hike it: Incredible views, workout, and the chance to see one of Canada’s biggest landslides from the top
If you want to get your heart racing for a couple of reasons do the 3.1 kilometre one way hike to the summit of Turtle Mountain. It is here that Canada’s second largest landslide occurred on April 29, 1903. Eighty two million tons broke away from the mountain – causing the deaths of about 70 people and burying a huge area which you can see from the top. And it’s expected that at some point another chunk will break away but no one knows when. (There is monitoring equipment in place on the top of the South Peak.)
This is a steep hike that will get your heart rate up in no time, especially at the beginning. But there are points where it moderates and although there is no formally marked trail, it’s popular enough that you can find your way to the top on well-worn trails though if the weather deteriorates you should have good route finding skills. Near the top you get very close to the precipice. You’ll have to decide whether it’s worth peering over the edge.
There is the option to continue to the South Peak. Although it’s not far, between the down climbing to the saddle, the route-finding through the boulders and the climb up, it can take the better part of an hour one way. We didn’t have another two hours so we turned back.
To get to the trailhead for Turtle Mountain turn onto 133rd Street in Blairmore from Highway 3. Turn left at 18th Avenue, and right on 135th Street. At the T-intersection with 15th Avenue turn right and continue for a block. Take the dirt road leading left across from the cul-de-sac and follow it for about 400 metres. Park at the top of the dip. The trailhead is marked by painted yellow rocks near the base of the cliff, accessed by walking down the dip and then up the short, steep hill on your right.
These three hikes provide a great cross-section of what’s available in the area. Another popular hike on the tip of everyone’s tongue we spoke with is the 6.2 kilometre one way hike from York Creek Road to the Plane Crash site. That one is at the top of my wish list now.
If you have time at the end of your hike I highly recommend a stop at the Stone’s Throw Cafe at 13019 20th Avenue in Blairmore. The coffee is great and so are the baked goods.
Other posts you might enjoy related to southern Alberta
- A Visit to Southern Alberta’s Castle Provincial Park
- 5 Great Things to do in the Crowsnest Pass Area
- 3 Southern Alberta Provincial Parks that Should be on Your Radar
- Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Cypress Hills Provincial Park
- Visiting the Frank Slide – Canada’s Second Largest Landslide
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Thank you to Travel Alberta for sponsoring this post. All hikes were of my choosing.