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Another View From Inside The Fire Lookout

Mount Burke Hike in Kananaskis Country

I think many of us get into a routine when it comes to going to the mountains. For me that means heading to either Banff National Park, Kananaskis Country south of Highway 40 or the Bragg Creek area. However, I have been on the lookout for a new early season mountain hike and discovered Mount Burke – thanks once again to @mcc617 (Don McCready) on Instagram. He posted a photo on March 19th along the ridge to Mount Burke and I was instantly hooked.

Fast forward to an unseasonably warm, windless mid-April day and I too have now done the Mount Burke hike. It’s completely doable with snow on the ground, providing you take a pair of icers with you and perhaps a set of poles. There is a narrow ridge that’s easy enough to navigate if don’t have a severe case of acrophobia, but I wouldn’t want to attempt it on snow without the icers. 

Views from inside the Cameron Fire Lookout
Views from inside the Cameron Fire Lookout

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Mount Burke hike trailhead location

Don’t always believe Google maps. After I saw Don’s photo I googled the route – and it showed a driving time of 3 hours in each direction from Calgary, until a road opened on May 15th. I nixed any ideas of doing that hike until mid-May until I saw a post from Thomas Coldwell from Out and Across

As it turns out, it’s about a 1.75 – hour drive from Calgary, and considerably less if you live in the southern part of the city.

Simply make your way to Longview on the Cowboy Highway. Then go west on Highway 541 to reach the winter gates blocking the road up Highwood Pass (until June 15th). Turn left (south) at the Highway 541 – Highway 40 intersection onto Highway 940 – a dirt road. Follow it for 14 km to the Cataract Creek Recreation Area. Park on the right in a large parking lot – until May 15th. After that, turn left and park in the Cataract Campground Day Use Area, about a half kilometre down the road.

The Cataract Creek Recreation Area is hard to miss
The Cataract Creek Recreation Area is hard to miss (parking is just up on the right until May 15th)
Walk the road into the campground if you're doing the hike before May 15th
Walk the road into the Cataract Creek Campground if you’re doing the hike before May 15th
A good place for dogs to rehydrate at the end of the hike
A good place for dogs to rehydrate at the end of the hike

Mount Burke hike details

Length of hike: 16.0 km round-trip plus 1.0 km return to the parking lot and back before May 15

Elevation gain: 918 m round trip

Time needed: 5 – 7 hours – We did it in 5.5 hours, 3 hours up and 2.5 hours down.

While there is a long stretch of hiking in the trees, this is a rewarding hike to do. On a clear day expect to see far-reaching views from Mist Mountain to the prairie and the Great Divide. It’s a real treat to be able to get up so high in spring when so many other mountain hikes are inaccessible.

Once the Cataract Creek Campground opens in mid-May, consider a weekend of hiking. Other nearby hikes include Raspberry Ridge (doable now by the looks of things), Hailstone Butte, Plateau Mountain, Junction Hill and Grass Pass – Bull Creek Hills.

Route description

Walk along the access road towards the Cataract Creek Campground. About 100 m past the bridge look for the Mt. Burke sign pointing right. Hop on a trail through the grass and mud. Look way up – 918 m to be exact – and you can see your target.

After just a few minutes turn left into the woods (there was flagging in the trees and lots of footsteps) and climb steeply for a few minutes. There are some open views here – the last you’ll see for a while.

We donned icers for the short but steep drop – which is next up – and kept them on until we got back to this point. The narrow trail goes straight up past skinny trees for the better part of half an hour. Arrive at an unsigned junction and go right.

The trail continues to climb through the trees, but at least there’s the odd switchback to moderate the grade. When you finally pop out of the trees, the view explodes – and makes the hike completely worthwhile.

The only signage we saw on the trail
The only signage we saw on the Mount Burke hike
You can see the distant Cameron Fire Lookout at the top of the mountain
You can see the distant Cameron Fire Lookout at the top of Mount Burke
Enjoying views before entering the forest for several km of hard hiking
Enjoying views before entering the forest for several km of hard hiking
You're in the trees for close to 2 hours
You’re in the trees for close to 2 hours – climbing 521 m

The hike above treeline

Reach treeline somewhere around two hours from leaving you car. You’re at an elevation of 2186 m – and your destination is at 2541 m – another 355 m (1165 feet) higher.

After topping out at the top of the first steep incline after leaving the trees, you’ll see the rest of the route come into view. 

There is a short stretch that might make many of you uncomfortable. It’s narrow with dropoffs on either side. Imagine the poor horses trudging up to the lookout with heavy loads back in the day – looking at the narrow section they had to cross. Just take it a step at a time and you’ll be finished the section in a minute or two tops. The rest of the Mount Burke hike is straightforward, and you’ll be on the summit in under 30 minutes.

The view within minutes of clearing treeline
The view within minutes of clearing treeline

 

On the narrow section
Stop pulling Rosie
You can see the Cameron Fire Lookout from a long way down
You can see the abandoned Cameron Fire Lookout from a long way down
The route up is easy to see
The route up is easy to see
Can you imagine spending a night up here in a lightning storm?
Can you imagine spending a night up here in a lightning storm?
On the narrow section of the trail
On the narrow section impatiently waiting for a photo to be taken
More people doing the Mount Burke hike that I expected
More people doing the Mount Burke hike than I expected
Big dropoffs and views below the fire lookout
Big drop offs and prairie views below the fire lookout
Looking out to Plateau Mountain - another one I'll have to climb
Looking out to Plateau Mountain – another one I’ll have to climb
On the backside of the lookout you can walk out to the edge with a big prairie view
On the backside of the lookout you can walk out to the edge; note the weather station
Our dog Mila surveying the mountainscape
Our dog Mila surveying the mountainscape on the descent

Useful items for this hike

I recommend carrying a copy of the Gem Trek Highwood & Cataract Creek, Kananaskis Country map.

Take the icers so you stay safe. Some people will want poles as well. I like the lightweight collapsible ones like these.

It is usually very windy up here so dress appropriately. A wind-proof fleece or jacket is handy. So are mitts and a toque.

Don’t forget a buff – to keep your hair in place, use as a neck warmer or any of another 15 uses.

Take high energy food on this hike as it will take you somewhere between 5 – 7 hours. I always carry a stash of bars.

Don’t forget the bear spray. Keep it handy in a holster like this. Forget the bear bells. Your voice is better.

Further reading on hikes somewhat close by

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The Mount Burke hike to an abandoned fire lookout in Kananaskis Country - near Longview. A good early season mountain hike

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

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