With fickle spring weather, John and I have had a hard time finding a day on a weekend to do the Heart Mountain hike. Finally in late April the weather Gods provided the window to do it. The out and back Heart Mountain hike near Canmore is 2.8 km one way with an elevation gain of 745 m (2,444 feet). It’s nothing but up until you reach the summit.
There is one place on Heart Mountain where it’s a scramble and you have to use both hands to get up. Many people won’t and don’t like that. And there is a gully so this is not a hike for those who are adverse to scrambling and scree. It took us just over four hours return including time for lunch on top.
As an alternative to the out and back Heart Mountain hike, you could continue to Grant McEwan Peak and make it a much longer day, or do the Heart Mountain Horseshoe loop hike and knock off three mountain summits in a spectacular mountain setting. The loop hike exits on the Quaite Trail and then there’s a not so interesting walk back to the trailhead. The Heart Mountain Horseshoe hike is described below as well.
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Heart Mountain hike + Horseshoe trail summary
Distance as an out and back hike: 5.6 km
Distance for the Heart Mountain Horseshoe hike: 13.5 km round trip
Elevation gain: 745 m (2,444 feet) as an out and back hike from Heart Mountain.
Elevation gain on the Heart Mountain Horseshoe hike: Approximately 940 m or 3,084 feet
Level of difficulty: Hard and not for the inexperienced hiker.
Time needed: 4 – 5 hours for the out and back hike. Allow 6 – 9 hours for the Heart Mountain Horseshoe hike.
Dogs allowed: Yes but with a few caveats. Large dogs unless they are very agile will not be able to scramble up the crux of the Heart Mountain hike. Lifting a heavy dog up (and getting them back down again) is a recipe for an accident. If you do take your dog, bring lots of water. There is a creek at the start and the end of the hike but nothing in between.
Best time to hike: Spring till fall. It’s doable with a bit of snow on the ground, but if that’s the case take microspikes and hiking poles.
Good to know: There is cell reception on the entire trail so take a charged phone.
We took bear spray just in case, though we didn’t so much as see bear scat.
On a hot day, you will be shocked at how much water you go through. Bring a minimum of 2 L per person and another 2 L for one dog. I’d also suggest brings water purification drops if you’re doing the Heart Mountain Horseshoe hike or a water bottle with a built in filter. My tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth because I’d forgotten to carry water filter and the last 2 km were brutal.
Check the weather forecast before you go. You don’t want to be caught on an exposed ridge in a thunderstorm.
Let someone know where you’re hiking and when you expect to be back.
Finding the trailhead for the Heart Mountain hike (and Heart Mountain Horseshoe hike)
Drive 100 km west from Calgary or 18 km east from Canmore and get off at the Lac des Arcs exit. From Calgary go over the highway overpass and then swing left at a weird intersection (before you get back onto the Trans-Canada again going east) to access the parking lot at the Heart Creek Trailhead on the south side of the Trans-Canada Highway. There is signage on the highway for Heart Creek.
From the parking lot walk east on the easy trail – that’s been opened up and worked on, so it isn’t very pretty until you reach Heart Creek. Peer through the trees across the creek and you’ll see the trail heading up Heart Mountain. There is one sign now – that also points to the Quaite Backcountry campground and a board to get you across Heart Creek.
There is also a rough pullout on the south side of the Trans-Canada Highway (you usually see cars parked here on a weekend) but I’ve always parked at the main parking lot.
Location map of the Heart Mountain hike
Heart Mountain hike description
If you read all the trip reports you would never attempt the Heart Mountain hike. It is a scramble and sometimes there isn’t much of a trail. But if you stick to the ridge you should be fine. If it starts to get too steep to the west (or right as you are climbing) you need to retrace your steps. Going too far right will get you into trouble.
There is one point about two thirds of the way up Heart Mountain where you need to scramble up a short section of rock. Look for blue markers in the trees and then a blue marker on the rock itself that you need to scramble up using both hands. There are some decent handholds in the cracks but I wouldn’t call it easy and my ascent was less than graceful. This can be a very tricky section with a dog (especially a big one) as well. Some people might like a climbing helmet for this part or to protect yourself from random falling rock. If you are not comfortable going up the crux, turn back – as it’s almost always harder going down.
From the crux it’s straight up and it’s really steep at times. There is a section that takes you up a gully – but fortunately there are good hand holds. Just be careful of loosening a rock and sending it flying. Once you’re out of the gully and heading for the summit, I found the hiking easier.
Don’t forget to look around. The mountain views are fabulous of the Bow Valley and the Heart Creek Valley – though there is a down side to the hike. You can expect the hum of cars on the Trans-Canada Highway to be with you for some time. Eventually it fades to white noise.
Heart Mountain descent via the Heart Mountain Horseshoe
From what I saw on one sunny day, most people do the out and back Heart Mountain hike. It’s shorter, but you have to deal with the crux on the descent which will be tricky for some. Another option that is longer but quite lovely is to to the Heart Mountain Horseshoe hike.
That involves a short descent off the Heart Mountain summit. The trail heads into the forest and curves left toward Grant MacEwan Peak where you’ll find a summit register. The trail to Grant MacEwan Peak (2,148 m or 7,047 feet) is obvious and easy to follow. It will probably take you somewhere in the order of 3 – 3.5 hours to get here from the trailhead.
From Grant MacEwan Peak you’ll head down a grassier slope and then up a third summit – but it’s an easy one. There is a big cairn on the top of it. Then next part of the Heart Mountain Horseshoe hike isn’t so much fun, though there is some delightful ridge walking.
Much of the descent from the third summit until you reach the forest is steep on nasty ball bearing size scree. It will take you about 25 – 25 minutes to get through this. This is where I pulled out my hiking poles. The good news is that the views are terrific in this section.
When you reach the forest you might think you’re almost done but there are still over 3 km to go, including the descent through the forest. It is a treat to have some shade in the trees. Near the bottom of the descent you’ll run into a small creek. The dogs didn’t want to leave.
When you finally finish the descent you’ll reach an open area with electrical poles. Take a left here on the well worn trail. The trail at this point feels like its going to never end, especially when you see a small lake – and you know the parking lot is some distance on the other side of it. Walk towards the lake, and then take a left around it. In another 15 minutes or so you’ll pass the intersection going up Heart Mountain. In 10 more minutes you’ll be back at the car.
This is an epic day hike that you need to be prepared for. Be sure you’ve got warm clothing in case the wind blows up and carry more water than you think you’ll need.
When should you do the Heart Mountain hike?
The hike up Heart Mountain is a great one. Do it on the way to the Calgary airport after a vacation in Banff. Leave work early on a Friday afternoon and be up and down before the sun sets. Go on weekend before the crowds appear. The views are great – even if it’s not all wilderness. And it’s a stellar workout.
Its best done from spring until the snow starts to fall. I would not recommend the hike in winter.
What to take on the hike
In late April, there is lots of snow and ice on the “trail.” Almost everyone we saw was wearing either a running shoe or a lightweight trail shoe.
If you’re young and fleet of foot and nothing goes wrong that’s great. But add in a pair of “icers’ (I love the microspikes from Kahtoola) for safety. There are big drop-offs and accidents happen. Even to young people. And it sure makes the descent a whole lot easier. I would suggest a hiking shoe with a good tread.