An alarm goes off at 4 am. This is the time I got up this past Tuesday for an (almost!) sunrise ascent of Prairie Mountain with my friend Jess. Prairie Mountain is about 45 minutes from Calgary, and widely accessible from most fitness levels. It is a great spring (or winter!) conditioning hike to prepare you for summer ascents. The hike is a family friendly hike, and accessible all year round, but certain conditions will require different pieces of equipment. The reason it is so family friendly is because the trail is well trafficked and is a straightforward track with no route finding required. However, bear in mind that it is still a strenuous hike- nearly 4 km of a straight uphill climb!
Due to the straightforwardness of the trail, it is well trafficked. A tip to avoid the crowds- try a sunrise hike like we did! Hit the trail by 6 am and you’ll have the mountain to yourself!
What I Brought to Hike Prairie Mountain
For a winter hike of Prairie Mountain (Canada in February!), I had brought the following items with me. The temperature was -20 degrees Celsius.
- Crampons or another traction device (I used FreeSteps6 by Hillsound).
- Water (required!) and a thermos of coffee (not required, but sure nice at the summit!)
- Extra socks and thin winter gloves.
- Granola bars and apples.
- A couple of emergency items: bear spray, waterproof matches, emergency bivvy blanket, whistle and glow sticks.
My backpack carried all of this. Not all of these items are a necessity, considering the length of the hike. However, I would always rather bring something and not need it than need something when I do not have it. Preparedness is key! Another item you may wish to have are poles- I did not bring my poles along with me this time, but I could see how some would find them helpful on the steep slopes, and for coming back down! Particularly for people with knee problems.
Something that I forgot about was bringing a pair of well insulated winter gloves- I had a pair of close fitting nylon gloves, and cotton gloves to go over top. While this made using my hands very easy, it made my fingers cold when I wasn’t on the go- in this temperature, definitely bring that pair of insulating winter mittens or gloves that completely slipped my own mind 😛
What I Wore
As for my own clothes, I dressed in layers. Layering is important in winter hiking, as it is cold to start. However, as you start moving and getting warmer, you must layer down so you don’t sweat. Sweat in the winter can lead to the body cooling even more when you stop, and can lead to hypothermia and other serious cold weather injuries. On top, I wore a next to skin long sleeved shirt. Over this, I wore a thick sweater and thin windbreaker jacket. On my legs I wore fleece lined leggings and nylon pants. Other than my hands (silly me) I was warm, and was able to layer down to wear just my next to skin shirt and windbreaker.
How to Get There (and How to Find the Trailhead in the Dark)
From Canmore, take the Trans Canada Highway east and exit at Bragg Creek/ Redwood Meadows (from Calgary, take the TC West!). Drive along AB-22 and take a right onto AB-66. Keep driving until you reach the winter closure gate. In the wintertime, this gate will be (surprise!) closed, and this is where we parked. In the summer there is free parking on the left side next to the Beaver Lodge sign just past the gate.
The trailhead was a bit of a challenge to find in the dark. Neither of us had been in the area before, so we had a bit of a false start. We took off down the wrong trail that began at a day use area, across the highway from the Beaver Lodge parking lot. After about 10 minutes, we thought it odd that the path had started sloping down (considering we were climbing a mountain). So we headed back in the direction of the car, trying to find the proper one.
There was a path on the side of the bridge that led to the proper trailhead. The correct trail is almost immediately next to the winter gate, on the North side of the highway (on the right as you drive in). There is a small footpath leading into the trees going upwards right away. I’ve circled the path in the photo:
There are no signposts, but the trail is well maintained. The trail climbs right away into a series of switchbacks. Our accidental trail was next to a Kananaskis country map at a a day use area, and was very wide- this is not the one you want to take!
The hike itself of Prairie Mountain is very straightforward. In total, it is approximately 4 km to the top. The trail is fairly steep, and climbs all the way to the top of the treeline, where it evens out into a more moderate grade. There are plenty of spots to catch the view through the trees, and in our case, glimpses of the sunrise!
Because of our false start, we ended up climbing with the sunrise instead of being on top for it… hence the “almost sunrise”. It was also fairly cloudy that day, and lightly snowing, so the views were blocked a bit by the cloudy weather. In total it took 2 hours and fifteen minutes to get to the summit, and an hour back down. The photo on the right is what it looks like when you get to the ridge.
From there, it’s an easy push to the summit! The summit is marked with a Canadian flag and a cairn:
The view today was blocked a bit by the snowy weather. Normally, it is a 360 degree view!
The trail had rocks underneath the snow once out of the treeline. I imagine in the summer it would take longer going down. We made a quick descent back down because of the snow covering the trail- especially wearing crampons! The views between the trees on the way back down was gorgeous, as the skies were clearing.
Overall it was a great hike and awesome exercise. I could see this trail becoming a monthly regular to keep up conditioning for this spring and summer’s upcoming summits! I would love to go for another sunrise ascent when it’s not as cloudy out!
Have you been up Prairie Mountain? What was your experience like? Let me know below!