Winter hiking in the Rockies

November 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Shortly after arriving in Calgary in 2008 we bought a few hiking guidebooks and started dropping into visitor centers to get advice on where to hike.  As we arrived in the summer nearly every hiking route was snow-free and we had a wonderful time hiking where we pleased until early October.  Then it snowed (and snowed, and snowed).  People at the visitor centers informed us that hiking was no longer possible and we soon discovered that "shoulder-season" hikes described in guidebooks were really only accessible early May to late October, leaving 6 months or more apparently inaccessible to hiking.  Not being the type to be trapped indoors we bought snowshoes and started snowshoeing, but bashing our way through knee deep Rockies sugar snow each weekend got tiring quite fast and we longed to get out and just hike. 

Then a few years ago I started browsing hiking websites and noticed that some people were heading out hiking in the dead of winter.  Just a report here or there, but I started to notice a geographic pattern to them.  Coupled with my improving knowledge of mountain weather patterns I started to realize that some areas of the mountains got huge amounts of snow while others hardly got any.  Chinook winds also tend to melt most of the snow in some areas and the prevailing winds can blow all the snow off some hikeable ridges.  We'd been spending our time in the snowy areas because they have the best summer hikes and thus are most frequently described in guidebooks, never realizing that there were areas nearly devoid of snow we could have been exploring as well. 

Now I know where to hike late fall through early spring and I figured I'd share those spots with you!  Obviously many of these hikes might not be all that hikeable after a big snowstorm, but they cover a vast geographic area so chances are quite good one area will always be hikeable.  Keep an eye on the weather and be prepared for the unexpected and you'll find you can have a great time hiking in the winter in the Rockies.  I strongly recommend microspikes to deal with icy conditions and we usually have snowshoes in the car (and sometimes we carry them) just in case conditions aren't quite what we expected when we get to the trailhead.  

Highways 546, 549, and 532

The further west you go along these highways the more snow there is, but we've hiked in the dead of winter at the winter closure gates on each without any difficulty whatsoever.  Some wind-sheltered areas and places with hardwood trees tend to have lots of snow, but the evergreen forests and the rolling ridges are often nearly or completely snow free.  Even if there is a lot of snow many of the trails are likely to be packed by other hikers (or even elk), meaning hiking is still possible and enjoyable.  Check out our reports on Foran Grade and Windy Point Ridge, Mount McNab, Mount Dyson, and Carry and Muley Ridges along the 546, Mesa Butte and Mount Barwell along the 549, and Stimson Creek Hills, Indian Graves Ridge, and Corral Mountain along the 532 for some ideas.

Hiking towards a western summit of Mount McNab in early March 2014.

Highway 66 (west of Bragg Creek)

This highway closes down west of Elbow Falls in the winter, but before the gates close we've found several places to hike, including Moose Mountain and Powderface Ridge.   After the highway closure we've hiked Prairie Mountain and Prairie Creek, often as a loop.  There are other possibilities here too, including the Canyon Creek Ice Caves (it's on our to-do list!), several shorter trails in the Bragg Creek area, or just walking along the closed portion of the highway.  The whole area is pretty close to the city too, so it works well even with the short days of winter. 

Sandra on the summit of Prairie Mountain at the end of December 2012.

Highwood Junction (intersection of highways 40/541/940)

The area around the southern closure of Highway 40 often has surprisingly little snow and there is some spectacular hiking to be had.  We've been there in almost every winter month and have always been able to hike, although it is prone to more snow than some other winter hiking areas.  Bull Creek Hills is likely popular enough to have a packed trail to the pass, Junction Hill is often packed by sheep, and Hell's Ridge and Gunnery Mountain are likely hikeable as well, although Gunnery is a bit scrambly at times.

View south from the summit of Junction Hill on a fine mid-February day in 2013.

Eastern Bow Valley

The Bow Valley from Canmore eastwards generally gets plenty of warm Chinook winds to melt away enough snow to keep many trails hikeable for most of the year.  Mount Lady MacDonald (to the former teahouse site) and Ha Ling Peak are popular trails right outside Canmore and are guaranteed to have packed and icy trails, so be sure to have microspikes for these ones.  Further east and accessible from Highway 40, 68, or 1A winter hikes include Yates Mountain and Jewel Pass (likely packed and icy to the summit), Hunchback Hills and Lusk Pass, Baldy Pass, and Eagle HillCox Hill is a favorite of ours, but the snow can get deep near the top and there is a risk of small avalanches, so only tackle it if you're prepared. 

Lovely hiking along the Cox Hill ridge in the third week of February 2013.

Ya Ha Tinda (west of Sundre)

We just discovered this area last year, but it holds great potential as a winter hiking destination.  There are vast meadows that offer scenic and relaxed hiking or moderately challenging mountain ascents such as Maze Peak or Evangeline Peak.  Along highway 40 between Ya Ha Tinda and Cochrane there are also several other hikeable areas that we'll be exploring in the years to come.  Our first foray into this area was a hike along Lesueur Ridge on which we had a great time. 

Mid-February hiking on Maze Peak in 2015. This was a dry year, but this area generally receives less snow anyway.
So there you have it, or at least a sampling of where you can hike in the winter.  If you've found yourself needing to get back into shape in the spring because it was "too snowy to hike" during the winter, well, you've just lost your excuse! 

 

 


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