Distance: 12 km
Elevation gain: 605 m View map Download GPS track
Last fall, motivated in large part by a desire to extend the hiking season, I bought the “Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies” guidebook. By their nature, fire lookouts offer spectacular panoramic views, and their historical road access typically means there is an easy route to most of them. Today, with not much of an idea as to what the conditions were like anywhere in the Rockies I haven’t yet explored, Sandra and I decided to play it safe and hike to the summit of Willoughby Ridge, home to Ironstone Fire Lookout, near Crowsnest Pass.
Luckily the York Creek Road had been plowed well past the creek and we were able to drive to the top of the hill on the south side of York Creek, right at the point the road forks. A rough plowed road continued towards the lookout from this point, and while I could’ve driven it easily in the cool of the morning, I was worried what would happen to it as it warmed up (others weren’t, and three trucks were parked at the turnoff for Mount Coulthard later in the day). Parking where I did added 2 km of travel each way to our trip, but while a bit muddy near the beginning this was little more than a minor inconvenience.
After we passed the turnoff to Mount Coulthard the snow depth increased considerably, but had been well packed by snowmobiles and we didn’t sink at all. When we reached the gated access road for the lookout about 800 m later I assumed this would change, but snowmobiles had found a way around the gate and the trail remained packed and easy to walk on. As we gained elevation fresh snow started to make travel mildly difficult, and it became more practical to actually use our snowshoes instead of just carrying them on our backs. The snow remained very supportive and with snowshoes we never broke through the crust.
A little further up the road I noticed on the map that by steeply detouring through the forest we could shortcut a long switchback, and with such spectacular snow conditions we did exactly that. It was very steep, but with the heel lifts on the snowshoes it was just like walking up stairs and we soon rejoined the road and continued towards the summit.
Huge cornices overhung the summit to the east and I was a bit worried about the apparent steepness of the slope to the north and west, but as we got closer it became clear that the snow on the slope was rock solid and that it wasn’t really steep enough to slide anyway. The snowshoeing was absolutely wonderful – no deadfall, scree, sinking, or anything else to contend with – and just 2 h 40 min after leaving the truck we were standing on the summit. The weather was about as perfect as I could hope for this time of year, and the views were spectacular in all directions. Particularly stunning was the Flathead Range to the west.
After a short summit stay we retraced our route back down, but stuck to the road the entire way as our shortcut between switchbacks would have been problematic on the way down. The snow had softened a bit in the heat of the day, but we still floated on top of it without difficulty. A muddy plod back to the truck and an even muddier drive out were followed by a quick truck wash in Coleman before the mud hardened, then a long drive back home. Another successful day in the mountains!