* Half-day hike. Out and back. Trail not signed.
* Distance: Roughly 2 kms one-way (2.5 - 3 hrs total)
* Elevation gain: Roughly 350m
* Trailhead: On Hwy 532. Turnoff is 30 mins past Longview, then 20 kms down hwy 532.
What a great, short hike this was! It was quite far from Calgary, but the hike was worth the driving time. Hwy 532 meanders through beautiful green meadows with very high peaks, and was dramatic enough on its own. Hailstone Butte exceeded my expectations, as the scenery was magnificent and the exertion was totally manageable. Bring your wind gear and hiking poles.
Depending on what route you take, there’s a short section (Elk Traverse) that could be vertigo-inducing if you don’t like heights, and I would recommend hiking poles just for that particular spot. Hailstone Butte also makes for good shoulder-season hiking, although if Elk Traverse was just a tiny bit icy, it could be very dangerous (it would be a long slide down before you could arrest yourself).
Hwy 532 is an unpaved road on the Southeast edge of Kananaskis Country, but it’s kept in good shape. I had no problem with the Prius. After 20 kms, look for the gravel parking lot on your left.
I was the only hiker there that day, so be prepared for a possible solo hike. The trail starts directly across the parking lot; make sure to cross the road - the trail on the same side of the parking lot leads to the 9 km-long Windy Peak Hills. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to hike both trails on the same day, having driven all that way.
Cross the road and ascend the hill facing the parking lot. There’s a lower path that follows the creek, but the overgrown bushes really scratch up your legs, so I recommend the higher path.
On the higher path, you’ll eventually head slightly downhill to meet up with the lower path. Follow the drainage creek for quite a while (it’ll get dryer as you gain elevation), but turn around from time to time to admire the peaks that are popping into view on the horizon (you will see them again on your way down).
As you climb, the high rocky ridge - which runs along the top of the slope ahead of you - becomes more and more visible. The fire lookout sits on the far right point of the ridge, but it won’t be visible until you pop up next to it. Keep walking uphill and to the right.
As you climb up toward the right point of the ridge, there will be three ways of getting to the lookout on top:
HARDEST BUT SHORTEST (Roper Route): Get off the main path, head toward the left across the grass and climb up the steep grassy slope (no trail). Scramble up the front of the ridge where it’s thinnest, somewhat left of the right point.
MEDIUM DIFFICULTY/LENGTH: Keep following the path upwards until Elk Traverse, where you cross a dark sandy chute. This section might be vertigo-inducing for anyone with a fear of heights; keep dogs and kids close. I wouldn’t attempt it in icy or wet conditions. Once you’re at the saddle, go left and straight up. Scramble up the rocks and arrive just below the fire lookout.
EASIEST BUT LONGEST: Avoid the scramble entirely. Cross Elk Traverse and take the narrow fire road that continues way past you, across the meadow, and eventually loops left to come back towards the lookout. This will add about 3-4 kms to your hike.
I wasn’t entirely sure that I was in the right spot, and I didn't want to make it worse by going off-trail. So I kept following the path toward Elk Traverse. I had to talk myself out of looking down into the valley below (you are a LONG way up here) while walking the sandy path, as I was feeling slightly dizzy. I used my poles to get better footing, as the path is ‘slidey’ and loose, as sandy as a beach in some spots. Fortunately, it’s no longer than a few dozen metres and is over quickly. Still, take your time and watch your footing.
Arriving at the saddle after Elk Traverse, you’ll see a rock pile to your right that makes for beautiful panoramic photos. Straight ahead, there’s a field strewn with grassy spots and boulders. The trail through the meadow isn’t discernible, but you can see it reappear in the distance, so it’s easy to beeline your way to it if you want to avoid the scrambly sections.
On your left, you can scramble up the grassy ledges of the slope and over the rocky ridge to pop up near the fire lookout (about 10-15 minutes after leaving the saddle). Hold on to your hat and your lunch, it’s windy up here!
Be aware that the fire lookout is a working post and a temporary home for the fire observer; don’t approach the station. Take care when walking near the super-cool mosaic of stones that former observer Tom Johnson has painstakingly laid out in fun patterns.
Take the same way down that you took to come up; you’ll likely be back down to your car in less than an hour, unless you took the meadow path.
So there you have it: A short, slightly steep hike with very satisfying views, up and down within three hours. I will definitely be doing this trail again!
Taken from the highway on my drive back, I recognised the Elk Traverse waaaaaay up there (do you see a thin line crossing the slope at the very top?). No wonder I was slightly queasy crossing it - it’s incredibly high!!!
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