* All photos taken by lotzacurls *
* Day hike + possible scramble. Out and back. Trail is signed only in the beginning. Dogs must be leashed.
* Distance: Roughly 10 kms return (4-5 hrs total)
* Elevation gain: Roughly 750m. Challenging.
* Trailhead: 1 hr Southwest of Calgary, at the very end of Hwy 66 (road closed from Dec 1st to May 15th). Park at Little Elbow Campground.
Nihahi Ridge is a cool hike for many reasons. Not only is it a great workout with rewarding views, but it marks the spot where the Canadian Rockies start. Once you stand on its ridge, look eastward toward the rolling green foothills or turn westward to admire the first ranges of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
I’ve basically broken this hike down into three parts:
Part 1 (1 hr - 1.5 hours) is a walk through Little Elbow campground, then through the forest on a steady, moderately steep trail.
Part 2 (1hr - 1.5 hrs) is a sharper ascent on sand, rocks and scree along what I call the bottom ridge.
Part 3 (1.5 hrs) is a steep hike/scramble onto South Nihahi Summit.
PART 1 (1 hour - 1.5 hours)
From the Little Elbow Campground parking lot, take the path or the main road through the campground (1 km); the sites are all on your right and the trail is generally flat. Eventually, you’ll see a path on the right, with a sign also indicating Little Elbow; follow it into the forest for Nihahi Ridge. Over the next 20 minutes, you’ll walk steadily uphill and see two more signs; take the indicated pathways. After about 45 minutes, you’ll come to a grassy meadow spotted with wildflowers; look out for Nihani Ridge looming up ahead. You’re about to climb that whole thing, baby!!!
Continue walking up through a mix of forest and wildflowers. The path eventually leads to a lookout area with a cable that acts as a fence or barrier. You’ve been ascending the bottom ridge without knowing it!
PART 2 (1 hour - 1.5 hours)
The trail gets steeper as you climb upwards onto the bottom ridge; the terrain is much rockier and sandier and you’ll notice there’s less traction. Fear not, it’s still very much doable. You’ll soon be rewarded with your first glimpse of Kananaskis Country on the Western side.
Once you’ve ascended the hump of the bottom ridge, take your time to explore. There are loads of good sitting spots along the ridge; enjoy the view and have something to eat. You’ll need fuel for the upcoming ascent.
PART 3 (30 minutes - 1 hour)
For those who wish to summit (and I fully encourage you!), your past hiking experience will be a plus, not so much for technicality but for comfort (especially on your descent). This last push is a steep climb to the South summit.
Heading up, you’ll notice several trails shooting out in different directions. They all lead upward, but some go to the right, across the mountain’s eastern flank. You do not want this.
Basically, stay to the LEFT of the tree line the whole way up. Your goal is to get as high as possible between the top rockwall and the trees (place photo next).
As you ascend, you’ll see a rockwall on your left and a trail leading through the trees.
This is where one might be tempted to abandon the hike, either from exertion or from doubting they are on the right trail. Admittedly, I prefer straightforward paths, because I can’t stand to waste energy or time. So this trail frustrated me at times. However, having finished it, I know that if you continue upward and to the left, you’ll be golden.
The good news is, you can turn around anytime and follow your steps back down. Don’t let your desire to get to the top overpower your ability to handle exposure and steep grades; push yourself, but don’t overdo it here. Come back down if your gut tells you it isn’t for you.
Our hiccup: Walking toward the summit, Jay and I followed a wide,
well-trodden path on the right, which traversed the flank of the mountain.
All was good until we had to scurry up a steep, scree avalanche path into the trees,
which was not fun. Worse still was the anticipation of having to clamber
down that same avalanche chute on our descent. Fortunately, on our way down
we took a chance and took a different trail, which led to the discovery
of this much more straightforward (and less dangerous) ascent/descent.
The path through the highest trees ascends through a forest and eventually squeezes you out between the trees and the rockwall. Light scrambling may be necessary to get just below the true summit; just keep following one of many trails leading up and left.
You can scramble (read: rock climb) onto the rock slabs to the summit, the tip of the triangle. Its walls are steeper than they look. I opted NOT to scramble up; I’ve climbed less vertical walls while wearing a harness and tied to a rope, so I just wasn’t comfortable.
Jason was interested in scrambling onto the South summit and searched high and low for a good way to get up there, but gave up. Lots of people have found their way up, but it wasn’t obvious from where we were. More exploration is needed, so we’ll go back when it isn’t 34 degrees out! Apparently, the trail across the ridge gets dodgier as you go on; the North Summit is another 7 kms further for anyone wanting to try their luck.
As I mentioned earlier, we took a different path down - it was much less laborious than that other trail would have been (the one we ascended). Poles helped a lot; I enjoy having a bit of weight taken off my feet when I walk downhill, especially when the terrain is sandy and shifty under my boots.
It took us about an hour and a half to get back down to the car. Make sure you bring plenty of water (I drank 2.5 litres and could have drank more, but then again it was a very hot day). There is no water source here for dogs and the sandy terrain will make everyone thirstier than expected.
All in all, this was a great hike. My sense of adventure was piqued by the lack of direction at the top (Bring on the route-finding!) and the steep grade, but none of it impeded this hike.
See you on the trails!
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