KANANASKIS COUNTRY – The province is making it official with Prairie Mountain.
Those hoping to hike the summit route should head out before the end of the May long weekend, when work to formalize one of the Elbow Valley’s most well-loved unofficial trails is set to begin.
“Boy, does that trail need it. It’s everything everybody talks about,” said Derek Ryder, Friends of Kananaskis Country co-chair. “It’s stupid popular, which is great. It’s accessible all year-round because it’s right there at the [Highway 66] winter closure gate, and the view at the top is second to none.
“But here it is, this unofficial trail that’s been horrifically braided at the bottom and gets worse as you go up. It’s very badly eroded.”
There are currently about five access routes from the southern base that snake together to the summit. Having several paths up has resulted in new water drainage channels, rutting, and further braiding as people try to navigate the mountain. It also poses challenges for rescues.
Once work is done, the trail will have two well-marked access points, wayfinding and safety signage, informational kiosks and viewing benches. Remediation work will also take place to reclaim unofficial paths and keep hikers on track.
Brad Jones, recreation, education and partnerships manager with the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism’s public lands division, said this project marks the first major capital investment in a trail that falls on public lands in Kananaskis. Prairie Mountain is in the Kananaskis Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ).
The project has a $700,000 price tag and is part of a recently announced $1.3 million investment from the province to refurbish trails and amenities in the Kananaskis PLUZ, including design work to refurbish the Powderface Trail.
According to the province, the Prairie Mountain trail is one of the three most popular in the Kananaskis region, based on trailhead vehicle counts.
Jones said current design plans to formalize the trail are “more fitting of public land,” as opposed to what one might find on Ha Ling Peak – a comparable K-Country trail in terms of length and elevation gain, located in Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park.
Instead of rock-cut stairs at higher elevations, for example, Prairie Mountain will have switchbacks.
“Once the contractor gets building we’ll see what it looks like, but that’s what we’re anticipating with the current design that’s in place,” said Jones.
“We’re pretty excited about this. We really wanted to build on this trail opportunity for people that will be safer and probably more pleasurable.”
Ryder said modern trail design typically avoids switchbacks to keep people from taking shortcuts. Sometimes they are unavoidable, however, and if used properly, they can help prevent challenges with erosion and trampled vegetation.
The trail, which starts from Highway 66, is a 3.7-kilometre out-and-back route. Switchbacks or not, it is a challenging hike with 700 metres of elevation gain to the summit.
Ryder said adding viewing benches, spots for hikers to take breaks in the design, was a wise decision, both from a trail appeal and environmental perspective.
“People stop and huff and puff, they walk off the trail to catch their breath and start degrading vegetation, so it’s better to create areas where people can do that without the harm,” he said.
While the project addresses challenges on the trail, including regular maintenance, a lack of parking in the area is likely to require further discussion down the road.
In the summer, there is designated parking in a small 20-car lot on the south side of the highway and at the nearby Elbow Falls day-use area. Highway 66 closes at Prairie Mountain for the winter months, from Dec. 1 to May 14, but the trail and others near the road gate are still accessible, albeit with more limited parking.
When the road opens, there is still a lack of parking as visitation to K-Country surges in the summer. This means vehicles typically spill out of lots to park on the highway on a busy hiking weekend. Initial discussions between Forestry, Parks and Tourism and Alberta Transportation include potentially moving the winter gate further west, allowing more space for parking in winter.
It may help in the short-term, but a long-term solution will need to be found eventually given the area’s increasing popularity, said Jones.
“There’s simply not enough parking there right now. We don’t anticipate this [trail upgrade] will radically increase the number of vehicles, but the Kananaskis PLUZ does need to be managed better for parking,” he said.
Prairie Mountain trail will be closed for construction from May 23 to Oct. 1. The closed area will be 400 metres on each side of the existing trail tread and summit to reduce dangers to hikers as heavy equipment and helicopters will be required to move materials.
Surrounding trails including Prairie Creek and Pistolero will remain open.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.