After I wasted almost 4 hours of driving the weekend before, I was 'ready' to once again make the drive from Calgary, down past Okotoks and Black Diamond to Longview and along the Highwood River into Kananaskis from the south on hwy 40. Unlike the weekend before, this time the weather forecast was 100% chance of sun (instead of 90%?!) so I figured the odds of running into a blizzard at the trailhead was slim. Thankfully, I was right.
Truth be told, I'd have much rather been on my skis - seeing as it's February - but I have a policy that I don't do back country skiing if the avalanche hazard is 'considerable' or 'high' so the latest forecasts made my decision to stay off the boards easy. I was also recovering from a nasty bout of the flu, so I picked a low energy objective.
I arrived at the highway 40 closure / gate parking area under much different conditions than a week previous. The sun was shining and there was a gaggle of cars parked around the area. The highway was bone-dry, stretching out past Junction Hill and I wished I'd brought my bike instead of my snowshoes! I packed my 'shoes just in case the summit ridge was drifted in, but I highly doubted I'd need them as I started the easy 3km approach on the highway. The views towards Mount Armstrong and up the closed highway kept getting better and better as I walked in the warm sunshine, enjoying my Sunday morning stroll immensely. As I walked down towards the Fitzwilliam Creek picnic area, I could clearly spot the "Cat's ears" of the first two summits on the north side of the road.
[Much different conditions than a week previous when there was a full-on blizzard happening here.]
[Mist Mountain to the north will command many photos this day!]
[A lookout along the highway gives some detail about Mount Armstrong in the bg.]
[Mist Mountain looms over highway 40 and the Fitzwilliam picnic area below. Cat Creek Hills is out of the photo on the right.]
[Panorama from the highway showing Cat Creek Hills on the right - looking like cat ears. ++]
Just past the Fitzwilliam Creek picnic area, I turned climber's right through the ditch and started up the Cat Creek drainage towards the first Cat Creek hill - the route was obvious and many different approaches would work here. I ended up walking along a 'landing strip' to the ridge and from there I was hiking on grass and through low density forest to the first summit. I have to say that initially I wasn't that excited to be hiking up a grassy hill but as I took in the amazing views along the spine of the Rockies to the west my enthusiasm for this little hike grew.
[Walking along the 'landing strip' clearing from the highway towards the first cat ear - the way is obvious.]
[This doesn't feel like February...]
[On the lower ridge of the hills, looking at the cat ears and up hwy 40 at left. The landing strip is obvious at center, curving along the base of the hills. ++]
[Very nice views as I work my way up the interesting mix of grassy hill and jutting rock. The two summits here are McPhail (L) and Bishop (R).]
[Looking east with the second cat ear on the left and Junction Hill on the right.]
[Nearing the first summit (L) with the second visible (R).]
[Great views along the Divide. ++]
[Looking down my ascent ridge, the landing strip clearly visible through the forest below, almost reaching the hwy. Coyote and Strawberry Hills in the bg - Burke on the far left. Raspberry Ridge directly at center with a fire lookout at the summit.]
The wind stayed reasonable and the ridge was mostly bone dry as I continued from the first to the second summit, which looked to have a large stone cairn on it. After dipping down to the col (copious amounts of elk detritus along the way...) I started up steeper grass / rocky slopes. A large herd of elk ran along the col beneath me as I grunted upwards. Near the second 'Cat Ear' summit, I had a choice to go climber's right or straight up some steeper slabs. I choose the scrambling terrain and enjoyed some short, hands on scrambling to the second summit of the day. In my opinion this summit is probably the best one to attain, as the views in all directions are unimpeded. I enjoyed a nice cup of coffee from my thermos near the impressive summit cairn before somewhat reluctantly heading off to the third and final summit along the ridge.
[Looking up at the second summit - I went straight through the slabs above, but there are easier options on climber's right.]
[Great view over the first summit from near the second with Armstrong, Maclaren, Strachan and McPhail in the distance.]
[The impressive summit cairn on the second cat ear looking over the first summit at lower left. Peaks in the background include Baril, Cornwell and Armstrong. ++]
[Looking north off the second summit - the third and connecting ridge at right with Holy Cross (R) and Head (C) in the background. ++]
[Looking north and east at Holy Cross (L) and the true summit of Cat Creek Hills. Junction Hill at right. ++]
[Another great view of the second summit with divide peaks in the bg. ++]
The 'shoes stayed on my pack as I slogged to the third summit of Cat Creek Hills. Thanks to the herd of elk and previous hikers, as well as the cool temperatures, I could simply walk on top of any snow along the ridge and had no major issues attaining the small, treed summit that is the highest one. Views towards Head, Holy Cross and Junction Hill were pretty decent from this high point, but honestly the views to the west, south and north weren't any better than from the second summit. After another coffee break I headed back along my ascent route.
[Much more snow between the second and third summits - but thanks to a good freeze and a trail I still didn't need the 'shoes.]
[Mount Head from the high point of Cat Creek Hills.]
[Baril and Armstrong looking dramatic.]
[Looking south towards the Raspberry Ridge fire lookout.]
[Great views over the spine of the Rockies - enlarge for a labeled panorama. ++]
[Mount Bishop is a beautiful peak.]
I enjoyed more great views and weather back to the highway, which I followed to the truck. The road was fairly busy in the afternoon, with campers heading back to their vehicles (pushing wheel barrows of gear?) and day hikers with cameras. I can highly recommend this easy hike, especially when it's this dry, for anyone who wants a break from the winter blues.
[Lots of granite slab poking through the grassy slopes make for interesting scenery.]
[Muir is my favorite peak in this area that I must scramble some time.]
[Mount Cornwell is hidden between Baril and Armstrong.]
[One more pano of the divide peaks to the north west from Strachan to Bishop (R). ++]
[Looking down the ascent ridge to the highway.]
[I love the scrub forests in this area.]
[Just before the landing strip, where is all the snow?!]
[One glance back from the open meadow / landing strip at the base of the Cat Creek Hills.]