After spending a glorious day at the Lake of the Horns, KC and I awoke to yet another day of brilliant sunshine on the last day of our 5 day backpacking trip along the southern Highwood peaks on the Great Divide. Our plans for the day would be to take my slightly easier alternate descent down the Lake of the Horns headwall before picking up a horse outfitters trail that was rumored to circle towards our last peak of the trip - The Hill of the Flowers.
[Saying goodbye to one of the most sublime lake bivi sites I've ever experienced. Mount McPhail at left and one of the "horns" at upper right. ++]
I made KC a bit nervous when I required her to wear the helmet we'd been lugging along the whole trip already without using. I warned her to watch her steps on some of the terrain and we set off down the headwall. The line I'd scouted the day previous worked better than expected. There was only around 10 steps that were severely exposed while everything else was moderate scrambling at most. Soon we were following a sheep trail towards the outfitters track that I had plotted on my GPS beforehand. Another advantage of our exit line was that we lost less height before joining the track.
[After descending the slightly easier upper slabs we cross a scree field to the north, rather than descend our ascent route.]
[Traversing the slabs.]
[KC navigates the terrain off the headwall. Our approach route is much steeper in the distance at bottom center.]
[The good trail that will eventually contour around to Hill of the Flowers at right.]
The next hour or so was extremely pleasant hiking through alpine meadows that were positively bursting with color and vibrance in every direction. The horse track was largely unused, which meant it wasn't deeply rutted like most horse trails. We followed it easily up and then down to the col with the Hill of the Flowers. It was at this point that we reluctantly left the trail and started up the steep, grassy west aspect of the hill. Ironically, we also left the brilliant displays of flowers behind us!
[Shadows below the horns.]
[Very pleasant alpine hiking.]
[The real "hill of flowers" was our approach hike - not the official one.]
[More of the meadow.]
There were no technical (only mental) difficulties up the west aspect of the hill. We followed our noses and avoided most bush, except lower down near the col. We popped out on the easy south ridge to clear views once again. We really did luck out with the views and the weather conditions on this trip! After dropping the heavy packs we wandered easily up to the summit, enjoying the nice cool morning breeze and now-familiar views. After a break and some reflection on our great trip it was time to head down into the heat of the day and our longish exit via McPhail Creek to the Cat Creek parking area.
[Looking back at Mount Bishop and Horned Mountain (R) with McPhail and Muir to the left as we start up the hill. ++]
[Summit views west and north include (L to R), Muir, McPhail, Horned, Bishop and Mist. ++]
[Mist Mountain looms over the Highwood Pass area.]
[Mount Bishop is impressive from the east.]
[Mount McPhail with Lake of the Horns just barely visible underneath. The headwall to Weary Creek Gap at far left.]
[Possible east face route up Horned Mountain? Doesn't look easy.]
[KC grabs some shade at the summit with MacLaren, Strachan, Muir and McPhail in the distance (L to R).]
The south ridge descent was easy and the trail surprisingly well crafted, especially lower down in thicker treed terrain. Soon we were tramping down the wide trail / road along McPhail Creek. The only fly in the ointment on the tedious exit was underestimating how much fresh water we should bring. Just as for the approach trail up Carnarvon Creek, this trail had absolutely no places to easily attain fresh, clean water! By the time we finally got to the Highwood River crossing, KC and I were both feeling a bit dehydrated. We crossed the river easily and made short work of the last couple of kilometers to the truck.
[A beautiful morning for a stroll down the south ridge of Hill of the Flowers.]
[Easy going. We say a coyote off this ridge and an elk near the summit.]
[Interesting rock patterns on the south ridge.]
[We weren't on trail here but soon found it back to our right.]
[Nice views on the final descent towards McPhail Creek.]
[Flowers and grasses.]
[Another gorgeous day with no smoke.]
[The trail remained obvious and well designed through trees lower down.]
[On the main trail out of McPhail Creek.]
[This huge black cow nearly killed me of a heart attack when KC told me to "look up". :)]
[Looking back at McPhail (L) and Horned Mountain.]
[The Highwood River isn't exactly shin deep!]
[Lots of great memories as we hike back the last 2km to the parking lot.]
Overall we could not have asked for a better trip! From the first (long!) day to the relaxing day at the Lake of the Horns, we got to enjoy 5 days of perfect summer backpacking in a relatively remote and quiet area. Other than Carnarvon Lake and a couple of horse riders on our exit day, we didn't see any other people the entire time. Better yet, there was very little litter or signs of heavy usage other than some of the campsites at Carnarvon Lake. I was very happy to see that most people enjoying this pristine area of the Rockies seem to be responsible and care about leaving things beautiful for everyone else. I highly recommend something like the Elk Highline for advanced backpackers and folks who want to bag some easy peaks in some of the most beautiful areas of Kananaskis Country and the south Rockies.