Prairie Mountain (2020)

Summit Elevation (m): 2010
Trip Date: Sunday, February 23, 2020
Running Summit Count (for 2020): 22
Elevation Gain (m): 650
Round Trip Time (hrs): 1.5-4
Total Trip Distance (km): 6.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Easy hiking on a good trail. The hordes of other people and dogs (!) might be the crux.
GPS Track: Click to Download (Prairie Mountain Loop via Prairie Creek)
Technical Rating: TL3; YDS (Hiking)
Map: Google Maps

I wrote back in 2007 that I had some friends who did Prairie Mountain as their weekly training hike or run. Well, 13 years later and I’m now one of these annoying people! After moving to SW Calgary this past summer, I am now one of the regulars on this easy mountain trail. I meet the same folks time and again and have run into more friends here than anywhere else in the Rockies. And why not? It’s about 45 minutes west of my house, boasts 650m of height gain and only takes around 1.25 to 1.5 hours round trip in decent conditions. If nothing else it’s a great way to spend a morning or evening workout while getting some elevation gain on the legs and staying fit for skiing / climbing / hiking / scrambling activities.

I’ve decided that I’m going to try to average one ascent of Prairie Mountain per week for the year 2020 just to keep things interesting. This is made less onerous by the fact that I’ve also taken an interest in doing “double” or even the odd “triple” headers of the peak, making it a bit more of a workout at around 1300 or 1900 m height gain and 13 or 18.5 km distance. I figure it might be interesting (for me) to keep track of some stats, photos and how I was feeling each outing so I’m going to have a running blog on this page where each time I do the peak I’ll add the days thoughts etc. Yeah, it’s a bit boring but since this is my site I get to do whatever dumb stuff I want on it. 😉 Note: In the Fall of 2019 the Alberta Government commissioned a study of Prairie Mountain and it’s ongoing maintenance and impact considering how popular it’s become. You can read a copy of this assessment here.

After hiking Prairie at least a dozen times in December 2019 I realized that there’s six distinct sections to the trail. It helps to keep track of these sections as it keeps me focused on where I am and what still lies ahead. The sections are roughly as follows;

Prairie Mountain Route Map – see section descriptions below.
  1. The bottom section ascends very steeply from the parked vehicles along hwy 66. This section is often either muddy, icy or both since it gets lots of sun. There is an alternate “section 1” that’s a wee bit less steep and starts a bit further down hwy 66 from where my GPS track starts. Sometimes I descend that way before starting up my 2nd lap to keep things interesting. This section is pretty short and levels out at the top before joining section 2.
  2. This section is also known as the “flat section”. It’s usually a nice break after bumping your heart rate through the roof on the first section when you leave your car without any warm up. It’s a nice break on the knees when going back down too. This is one of the longer sections.
  3. Section 3 is where the workout really starts. This section is where the ridge widens and ascends steeply through matchstick forest. Here you break the halfway point in both distance and elevation and ends with a short horizontal traverse which feels way better than it should before ascending back onto a narrower part of the ridge ridge – section 4.
  4. I like this part of the ascent. The trail remains steep but views start opening up and there’s some variation from boring forest. Too soon this section ends back in forest for section 5.
  5. Section 5 is fairly short but also very steep through light forest just like section 3. Eventually it finishes with a last steep gasp to end on the summit ridge and start of section 6.
  6. Probably the favorite section for most folks. Still somewhat steep in short sections, this long section to the summit boasts good views as it slowly breaks tree line. You never know what you’ll find along this section from wiener roasts to Christmas decorations! This section can be extremely windy and very cold in Winter so take precautions and know what you’re getting into. I’ve seen winds over 125 kph at the summit.

So there you have it. Prairie Mountain in all its unimpressive glory. I’m sure I’ll catch you out there some day. I’m the guy that looks like I’m always about to keel over but you’ll probably see me more than once as I repeat laps. If I look particularly gassed and / or grumpy it’s probably my 2nd or 3rd ascent for the day and I’m wondering why I do these things for fun. 😉

Sunday, January 05 2020 (x 2)

A solo double header in some wicked winds at the top. The weather was decent at around -5 or so. I wore runners and got away with a t-shirt and sweater once I started heating up. The sweater wasn’t quite enough for section 6 – both times I stopped to put on my shell jacket for the summit trudge. Lots of people and dogs on the trail. Was surprised to see people with small kids sliding down the steep section 1. I really hope this doesn’t become a theme because people will lose control and slide into trees here if they aren’t careful. Total return time for both laps was 3 hours 15 minutes.

Descending Prairie Mountain in high winds.

Saturday, January 11 2020 (x 2)

A double header with Wietse. The weather forecast was very strange for today. SpotWX showed -8 at the summit with very light winds but every other forecast showed -15 with dropping temperatures for Kananaskis. I overdressed due to the dire wx and wore long underwear, warm pants and even my winter boots. Within 10 minutes of doing our first lap I knew I was going to be way too hot. I need to treat this outing as a run rather than a hike and dress as I would for running. Oh well. Wietse set a pretty fast pace as we started in the dark via headlamps and passed a party of 4 on ascent. There was an inversion as the air felt warmer about 100 vertical meters above the road. I sweated and swore my way up behind a racing Dutchman and touched the summit flag for the first ascent in 57 minutes from the road. We enjoyed a nice sunrise on descent.

The second lap promised to be more difficult. I was feeling a bit off today for some reason, probably a cold or perhaps my overdressing for the conditions. I also had to pee since leaving the car but the speedy Dutchman had no time for such trivial nonsense! 😉 Surprisingly our second lap wasn’t much slower. We touched the summit in 59 minutes which really surprised me considering how crappy I was feeling. A great morning out with a 3 hour, 15 minute time for both laps. 

Saturday, January 18 2020 (x 2)

The last week has been bitterly cold in YYC. All of Alberta was under a cold warning for at least 3 days with wind chills into the -40’s and even -50’s! I surprised myself by doing a rowing workout on Saturday morning and then deciding I was desperate enough for some fresh air to head west for a bit. I noticed on SpotWX that the temperatures were rising in K country and there was no wind so that played a part in my decision. Sure enough! I started once again in way too much clothing with big winter boots and by the time I was grunting up section 3 I was sweating and swearing at my inability to dress properly for this silly little bump! To be fair, it was still -16 at the road… The summit was beautiful and on my second pass was around -5 at the coldest without a breath of wind.

A windless summit on Prairie Mountain. -25 in Calgary, -5 here. Love it when that happens.

Very few people were out today and many of them were doing multiple laps. I’m pretty sure one guy I met was doing 3 or more. I didn’t even record the time for once – I just wanted a nice stress free hike in the hills and this turned out to be just what I needed.

Sunday, January 19 2020 (x2)

Today rounded off 4 ascents of Prairie Mountain in just over 24 hours for me. I felt today too! Wietse put on his headphones and left me in the dust for the first ascent. The weather was dramatically warmer than the day before and despite wearing runners and much less clothing I was still overdressed and sweating profusely both times. The snow was a bit sticky with temps around -2 in the sunshine but none of the dozens of folks on the mountain were complaining! The 2nd ascent felt a bit better for some reason and I enjoyed the late afternoon lighting on descent.

A beautiful late Sunday afternoon on our second lap of Prairie Mountain.

Wednesday, January 22 2020

An evening ascent with Wietse who charged up ahead of me and did a 50 minute ascent (no running!). I couldn’t match his pace and was a few minutes behind him. We were the last people off the mountain as darkness settled in over the Rockies. We only needed our headlamps for descent. A few more weeks and it should be light enough after work to do this more often. The trail was very muddy at the bottom and icy throughout. The snow is rapidly disappearing in the warm temperatures – probably at least half the snow from a few weeks ago is gone already.

An evening ascent of Prairie Mountain in January means using a headlamp for descent.

Saturday, January 25 2020 (x3)

Yeah, yeah. I know we should have been off skiing something today! That was the plan until I rolled over in bed at 06:00 and did a quick last minute check of the avy ratings for Kananaskis. Alas, they’d updated more severe overnight and were now going to be “considerable” in the alpine. I don’t mess with avalanches and have a pretty firm no ski policy for anything over a “moderate” rating. I know this is a bit of a lame policy, but it’s kept me out of danger so far and I’m not in the mood to get buried any time soon so that’s that. After texting alternatives back and forth we settled on yet another workout day. This time we did 3 laps. It felt OK but I am getting tired of this peak after doing 12 ascents in the first 25 days of 2020. 😉 Hopefully I can get on the skis next weekend…

We got buzzed by a small plane our 2nd time at the summit. It flew a couple of low laps around the mountain between Prairie and Moose, very low to the trees. Not sure why? I’m sure glad I wasn’t in there! Oh yeah, there were 8 vehicles already at the parking spot 1 hour before sunrise! When we left there must have been 50. Also, the trail is getting super muddy / icy. I would not want to be on it without icers right now.

Sunday, January 26 2020 (Prairie Creek)

Yeah, this happened. I ended up back on Prairie just one day after doing 3 laps with Wietse. Hanneke and I wanted to get out for some fresh air but didn’t want to drive too far. We originally planned to go xcountry skiing at WBC, but were put off by the cold overnight temps and the probability of icy tracks. I very reluctantly agreed to Prairie but warned that I might be a little bored. 

Another option for Prairie Mountain involves descending the NW end of the mountain and returning via Prairie Creek. This is a 10km loop with over 700m of total elevation gain.

In the end I surprised myself with a gorgeous day out thanks to taking an alternate return route. Doing the Prairie Mountain Loop via Prairie Creek proved to be a much nicer hike than simply going up and down the same path from hwy 66 which is quickly becoming very icy, not to mention very busy. The loop trail was clearly marked and was packed enough to hike down in our icers. It was much longer than I expected (not a bad thing) and was also hillier, providing some uphill sections on the way back.

The biggest bonus of returning this way was the scenery along Prairie Creek which was much better than either of us expected. The birds were chirping in the warm winter sun and the creek was bubbling cheerfully way below us in spots.

A glorious winter day hiking down Prairie Creek.

This option is highly recommended for folks looking for a nice change of scenery or a slightly more engaging workout than the simply “up and down” on Prairie. Other options include going past Link Hill to the Powderface Ridge trail and back out to the road which would make for another nice winter hike.

Thursday, January 30 2020

A quick after work “blow off steam” hike. Nothing to note except the trail is getting pretty dried off and icy lower down. Could use either a refresh of snow or a really strong Chinook.

I’m hoping that this is my most active month of 2020 as far as Prairie Mountain goes. With 14 ascents and a total of around 9100 meters of height gain and 95 kilometers of distance on this one peak I like to think it’s kept me somewhat in shape but I’m hoping the rest of 2020 can provide me just a few more options for variety. 😉

Sunday, February 02 2020 (x 2)

A twofer with Wietse on a warm and windy Sunday afternoon. The mountain had a nice refresh of 5cm of snow, covering most of the mud and ice. I managed to do the two laps in 2:50 which I thought was a respectable pace considering the snow drifts near the summit and the fact that I wasn’t feeling 100%.

Brutally strong winds at the summit of Prairie Mountain.

Friday, February 07 2020

A quick evening ascent with Hann after work. Beautiful late afternoon with very little wind and temps around -4. Just enough snow on route to cover the really icy bits.

Late afternoon on Prairie Mountain

Sunday, February 09 2020

A loop up the regular route and out via Prairie Creek. Was supposed to go skiing in Banff but with the forecast changing to clouds and a windchill of -20 in the morning I said “no f’ing thx” and did a pleasant loop in the front ranges instead. The sun even came out on the return, improving my SAD mood somewhat… Is it SPRING yet?!

Wednesday, February 19 2020

Wow! 10 days since my last Prairie Mountain! No wonder the mountain felt so new. :rolleyes: An after work outing. I met tons of headlamps coming up on my descent. The stars were out and the night was silent, cold and dark on my walk back to the truck. 

Thursday, February 20 2020

Another after work jaunt. This time I made it up and down without the headlamp. In another week or so I won’t even have to duck out of work 15 minutes early to make this happen. Once again, I met a TON of trail runners just heading up as I walked back to the truck. I found some keys on the trail and left them with the vehicle that unlocked when I pressed the button. I’m sure the owners will be happy to come back and find them there! (Also, my 20th ascent of Prairie in 2020 was on the 20th of the 2nd month.)

Sunday, February 23 2020 (x 2)

With family staying over, this was a morning twofer. Weather was better in the front ranges than in Calgary for the 2nd morning in a row with more sun and warmer temps. Due to a 22km xcountry ski in West Bragg the day before, my legs were more pumped than usual and I almost didn’t bother with the 2nd lap. It felt good to push it but I was very happy to be down the 2nd time. Not every day is one filled with motivation!

12 thoughts on Prairie Mountain (2020)

  1. I guess after hundreds of peaks you have a good point on the knees. You can carry a water jug and just pour it out on the peak too. I do 1h21m with 18kg pack, feels slow.
    Might bump into each other one day.

  2. woohoo, Alberta version of the Grouse Grind 😛
    yes, we are cheating over here with the gondola ride down. Saves the knees, tho!

  3. Glad you did this TR because I am getting bored a little of the hill in my neighborhood, located 5 minutes walk from my place.
    I usually climb this 40m vertical over 10 times with weighted vest and 4X2l bottles in a backpack or simply no extra weight when I am short in time.
    I use ski poles and microspikes.
    The advantage is, 2 hours of training will soak me to the skin on a cold day multilayered and I am 5 minutes away from getting warm and dry.
    Is this parking on the shoulder, what about Little Elbow parking, I climbed prairie mt once in the fall about 10 years ago and don’t remember the parking, I know it’s very close to the Elbow Falls.
    I am driving from Hwy 1 via Bragg Creek

  4. As you know from Facebook, I’ve enjoyed my Saturday’s hike.
    It will be interesting to see how the crew that has built Ha Ling trail will eventually build the trail here.

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