Summit Elevation (m): 1670
Trip Date: Tuesday, May 05, 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 340
Round Trip Time (hrs): 2.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 9
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain your thumb
Difficulty Notes: This is a very easy and straightforward hike from the highway to the summit and back along an old road bed.
Technical Rating: OT2; RE2/3
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
After a dismal start to the spring in early April the weather took a turn for the (much) better and for the past few weeks I’ve been furiously bagging a number of easy front range objectives, trying to stay as dry as possible and as safe as possible with the Covid-19 restrictions that were in place for most of them. Ironically during this period when most people were huddled in their houses thinking the mountains were “closed”, I was compiling and chasing a growing list of restriction-free summits that seemed to be growing faster than I could bag them. Last year at this time I had been up 7 new summits, this year I’m getting close to 24 and that’s not counting 52 times up Prairie. (Please realize that I’m not bragging – this is an example of someone with peakbagging “issues”… ) Being stuck at home 24×7 except for getting out to the hills is one of the main reasons I’ve been looking to get out even on simple hikes.
Wietse and I had been to the Crowsnest Pass several times over the past month including ascents of Bluff Mountain and Loop Ridge and every time we drove through the massive Waldron Ranch he pointed out Black Mountain to me. We almost did it as a 4th peak the weekend before but when I plotted it out following Bob’s GPS track we saw it was 10 km and 350 meters of height gain and took a hard “pass” on that idea. I decided to save it for an after work affair despite the 1.5 hour drive (each way) from Calgary. With a dismal weather forecast for the following week, Kaycie and I decided to make the effort already on the following Tuesday despite not quite “feeling it”.
Sometimes the small objectives with no expectations are among the best experiences and Black Mountain proved no different. With no expectations and feeling rather groggy we made the 1.5 hour drive south and parked at the gate along hwy 22 just as two trucks were pulling away. We forced ourselves out of the truck and started hiking towards a gate with a small white sign – hoping against hope that it wouldn’t say “no trespassing”. It didn’t. We squeezed under the gate and continued on up the road. The next 30 minutes were spent walking on the road across surprisingly scenic montane grasslands, our moods improving with the great scenery and weather. Dave Salahub had told me about a shortcut “road” of sorts that didn’t follow Bob Spirko’s route up the north-south ridge but we didn’t see any obvious roads – just a bunch of ruts that seemed to lead into thick forest. We decided to make things easy and go up Bob’s route and decide on a return route later.
As we walked along a barbed wire fence on the apex of Black Mountain’s N-S ridge we were struck by two unexpected encounters. The first was The Whaleback – an area of Montane landscape just west of Black Mountain and east of Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park. This area is estimated to be home to over 80 species of birds and many more migrating ones. It is also one of the most prominent elk wintering areas in Alberta. The Whaleback’s diversity of nature owes to the distinct “gap” in the Livingstone Range to the west which allows Chinook winds from the Pacific to more easily flow to the west than almost anywhere else along the Rockies. Our views to the Whaleback were sublime in the early evening light. Another surprise were the giant Douglas Fir trees dotting the ridge top and the eastern side of the small mountain we were hiking. Some of the trees were easily 4-5 feet wide which is HUGE for an Alberta tree! I found out later that some of them are almost 1000 years old!
The hiking was a mix of easy to moderate – there were smatterings of animal trails but that’s about it. I was surprised that a heavily hunted area like this had no obvious trail – but that was OK with us! As we approached the summit we were forced to cross the fence and startled a large moose along the way. The summit had no views so we continued a short way to the north end of the mountain where we were treated to our third unexpected encounter of the evening. We were enjoying the sunshine and sublime views to the Whaleback and Bob Creek Wildland area when I spotted a dark dot down in the grassy meadows below our perch on the N-S ridge. I grabbed my tele lens and excitedly peered through it. Sure enough! A mamma grizzly bear and two tiny cubs were gallivanting in the quiet montane meadows west of our summit, unaware of the two humans witnessing them from afar. We spent the next 10-15 minutes enthralled with the special scene. Kaycie remarked rather dryly that we’d just seen more wildlife on a two hour after work hike than we did in 15 days of wilderness travel the summer before. She wasn’t wrong about that…
After realizing I didn’t have bear spray or even my trust hunting knife and seeing mamma bear start moving in our direction, two cubs in tow, we decided it was probably a wise decision to start our descent. We started back along our approach trail to the summit but from there I deviated, looking for Dave’s “road” on the east side of the ridge. Wouldn’t you know it? We actually found the road and it was very obvious and wide. We enjoyed more old forest scenery before breaking back out onto open grasslands and hiking back to the truck. We finished off an excellent evening hike by driving up the Skyline Road just east of Black Mountain in the Porcupine Hills PLUZ area. We were hoping to hit the Porcupine Lookout but the road was rough and we were running out of daylight so we turned around and saved that for another day.
I enjoyed Black Mountain as a short, easy hike with very interesting landscapes and natural features. I highly recommend it as a half day hike when you are short of time and need to refresh your soul with some good Alberta montane country.