Summit Elevation (m): 2530
Trip Date: March 17 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 1070
Round Trip Time (hr): 7
Total Trip Distance (km): 22
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you tripped in the matchstick forest
Difficulty Notes: Easy hiking and moderate bushwhacking. Some basic route finding unless you’re lucky like me and following a good snowshoe track.
Technical Rating: OT4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
I’ve noticed a theme in a good number of my Ya Ha Tinda trip reports. The representative photo for the post often contains a view of Warden Rock and usually from the hike to the mountain or back from it. This isn’t necessarily because the summits don’t have good views – they have awesome ones! It’s because the defining landscape of this area is the Red Deer River gap between Warden Rock and Wapiti Mountain, no matter where you’re standing when you look towards it. If not Warden Rock and the gap, I’ve used Bighorn Falls as my representative photo more than once too – including on this report. That photo was taken within 15 minutes of the parking lot and only just barely shows Willson Peak at distant right. This seems strange at first but it fits the theme of this trip perfectly. If you are looking for a wonderful approach with thematic views you should hike as far as Bighorn Falls and maybe a few kilometers further and then turn around and head back to your vehicle. Willson Peak (and many of the front range peaks in this area) simply doesn’t have an inspiring approach. C’est la vie. I’ve done a myriad of trips in that theme over the years. Unlike something like Mount White where the approach is brutally long but with stunning views and good travel, peaks such as Willson are done for reasons other than an enjoyable approach stroll;
- Fresh mountain air
- That “new summit” feeling
- Physical challenge
- Hoping it isn’t as bad as advertised
- Summit views
With these thoughts and keeping Cornelius’ trip report in the back of my mind, I decided that Wednesday, March 17th 2021 would be as good a time as any to tackle the last of my very front range Ya Ha Tinda peaks – the others in this chain of minor peaks being Evangeline Peak, Rum Ridge, Eagle Mountain, Maze Peak and Wildhorse Ridge. I knew from looking at Ephraim Roberts’ activity on AllTrails that he’d recently put in a snowshoe track for Willson and I decided that it was time someone took advantage of that fact and tried to lessen the timeframe on this peak from 10 hours to something a little bit more reasonable.
I arrived at the Bighorn parking lot at 08:45 and proceeded quickly up the trail towards the falls – taking the east route up and planning on the west route down. Within 10 minutes of the truck I’d taken my cover shot already and was continuing up the dry track towards a distant Hat Mountain. The morning was glorious – validating my decision to take a mental health day from work and the 2.5 hour drive. I strode up the trail – remembering that the last time I was here it was pitch dark and I was headed the other way with only my iPhone flashlight and Wietse’s distant headlamp for guidance.
After only 45 minutes my easy morning stroll on dry ground was over and done with. Thankfully the “easy” part wasn’t… Thanks to Ephraim’s snowshoe track from a month previous and an aggressive melt/freeze cycle in the days before, I simply walked on top of his track with my approach shoes, keeping the snowshoes in my pack. As I stated up front this isn’t a gorgeous, engaging or exciting approach by any stretch of the imagination. I trudged along – very thankful to be following a firm track – and let my mind wander a bit. Slowly I worked my way around the east flanks of The Hat before coming on a cutblock with the ‘shoe track dutifully leading me across in full sunlight and still somehow supporting my weight.
Eventually the track started descending towards Bighorn Creek and the lower SW slopes of Willson – which was looking nice a dry above treeline. I was a bit nervous about these slopes. I knew there was no clear track or trail up here and I know that these forests can be deceivingly difficult to navigate despite being front range and dry. My fears were well founded. I continued following Ephraim’s old track up another cutblock and into the forest. It took me less than 2 hours to this point but my progress would slow considerable from this point to treeline. I tried to stay patient as Ephraim’s track wandered up through a mix of open, sort-of-open and dreadfully dense forest.
There isn’t much else to say about the ascent to treeline. It mostly sucked but it only took just over an hour and I was through the worst of it. It included a lot of delicate footwork to get up and over copious amounts of deadfall without hurting myself. I was very thankful that I lugged the ‘shoes along because about 1/3 of the way up the forested slopes they came in very handy. The snow deepened and softened and even though the old track assisted me greatly, the ‘shoes also helped. As I broke treeline I took in the incredible views back over the ranch. Ahead of me, the foreshortened false summit with its dry approach slopes beckoned me onward and upward.
My 70 laps on Prairie Mountain so far in 2021 paid off with a fairly easy and quick ascent of the SW slopes to the false summit. From here the summit looked far but it wasn’t too bad. I navigated an interesting landscape notch feature just below the false summit before losing ~25m of height and trudging towards the top. I passed closely by two sheep who weren’t too impressed to see me. They didn’t even bother moving and I don’t blame them. They’d found the one flat spot that wasn’t in the cold southwest wind that I was trying my best to ignore.
The views from the summit were respectable. They were no better than from the false summit but that is also rather typical of our beloved Rockies peaks isn’t it? I enjoyed the view of Evangeline Peak to the south. Limestone Mountain beckoned me from the east – looking remarkably dry for this time of year. A very distant Indian Lookout with it’s striking eastern outlier (unnamed) peak (which is higher) was visible along with other, more familiar summits such as Well Site, The Hat, Wapiti, White, Warden Rock, Barrier, Dormer, Puma, Aylmer, Oliver, Devils Head and many others. If you’re a party person Ephraim’s bright pink summit register is worth the trip all on its own! Just make sure you bring someone along to share in the experience he’s left for you to enjoy. And maybe wait for a warm, windless summit day too…
The wind was cold and I had nobody but myself to party with so I reluctantly left the goodies in the summit register for the next lucky group and started back to the false summit. The sheep paid me even less attention this time around and soon I was grinding my way back up the false summit and down SW slopes to my snowshoes. The views over Tinda ranch were stunning – as they always are from this chain of peaks. I didn’t realize that the slopes just north of Barrier have a similar pattern to Well Site’s eastern flank with a volcano-like indentation.
Descent through the forest went much easier than expected. I kept the snowshoes on all the way to the “T” junction just to prevent unnecessary wallowing. Ascending rapidly warming snow from Bighorn Creek was much easier than I expected it to be. I took a break at the cutblock on the east side of The Hat in warm sunshine, enjoying my coffee and the chattering birds beside me in the forest. It felt like Spring and it made me pretty darn happy. As usual the hike back to Bighorn Falls through open grasslands of the Tinda ranch provided excellent views and a nice atmosphere. The fact that I was in my base layer and feeling warm sunshine on my face and arms only made the walk that much better.
Willson Peak is never going to break anyone’s top 10 list of peaks or hikes. This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort, but it does imply that you should choose your day and the conditions with care in order to enjoy it as much as possible. You don’t want it to be too perfect or you’ll wish you were somewhere else. You don’t want it to be hell either – or you’ll definitely wish you were somewhere else! If you choose a warm, windless day make sure you give yourself time to enjoy Ephraim’s summit register goodies and this just might be a top 10 peak after all! It was a perfect mental health day to wander around by myself for a few hours and bag a new peak with familiar great views and atmosphere.