33 Hours up the Clearwater River

Trip Dates: Saturday, May 22 to Sunday, May 23 2021
Total Elevation Gain (m): 2850
Total Trip Time (hr): 33
Total Trip Distance (km): 100
Peaks Ascended: Lost Guide, Sentry
Water Crossed: Cutoff Creek, Forbidden Creek, Clearwater River, Rum Punch Creek, Lost Guide Creek, Indianhead Creek
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something.
Difficulty Notes: A  long bike, hike and scramble trip way up the Clearwater River valley to the eastern Banff border and beyond.
Technical Rating: TL4, OT4, SC5; RE5
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

As the May long weekend approached the weather looked horrible. Half-hearted plans were made and changed and canceled. As is very typical in Alberta, the worse the forecast long term, the better it ends up being short term. Sure enough. By Thursday the weather was looking pretty great for some areas of the Rockies and conversations and plans were resurrected. Phil Richards and I had spent the weekend before in the Scalp Peak / Forbidden Creek area. Phil was on a solo three day adventure while I joined Wietse for a 53km day trip of Scalp Peak and Skeleton Mountain. On our respective trips both Phil and I noticed how dry the Clearwater River valley seemed to be and this factored into our long weekend plans. The main objective for the weekend was to bike as far up the Clearwater Trail as possible before camping for a night to test out gear for an upcoming GDT hike. Secondary to this was possibly bagging a peak or two because that’s always on our agenda somewhere! The question was – which peaks would suit the trip? We knew that Forbidden Peak was too far out of our way and likely very snowy. Same for Mount Peters. That really only left one choice – the towering Lost Guide Peak, a 3002m summit that had no published routes to its summit. We planned out a possible route via south gullies using a photo from Phil’s excursion the weekend before and crossed our fingers that it might work out. I added a last minute unnamed summit with potentially amazing views – dubbed “Sentry Peak” on bivouac.com. This peak was in Banff National Park and also had no beta that I could find.

Lost Guide & Sentry Peak Route Map. 100 km of travel along some mighty fine landscapes. I labelled all the “LG” peaks from Bivouac just for fun – they are mostly easy hiking and would make a nice traverse.

While researching for the trip there was very little beta available. Not just for the peaks we were interested in (there was none at all for those) but even the Cutoff Creek and Clearwater Trail had very little beta and almost none involving bikes. My good friends Ben Nearingburg and Eric Coulthard had biked up here years ago but their reports were offline. I remember reading that the ride wasn’t easy due to horse and OHV ruts on the trail but I couldn’t recall much else from those reports. Cornelius Rott had a trip report from January 2020 where he detailed a long hike along both the North and South Cutoff Creek trails in which he strongly discouraged the south trail. This proved to be very valuable beta as the South Cutoff Creek Trail is the one you would naturally chose based solely on maps from the area. The fact that there was so little beta was both a blessing and a curse. The curse part was that we had no idea if any of our plans would work. We could bike 10km up the trail and be completely stuck. The blessing part was that we felt like we were exploring a new area – the rewards are always bigger when success is not guaranteed. With plans set and the weather only improving we waited and hoped that a short term snow event wouldn’t scuttle our plans. By Friday we hoped the front ranges would be drying out a bit and made plans to leave very early from YYC on Saturday morning. I agreed to drive and pick Phil up from near Cochrane at 05:00. I was pretty excited Friday night and didn’t sleep very well. I figured this would help me sleep in my tent on Saturday and was happy to get 4 or 5 hours of restless “rest”.

Day 1 – Cutoff Creek North Trail – Clearwater Trail – Lost Guide Peak – Camp

Saturday dawned bright and freaking early! Already at 04:10 the birds in my backyard were awake and the sun was starting to show in the east. It’s funny how winter seems to last forever and then all of a sudden it’s almost summer with endless daylight hours and warm temperatures. I picked up Phil and we bombed down hwy 22 heading for the towns of Sundre and Caroline – our gateway towns to the Cutoff Creek staging area. We managed to survive the always exciting game of “whack-a-deer” along hwy 22 and enjoyed a smooth ride down hwy 591 to the hwy 734 (hwy 40) junction. I drove up and over the impressive section of road that climbs high above the Clearwater River and is closed in winter. (Wietse and I drove part of this road back in March when hiking up Corkscrew Mountain.) Pretty soon after this intense section of well maintained road we turned left (west) onto the Cutoff Creek Road leading into our staging area. This road was also very well maintained and very heavily used on this long weekend. We noticed huge groups of RV’s camped from just west of Caroline right to the end of the Cutoff Creek Road. It was nice to see so many folks out enjoying the beautiful weather. I don’t know how people do it but there were huge trucks pulling huge RV’s with OHV’s, horses and gaggles of kids all in tow! Good on them I suppose – I just hope all this random camping doesn’t destroy this land more than it has to be for our various pleasures… Finally, around 2.5-3 hours from my house we pulled into the Cutoff Creek staging area where there was yet another set of horse camps set up nearby. Our adventure was ready to begin!

Right from the parking lot we almost made an error in judgment. The South Cutoff Creek Trail looked much more attractive from the parking lot, other than an unbridged small creek crossing. We trusted our limited beta and set off for the north trail instead. The morning air was very crisp and the sky was already deep blue at 08:00. Within 250m from the truck we were already nervous about the trail conditions. Huge, deep ruts and frozen puddles on the trail had us off our bikes and pushing them already! This was NOT good! Even after the first nasty bit of trail near the parking lot things didn’t improve much. We found ourselves biking across huge frozen ruts, on grass to avoid deep muddy puddles and already on undulating terrain. My butt was still sore from the biking the weekend before and we were barely 1km into things! I was seriously questioning where we’d get to this particular day but we aren’t built to quit this easily and before long we found ourselves on a never-ending cutline trending SW towards the front range Rockies. The next few hours were defined by a half frozen, rutted, bumpy and muddy track with only short stretches of easy riding in between. We were following horse-drawn wagons which assisted in the form of a somewhat smoother track from the wagon’s tires. Recent moisture in the form of snow or rain certainly didn’t make things easier. Our tires slipped and slid around as we grunted our way up small inclines and rounded corners in the road only to see more mud and ruts. My one piece of advice for the section of trail to the Forty Mile cabin is to expect pretty tough conditions. We passed the South Cutoff Creek Trail junction without even realizing it and continued along the Clearwater Trail after the “CC3” junction to the first outfitter camp near a small meadow. We chatted briefly with a nice lady at the camp (apparently a young couple runs this camp all summer) before continuing up the trail past some horses grazing in the meadows. 

Soon after the first camp the trail became a well maintained road, ascending through forest before descending slightly back towards the Clearwater River flats. We biked easily across the Forbidden Creek outflow – there was no water running here at all – before continuing towards the Forty Mile cabin. The track continued to be quite muddy, even on the river flats. This was disappointing as we were expecting gravel and hardpan here. Again, there was lots of evidence of horse traffic through this section to Forty Mile cabin. After biking pretty hard for 2 hours and around 18kms we arrived at the lovely meadows under Scalp Peak at the Forty Mile cabin. There was another large horse camp here – we passed by without seeing anyone. Phil had hiked this section of trail the week before so we had some first hand beta from this point to the Peters Creek junction at least. We peddled across the open flats toward our first unbridged crossing of the day at a small tributary of the Clearwater with no current. It was easy, but the water was shockingly cold and we stopped on the far side for breakfast in the warm morning sunshine.

Phil bikes to the first unbridged crossing of the day. This is a small tributary of the Clearwater River. Forbidden Peak towers on the left with Lost Guide in the far distance on the right.

At this point I was feeling quite sore from the biking – my legs were fine but my butt was not happy with me! We somewhat reluctantly rose from our warm resting spot and mounted our 2-wheel steeds before peddling slowly up the river flats towards an impressive Forbidden Peak rising in the distance. Lost Guide Peak was also visible at this point – looking impossibly high and distant still. From the first crossing we peddled along a mix of muddy trail, gravel flats and rough track. Most of the horse traffic stopped at Forty Mile cabin so the trail was a bit smoother in places, but we were both surprised by the amount of sticky mud even right by the river. 19 kms up the trail we started what I call the “river flats section”. You might think this section would be relatively simple and quick but you’d be wrong. Thanks to multiple crossings of the Clearwater River, detours around debris and berms along the river banks and a sparse trail in places the travel felt sluggish.

Biking through the river flats felt sluggish and indirect. There were at least half a dozen river crossings and large sections that we simply pushed the bikes. Our views of Forbidden (L) and Lost Guide (R) were stunning.

As we walked our bikes through yet another section of loose cobblestones I wondered how much further the biking would be worth it. Once again, thanks to Phil’s trek the week previous, we continued stubbornly onward. It wasn’t all suffering and hardship though! Forbidden Peak looked intimidating, rising above the river with a fresh coat of snow. Birds were chirping in the forests next to us and the warm sunshine on our necks encouraged us to keep going. The river crossings were cold but fairly straightforward this early in the season. I think we timed things about as close as we could have in this regard. As I type up this report the local streams and rivers are showing signs of runoff and I think a week later and we could have been thwarted by a fast flowing Clearwater River.

Phil fords a branch of the Clearwater River with Forbidden Peak rising in the background.

After about 3kms of sluggish progress over the river flats and 3 hours into our day we finally exited them and started riding a normal trail again. This section was defined by random horse camps, some open (willowy) meadows and the feeling of really being “out there”. The track continued to be surprisingly muddy but at this point we were used to it. We continued biking across varied terrain and even Lost Guide Creek before coming upon another silent horse camp. These camps were pretty impressive with horse corrals, freshly chopped firewood and even some tent poles and benches around fire pits. To be honest they were much cleaner and well maintained than I expected. It was nice to see that the folks using this remote valley seem to be the responsible type – not the “use and abuse” type.

A lonely horse camp along the Clearwater Trail. Our route goes left here – not straight ahead at right.

From the Lost Guide Creek camp we continued on towards the Harrison Flats. ~27kms and approaching the 4 hour mark we found ourselves overlooking the impressive Harrison Flats tucked under a towering Lost Guide Peak and silent in the still morning air. As I watched Phil bike slowly across the huge meadows I was struck yet again how lucky we are to have and experience places like this. Despite all the effort involved with getting to this spot – it wasn’t that bad! We weren’t even 4 hours into our day yet and in the middle of nowhere with views of remote peaks and wild rivers in all directions. On one of the busiest weekends of the season we were all alone out here. Judging by the amount of grizzly tracks we were seeing, humans are far outnumbered by bears in this part of the Rockies.

The Harrison Flats with “Rum Punch Creek” running down it is a beautiful open meadow just before Lost Guide Peak (R). We still have some kilometers left to bike at this point. Forbidden Peak at left and Mount Peters at distant center. A trail to Lost Guide Lake goes up the col at right.

Once across Harrison Flats the biking became more difficult again. There were muddy sections and then we got to a long uphill grind involving a cutline, some deeply washed out sections and the knowledge that all the elevation we were gaining to the SE shoulder of Lost Guide was soon going to be lost again. We ended up pushing our bikes up a lot of this section. The SE shoulder was made up of a stunted forest of half dead trees – I’m not sure what that was all about. We followed the trail over this rocky shoulder before descending back towards the Clearwater River below.

We biked a very rough cutline trail uphill to the windswept and stunted treed forest on the SE shoulder of Lost Guide which towers overhead at right. Forbidden Peak at left and Peters at distant center.

As we bombed down the trail we kept our eyes peeled for a smaller trail branching off the main one. The main track would descend all the way to the river before crossing it and merging with the Peters Creek Trail. This is the route most people who come all the way out here follow and gives access to either Divide Pass, Shale Pass or the Forbidden Creek Trail. We’d descended the Peters Creek trail from Shale Pass in 2019 as part of our 2nd ascent of Condor Peak. But we didn’t want that trail today! We wanted to continue up the Clearwater Trail. When a small trail appeared on our right we immediately followed it. This trail was an obvious hiking track but it wasn’t made for bikes. After a few hundred meters we gave up and decided it was on foot from this point onward. We didn’t bother locking the bikes (seriously – there was nobody around to take them) and after removing any bike accessories from our packs we continued down the trail under a hot sun. We’d biked ~31km in 4.5 hours to this point and both of us were more than ready to start walking.

We soon realized that there was another branch off the trail further down (we could have biked about 100 meters further) but no matter! We were happy to be bipedal again and cheerfully continued marching along the narrow path, taking in wonderful views as we skirted the edge of the forest above the Clearwater River valley. We didn’t have long to hike before we reached the south drainage of Lost Guide Peak and our planned scramble route. About 2km past the bike drop we found ourselves at the drainage and proceeded to take out our daypacks and prepare for the adventure ahead.

The west summit ridge of Lost Guide Peak is a wild place! This view is looking north over “North Guide”. Lost Guide Lake still mostly frozen over at bottom right. Whelk Peak at center left.

As we stumbled down the south drainage of Lost Guide Peak, Phil and I debated about what to do next. Our options were to camp right at this drainage or continue to hike towards the eastern Banff boundary, about 5km further along the Clearwater Trail. We decided that we had the daylight and the energy to continue at least to the border of the park where we could set up camp and be that much nearer our next days objective. It took a bit to convince my body to shrug back into the heavier overnight pack but soon we were marching along a good trail again as the sun started casting long shadows in the forest around us. An owl started hooting nearby – a haunting call that touches the soul on a deeper level than many other forest sounds.

Finally, as daylight waned and we approached the boundary of the park we decided to call it a day and set about setting up our camp for the night. The presence of some giant bear prints provided some interesting moments of reflection but soon the days efforts conspired against primordial fears and I fell into a deep sleep.

Day 2 – Indianhead Pass Trail – Sentry Peak – Clearwater Trail – Cutoff Creek North Trail

I woke up early on Sunday to the sound of something big thrashing around in the forest nearby. As usual when I’m out in the middle of nowhere my thoughts turned to some of the huge bear tracks we’d hiked in the day before and I was officially fully awake at 04:30! The sun was already rising in the east so I set about slowly cleaning up my gear and preparing for the long day ahead. Phil also awoke and we slowly made breakfast and woke ourselves up with various warm drinks and breakfast. Part of me was excited for the day ahead and part of me was apprehensive. Hiking up Sentry Peak was going to be the highlight and I assumed that the long bike ride back might contain some “lowlights”… At 06:00 we were hiking out of camp, headed up the Clearwater Trail towards the Indianhead Pass Trail and Sentry Peak.

Stunning views down the Clearwater River valley past Lost Guide Peak (L) and Forbidden Peak (R) from the summit of Sentry Peak.

After a wonderful early morning scramble up the well-named “Sentry” Peak, Phil and I packed up camp and set off, back down the Clearwater Trail. Our minds were still swirling with the views from earlier in the day as we inhaled the fresh morning breezes rising up through the waking forest. Striding along in the tracks of a giant grizzly to the sounds of a woodpecker off in the distance reminded me why I love these intense trips. It’s not something for every weekend, but jamming so much experience into less than 2 days is a little like eating 3 good meals at one sitting. It’s a great smorgasbord of delight but it hurts afterward.

We hiked for a few hours under a changing sky – going from cool and overcast to warm and sunny and then back again. We knew that rain was in the forecast but we didn’t know exactly when it was hitting our area. We also knew that once the trail was covered in fresh moisture our exit could be hellish – potentially even much worse than the approach had been. We increased our pace slightly and continued to enjoy the hike, knowing that soon our bodies would be hurting on the bikes again. Sure enough! By 12:30 we were back at the bikes and preparing ourselves for the long ride back. At this point we were expecting a pretty slow, muddy ride just as the approach 24 hours earlier had been. We were in for a bit of a surprise – thankfully a good one this time! We pushed our bikes up to the SE shoulder of Lost Guide Peak before enjoying a pretty fast, rough ride down the cutline. Already this was much drier, easier and quicker than expected. The ride back to Harrison Flats went very quick and I couldn’t believe it when I noticed dust flying up behind Phil’s rear bike tire. How the heck did things dry out this quick?

After Harrison Flats the ride to the river flats across Lost Guide Creek and past several horse camps continued to go much easier and quicker than expected. We seem to have this on every ride we do. The approach kills us so we assume the ride back will be almost as hard but it’s usually much easier and quicker. In our case we got lucky with the weather. As we rode the now-dusty (!!) trail we commented how obviously this is the type of dirt and clay that instantly turns soupy when wet. Obviously on approach we’d timed it badly after a recent snowfall and now we were timing it pretty much perfect. This realization did make us slightly more nervous about the dark clouds appearing over the horizon and our pace increased correspondingly. After a warm day of furious snow melt the Clearwater River was a few inches higher and faster on return than only the day before. Once again our timing was perfect. I’m sure 24 hours later the river would have been much harder of even impossible to cross.

Crossing a slightly deeper and feistier Clearwater River. Forbidden Peak (L) and the towers of Lost Guide (R) are fading in the distance once again.

As we biked past Forty Mile cabin I waved at some folks having a nice picnic in the warm sunshine. We had just enjoyed our own break at the last river crossing and I was a bit envious of their nonchalant and unhurried demeanor as they lay there without a care in the world. The large horse camp nearby was a bustle of activity and we peddled past pretty much unnoticed. The ride to “CC4” and the first outfitter camp went pretty quick but the section of trail from there to the long cutline on the North Cutoff Creek Trail was still in pretty bad shape.

After passing through a particularly bad section of trail my doubts of a clean exit were back again but Phil assured me that the going would get better again soon and he was right. After 1-2km of pretty bad mud and deep ruts the riding was manageable again. I felt ready to puke from the soreness down below but tried my hardest to ignore it as we finally started down the long, never-ending North Cutoff Creek cutline trail back to the staging area. I was so sore that every time I rode a small rise I swore I would take a break at the top. Once at the top I would look at the corresponding downhill section and the think, “this looks fun” and would keep riding. This happened a half dozen times until finally I turned off the cutline and headed for the parking lot. A mere 4 hours after starting our ride back we were back at the truck – a full 1.5 hours quicker than the approach ride.

What can I say about this area in summary? Well, to make a long story short – it’s worth the fight to access it but you will have to earn its charms one way or the other. We both commented that it could be a year or two before we have the desire to tackle this long approach again and there is no guarantee what condition it’s in until you get there and ride it. Drier conditions could be extremely rough. Any moisture at all is downright miserable. I won’t be forgetting how beautiful and quiet the upper Clearwater River valley was and how refreshing the views from the summits looking over it were. Once again I reflect how extremely lucky we are to have this in our backyard here in Alberta.

2 thoughts on 33 Hours up the Clearwater River

  1. Great read!

    I’ve spent lots of time in the Clearwater and south Ram River valley. Very popular area for equestrians and sheep hunters in the fall.

    A couple years ago, I hiked up to Lost Guide Lake via the South Ram River, splitting off up Ranger Creek and up to the lake. Spent two nights camping at the lake then headed back down.

    Absolutely incredible fishing. Caught over two dozen fish in one day. Kept one for supper and cooked it up over the fire. Fantastic area to hike in.

    Love the article! Happy trails!

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