I was looking for a challenging, largely off-trail backpacking trip to do just before the arrival of summer. The mountains sandwiched between Canmore, an increasingly busy and overgrown former mining town, and Lake Minnewanka, the longest lake in the mountain parks of the Canadian Rockies, are surprisingly untraveled despite being so close to so many people. With three days to spare, I decided to hike a (nearly complete) loop from the industrial town of Exshaw to Canmore’s Cougar Creek. At 60-km long and choked with flood debris, this proved to give me just the right amount of challenge.

Exshaw cement plant
Exshaw cement plant (and gateway to Banff NP)
Ancient shells
Ancient shells (which make good cement)

I started by scrambling up “Mount Exshaw”, really just a steep rocky hill overlooking the cement plant. This isn’t your typical mountain scenery but it’s certainly impressive to look down upon the factory that’s slowly levelling an entire mountain. After signing the nearly empty summit register, I continued north to Exshaw Ridge. The views really open up here. At times it’s sharp with big drops on both sides, more often it’s grassy and wide open. I passed by sheltered flat spots with great views that would make perfect camp sites. Perhaps another day – I had other plans in mind.

So many good places to camp
So many good places to camp
Classic front range Rockies limestone
View from the ridge – classic front range Rockies limestone

Eventually, the ridge becomes quite technical with a high-angle knife-edge ridge that would require a good bit of climbing skill. And rope. I chose to descend to the creek, carefully making my way down the steep-ish slope. I’ve enjoyed wearing the cushy Altra Olympus shoes with their thick sole that agrees with my recovering foot, but on the loose rocky terrain, they proved very sloppy. Half the time my foot shifted inside the shoe to the point where I was walking on the upper as much as the insole. I’m looking forward to toughening up my feet enough that I can go back to a more rugged shoe.

Once down in the creek I realized it wasn’t flowing. Not a drop of water – bone dry. I typically carry fairly little water in these parts as it’s so easy to find. Up on the hot ridge, I’d finished most of what I’d taken with me. After some tough walking through the creek bed, scrambling over fallen trees and displaced boulders, the sound of flowing water suddenly caught my attention. Crisp, cold, clear water! There was just one little stretch of the creek where it flowed, before disappearing underground again. I tanked up. I’d have been ok without it but this made my evening and the following morning much more comfortable.

Flood debris
Debris from the 2013 flood has made walking quite challenging in the upper reaches of the front-range creeks and canyons

I crested Exshaw Pass at nearly 11pm after a long day and a late start but there was still plenty of light. I love hiking so near Summer Solstice. There’s a nice protected spot to camp with great views back to the bright flashing signal beacon on the top of the cement plant.

Eggs for breakfast? (I left them, of course)
Eggs for breakfast? (I left them, of course)

The following morning I made my way up higher over a shoulder then dropped down toward the South Ghost River. In the upper reaches I could find no trail so I simply flowed the creek. Unlike Exshaw Creek, this side of the pass is not choked with flood debris but rather wiped totally clean by the water that raged through here three years ago. The exposed rock is smooth and slick.

Slick rock
Slick rock

South Ghost River is a popular destination for climbers who come in by a much more direct route but, on this day, despite bring a weekend, I saw no one. I followed the riverbed upstream until it became a tricky slot canyon. The polished rock and pools of cold water reminded me very much of the canyons of Utah. I’d love to come back and explore further but on this day I thought it was best to follow the sage advice a Park Ranger once gave me: never go up anything unless you’re sure you can get back down. Instead, I bushwacked up through the forest to meet the a surprisingly well-defined trail.

More stick rock
More stick rock

My second night I camped at Stenton Lake. The weather had turned quite rainy and I was glad to set up my shelter early. The night before was quite cold and I hadn’t slept well, so a brief nap before making dinner was delightful. Stenton Lake is a beautiful place to camp, surrounded by impressive mountains with open, unobstructed views.

I slept well until the early morning light and a strange cold sensation woke me. The walls of my pyramid shelter were sagging in, weighed down by two inches of fresh, wet snow. How different the world looked when I popped my head out of the tent!

Before & After (the snow storm)
Before & After (the snow storm)

The walk from Stenton to Cougar Canyon was cold. The wet snow soaked my feet and I kept my long johns on until cresting the col that marks the boundary with Banff National Park. All this fresh snow, though, made for spectacular scenery.

June in the Rockies
June in the Rockies

Post-flood, Cougar Canyon has become a long, rough walk. You really get a sense of how the torrents of water filled these creeks and turned them into raging gorges. The very upper reaches near the col are actually quite pleasant but that calmness rapidly turns into chaos as the water must have picked up speed and force, dragging car-sized boulders down and smashing them into helpless trees. Beyond this zone, it becomes more walkable with only chair-sized boulders to hop over and the odd boulder choke to scramble down. It’s actually really quite fun!

Sun, cloud, and skiffs of snow
Sun, cloud, and skiffs of snow

I was happy to start seeing climbers playing on the canyon cliffs as that meant I was nearing the bottom of Cougar Canyon. It came as a bit of shock being in the midst of crowds of people out enjoying what had become a beautiful Sunday afternoon, after not having seen anyone for the last three days. Just a few short hours away from this popular destination, you’ll feel like you’re somewhere truly remote and wild.

One thought on “Backpacking from Exshaw to Cougar Creek

  1. 25 July,

    Hi Justin,

    Thank you for sharing this trip with me. You were fortunate in doing this trip. Such beauty, the Rockies, Yes I miss it. I suppose you are looking forward off to Brazil very soon. Have a wonderful time with your brother Michael.

    Cheers, Michael T.

    On Mon, Jul 25, 2016 at 12:20 AM, Eating Snow Around the World wrote:

    > Justin posted: “I was looking for a challenging, largely off-trail > backpacking trip to do just before the arrival of summer. The mountains > sandwiched between Canmore, an increasingly busy and overgrown former > mining town, and Lake Minnewanka, the longest lake in the moun” >

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