Penner: Fire lookout hikes rife with history and scenic views

Silhouette of hiker Dawn Penner on Moose Mountain. Courtesy, Andrew Penner Calgary

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I’d like to say we summited Moose Mountain. Brought it to its knees. Planted a flag. Signed the ledger. High-fived and took selfies at the fire lookout. Became instant Instagram celebrities. But we got a late start. Legs were a little rubbery. Early season, you know. And Olympic-calibre hikers we are not.

Thankfully, hiking to fire lookouts — regardless of how far you actually make it — can be a rewarding early season adventure. True, it helps if you’ve done your winter-workout homework. Spent hours on the stair climber. Done a million burpees. But, I’ll be honest, about the only time I’ve “burped” this winter was after visiting the Wild Rose Brewery.

Nonetheless, it’s hiking season. And if one pretends to be a hiker, you gotta get out there. Time’s tickin’. Snow’s meltin’. And in the early season especially, hiking the wide, often well-travelled trails to fire lookouts can be just the ticket.

There are dozens of fire lookouts — some active, some abandoned, some virtually gone — that hikers in Alberta can readily “bag.” Moose Mountain, situated in Kananaskis and just a short drive from Bragg Creek, is one of the most popular. But there is some grunting involved. And, depending on your fitness level, you may or may not actually make it to the summit.

“Fire lookouts are natural hiking destinations,” says Mike Potter, author of Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, a comprehensive resource that covers over 100 fire lookout hikes from Waterton to Prince George. “They virtually guarantee a sweeping panorama and often have a captivating human history.” And, Potter, a retired Parks Canada employee, should know. He has hiked them all. Some of them numerous times.

Author Mike Potter’s book is a must-have resource for trekking to fire lookouts. MICHAEL POTTER / Calgary

Not surprisingly, given the fact he lives in Calgary, Moose Mountain is one of his favourites and the one he’s done the most often. “The hike to Moose Mountain Lookout is great because you start high, provided the gravel road to the trailhead is open, and you break into the alpine zone within an hour. So the views are outstanding.” (The Moose Mountain Road opens in mid-May).

While Moose Mountain falls somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of its length and difficulty (from the start of the trailhead, it’s a seven-km each way trip with 460 metres of elevation gain), other lookout hikes are far less daunting.

“Perhaps the easiest lookout hike is the Chief Mountain Highway Lookout near Waterton. From the parking area, it’s just 700 metres to the top and the elevation gain is just 40 metres. However, the tower is gone, the trees obstruct the views, and it’s somewhat anticlimactic. Needless to say, there are better ones out there.”

The nearby hike to Sofa Mountain Lookout couldn’t be more different. It’s 10.5 km one way, requires route-finding skills, scrambling on exposed mountainsides, and is not recommended for people who do not have skills navigating in the backcountry. However, in Potter’s opinion, it’s not the toughest of the bunch.

“The most difficult lookout hike is probably the Cline Lookout in the Kootenay Plains area,” says Potter. “It’s 19.1 kilometres each way and the elevation gain is 710 metres. Part of this outing also includes off-trail route-finding.”

For Calgary hikers, a few of the closer fire lookout hikes would be Barrier Lake, Mount Kidd, Junction, Raspberry Ridge, Forgetmenot and Cameron Lookout. Potter describes all of them in his book.

Dawn Penner admiring the view from the “early dinner” spot. Courtesy, Andrew Penner Calgary

For “mortal” hikers, another doable (and popular) fire lookout hike is Tunnel Mountain in Banff. Although the tower at the top has long since been removed, this is a classic example of the awesome panoramic views these lookouts, or former lookouts, offer. The hike to get to the top of Tunnel Mountain is just 30 minutes.

Not surprisingly, given its proximity to Banff, there’s a lot of interesting history on Tunnel Mountain, as Potter points out in his book. For starters, this mountain is called Tunnel Mountain because, initially, the CPR’s plan was to blast through the mountain when they built the railway. Obviously, this plan was aborted but the name stuck. Another interesting story from Tunnel Mountain is the fact that the lookout was originally named “King’s Lookout” after Queen Elizabeth and King George VI climbed to this spot in 1939.

While there are fewer and fewer active fire lookouts you can hike to (Potter emphasizes hikers must be courteous and respectful at an active lookout as this is an observer’s residence and place of work!), the Moose Mountain Lookout has been in operation for 90 years. The current structure, the third on the site, was built in 1974.

It was our goal (my wife, Dawn, joined me on the hike) to see it. Unfortunately, after traipsing up the seven-kilometre Moose Mountain Road (it was still closed), we were half spent. But we kept going because, well, we are troopers. And I don’t really like writing about things I’ve failed miserably at. Like you, I’d rather be a conqueror.

But at our scenic lunch spot, which became, more accurately, our “early dinner spot,” we realized we were trying to bite off more than we could chew. It was still another hour of strenuous hiking to make the lookout. Time, blisters, and sore muscles got the better of us. Nonetheless, we broke the treeline and were rewarded with awesome panoramic views. Golden plains rolling out to the east for as far as we could see. The city of Calgary. Famous peaks such as Glasgow, Kidd, Yamnuska and many others were clearly visible.

“Maybe we should attempt this again in a couple of weeks when they open the road?” said my lovely climbing partner.

“Maybe I should have attempted a burpee, or two, this winter,” said I.

 

 

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