PRAIRIE MOUNTAIN, PRAIRIE CREEK, POWDERFACE CREEK TRAIL LOOP
Distance: 15.5km Time: 4h30min Elevation Gain: 973m
AllTrails Rating: – moderate
AllTrails Link: Prairie Mountain, Prairie Creek, Powderface Creek Trail Loop
PRAIRIE MOUNTAIN GETTING THERE:
Prairie Mountain is a very popular hiking trail about 1 hour west of Calgary on Highway 66 in Elbow Valley. Its proximity to Elbow Falls, Powderface Ridge, and Beaver Flats can make it very busy, especially on weekends.
There’s a parking lot for Powderface just past the winter gates, and also a lot along the side of the highway, so if you’re there early enough (we left Calgary at 7a on a mid-June Saturday and had no problem).
HIKING PRAIRIE MOUNTAIN, PRAIRIE CREEK, POWDERFACE TRAIL LOOP REVIEW:
Once you’ve parked, it’s just a matter of crossing the highway to the trail head, but be careful, a few trails meet here. There’s Prairie Creek, Prairie Mountain, and the Elbow Valley Trail all in this area, you want the one in the middle, Prairie Mountain – it’s easy to tell which one it is because it immediately heads straight up.
This trail is a straight-up leg burner offering a straight, steep 4km climb up 715m of elevation to the summit. There is a bit of an easing in the middle section where the grade lessens a bit, but this is a climb.
The beginning few hundred metres are the most technical with a few rocky areas to navigate, but it’s mostly a nice soft trail to climb with the only hazard being tangles of tree roots exposed across the path.
Once you get out of the trees, there’s a nice gradual climb to the summit that will have you imagining you’re in the Scottish highlands or along the Irish coast. With steep cliffs off to the east, our mid-June ascent saw us greeted by a summit covered in a lush grassy blanket. You’re 2200m above sea level, but it looks like a wide-open prairie; hence the name.
The open flat area offers spectacular views of Powderface Ridge and the Rocky Mountains to the west, Moose Mountain to the north (where you can spy the entrance to the Canyon Creek Ice Cave), and foothills all around the spectacular Elbow Valley.
The climb to the summit of Prairie Mountain took us about 90 minutes, taking breaks to catch our breath and remove layers along the way. You’ll know you’re at the top by the cairn with Canadian flag planted at the summit. This makes it a popular spot for photos and the perfect place to take visitors for close-to-Calgary and accessible climb in our Rocky Mountains.
GETTING DOWN PRAIRIE MOUNTAIN
Many people choose to just come back down the same way they went up, but after tackling a few of the steep out-and-back slopes in Kananaskis (King’s Creek Ridge, Sarrail Ridge), my hiking partner and I choose to try to find loops to get back down from summits.
Loops offer a varying view for a long hike instead of just doubling back, and can lessen the slope if you come down off the backside of a mountain and through a valley. The hike to Barrier Lake Lookout and Jewell Pass is a great example of this. It’s steep upfront, but gentle and rolling through the back.
If you want a gentle and rolling climb down from Prairie Mountain, head northwest along the summit until you see the trail marking off to your left (easy to spot trees with bright orange ties on them). You’ll know you’re on the right path down as trees through this route are constantly marked with trail identifications.
Once you come off the backside of the mountain, you’ll come to a lovely meadow bursting with yellow flowers (lol, they’re dandelions). Here you can choose to cut your hike short by heading back to the highway along Prairie Creek, or you can follow it upstream to go deeper into the backcountry and link up with Powderface Creek.
We chose the longer hike and enjoyed the hum of the creek as we rolled along encountering a few muddy and boggy patches along the way. Once we came around and connected with Powderface we started to see more people. This is a popular mountain biking trail with wide open pathways covered in pine needles and a gently rolling terrain.
The people we ran into were more the tourist type than the hikers on the front side of Prairie Mountain. There were young kids and large families and lots of dogs (reminder it is required to have your pooch on a leash in provincial parks).
With the larger groups came more people not as prepared for the backcountry. Few had bear spray and many were asking each other for directions. There are many intersections along the way which we were able to navigate with AllTrails and offer advice for those looking to find the right path.
There is another short climb in this area, but after the long downhill, our legs were fresh for another bump up before a long gradual return to the Powderface parking lot.
Now it’s through this final 2-kilometre stretch that one of the best highlights of the hike started to come out – flowers! There were so many different colours and shapes. Purples, whites, reds, yellows, and blues dotted the side of the trail, around every corner a different varietal was showing off.
Here’s a look at just some of what I found and my best attempt at identifying them with the Picture This app.
1. Prairie smoke, a species of geum. Also known as Old Man’s whiskers, Three-Flowered avens.
2. Giant red Indian paintbrush, a species of Indian paintbrush. Also known as Scarlet paintbrush, Siskiyou paintbrush, Greater Indian-paintbrush.
3. Dark throat shooting star, a species of shooting star. Also known as pretty shooting star, Few-flowered shooting star, prairie shooting star.
4. Thymeleaf bluet, a species of bluets. Also known as Creeping bluet, Mountain bluet.
5. Silky phacelia, a species of Heliotrope. Also known as Sky pilot, Blue alpine phacelia, Purplefringe scorpionweed.
6. Alpine forget-me-not, a species of forget-me-not. Also knowns as Alpine wood forget-me-not, Wood forget-me-not, Remember-me.
7. Field chickweed, a species of Mouse-ear chickweed. Also known as Field mouse-ear, Meadow chickweed.
8. Eastern pasqueflower, a species of Pasqueflower. Also known as Prairie crocus, cutleaf anemone.
9. Desert madwort, a species of Alyssum
All in all, taking this long loop of Prairie Mountain, Praire Creek, and Powderface Creek made for a wonderful day with wide-open views, tall pines, soft trails, babbling brooks, bursting meadows, rolling hills, and bursts of colour.
HIKING PRAIRIE MOUNTAIN TRAIL TIPS:
1. Know where you’re going! We had so many people asking for directions on the trail as there are many trails that crisscross in this area. Buck up for the subscription to AllTrails and download a few layers of the map before you leave so you can see where you are offline. There’s no cell connection in much of this area, and a paper map won’t help much.
2. Loops are better! Many people go straight up and down Prairie Mountain, but taking the backside exit adds some distance but it also lessens the grade and varies your view, so try the loop.
3. Take the shortcut home! When you’re coming back from Elbow Valley through Bragg Creek, don’t go straight to the Highway 22 turnoff. Take the left turn at Hwy 758 to Bragg Creek Provincial Park and cut through the backside of town to get to the main intersection that is ALWAYS backed up on weekends. This will save you time, but also give you easy access to the Sugar Shake Bakery to pick up some treats!