Carbondale Hill

March 17, 2018. A moderately challenging snowshoe trip up to a fire lookout in the Castle Wilderness.

Carbondale Hill is the site of a fire lookout and is featured as a hiking or snowshoeing trip on a number of blogs, as well as Nugara’s book. I had an unscheduled day and the weather was friendly: calm winds and warm, but cloudy. I figured it was a good day to head up onto this famously wind-blown peak.

To access, head west on Hwy 507 from Pincher Creek and turn south onto Hwy 774 to enter the hamlet of Beaver Mines. A little over 14 km past the sign telling you you’re leaving Beaver Mines, there’s a right turn towards a trio of campgrounds: Lynx Creek, Castle River Bridge and Castle Falls. Follow this road a short distance to the closed gate and park. Google Maps can guide you there if you drop a pin here: 49.408248, -114.341286

I jumped over the gate and followed the road northeast for about 1.1 km. The road was clear of snow so I stowed my snowshoes on my pack off the start. It was important to bring them, though, because there was very deep snow everywhere but on the road. At 1.1 km a trail came into view, heading into the trees off to the left. It was blocked by another closed gate. This is a rough road, which actually leads all the way to the summit. The alternate route, which I took, was to follow the road for a time then head directly up the ridge.

The snow on this road was roughly 3 feet deep (based on the plunging footprints of many deer), but there was a decent upper crust and the lack of direct sunshine meant that the snow wasn’t soft when I was hiking up. My snowshoes kept me on the surface of the snow with no problems. The road starts out heading roughly north, then turns slightly northeast and finally swings around to the west as the route becomes a little steeper. At roughly 3 km there is an obvious break in the trees to the left (south). This leads to viewpoint which looks south across the valley.

Not far beyond this spot on the main road, the trees to the right (uphill) thin, and the route up the ridge becomes obvious. I turned right and started climbing. I found that there was good, very supportive snow over most of this route provided I stayed toward the eastern side of the ridge. The snow as completely gone just a few meters west, on the wind-ward side of the ridge. It was preferable to stay on the snow. It was smooth and supportive, resulting in easier travel than on the uneven, brushy and rocky ground.

As I neared the summit, I saw the famous cornices of Carbondale Hill. They were an impressive sight, and I had to remind myself to be careful not to stray out onto one in an attempt to get a good view of another one further up the hill.

I reached the lookout at the top with no difficulties. It wasn’t manned, but I stayed off the deck. I sat out on the wooden helicopter pad to eat my lunch. I could view in to the far distance in all directions, but because of low clouds I had limited views of the rocky tops of the mountains. I imagine the view would be pretty great on a clear day. This must be a popular place for summer hikes. After lunch, I took the same route back down.

My round-trip time was 3h 06m with a steady pace and a nice break at the top. Total distance 8.97km. Elevation gain 496m.

Click on the pictures in the gallery below for full-sized images.

Topographic map of the route. The dashed lines on the map don’t overlap my route, for some reason. You can see the tiny southward extension from the main route where the viewpoint is, just before the main climb straight up the ridge.
Route overview.
A closer view of the upper portion of the route. You can see how it diverges from the road shortly after the viewpoint (at the extreme left on this picture). I took a slightly different route back down, which is why there’s a loop.
The close gate which marks the start of the route. Some basic fence-jumping skills are needed. The road was snow-free. Without snowshoes, one step off into the snow resulted in sinking down to my knees.
At 1.1 km, this closed gate come into view off to the left. There’s an obvious road through the trees beyond.
Beyond the gate is a pleasant walk through the woods.
Looking south from the viewpoint at 3km. A good place for a little break before climbing the ridge.
Not far past the viewpoint, the trees thin out uphill and it’s time to leave the road and follow the ridge up.
Looking downhill after a fairly steep bit of climbing. This picture doesn’t really do it justice. The snow was perfect – I could kick in with the crampons on my snowshoes and my weight was supported. In softer snow conditions I can imagine this stretch would be challenging.
There was a very clear line of demarkation for much of the climb between deep snow drifts and bare terrain. I stuck to the snow since I could easily move on top with snowshoes.
Eventually, the ridge narrows with a sheer drop-off to the east. Here’s where the cornices start.
Neat looking tree.
Impressive cornices projecting off the ridge.
Another neat looking tree.
Cornice safety 101: stay off the cornices! I approached a huge one, keeping my feet on visible rocks until I reached the snow. It may seem like you could walk out on the snow and be well supported, but you’d be hanging out over a sheer drop. I found a little gap to demonstrate – this picture is my extended trecking pole dangling down the drop-off of the cliff.
Who climbs all the way up here to hunt?
The fire lookout at the summit.
This sign is on the path to the lookout.
Panorama looking west. On a clear day I imagine the view would be very impressive.
Me at the fire lookout.
Looking north. That may be an outhouse. I didn’t investigate.
Looking to the east, over nearby hills.

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