Carbondale Hill

March 17, 2018. A rewarding snowshoe trip up to a fire lookout in the Castle Wilderness. (see November 2019 update below for a shoulder-season report, and the May 2020 update for a summer hike with kids report)

  • Distance: 9 km round-trip (winter distance due to road closure)
  • Total Ascent: 496 m
  • Elevation of Objective: 1798 m
  • Total time: 3h 6m (snowshoeing)
  • Safety and Disclaimer

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 snowshoeing 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.

November 2019 update: I climbed this as a shoulder-season excursion on November 25, 2019. There was snow along the route, but not deep enough to warrant snowshoes. I was interested to see that the closed gate mentioned in my description above was open. The closure happens on December 1, I guess. There was still a sign forbidding “unauthorized” travel, though. I didn’t know what to make of that so I just parked near the gate. There’s no other notable update regarding access. One new thing I did encounter, though, was that someone has put up a bunch of flagging near the top of the ridge where the cornices develop. Perhaps this is with the intention of keeping people on solid ground and off the cornice snow, which is definitely a good thing. Just keep in mind that flagging comes and goes for a variety of reasons, so don’t rely on it. I managed to get some better pictures on this outing as compared to my first thanks to my new TG-5 hiking camera.

May 2020 update: I did this trip along with my daughter and a couple of other families on May 30, 2020. The winter gate was open, so we could drive to the start of the trail which I describe above. This knocks about 1.1 km off the beginning and end of the trip. However, we followed the road all the way up instead of deviating onto the ridge as I’d done before. This meant the total distance still ended up being 8.8 km. The start of the trail is presently marked with a little kiosk, though there was nothing posted on it. Following the switch-backed road route, this >400m ascent was well within the abilities of motivated 8-12 year-olds. The round-trip time including lunch at the summit was 3 hours.

June 2022 update: There is now a roomy gravel parking area at the summer trailhead, which is very nice. On the downside, it seems you can no longer closely approach the lookout or helicopter pad.

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.
The new (as of 2022) parking area at the summer trailhead.
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.
The same general area in the summer. Tons of wildflowers.
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.
Another summer image for contrast.
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.
The view east in the summer. Photo courtesy of Cassie Boora.
Mount Haig, as seen from the lower viewpoint during a brief sunny interlude.
Mount Syncline from the viewpoint.
The view from the summit, looking towards Southfork Mountain, Mount Haig and Mount Syncline
Mount Haig, with the ski runs of the Castle Resort clearly visible.
Looking north from the summit towards the Crowsnest Pass. The sunshine is lighting up the top of Mount Tecumseh and Crowsnest Mountain.
A closer look at the sun-bathed summit of Crowsnest Mountain.
I believe that’s Andy Good Peak. Mount Tecumseh is in the sunshine to the right.
Looking north at the big continental divide peaks in the Crowsnest Pass area.
A closer look at Mount Ptolemy and neighbouring peaks.
Looking northwest towards Mount Darrah.
Close-up of Mount Syncline.
Same view in the summer. Photo courtesy of Cassie Boora.
May 2020, following the road all the way up. Beautiful, calm weather.
If you venture off the road into the clearings wildflowers are abundant. During our 2022 summer visit we used the ridge route (my snowshoe ascent route) for descent. An ant is exploring the petals on this Lupine. Photo courtesy of Cassie Boora.

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