May 27, 2018. A moderately challenging bike-and-hike to a backcountry mountain lake in the Crowsnest Pass.
Window Mountain Lake is mentioned by Joey Ambrosi in the Southern Rockies Trail Guide as one of the best hiking destinations in the Crowsnest Pass area. I’ve previously researched the hike, and did a bit of a reconnaissance of the access road last year. The actual hike can be quite short if you have a vehicle capable of travelling the rough and rutted Atlas Road for 16.6 km from Highway 3 to the turn-off for the lake. The hike’s even shorter if your vehicle is capable of driving the additional 2 km up the much rougher road after the turn, which leads to a small parking area and a sign which marks the official trail-head.
My car is capable of neither of these feats. It’s too bad, since the hike to the lake from the trail-head doesn’t take too long and Mount Ward, which looms above Window Mountain Lake, would be a good scrambling destination to make a longer day of the hike. Because of my vehicular limitations, I decided to throw my mountain bike into my car and turn this excursion into my first hike ‘n bike. From my prior exploration of the Atlas Road, I knew that I could comfortably make it to the parking area for the Crowsnest Mountain scramble, about 9.7 km from Highway 3. From there I could bike the rest of the way to the trail-head.
Access to the area is via Highway 3. If you’re coming in from the Albertan prairies, follow the highway 4 km past Coleman then turn north onto Alison Creek Road. This is 0 km for the distances I reference above. The road is paved for a short distance, then becomes a rough, unmaintained road. The parking area at the trailhead is at 49.7682948, -114.6144461. Google Maps can drop a pin right on it and give precise directions. If your vehicle is capable of making the drive, that’s great. I pulled over and parked at the small pull-out at the start of the Crowsnest Mountain scramble (at about 49.712188, -114.606488) and started peddling my bike.
The bike ride was a lot of fun. A crappy rough road for a car makes for a wide, easy-to-follow bike trail. The roughness of the road did mean that I had to pay close attention to the line I was taking but, nevertheless, biking gave me a chance to enjoy the mountain ambiance much better than driving would have. The views along Atlas Road are amazing. I’m a little surprised that nobody else was biking that road. I didn’t see any wildlife, but there were plentiful elk tracks and droppings as well as one set of bear tracks in the mud. On my return ride I saw some fresh bear scat.
The ride involved a little over 170 meters of elevation gain, followed by some very welcome down-hill riding. After the turn-off from the main road, there was steady climbing. I eventually encountered a huge puddle, draining off the side of the road, being fed by a steady broad stream of water coming right down the road above. This water would continue to the parking area and for a good distance up the hiking trail beyond. The parking area was very obvious and there’s a nice sign telling you where you’re going. I stashed my bike and traded my helmet for a hat, then I started up the hiking trail.
The water was coming down the trail very steadily. It was like walking up a creek bed. The cool splashing water and the bright sun made for a great ambiance. Eventually the trail dried out and reached a fork. The route to the lake requires bearing right at this point. Helpful hikers have lined up some rocks across the mouth of the leftward branch to cue you not to go that way. There are also several rocks with “WML” spray painted on them to show you the proper way to go.
Not long after, the wide and rocky trail turns into a narrow dirt trail and begins a fairly steep climb through some trees. The climb isn’t too drawn out, but is steep and has a couple areas with tricky footing. The trail eventually levels and descends slightly as it nears the lake. There was still a fair amount of snow on this final stretch. It was thigh-deep in places, but it was early enough in the day that it hadn’t warmed too much so for the most part it would support my weight. I did have some trouble figuring out the proper way to proceed through a wide snow-filled depression just before the lake. After a bit of wandering I figured it out and found where the trail emerged beyond that point. The trail then passed to the right of a shallow pond before finally arriving at Window Mountain Lake.
The hike is a popular one. Very soon after I arrived several more parties turned up. The lake is popular for anglers, and it looks like back-country camping is permitted there. There were signs pointing towards a bivy, but I didn’t investigate it.
The lake had broken ice chunks along the shore, but was mostly thawed. There is a trail that goes all the way around, but I didn’t make the full circle because of steep slopes of snow extending all the way to the water’s edge that were visible on the far side of the lake. The scrambling route to Mount Ward starts off at the far end of the lake. On that day there looked to be too much snow to attempt it. To be honest, even if there hadn’t been any snow I wouldn’t have tried it. Bicycling on mountain roads uses a different set of muscles than hiking. My legs were tired! Instead, I enjoyed the ambiance and ate my lunch before returning back the way I came.
The total distance covered was approximately 22 km with a total ascent of 632 m. This isn’t the net elevation gain – it includes the additional climbs on the bike to and from the trailhead. The hiking portion of the route was about 2 km one-way with 210 m elevation gain.
Click on the pictures below for full-sized images.