Victoria Ridge

June 9, 2018. A challenging bike-and-hike with an easy scramble to the summit of a scenic ridge in the Castle Wilderness.

I’ve been eyeing up some scrambles that are rated ‘moderate’ by Nugara and Kane. Foremost on my mind lately has been Victoria Peak, in the Castle Wilderness. The thing is, I don’t want to go solo on a trip like that – it just doesn’t seem sensible. So, while I look into getting together with one or more people to scramble with, I’ve been reviewing the easier, but still interesting, targets in the scrambling books. Victoria Ridge fits the bill perfectly. The summit of the ridge is at 2530m, compared with 2587m at the summit of Victoria Peak. Unlike the scramble up Victoria Peak, the route to the ridge summit isn’t a direct uphill assault. It involves a much longer approach and follows a clear trail up a valley paralleling Pincher Creek (the actual creek, not the town). It then starts up the valley wall, through an area Joey Ambrosi’s Southern Rockies Trail Guide refers to as Thunder Basin, then continues along a long traverse and finally to a saddle on Victoria Ridge. The hiking trail ends at that point, but the summit lies a further 3.6 km southwest along the ridge, requiring roughly 400 m additional vertical gain. The initial 3.7 km of the approach along the valley is a well-maintained gravel road, making this an ideal bike-and-hike trip.

The trail begins a short distance beyond the Shell Waterton Gas Plant, south of Pincher Creek, Alberta. Ask Google Maps to drop a pin on 49.310219, -114.077177, and it’ll direct you right to it. Park in the grassy area south of the road just outside the facility. About 50m beyond this, the road is obstructed by a locked gate, but there’s a pedestrian gate to the right that isn’t locked. There’s a trailhead sign there, too, giving you some info on the trail up to the level of the saddle on the ridge. The road beyond is perfect for biking, and I’d highly recommend it. 3.7km beyond the gate, the road ends at a big open gravel area with a shed and a flare stack. I biked to this point and stashed my bike. I found the hiking trail continuing beyond the road at the northwest corner of the gravel clearing and started walking.

The trail starts out amongst the trees and is fairly flat. Pincher Creek is adjacent, and there are nice views of the creek from time-to-time. Here and there I saw some rapids and small waterfalls. Eventually the trees thin out, and a high point on Victoria Ridge is visible straight ahead. This isn’t the summit of the ridge, and the route actually traverses right to left under the visible cliffs. At the 6.6 km mark the trail departs the valley bottom and climbs steeply off to the right, heading into Thunder Basin. The trail actually remains quite distinct beyond this point, which is important to remember. Here and there a deviation from the trail was required because of deadfall trees. After that kind of deviation, I discovered that if I wasn’t on a very definite trail (there are lots of faint trails up there), I was off-track. An example of this is in the photo gallery.

A few switch-backs bring the trail significantly up in altitude, then the trail turns sharply out of the basin and traverses beneath the cliffs under the high point that was visible from the valley bottom. When viewed from across the valley, the faint trail of the traverse looks kind of precarious, but it’s not. I had no issues up to this point, but then I encountered a significant amount of snow occupying a steeply side-sloping, lightly treed area. This obscured the trail for a fairly long distance. I couldn’t see where the snow ended or where the trail came out of it. There wasn’t any significant exposure there, so a slip wouldn’t have been fatal, but it would have deposited my some distance down the slope, with a tough climb back to the route.  Moving slowly and kick-stepping I was able to continue traversing safely and found the trail on the other side.

Beyond that point, the trail gently gained elevation, slowly heading to the saddle of the ridge. 2h 36m from my car I gained the ridge and was immediately treated to an amazing view of Windsor Mountain and Castle Peak. The saddle is bordered by a rise on the northeast edge that heads up to a high-point, and a cluster of spruce trees to the southwest. The route to the summit is through these trees.

A brief exploration along the edge of the trees led to the discovery of a campfire circle and a faint trail leading beyond it. There was more snow up there, but the terrain was more favourable than on the traverse and I had no trouble continuing. Once beyond the trees, the long expanse of the ridge is visible, climbing towards what seems to be the summit. This is just a high-point along the way, though. The true summit lies beyond and can only be seen once the high-point is gained.

There was still snow beyond that point, but it was all loaded on the leeward side of the ridge. A faint trail was visible, but the route was obvious. The rest of the climb involved straightforward uphill hiking and some fun scrambling over a couple of bolder piles just below the high-point. I understand that there may be a way of circumventing the boulders to the left, but snow was covering that area. Besides, scrambling up the boulders was a lot of fun. Incidentally, there were a lot of deep crevasses between the boulders. If there were any snow cover obscuring the terrain, climbing among the boulders would be extremely dangerous.

Beyond the high-point, the sharply-peaked summit comes into view. With a bit more uphill trudging, I got to the top after 3h 41m. As I got there, a cold wind picked up and dark clouds started rolling over. The views from the top were great, but obscured somewhat by haze and clouds. To the northeast, the long line of the ridge reaches towards Victoria Peak, and a col connects to Pincher Ridge with its distinctive bulls-eye marking. To the southeast, the ridge curves back out toward the prairie heading toward Drywood Mountain. Northwest is Windsor Ridge and Windsor Mountain (from the vantage point on the summit, Windsor Mountain obscures Castle Peak). Off to the west I could see a sea of unfamiliar peaks. The weather made them look somewhat gloomy, but on a sunny day I imagine the view would be spectacular.

Because of the threatening weather, I didn’t linger on the summit. I took a few pictures, which was challenging because of the buffeting winds, and started down. No thunderstorm developed, and there was only minimal precipitation that touched me after I’d already made my way back to the valley bottom. My descent was slower than I thought it’d be because I kept stopping to take more pictures – the views are best on the descent. My very tired legs were happy to see my bike waiting for me at the end of the trail. I was able to coast most of the way back to my car.

Overall, this was a great trip and I’m surprised more people weren’t on the trail. I only encountered one other party – they were ascending the snowy traverse as I was descending. Access is very straightforward and there are no route-finding difficulties. My only worries involved the snow, so waiting until later in the season may be a good idea. The distances involved and the elevation gain lead me to classify this as a “challenging” hike. There’s easy scrambling involved in getting to the summit, but when the route is snow-free this could be avoided. Some parties would probably be just as happy to reach the saddle of the ridge and relax and explore. The trip is analogous to climbing Mount Lineham via Lineham Ridge, or Avion Ridge via Goat Lake – both in Waterton Lakes National Park. With most of Waterton shut down to hikers in 2018, this trip is worth a look.

My total round-trip time was 6h 30m, covering 27.2 km. Total ascent was 1075 meters. A bicycle is highly recommended. I saw no sign of bears aside from one old bit of scat. I made sure to make lots of noise, though. There were lots of moose tracks and scat, but I didn’t see any moose. The weather was mildly inclement and compromised some of the views. I would be eager to do this trip again some time on a clear day.

Click on the pictures below to access full-sized images.

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Route overview. Bike = where I parked my bike; VP = summit of Victoria Peak; TB = Thunder Basin; S = saddle of Victoria Ridge; VR = summit of Victoria Ridge
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Route overview looking up the valley. Labels as for the previous pic.
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Elevation profile.
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The locked gate at the trailhead. The pedestrian gate is on the right (red sign) as well as the trail information sign. In the background are Prairie Bluff and one of its outliers.
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The info sign in the kiosk. The distances they describe are a little misleading. This sign sits at the start of the black line on their map. ’12 km return’ would only account for the red line on the map (the walking trail), but it’s 3.7 km from this sign to where the walking trail begins.
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Biking down the road. Victoria Peak is ahead.
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The rather obscure start of the walking trail. Some fence-posts are visible in the brush. This is at the northwest edge of the big gravel area where the road terminates.
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The trail is crowded in by trees off the start. I made sure to yell every so often so I wouldn’t surprise any bears.
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The trail parallels the course of Pincher Creek along the valley bottom.
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This clearing and big boulder seemed significant.
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The high-point in the distance isn’t the summit, it marks the southern edge of Thunder Basin. The trail will eventually traverse beneath it.
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The trail eventually begins its climb out of the valley. It remains very distinct.
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A pleasant stream was running amongst the trees.
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An example of where you may lose the trail. A creek cuts across the trail, and a dead tree lies on top. Straight ahead there seems to be a continuation of the trail. That’s the wrong way, though. The trail’s actually off to the left, obscured by the deadfall, but very distinct once you see it. I initially went straight ahead here before noticing the the trail seemed fainter than before.
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The trail soon breaks free of the trees. Looking back the way you came you’ll have some nice views of the valley.
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A nice look at the steep red walls of Thunder Basin.
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A look ahead at the traverse beneath the cliffs. You’ll need to click and enlarge the image, but a faint horizontal trail is visible, heading into the snow on the left.
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On the traverse. You can see it isn’t as precarious as it seems from across the valley. In the distance, the trail enters a large area of snow. I didn’t take any pictures up there because I was concentrating on not falling.
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After the trail sweeps around the western aspect of the high point, it starts to look friendly again, slowly rising up towards the ridge.
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Upon gaining the ridge, you immediately see Windsor Mountain and Castle Peak.
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Continuing through the trees towards the summit, I was in another snowy area. Looking back I had nice views of Windsor Mountain, Castle Peak and Victoria Peak.
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Looking southwest along the ridge, a faint trail is visible. The true summit lies beyond this high point.
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Looking west across a picturesque valley to Windsor Ridge and Windsor Mountain. Among the red stone cliffs on the left I could see 4 tall waterfalls.
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A rocky step some distance short of the final climb to the high point.
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Approaching the high point, the boulders become much more distinct.
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At the bottom of the boulders. A long time ago something tall and rocky stood here.
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At the top of the boulders, you’re still not at the top of the high-point. It’s a short distance beyond, and not that inspiring to look at. Once you’re up there you’ll finally see the actual summit.
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At long last, the summit comes into view. The wind really picked up at this point and darker clouds started rolling in.
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Almost to the summit.
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Me on the summit, with the wind trying to blow my hat and sunglasses away.
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Summit panorama looking northeast to east. Victoria Peak is on the left, Drywood Mountain is to the right of centre. The distinctive bulls-eye on Pincher Ridge is at centre. The sharper peak beyond it is the summit of Pincher Ridge.
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Summit panorama looking northwest to northeast. Windsor Ridge across the valley with Windsor Mountain and Castle Peak beyond, just left of centre. Victoria Peak at the far right.

 

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Summit panorama looking southwest to west. I’m not familiar with these peaks. Windsor Ridge curves away on the right.
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Looking due east from the summit, into the valley south of Pincher Ridge. The bulls-eye is nicely seen here.
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The view as I hiked back down. The clouds broke up briefly before gathering again.
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More Windsor Mountain and Castle Peak.
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Brilliant colours down in the valley. Just after this point a little bit of rain started to fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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