“The Promised Land” (The Ptolemy Plateau)

August 24, 2019. A journey to one of the gems of the Crowsnest Pass.

  • Region: Crowsnest Pass. Traditional territory of the Ktunaxa and Blackfoot First Nations
  • Distance: 7.5 km one-way to the lip of the hanging valley, 19 km round-trip including exploring in the valley
  • Total ascent:  710 m to the lip of the hanging valley, 900 m including exploring in the valley
  • Elevation of objective: 2100 m at the lip of the hanging valley, 2265 m at viewpoint near Cleft Cave
  • Time: 2h 12m to the hanging valley, 5h 35m round-trip
  • Safety and Disclaimer
Topo map of the route. The flag marks the rocky high-point I climbed to, near Cleft Cave.

About 10 km south of Highway 3, just before the highway crosses from Alberta in to BC, there’s an area which locals refer to as The Promised Land. I’ve seen it referred to as the Ptolemy Plateau as well, but it’s not really a plateau – it’s more of a hanging valley, or cirque. In any event, it’s an amazing place. About 19 years ago I went up there with two friends to check out one of the caves. The cave was fun to explore, but it was the beauty of the valley which left a bigger impression. I decided it was time to go back and explore it again.

I haven’t found any good explanation as to the origin of the name. My guess is that, if you’ve never been there before, you need a good reason to slog along a valley bottom for 6 km before abruptly climbing 500 m in 1.5 km. I can imagine friends prodding their companions along with the promise of the amazing landscape that awaits.

Access is via Highway 3, west of Coleman. If you’re driving from the Alberta side, there’ll be a sign pointing to the “Ptolemy Trailhead” just before reaching the BC border. Find the intersection by using Google Maps to drop a pin on 49.626550, -114.671854. After the turn, there’s a gravel road that heads south. The road is a little rough, but it’s an amazingly smooth surface as compared to the awful Atlas Road, which leads to Crowsnest Mountain and Window Mountain Lake. I had no problem driving it in my car. Roughly 3 km from the turn, a small sign marks the trailhead on the south side of the road. The road is the same which I snowshoed up to ascend the south slopes of Island Ridge in 2018.

The route is quite obvious over its entire length. The first 6 km it involves only a gentle ascent. The walk is a bit tedious, but it’s punctuated by no less than 9 crossings of Ptolemy Creek, the first of which happens immediately at the trail head. There are no bridges. During my trip the creek wasn’t particularly high. I was able to walk across rocks in most cases, although some of the rocks were a little slimy and I ended up sliding into the water. Most of the crossings had some tree trunks lying across the creek a short way upstream or downstream. Most were several feet above the water. I avoided most of those – I didn’t mind getting my boots a little wet, I really didn’t want to fall any distance if I slipped off a log.

At about 5 km along the trail, there’s a small clearing which is sometimes used as a campsite. The trail splits here, with a branch heading left (south-east) towards the Andy Good Basin – there’s a little sign point the way. The route to The Promised Land carries on straight ahead. There’s a sign post next to that trail, too, but there’s no sign on it at present. The trail eventually reaches another small clearing with a little orange hiking trail sign pointing the way onto a narrow trail in the trees.

Hereafter the trail starts to ascend steeply for the next 1.5 km, before finally levelling out again at the lip of a hanging valley. From there the views into the Promised Land start to open up.

It’s hard to come up with appropriate adjectives to describe the place – it’s sufficient to say that it’s amazing. The terrain is irregular and rubble-strewn. There are small caves and sinkholes at the valley bottom, and entrances to larger cave complexes (Cleft and Gargantua) up on the steep valley walls. I encountered at least one “skylight” on the valley floor, a dark hole dropping down 10 meters or more to a cave below. It’s important to watch where you’re stepping, and snow-cover could make the place dangerous.

I saw a high-point on the valley wall which was nearby the mouth of Cleft cave. I decided to make that my objective for the day. The high-point proved to be a moss-covered ledge which provided an excellent view of the whole area.

On my way down I encountered a party of cavers on their way up to Cleft. Aside from that I had the place entirely to myself. The long approach up the valley is probably the biggest reason this place isn’t swarmed by visitors. That’s probably a good thing.

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

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Route overview, looking south along the Ptolemy Creek valley.
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A closer look at where the route rapidly ascends to The Promised Land.
All 9 of the creek crossings. The top left is right at the trailhead.
After the final creek crossing, the views finally open up. The Sentry Mountain and Chinook Peak ridge dominates the view to the east.
The first clear view of the objective, still a ways off.
The clearing, 5 km along the route, where the trail splits. To the left is the trail to the Andy Good Basin, The Promised Land is to the right.
The sign in the 2nd clearing, marking the end of the old road and the start of the footpath. The steep ascent starts shortly beyond here.
A look at some of the terrain encountered during the steep ascent.
A greener section of the ascent.
Taking a break and looking back down the valley, part way up the ascent.
A look up at the northern outlier of Mount Ptolemy. Note the rock window just below the ridge towards the left.
A first look at The Promised Land.
Soon after entering the hanging valley, the trail passes along the edge of this big sinkhole.
Like a lot of things in nature, pictures don’t entirely convey the reality of this place. This is a good example of the topography, though – a rolling, hilly valley bottom with trees, moss and rocks. Here and there are high-points to clamber up. Small caves are scattered around. Impressive rock walls encircle the whole thing.
The mouth of a cave down on the valley floor. On the cliff wall in the distance are the entrances to larger cave systems.
A “skylight” to a large cavern underneath. It’s quite a drop to the cave floor. This hole wasn’t particularly wide – before the snow melts it may very well be completely obscured.
I decided to make my way further into the valley and climb up the rocky promontory on the right side, beyond the trees. The vaguely lightning bolt shaped entrance to Cleft cave is straight ahead in the cliff wall.
The rocky promontory. The entrance to Cleft is visible to the left.
Higher up now, and closer to the entrance to Cleft cave.
Up on the rocky promontory now. There was a surprisingly flat, mossy platform up there.
Looking over at the western portion of the valley. Mount Ptolemy’s summit is near the right.
Another rock window up on a ridge.
The view from the platform, looking north along the valley.
A couple of cave openings on the valley floor.
Looking back at the rocky promontory after I’d climbed down and proceeded a little west. The flat top is very obvious from here.
Impressive Mount Ptolemy, with its northern ridge and an outlier extending away to the right.
A pass over the ridge line between Andy Good Peak and Mount Ptolemy.
A look at the westward bowl of the valley, which I didn’t explore on this occasion. Dark clouds were rolling in, so I figured it was time to get down.

5 thoughts on ““The Promised Land” (The Ptolemy Plateau)

  1. Many thanks for this! Your photos provide an excellent aide memoire for me. The son of Canadian karst geomorphologist Professor Derek Ford, I remember spending a summer camping on the plateau in the 1970s while he and his team explored the caves in the region. I was in the party that discovered the Yorkshire Pot – deepest cave in Canada at the time – and also joined in exploring Gargantua, another find of ours. Beautiful country and a treat to reminisce all the incredible hiking we did throughout the area. Thanks again, Owen Ford

    Liked by 1 person

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