June 1, 2020. A straight-forward scramble with rewarding views in the Castle Wilderness.
- Region: Castle Wilderness. Traditional territory of the Blackfoot, Ktunaxa, and Tsuu T’ina First Nations
- Distance: 8 km
- Total Ascent: 632 m
- Elevation of Objective: 2052 m
- Total Time: 3h 23m
- Safety and Disclaimer
I had intended to visit Waterton today, the first day of its reopening following the COVID19 closure. Unfortunately, upon reaching the park gate, I discovered that their computer systems were down and I wouldn’t be able to purchase a pass for about an hour and a half. Since I didn’t feel like wasting my morning waiting, I decided to explore just north of the park and see if I could find Yarrow Ridge.
Yarrow Ridge is the south-most of the 2 eastern spurs of what is usually called Spread Eagle Mountain. There’s a scrambling route to the top of Spread Eagle, but it doesn’t approach via this spur. The ridge is a good opportunity to engage in a bit of easy scrambling then enjoy a ridge walk while taking in views of the impressive surrounding mountains. As a bonus, the usual route (pioneered by Bob Spirko) is a loop, with the descent taking you past some great rock scenery on Yarrow Ridge itself.
Access is easy – north of Waterton Lakes National park on Hwy 6, before reaching Twin Butte, turn west onto Township Road 34 (it is actually marked out with signs on the highway as “Spread Eagle Road”). Follow this gravel road west to a T-intersection and turn south. Continue south, eventually going past a turn to the west (closed by a gate when I visited) and follow the road as it peters out and ends at a closed gate. Ask Google Maps to drop a pin here: 49°13’15.6″N 113°58’15.4″W and you’ll know where to go (Google Maps can give you directions to get near this spot, but it doesn’t know that you can drive right to the end of the road).
From the end of the road, there’s an obvious cutline heading due south. It is in between areas of private property, but the cutline itself bears no signage discouraging travel. I followed the cutline up a low rise, until an obvious break in the trees appeared to my right (west), granting access to the slopes below the rocky eastern face of Yarrow Ridge. I turned and proceed west to an area with a few obvious trails and a myriad of faint ones. Some of these will take you in more or less the right direction, but they’re animal trails, none is in any sense the “real” route.
The general route most people follow involves a counter-clockwise journey around the rocky eastern face, hitting 3 separate high-points while up on the ridge top. I started by heading towards the ridge line to the northwest (right). I circled slightly around the most direct line of ascent to avoid a bit of bushwhacking. Once I’d ascended to the start of the rocks, I continued to climb, bearing to the right. This involved a little bit of scrambling – nothing technical and nothing exposed. Some of the footing was tricky, though, since the terrain was fairly loose. Continuing in this fashion, I eventually got up and over the ridge line and onto the flat terrain on the northern side. From there, I simply climbed to the first high-point, which is marked by a cairn. The 2nd high point is obvious, off to the southwest across a slight saddle of red rock. The 3rd high point is visible once at the top of the 2nd. The 3rd high point also has a small cairn. I didn’t see one at the 2nd.
Up on the ridge top, there are increasingly impressive views of Spread Eagle Mountain immediately north, and rocky peaks and glacial-cut valleys around Mount Glendowan and Cloudy Ridge to the south. I didn’t do so, but you could continue to follow the ridge as it ascends towards the southern rocky pinnacle of Spread Eagle Mountain. I don’t think an actual ascent from this direction is possible.
To descend, I followed Spirko’s route. This involved returning to the red rock saddle between the first two high points, then traversing along the easy slopes below the high point, initially heading south east, then hooking around to the north east to parallel the ridge top until encountering the edge of the cliffs forming the east face. Exactly why this approach is taken, instead of staying on the ridge top and just descending at a convenient point before reaching the cliffs isn’t clear to me.
Once at the rocky terrain, I descended, paralleling the drop-off and heading southwest. Every now and then I made a little excursion closer to the cliffs to peek over and check out the rocks. I continued descending until the terrain to my left became an open scree-slope instead of cliffs. Some distinctive red boulders mark a good point to depart to the left. If you keep going southwest (I think) you may end up at the top of some cliffs. Thereafter, I headed southeast below fascinating rock formations, aiming towards an obvious outcrop. Once there, I descended south, back onto grassy terrain and headed generally south-east until returning to the start of my loop.
On my way out of the area, I ran into a couple of scientists from the University of Lethbridge preparing to launch a drone to survey the wildflowers in the area. I asked about their research and we chatted for a while. It was an interesting encounter and I learned a few new things – a pleasant finish to the day.
Click on the pictures in the gallery below to access full-sized images.