Pincher Ridge

July 3, 2020. An easy scramble (with some unpleasant bushwhacking) to the summit of Pincher Ridge in the Castle Wilderness, followed by a quick visit to Drywood Falls.

  • Region: Castle Wilderness. Traditional territory of the Ktunaxa, Tsuu T’ina, and Blackfoot First Nations
  • Distance: 14.7 km round-trip
  • Total ascent: 1082 m
  • Elevation of objective: 2426 m
  • Total Time: 4h 49m
  • Safety and Disclaimer
Topo map showing just my ascent path.

Pincher Ridge is one of the 5 parallel ridge lines in the southern Castle region immediately north of Waterton. The official summit is located on the northeast portion, and there are several routes that can be taken to reach the top. Nugara describes a few in  More Scrambles in the Canadian Rockes 3rd ed. The routes he suggests for attaining the summit are rated “difficult; sections of steep, exposed scrambling; route-finding challenges”. This didn’t seem like my cup of tea. Luckily, there’s an easier way up, which Bob Spirko described in a a 2006 blog post. Spirko’s ascent to the summit was followed by a trip along the ridge to the central and southern high-points. I decided instead to just hit the true summit, then descend and check out Drywood Falls, which turned out to be only a short walk from the start of the scrambling route.

The trip starts out by following the official trail to Drywood Falls (more properly North Drywood Falls, but I haven’t heard anybody actually call it that). The trailhead can be found by heading south from Pincher Creek, or north from Waterton, on Hwy 6. Turn west onto the Shell Waterton Complex Road and drive past the complex. Where the road branches, turn left (Forest Reserve sign) – this is Twp Rd 4-3. Follow this about 3.8 km to Butcher Lake. Turn left just before the lake and go straight along the road for 2 km to the locked gate, parking area, and kiosk.  Ask Google Maps to drop a pin here: 49.2873555,-114.0653550 and it’ll show you where to go.

The Drywood Falls trail is an old road which is broad and easy to follow. The grade is fairly gentle, and bicycles are allowed, so I decided to bike this portion of the trip. This presented no difficulties, though there was a brisk westerly wind, which made for some tiresome peddling in the morning…but a very easy return trip at the end of the day. About 3.7 km from the trailhead there’s a bit of a clearing and some bigger stones arrayed across the trail. Beyond, the trail dips down and heads to Drywood Falls, only about 500 m away. There’s a single piece of orange flagging on a tree on the north edge of the clearing. Who may have placed it is lost to the mists of time…Spirko saw it in 2006 and Nugara mentions it in his book, too.

I stashed my bike in the woods and tackled the bushwhack which kicks off this scramble. The flagging led to a vague path through the underbrush. At the time of my visit the trail was obscured and obstructed in many places by deadfall. Here and there I was able to see more flagging, but it eventually stopped (or I went too far off track). In any event, the only bit of direction I could give anyone here is that you may eventually come across a bit of a drainage if you bear slightly left as you ascend in the underbrush. You can follow along this until you climb above the patch of trees. Once out of the trees there’s still plenty of shrubbery to contend with, but at least you can see where you’re going.

There’s about 500m of this bushwhack. The terrain ascends pretty steadily, and I eventually found myself able to see some rocky black terrain rising ahead. Out of the trees but still in the bushes, I bore left around the outcrop and eventually was out on an open grassy slope, which allowed me to ascend above the rocks. Ahead, there were similar black rocky outcrops, which I navigated in a similar manner until I reached a large slope of yellow scree. The summit still isn’t visible at this point. I bore right to get to an area of more gentle ascent and decent footing. The GPS track I was using as a reference charged straight up the scree…making me wonder if its author only recorded their descent, or if the person was a masochist.

Continuing ascending to the northeast I eventually encountered a clutch of trees on a ridge line ascending northwest. The black rocks of the summit finally came into view at this point, rising on the other side of a wide gully. I followed the ridge northwest, climbing to a minor prominence on the saddle at the top of the gully. The terrain here was intriguing – there was the same yellow stone as the rest of the slope, but several platters of it were arranged in a near-upright orientation. Exactly how this could happen, I’m not sure. They were tilted in the opposite orientation to what I’d expect if it was simply the result of the wind.

From that point, the rest of the route to the summit was obvious. The terrain changed from yellow scree to blocky black rock with scattered moss patches. From the saddle onwards, the views just got better and better. About 2h 20m after setting out I reached the summit. It’s marked with twin cairns and there are dramatic sheer drop-offs in all directions around it except for the gentler ascent slope. I stayed on the summit for a time and ate lunch since the wind had slowed slightly. The view was excellent despite some degree of haze in the air.

I descended back to the yellow rock, then instead of directly retracing my steps continued my descent on the scree. The only word of caution here is that the slope was naturally pulling me to my right as I descended, towards steeper terrain and well off-course to where I wanted to descend back through the black rocks further down the mountain. I made several leftward corrections in my descent, then re-joined my original path and descended the rest of the way to my bike.

To finish the day off, I strolled down the trail to Highwood Falls and enjoyed the ambiance for a time before returning to my bike and riding out.

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

Route overview. * = biked to here; DF = Drywood Falls
The gate at the parking area. Footpaths go around it to the right.
The distant summit, as seen from the parking area.
The Drywood Falls trail is an old road, generally ascending fairly gently. Cycling on it presents no big challenge aside from the headwind and occasional rocky areas.
Looking up toward the summit from the trail.
Drywood Mountain, forming the southern wall of the valley featured some impressive rocky faces and a particularly picturesque waterfall.
Waterfall on Drywood Mountain.
A closer look at the waterfall.
Part of Drywood Mountain.
The clearing where there are some rocks across the path and it dips down before continuing to Drywood Falls. I stashed my bike in the woods and had a look to the right to find the orange flagging.
If you click and enlarge this pic you can see the bit of flagging on the tree. I can’t say exactly what path I walked through the trees, but I can say the oblique rightward path on this picture didn’t feel so pronounced as I was walking it. In any event, once I could see the black rock bands, I went left and right around one, then the other, then ascended obliquely up the yellow scree instead of charging directly upwards.
Another bit of flagging in the underbrush. This is as clear as the path ever got. There were a couple more ribbons ahead, then nothing.
IMG_3985 2.jpg
Out of the trees, still in the bushes. This is the first glimpse of an actual landmark: the black rocks.
Finally out onto more open terrain.
Looking back over the valley below. Drywood Falls is in the grey rocks down on the valley bottom.
Telephoto shot of Drywood Falls.
The yellow scree field. The most direct approach charges straight ahead, but I went rightward along the tops of the black cliffs until I reached the ridge line.
Drywood Mountain. The waterfall is visible just to the right of dead-centre in this shot.
The waterfall again, from a little higher up. A trail can be seen zig-zagging up to the right of the waterfall. The Topo Maps Canada app has a GPS trail in that area that’s simply called “Drywood Climber’s Trail”. I don’t think this is the scrambling route up this side of Drywood
The summit slowly came into view as I got closer to the patch of trees on the ridge line.
From the ridge you can see the high-point on the saddle, the gully and the transition from flaky yellow scree to blocky black rocks.
Below the high point on the saddle was an area of these oddly angled rocks. I’m not sure how this arrangement would come about. The prevailing and very strong winds in this area would be blowing from right to left in the picture.
Just below the summit.
The summit cairn. Shell’s Waterton Gas Plant is far below. Note the smokestack and big yellow sulphur pile.
Looking north from the summit cairn. Victoria Peak is on the right. Windsor Peak and Castle Mountain are more distant and on the left.
Looking south from the summit down a sheer drop.
Summit panorama looking south.
Summit panorama looking north.
The red walls of Thunder Basin (part of the Victoria Ridge hike), with Windsor Peak and Castle Mountain behind.
A slightly wider view incorporating Victoria Peak.
Victoria Peak. Crowsnest Pass mountains are in the far background. The day was moderately hazy. If the air had been clear the view would have been absolutely spectacular.
The long valley above Drywood Falls, ending in a broad rock amphitheater. On the other side of that wall is Bovin Lake. Loaf Mountain is in the background on the left. Victoria Ridge is in the background on the right. In the distance are tall peaks in southeast BC.
Telephoto view giving a little better look at the red rock of the amphitheater and the peaks beyond. King Edward Peak and Starvation Peak are on the left. I think that’s Kenow Peak on the right.
If a single picture I’ve taken could encapsulate the feeling of the Castle, I think this would be it.
Another panorama shot, taken during my descent. Someone wanting to make a longer day of it could spend time lots of time exploring further along the ridge.
Bob Spirko’s trip involved continuing along the ridge top and ascending the high-points further east.
My descent was along a slightly different path, and I encountered something interesting. The yellow, flaky, scree stones were interrupted here and there within by pink crystalline formations. I have never seen that before. I also spent time checking out lichen and flowers. This shot has all the colours – blue, green and orange lichen. Yellow rocks and flower. Pink mystery crystals.
A close-up view of the pink crystals. I wish I knew something about geology.
Back on the grassy slopes.
Lots of pink flowers among the black rocks.
Drywood Falls at the end of the day. I took a lot of pictures here, but I think it deserves its own post so I’ll save them for later.

6 thoughts on “Pincher Ridge

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