Hiking Kananaskis Country – Tent Ridge

In more than two decades of hiking, this is the only hike (so far) that has required 3 attempts and 10 years to complete! We first set out to hike Tent Ridge in early August 2010 and were turned back by thunder, hail and rain. A few days later, it was my fear of heights/exposure that stopped us. Over the past decade, I’ve been training my brain to cope with the acrophobia, learning to tunnel my vision and focus on one foot, then the other, until I make it past the scary bits! This year, I felt ready to make a third attempt at Tent Ridge. And while I fell behind a couple of times and needed a some coaching from Mr GeoK in a couple of spots, I did it! 🙂

BTW – once is enough. 😉

Getting There

Unfortunately, getting to the Tent Ridge trail requires travel on AB-742. Also known as the Smith-Dorrien Trail, it’s the dusty, washboard, potholed road that runs roughly north-south in the Spray Valley, between Canmore and Kananaskis Lakes in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Since we were heading out from Canmore, we opted to drive south on AB-742 for approximately 40 km before turning right onto Mount Shark Road, at the sign for Mount Engadine Lodge. Our other option would have been to take the TransCanada highway to Highway 40 into Kananaskis and then drive about 30 km on AB-742, for about double the total distance.

After crossing the single lane bridge, we continued on a two-lane gravel road to the first unmarked parking area, where, at 7 am, there were just three other vehicles. As in 2010, mosquitoes swarmed as soon as we stepped out of the vehicle. There are NO pit toilets here – continue to the main parking area for Mount Shark Day Use area if you need to use the facilities before starting this hike.

The Trail

We opted to hike the loop clockwise, so facing south in the parking area (back to the cars) we turned left and walked along the gravel road for a few hundred meters to where a sign marks the start of the trail. The first couple of km are in the woods, a relatively narrow, rooted, well-trodden trail – much more well-established than when we attempted this hike in 2010.

Despite the mosquitoes and the fact that it wasn’t yet 8 am, we soon had to pause to remove a layer of clothing. Mr. GeoK grabbed his pack and shrugged it on/fastened it while moving. This was partly to get away from the whining mozzies and partly to stay ahead of a group of two adults and three kids that we’d just overtaken. They were strong hikers and we played trail leapfrog with them for the rest of the hike.

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At one point, the forest opened up enough that we glimpsed part of the longer, west arm of the Tent Ridge horseshoe.

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Winter of 2019/20 avalanche activity added a little difficulty to the trail.

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The forest ended quite suddenly, and we were standing in the bowl between the two arms of the Tent Ridge horseshoe. Branches and broken trees littered the ground. The high point of the hike was bathed in sunlight, beckoning us onward.

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We turned east, back into the woods, where glacier lilies, golden violets and scarlet paintbrush bloomed.

A few minutes later, there it was, the start of the ascent to the ridge…

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I went first, and had no trouble making it to the point where we turned around on our second attempt back in 2010. I was grateful for my poles.

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I was even comfortable enough to take a photo of Mr GeoK as he made it to the top of the first little knob.

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Then onwards and upwards. At least once I was so slow that Mr GeoK called back to be sure I was okay. I also collapsed my poles, to more easily use hands and feets on the sketchiest bits.

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The view of Spray Lakes Reservoir grew ever more impressive.

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And then we were at the weather station!

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We hung out here for a bit, so Mr GeoK could shoot a timelapse. The group of two adults/three youngsters caught up with us here and we even chatted a bit (appropriately physically distanced). It was very windy, so I swapped my straw sun hat for the toque I always carry in my pack.

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It’s always demoralizing to lose hard-earned elevation, but there’s a bit of a saddle between the weather station and the summit. I headed down first, which allowed me to photograph Mr GeoK as he started his descent. Again, we were glad for hiking poles.

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We stopped at the saddle, so Mr GeoK could shoot another timelapse. I appreciated the opportunity to look down to where I’d stood in the midst of avalanche debris an hour and 45 minutes earlier.

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Then we aimed for the high point/summit. Again, I led the way…

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…but soon fell back, distracted by a few hardy larches and sun sparkling on the turquoise water of Tryst Lake, far below.

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We hung out at the summit for a bit – long enough for 6 more hikers to overtake/pass us. That’s on me. I knew the hardest part of the hike was behind us and I wanted to enjoy the views.

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I also wanted a chance to rest, refuel and re-focus – especially after I heard one of the passing hikers mention something about “a bit of a down scramble”. After about 20 minutes, we headed out, this time with Mr GeoK in the lead.

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And yes, the trail was a bit challenging, in some cases disappearing into nothingness, in others splitting and then re-converging into a single track a short distance on. There were some peek-a-boo views across the horseshoe…

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…but mostly we had to concentrate on route-finding for the next half hour or so.

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About 45 minutes from the summit, the ridge widened out and we found a couple of rocks where we sat down for lunch. This is where/when we started to see people who were starting their hike at the west arm of the horseshoe, or perhaps doing an out-and-back to the summit along just the west arm of Tent Ridge.

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It’s also where we spotted the tiny people making their way down the steep trail off the west arm of the horseshoe.

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We didn’t linger over lunch. Off-leash dogs coming to visit and a speaker blasting rap/hip-hop didn’t make for an ideal spot to relax and enjoy the views. 🙁

It was time to move on to the descent phase of the hike, which was easy at first…

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…but looking down at the switchbacks below, we knew it would get tougher soon.

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First, Mr GeoK took a few minutes to shoot one last panorama, including Watridge Lake.

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Then we started down, with Mr GeoK in the lead.

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This is not my favourite kind of descent. It’s quite steep, and while a few bits are scree, mostly it’s smaller diameter roundish rocks on hard-packed dirt – what one of my friends calls a ball bearing descent.

We took our time. About 10 minutes after we started down, the trail took a sharp turn to the right, and then about a hundred meters on, there was fairly extensive trail braiding. Some flagging helped, but I was glad we had a GPS with trail maps along.

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Then we were back in the woods and into post-avalanche terrain. A few patches of hard-packed snow would have been easier with some type of traction aid, but we stayed upright by taking it slow and steady. Smaller trees were snapped like toothpicks.

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Once we were through the avalanche debris, it was a 45-minute, fast-paced walk through the woods to get back to the parking lot around 1:15. It was quite full, with about 30 cars.

SUMMARY:
Chatting on the drive back to Canmore, we agreed that completing Tent Ridge was worth doing – once. It was just technical enough that we had to pay considerable attention to route finding and watching where we were going, which really cut into our ability to enjoy the scenery. For us, Pocaterra Ridge has a better effort/reward ratio (although we’ve not done that hike since 2013, when it was way less well-known than it is today).
Total hiking distance = 11 km
Total elevation gain = 829 meters (630 net)
Total hiking time = 6 hours (including 2 hours for lunch, snacks and photography/videography)

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