What makes the summit of Mount Allan an attractive goal for day hikers? Wildflowers! There’s an extended ridge walk with great views of the surrounding landscape. The Rock Garden at the 5.5 km mark is unlike anything we’ve seen in the Canadian Rockies. While it’s steep, there’s no vertigo-inducing exposure. Centennial Ridge to Mount Allan is the highest maintained trail in the Canadian Rockies. And it’s got a unique history, constructed by volunteers in honour of Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967.
NOTE: This trail is closed from April 1 to June 21 each year, to reduce stress on resident Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep during the birthing season.
There are three ways to do this hike:
- South approach – an out-and-back from the Ribbon Creek day use area off Highway 40 in Kananaskis;
- North approach – an out-and back from the parking lot near the Banff Gate Mountain Resort at the Dead Man’s Flats exit off the TransCanada Highway 1; or
- Through hike – requires transportation to/from Ribbon Creek and the Banff Gate Mountain Resort parking lots.
On the advice of Active by Nature, we opted for the out-and-back from Ribbon Creek. Graeme Pole’s Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies backs her recommendation.
Driving the TransCanada Highway 1 east from Canmore, the sunrise was very red. Hazy days make photography a bit more challenging. But it didn’t look bad enough to seriously impair the mountain views we hoped to enjoy from the trail.
Parking Lot to Mine Scar Lookout
There’s a network of trails leaving from the Ribbon Creek parking lots: Ribbon Creek, Troll Falls, Coal Mine, Skogan Pass and more. Even though we carried our GPS and trusty Gem Trek map of the area, we took a photo of the map posted at the trailhead. And we checked our route against the the trail signs at every trail junction.
The lowest section of the route criss-crosses an old mining road (present day cross-country ski trails). Ultimately, the trail and road converge, leading to the Mine Scar Lookout. It’s a grassy slope with a good view of the Kananaskis Valley and the location of the Kovach coal mining operations (1947 to 1952). We didn’t take time to look for the downslope coal mining artifacts, nor to search for the geocache hidden here.
Mine Scar Lookout to Olympic Summit
Haze-induced yellow light illuminated the aspen trunks in the steep forested section.
Once we popped out of the forest, about 500 meters on, we saw that – despite the haze – we’d have pretty good views of the surrounding mountains.
From here on, the trail to the summit was pretty much wide-open. And while mostly very steep, a few sections leveled out a bit so our breathing and heart rates weren’t at full-on max all day!
Stopping for photography or videography is also a great excuse for a short rest break.
The view of Mounts Kidd and Bogart gets better and better.
I spotted a ground squirrel at one photo stop.
When we ducked right (north) to cut up and around a bit of an outcrop, Mr GeoK spotted three hoary marmots. We often see them alone or in pairs. Three together is unusual, so that was another photo stop.
Once past the outcrop (nothing too serious but I did use my hands a couple of times), the views opened up again. We spotted two weather stations here, and wonder if they provide the Kananaskis (Nakiska Ridgetop) information for Environment Canada’s weather page.
This gently sloped section, with two unmissable cairns, is named Olympic Summit because it was the starting gate location for the men’s downhill event during the 1988 Olympics.
From the cairn marking Olympic “Summit”, the trail descends a bit. We crossed a flat saddle before gently climbing to the Rock Garden, which we consider the highlight of the hike.
Part way across the saddle is the first indication of what’s to come in the Rock Garden. The pair of Gog Formation conglomerate outcrops beautifully frames Mount Lougheed. On the right is Mount Allan summit.
We took our time in the Rock Garden, also the location of a commemorative plaque thanking the volunteers who constructed Centennial Ridge Trail.
While Mr GeoK fired up his camera, I hiked ahead to search out a geocache.
After signing the geocache log, I looked back to find Mr GeoK admiring “the claw.”
And I stayed ahead of him, but only to the point where the trail descends a rock band. Here, my fear of heights/exposure meant I wanted to watch how he navigated this section before trying it myself.
Rock Garden to Mount Allan Summit
Successfully through the slightly scary (to me) bit, we made the final push to the summit. A hoary marmot imitating rocks distracted me…
…so Mr GeoK reached the summit first and had plenty of time to compose a shot of me dragging a bit as I approached the summit, roughly 4.5 hours, 8.3 km and almost 1400 meters elevation above the parking lot.
Looking southwest from our lunch spot, Mount Lougheed looms over the summit of Mount Allan.
But in every other direction, the views are wide open, providing a different perspective on the mountains around Canmore…
…and tempting us to consider a return trip to explore No Name Ridge (on the right).
Over our lunch hour we watched a golden eagle soar. An explosion in the limestone quarry near Exshaw startled us. We failed to find the summit geocache. And we chatted with a relatively inexperienced solo hike who summited about 15 minutes after we did.
Despite pulling on almost every layer in my pack when I reached the summit, I was a little chilled by the time we started back down.
We hiked at top speed, so I was back down to my short sleeves by the time we approached the upslope end of the Rock Garden.
I let (okay, begged) Mr GeoK to lead the way across and up the most challenging part of the trail. That meant he was perfectly positioned to photograph me as I clambered up the rock band into the Rock Garden. And yes, I followed my standard protocol for the tricky bits – at least three points of contact!
The Rock Garden is unique among all the trails we’ve hiked in the Canadian Rockies – a special treat for those willing to tackle the steep Centennial Trail to Mount Allan.Tweet
We admired individual conglomerate formations…
…and savoured the entirety of the Rock Garden.
From the Rock Garden on down we used our trekking poles to ease the strain on our knees. But they couldn’t save Mr GeoK from a tumble on the ridge between the outcrop and the treeline. Nor me from a tumble in the forest. Fortunately, only our egos were bruised! 🙂
We passed a surprising number of hikers on their way up, especially considering it was mid-afternoon!
A Missed Bear Encounter
Shortly after 4 o’clock, we reached the parking lot. The fellow we’d seen at the summit ran up, asking if we’d seen the bear. No, we did not!
He encountered it along the stretch where the trail has converged with old mining road. Buffaloberry bushes grow on both sides of the trail. The bear was so focused on eating that the hiker snuck around it without being noticed!
We understood his excitement and we’re glad the encounter ended without incident. We noticed the heavy crop of buffaloberries and deliberately talked loudly along this stretch to minimize the chance of a bear encounter. But it was a good remember to be wildsmart: check bear reports before going, hike in a tight group of 2 or more, carry bear spray, talk loudly, call out “yo bear” every couple of minutes, etc.
This hike is a grind! The gentlest slope is the approach to Olympic Summit. Otherwise the trail gains about 200 meters/km (20% grade). For the first time we can ever remember, we both fell while hiking down, even using trekking poles to help with balance. We blame those darn, loose, “ball bearing” type rocks that get under one foot and send you flying!
We don’t plan a repeat summit of Mt Allan. But we’d consider hiking to the Rock Garden again. For us, it was the highlight of the hike.
Distance = 16.5 km
Elevation gain = 1468 meters (1321 net)
Hiking time = 5 hours 30 minutes plus 3 hours 15 minutes for lunch, photography/videography and rest stops (total 8 hrs 45 min)