Centennial Ridge to Mount Allan

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.

This is one of two bighorn sheep that seemd to be on guard duty between us and the herd

Getting There

There are three ways to do this hike:

  1. South approach – an out-and-back from the Ribbon Creek day use area off Highway 40 in Kananaskis;
  2. 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
  3. 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.

sun in smoke haze

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.

buffaloberries along Centennial Ridge trail

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.

forested section of Centennial Ridge trail

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.

man on centennial ridge trail

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!

woman on centennial ridge trail

Stopping for photography or videography is also a great excuse for a short rest break.

view from Centennial Ridge trail

The view of Mounts Kidd and Bogart gets better and better.

woman on centennial ridge trail

I spotted a ground squirrel at one photo stop.

golden mantled ground squirrel and fall colour

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.

three marmots just off centennial ridge trail

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.

weather stations on the centennial ridge trail

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.

man on centennial ridge trail approaching Olympic Summit

Rock Garden

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.

woman on centennial ridge trail hiking towards Mount Allan summit

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.

gateway to the Rock Garden section of Centennial Ridge trail

We took our time in the Rock Garden, also the location of a commemorative plaque thanking the volunteers who constructed Centennial Ridge Trail.

centennial ridge trail plague

While Mr GeoK fired up his camera, I hiked ahead to search out a geocache.

woman on centennial ridge trail

After signing the geocache log, I looked back to find Mr GeoK admiring “the claw.”

man on centennial ridge trail

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.

man on centennial ridge trail

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…

marmot on rocks along centennial trail

…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.

woman on centennial ridge trail approaching the summit of Mount Allan

Looking southwest from our lunch spot, Mount Lougheed looms over the summit of Mount Allan.

woman at the summit of Mount Allan

But in every other direction, the views are wide open, providing a different perspective on the mountains around Canmore…

man at the summit of Mount Allan

…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.

survey marker at the summit of Mount Allan


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.

woman descending from Mount Allan summit via Centennial Ridge trail

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.

centennial ridge trail

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!

centennial trail

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.

We admired individual conglomerate formations…

standing rock along centennial ridge trail

…and savoured the entirety of the Rock Garden.

woman on centennial ridge trail

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! 🙂

centennial ridge trail

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)

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