Mount Allan hosts Centennial Trail linking Ribbon Creek and Dead Man's Flat.
A brilliant, full moon, suspended over misty mountains ahead, is complemented by a spectacular sunrise forming up behind. Daylight encroaches and mountains turn pink as the drive west over the TransCanada Highway from Calgary, Alberta proceeds south on Kananaskis Trail (Hwy 40) to the Ribbon Creek parking area near Nakiska Mountain Resort on the flank of Mount Allan.
Mount Allan is the site of Nakiska Mountain Resort constructed specifically for the 1988 Winter Olympics hosted by Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The mountain has two summits. Olympic Summit is the grassy top of the mountain on which the ski slopes were created. A further hike across Centennial Ridge on the Centennial Trail leads to the true summit at 2,819 m (9,249 ft) following a net elevation gain of 1,350 m (4,429 ft) over an 8 KM (5 mile) one-way route from the Hidden Trail trail-head at the Ribbon Creek parking area.
Forecast temperatures for Calgary are a sunny 32 C (humidex 34 C) with a chance of evening thunderstorms for what promises to be a long and arduous day.
In 1966, the Rocky Mountain Ramblers mountaineering club committed to building a trail up and over the mountain, from the Ribbon Creek parking area in Kananaskis Country to Dead Man's Flat along the TransCanada Highway, in celebration of Canada's Centennial in 1967. The huge undertaking required three summers to complete the aggressive project.
As dawn breaks, hiking up Hidden Trail begins on an old mining road originally used 60 years ago to service the Ribbon Creek Coal Mine operated by the Kananaskis Exploration and Development Company, a subsidiary of Martin Nordegg's Brazeau Collieries.
At the first trail junction the decision to add about a kilometer of distance to the journey by visiting Coal Mine Scar, the open-pit mining operation reclaimed more than thirty years ago.
Along this long-abandoned mining road there is an old miner's cabin on the hike to the open, grassy fields of Coal Mine Scar, the reclaimed mine site on the south slope of Mount Allan. The views are phenomenal and, far below the Delta Hotel in Kananaskis Village diminishes in size on the ascent. The day is warming up rapidly. The trail to Coal Mine Scar proceeds on a civilized grade.
Leaving the old surface mining site and linking into the Centennial Trail transitions to steeper ascent through forest. Soon the hike will exit cooler forest, into clear skies and bright sun onto the open and very steep, grassy slopes leading to Mount Allan's summits. In less than 2 KM (1¹⁄₃ miles) elevation gain of 610 m (2,000 ft) will occur on good, but very steep and occasionally rugged trail. The effort is more than adequately compensated for by the spectacular scenery unfolding and the increasing scope of vision.
There is simple, easy scrambling around large rock outcroppings along the trail which passes solar-powered weather monitors and continues across several shallow dips to Olympic Summit. The trail is well constructed with well-placed cairns, combined with fluorescent orange, diamond-shaped trail markers, making the high quality and well-traveled trail easily navigable.
At Olympic Summit the trail continues along Centennial Ridge and through the Mushroom Garden which is a large field of huge boulders. There is a bronze plaque here to commemorate the trail’s construction. A breeze, gusting to 50 KM/HR, gets rid of the insects. Marmots maintain constant surveillance and picas chatter.
Past the Mushroom Gardens the Centennial Trail meanders through the Rock Garden composed of a long chain of massive rock spires. Some spires are nearly 25 m (80 ft) in height to create an awe-inspiring sight and a unique hiking experience. There are a series of short, easy down scrambles out from the Rock Garden.
The true summit is clearly visible in the distance. The trail is rocky and steep as the trail meanders along near the top of the ridge and up the scree slopes to arrive at the summit. A young Australian woman, who has been hiking at a blistering pace across the ridge behind me, arrives at the summit and graciously captures a summit picture.
During the ¾ hour stay at the 70 degree F summit, two other couples arrive. It's getting crowded. A colony of flying ants is in residence at the summit cairn so lunch is consumed further along the ridge. Many butterflies are fluttering about. The surrounding mountains, alpine lakes and valleys are spectacular. Mount Collembola looms large northeast adjacent to Mount Allan's summit. Massive Mount Lougheed at 3,105 m (10,188 ft) consumes the southwest horizon throughout the ridge hike. Canmore is visible through haze from the summit.
On the return hike off the summit and down the steep and slippery scree, the hike assumes an off-trail approach to the downside of the Rock Garden, for photos from beneath, prior to the scramble back up to the Centennial Trail.
A few minutes later an isolated storm suddenly erupts from the south. It never ceases to amaze how weather at altitude can change so abruptly and dramatically. Departure from the Mushroom Garden, onto the exposed part of the ridge entertains gusting winds of 70 KM/HR which are driving horizontal rain and a brief period of tiny hail. Nature’s acupuncture.
The storm passes as quickly as it arrived. The right side of clothing is soaked and the left side is dry. Within minutes clothing is completely dry again. As the storm builds strength over the Kananaskis Valley there is an impressive display of lightning and thunder. The hike continues down the mountain in bright, hot sunshine with a small and powerful isolated storm ahead in the distance.
The heat and humidity are becoming oppressive and physically draining so returning into the shade of the forest provides welcome relief. Back at the Ribbon Creek parking lot large quantities of water and electrolyte are consumed from the stash in the cooler at the car.
The drive home is through a top-speed windshield-wiper, thunder and lightning storm. Lightning is striking nearby summits and simultaneous thunder echoes through the mountains in a spectacular display of nature’s power.
There is sunshine at the TransCanada Highway and, all the way back to Calgary, the setting sun ignites an orange sky highlighted with isolated storms.
The Centennial Trail is a spectacular hike on well-constructed and occasionally steep trail over a variety of terrain. This hike is not a season opener for most. Quality, ankle-high, hiking boots are advised to reduce the risk of injury. Scenery is breathtaking. Highly recommended for hikers with experience at this level.