The great thing about hiking to a fire lookout is that you are guaranteed a spectacular view. Such is the nature of a fire lookout. There is no exception on this beautiful, sunny day.
The first three pictures were taken in the fall from my living room window, looking south over Patterson Hills and Canada Olympic Park, where ski jumping and sledding events were hosted when Calgary hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. I have included the fall pictures to illustrate the nature of the season in Calgary. It tends to be a yellow, orange and brown event due to the reduced number of tree species which survive at higher altitude. This year, after a poor, unusual summer of cold, rain and vicious hail storms, fall was very brief. I think the trees simply gave up hope. I miss the spectacular fall scenery of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime Provinces.
I use an excellent hiking guide book, titled ‘Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies’, authored by Mike Potter, a fellow hiker who has published several excellent books about the passion we share. Fire lookouts generally do not encourage visitors. Signage is virtually non-existent. The guide book can mean the difference between a successful hike and wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. I speak from personal experience. It is important to do the research before every hike.
From my home in northwest Calgary, I drive west on the TransCanada Highway, then north on Hwy. 22 to Canmore where I hang a left onto Highway 1A heading west to the mountains. Along Highway 22, multiple roadside ponds are covered with a thin layer of black ice sufficiently load bearing to support the weight of waddling ducks on the surface. It is a treat to have a clear-sky, warm-weather day this late in the season. Highway 1A roughly parallels north of the TransCanada through rolling grassland rendered brilliant by sun low in the sky. The days are becoming noticeably shorter as winter approaches.
Thirteen kilometres (8 1/4 miles ) later, at Hwy 40 (Forestry Trunk Road 940), I turn right and head north into the Ghost Region, east of Banff National Park and north of Kananaskis Country. The road weaves its way through the foothills passing expansive and beautiful ranch land alive with herds of horses and cattle. I drive through the small residential community of Waiparous Village (no facilities). This wilderness area is well developed with outstanding remote campgrounds, adventure enterprises offering white water rafting, paintball, cadet training, and a variety of retreats from the stress of life. It enjoys relative obscurity from more popular haunts like nearby Kananaskis Country and Banff National Park.
After about 20 kilometres ( 12 1/2 miles) old, paved road changes to tire-wandering, dry and dusty, newly-gravelled road. It is like driving on ball bearings. At corners, the car wants to continue in the same direction with disregard for instructions from the steering wheel. Open prairie changes to dense forest. Slightly more than forty KM (25 miles) on Hwy. 40 north takes me past Ghost Airstrip to a left turn at the clearly marked Waiparous Valley Road. Now I am following the guide book carefully. After passing the gated entrance to Camp Mockingbird and at 2.8 KM from the junction with 40, I take the right fork at a Y junction. At 3.2 kilometres I cross a narrow, one lane bridge over frozen Waiparous Creek and 0.7 KM later arrive at a road in a flat spot with a big yellow sign that says, ‘Dangerous Road – Closed to all Vehicles’. In the Albertan language this means ‘Welcome to the Mockingbird Lookout Trailhead’.
On foot now, the 4 wheel drive road/trail soon leads past a cut line and the first gate. The grade is moderate and consistent on long switchbacks over eroded gravel road and through predominantly pine forest. Halfway up the climb on Mockingbird Hill, I realize I do not have my camera, so back down I go to start over again fully equipped.
Two thirds of the 3.2 KM (2.0 miles) hike later I arrive at a sign, ‘NO SHOOTING for the next 183 metres’. I am surprised I have so little distance left to achieve the top of the ridge. The steady climb continues and the grade begins to level as I approach the second ‘NO SHOOTING for 1,000 metres’ sign . Parks Alberta has installed the signs in the wrong order. Duh! Soon I arrive at the last gate which is easily circumnavigated and, within minutes, Mockingbird Lookout and the incredible vista to the front range of the Rocky Mountains bursts into view. Wow! Elevation to the top is 370 metres (1,215 ft) and the lookout stands at 1,903 metres (6,240 ft).
There are no Mockingbirds here. The name comes from the song “Mockingbird Hill’ which was playing on the radio in 1950 when the survey crew was setting up to replace the Black Rock Lookout on top of Black Rock Mountain to the west.
The view is spectacular. Front and centre to the west is the unique, steep-faced, thumb-like feature named Devils Head. To the left of Devils Head, standing solitary in front of the range, is Black Rock Mountain with the remains of the original lookout visible as a tiny bump on top. This lookout was abandoned in 1952 and replaced by a simple lookout on Mockingbird Hill until the current structure was installed in 1974. To the right of Devils Head is Castle Rock and the Sheep Crest. This area arguably contains some of the best ice-climbing routes in the world. Ice climbers from around the planet travel here in the spring to pursue their passion for this exciting sport. Moose Mountain is visible to the south. On its summit is the next fire lookout to the south in a long chain of defence from forest fires. In the southeast, the tiny specks peeking over a forested ridge are the tops of Calgary’s highest skyscrapers.
I set about taking photos. The tripod allows me to attempt photos of the remains of the old lookout perched on the summit of Black Rock Mountain. From the other side of the mountain there is an aggressive, thrilling trail to the Black Rock Mountain Lookout but the trailhead is accessible only by foot, by mountain bike or dirt bike or 4 wheel drive vehicles. I have not done the hike but it has been on my agenda for several years and one day I will get there. On the far side of Mockingbird Lookout there is a snow gauge hidden in the forest just past the outhouse.