Big Hill Springs near Airdrie is an outstanding day hike close to Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Big Hill Springs Provincial Park is a fascinating and unique parcel of land isolated in a beautiful coulee 30 KMs (19 miles) west of Airdrie and 15 KMs (9.4 miles) east of Cochrane, Alberta, then 2 KMs south of Hwy 567.
Year round streams and delicate waterfalls are perpetually fed by underground springs. Big Hill Springs Provincial Park is open to bikes and horses but the short 2.3 KM (1⅜ mile) loop with an elevation gain of only 20 m (66 feet) primarily appeals to families with children, out for a stroll in a quiet, beautiful and interesting place. The tiny park is a popular place for walking dogs and birdwatchers frequent the uniquely diverse terrain. The kiosk, near the washrooms at the parking area, tells the story of tufa (pronounced too-fah). Tufa is common in these here parts.
Learn about tufa.
Immediately upon entering the trail loop, there are picnic tables, wooden bridges over multiple streams of running water and significant evidence of tufa formations built thousands of years prior. New tufa is being formed more rapidly than predecessors erode.
Big Hill Springs Provincial Park is actually and actively under natural construction.
Very near the beginning of the hike there are tufa rock formations at trail side and pristine waterfalls tumbling over tufa. This is a very beautiful place where spring growth is beginning in the shallow runoff from waterfalls.
There are nearly endless opportunities for photographs along the streams which provide the constant and relaxing sound of water rushing over rock.
Shortly into the hike, historical concrete foundations from an old Alberta creamery are overwhelmed by fresh spring-fed water accompanied by melting snow.
The bridge past the remains of the old creamery leads to robust waterfalls over tufa lined with contrasting ice and moss as the final vestiges of winter share the youth of spring.
Occasional sections of quiet water above cascading waterfalls host brilliant green flora suspended over stream bottoms by still, virtually invisible, crystal-clear, cold water. The images are mesmerizing in their simplicity and delicate beauty. The ambiance is surreal.
Continuing counterclockwise around the Big Hill Springs Provincial Park loop, a path, branching to the right, leads to a hill. Although not part of the loop, excellent views and perspective may be gained from the higher position at the hill-top.
The vistas justify the short climb and an array of human and game paths, lined with new crocuses at the top, allow an alternate return descent to the creek.
Just prior to the ascent portion of the main trail there is a large tufa dam.
The loop trail continues uphill into predominantly aspen forest. An interesting structure off-trail catches the corner of my eye and brings back memories of splendid, secret forts constructed by imaginative youth. It is good that some things stay the same.
The trail through forest at the top of the hill occasionally shelters snow and eventually leads to broad, compromised switchbacks which descend to the parking area.
Back at the parking area, a yellow sign at a fence on the flat, grassy plain is too far away to read. A short, end-of-hike walk to the fence reveals some of the valley park land has been leased for grazing. The urge to breach the fence is resisted and photos of the peaceful valley floor will suffice. It is a fitting end to a unique hiking experience a short drive from Calgary.
For many years, Big Hill Springs Provincial Park was held as a closely guarded secret by local residents in Airdrie and Cochrane. It is easy to see why this little treasure was protected. The park is tiny and vulnerable to excess traffic. There is simply no room for crowds.
The little park is suffering under the strain with a matrix of off-trail paths and shortcuts across the downhill switchbacks that will exacerbate main trail erosion. The beautiful little park is a victim of excess traffic and disrespect. I hope park administration, perhaps with the help and cooperation of a hiking club and/or citizens of nearby towns will be able to restore the park to its original beauty.
Like Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park, near Cochrane, Alberta, Big Hill Springs Provincial Park is a gem a short, inexpensive drive from Calgary, Cochrane and Airdrie to an oasis of natural beauty, where the pace of daily life can be temporarily paused to allow reacquainting with the soul. Your inner child will thank you.
Please be kind to this precious little gem.