A short distance south on the Kananaskis Trail (Hwy 41), from the TransCanada Hwy west of Calgary, the entrance marquee towers over an interpretive plaque. Mount Baldy, in the background, provides a formidable hint of the natural treasures about to unfold on this magnificent, sunny day.
A short distance further, the entrance to the Tim Horton Children’s Ranch rests directly across Kananaskis Trail from the Barrier Lake Visitor Information Centre. The Tim Horton Children’s Ranch in Kananaskis Country is a very special place and only one of four camps in Canada, founded by the Tim Horton Children’s Foundation in 1974. These special camps, sponsored by the enormously successful coffee and donut chain, capture the hearts of patrons who routinely stuff coin boxes with donations at the till. Tim Horton was a Hockey player, and is arguably a Canadian icon, who championed the needs of children. Behind the Tim Horton Children’s Ranch is a hill appropriately named ‘Horton Hill’. Children, from their ranch, hike to the top of this hill on a trail which is, understandably and justifiably, inaccessible to the public.
The only remaining, viable route to the summit of Horton Hill, for the public, is via the south ridge beginning from the Lusk Creek day use and recreation area a short distance east on Sibbald Trail (Hwy 68).
It is a short hike of only 1.7 KM (1.1 miles) one way. The net and gross elevation gain is 320 m (1,050 ft) to the high point of 1,722 m (5,650 ft) so, it is a bit of a steepy. However, there is a wrinkle, a catch, an anomaly, an idiosyncrasy or a ‘fly in the ointment’ if you will. There is no trail. I park, walk past a log gate, guarding an empty parking spot, and head directly into a steep ascent through forest. My initial trepidation is quickly relieved. It is a ridge, with significant roll offs on either side, so keeping near middle is easy. It is a relentless, thigh-thumping climb in low brush with the occasional open meadow providing developing views back to Mount Baldy and Barrier Lake. Periodically there is a snippet of game trail serving as a confidence builder.
Part way up, there is a rocky, open area with a cairn and a grand view back over Barrier Lake and surrounding mountains to the south.
Continuing north on the ridge, there is a short, easy, flat, forest hop over deadfall. The objective is to link with the trail, from the Tim Horton Children’s Ranch, up the west side of the ridge.
The instruction, in the 4th edition, Volume 1 of the Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, is to gain elevation where possible and tend to the left to find the trail intersection. Enough said. It leads to the trail, which is much less developed than I expect. I do not find red flagging and yellow markers, but I turn right and follow the trail, often blocked by deadfall.
There are magnificent views to the north from an open area above the Tim Horton Children’s Ranch. Far in the distance, I can see tiny, pristine Whale Lake and the west end grassland of the Rafter Six Ranch Resort.
Following another climb, and a bit of route finding around deadfall, I pass a couple of the yellow painted wooden markers on trailside trees and soon arrive at the summit of Horton Hill, complete with spectacular views, a modest cairn and a metal ammunition box containing a ledger.
The ledger, circa approximately 1976 to 2003, contains comments from children across Canada and their observations are priceless. I hang clothes to dry, then sit in the sun to absorb the incredible view as I read the humorous and often touching comments of young people, with much shorter legs and less experience, who have worked very hard to realize this goal. For some it may be the only wilderness climb of their life. For a few it will begin the long journey of spiritual growth the wilderness can provide. Either way, it will likely become a life-changing and memorable character builder. The comments from children, who are adults now, give me great pleasure and warm my heart.
Prior to departure, I add a record of my presence to a difficult-to-find, blank spot in the ledger and secure the metal ammunition box for the next person to visit. I also decide I will enjoy lunch on the shore of Barrier Lake. The return is similar to the hike up.
I stop to enjoy the view of Mount Baldy, Barrier Lake and surrounding mountains, from the lower cairn on the south slope of Horton Hill.
On the hike down, I actually pick up a short section of established trail and use it until it expires. Now comfortable with the terrain I tend to the east, for nice views from low on the hill, before traversing west to find a route back to my car.
I pop out of the forest within a few feet of my entry. It’s a miracle! My vehicle remains the only one present. Horton Hill has belonged to me exclusively on this perfect hiking day which will be completed with lunch on the shore of beautiful Barrier Lake.
What a great day. Route finding is much easier than I expected. Recommended, but good hiking boots, leg cover and reasonable fitness are suggested. It is a steep climb and descent, particularly at the beginning and end.