Old Baldy is an unassuming ridge across Kananaskis Trail from Mount Kidd in Kananaskis Country.
The hike to the top of Old Baldy in Kananaskis Country begins from the Evan-Thomas Creek parking lot located on the east side of Kananaskis Trail (Hwy 40), south of Boundary Ranch, and north of Wedge Pond, across the trail from Mount Kidd. It is about 2 KM (1¹⁄₃ miles) from Evan-Thomas parking to the trail-head and 5.3 KM (3¹⁄₃ miles) from trail-head to summit with net elevation gain of 862 m (2,830 ft) to maximum altitude of 2,286 m (7,830 ft).
Out of the parking lot, a brief walk south leads to a left turn onto Evans-Thomas Creek Road which parallels Evans-Thomas Creek and provides impressive, periodic views of 'the Wedge' and the Fortress.
On about 2 KM (1¼ miles) of straight and relatively flat road, with leisurely elevation gain, it is important to resist the urge to take multiple trail alternatives on both sides until arriving at a clear option on a road turning left. Hiking at an average around 4 KM per hour will arrive at the correct trail junction in about 30 minutes and it looks like the photo following the pretty bee-laden flower.
Wildflowers are abundant and the display along the way is impressive on this early summer day.
The left turn, onto the correct trail to the top of Old Baldy, is on a minor descent just prior to where a creek may flow over the road. The correct trail may be distinguished by a small cairn. It is important to pay close attention here because there are several incorrect options prior to this trail junction.
The trail to Old Baldy will track a picturesque creek, flowing fast on this day in runoff. Later in the season the water flow may be substantially reduced and may not flow over the surface of the road. The correct junction appears in the photo below.
The rustic forest hike along McDougall Creek is stunningly beautiful, past crystal-clear, cascading, white water through moss-bordered banks, with the sun peaking through trees in morning light. The sight, sound and aroma is truly spectacular. Occasionally it is necessary to navigate some rocky sections or a bit of dead fall.
The trail becomes more challenging along the creek side with navigation over hilly and rocky surfaces. Elevation gain is consistent and occasionally erratic. Over the entire hike, gross elevation gain is slightly more than net but they are nearly the same. There are some short climbs on steep grades and some edgy bits on rock face above McDougall Creek.
There is no problem navigating the brief exposure to water other than boots possibly getting wet on a couple of the creek stepping stones.
The trail offers a variety of interesting terrain but is predominantly an exercise in the navigation of rocky surfaces. Elevation gain is mainly gradual and there are interesting features and cairns as increased altitude leads to broader and more spectacular views. Looking back provides an outstanding view of the Wedge to the south.
The waterfall can be heard for some time prior to its appearance through creek-side shrubbery. There is a trail opportunity shortly afterwards to climb on rock above the waterfall for a better view of the small but stunningly beautiful fall encased in rock and feeding crystal-clear pools. There is also an important trail junction alternative here to gain the top of Old Baldy.
As altitude is consistently gained, the valley opens and unnamed peaks begin to appear and gradually expand in the distance. The trail tracks creeks which intermittently flow underground. There are two important trail junctions. The first is back near the waterfall. More later. The second takes off to the right for a scree slog that might be best left for another day.
The trail levels off into a beautiful basin with surrounding scree slopes, rock fall, wildflowers and grassy slopes. Dramatic unnamed mountain peaks serve as a backdrop to a pristine tarn, garnished with snow encrusted scree borders and brilliant green meadow, enhanced with alpine flowers and shrubbery. To the left a field of talus leads to a steep, long, intimidating grass slope.
After working the way across the rock fall, it is a steep, gut-crunching, heart-thumping climb of creative, spontaneous and imaginary switchbacks. If it was necessary to roll a large boulder up the steep hill, this would be similar to Hell. Instead, the majority of remaining energy is focused on staying alive and maintaining a positive attitude. Experience counts here.
Looking over the edge at the top of Old Baldy is a very welcome sight. The view to the northwest captures the now green grass slopes of Nakiska with the summits of Mount Allan and Collembola behind. The tops of surrounding mountains protrude in waves to finally dissipate in misty distance. For the modest elevation, the view is far more spectacular than expected.
A slight and welcome breeze restores the will to live after the thigh-thumping climb from the pristine tarn up the steep grass slope. There is time now to enjoy a relaxing lunch in the sun. From this position on the east end of the summit a few photos of the relatively flat, stretched out, boomerang shaped ridge called 'Old Baldy' can be captured.
The tarn below is dwarfed by its very beautiful surroundings. After plenty of rest, the return will begin and even though there is an alternative off the scree slopes of the west ridge, there is a more gentle valley dip just west of current position. A hike that direction allows pictures of the valley below which leads to the drainage explored in search of Heavenly Bush above the RCMP Emergency Centre.
There are fissures in the surface which no doubt feed snow melt into underground streams that will erupt into creeks further down the mountain. Vegetation is lush, but close to the surface in the eternal struggle to flourish in the harsh exposed conditions of higher altitude.
Earth colors are prevalent with the exception of a single, lonely, uniquely colored and very conspicuous Paintbrush. A hike out of the way is justified to take a picture of this solitary plant which clearly deserves the effort. The beautiful flower could represent a manifestation of my own preference and comfort zone.
The descent into the draw steepens to track another cascading, white-water creek where crystal water alternatively flows above ground and below the surface. This off-trail descent route picks up what I first believe are snippets of game trail. The descent is clearly proceeding on the opposite side of the scree slope negotiated on the way up from the alpine tarn.
The trail becomes more organized on steep descent adjacent to the creek and into evergreen forest before popping out at the valley bottom near McDougall Creek. This is the left branch of the fork missed on the way in.
There is a single stone cairn on top of a boulder, but the junction is so subtle it is easy to miss. No harm done. The original intent was to hike to the tarn and make the steep ascent from there. The return to Evan-Thomas, beside McDougall Creek, is a reverse copy of the approach and frequently offers a great view of the Wedge. Familiar mountains conjure up memories of past adventures.
On the final stretch, back to the Evan-Thomas parking area, aggressive time is being clocked on this hot and humid day. Clear, cold water in the trunk of the car beckons.
On the Evan-Thomas Creek Road, a bird, a robin, lands on the trail about 20 meters (65 feet) ahead and begins hopping in the same direction. The aggressive pace is faster than the tiny bird can hop. Gradually closing the distance between, I fully expect the bird to fly away. This is not what happens. As the distance closes to 10 meters, little buddy flies ahead on the trail to restore the original distance and begins hopping again. This occurs many times over the next kilometer and after half a mile my new friend is hopped out and flies away towards Evans-Thomas Creek and the Wedge. On this day, the hike is not solo the entire distance. There is an unusual and special bond with nature for a short distance and a lingering memory is created. It is one of those occasional anomalies in the relationship with nature which brings a smile on recollection, but is too embarrassing to discuss because there are many who do not share this relationship with nature, and could not believe. It is another wonderful day.