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, south of Boundary Ranch, and north of Wedge Pond, across the trail from Mount Kidd. It is about 2 KM (1.3 miles) from Evan-Thomas parking to the trailhead and 5.3 KM (3.3 miles) from trailhead 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 (1.25 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. If you are hiking at an average around 4 KM per hour, it will occur in about 30 minutes and it looks like the photo following.
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 flows over the road. The correct trail may be distinguished by a small cairn. It is important to pay close attention here because there are 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 deadfall.
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.
At one of these creek exposures, I take leave of my senses and make a risk assessment decision which has me backtrack and off-trail on the steep, slippery, mildew-encrusted valley slope, grovelling in dirt and clinging to trees and shrubs for dear life to prevent falling off the hill. I lose half an hour achieving virtually nothing. In hindsight it would have made more sense to jump in the creek and climb out the far side. Elapsed time – 10 seconds. There is no problem navigating the brief exposure on the return. Wilderness brain fart.
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. Behind me is an outstanding view of the Wedge to the south.
I hear the waterfall 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.
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 I miss completely until the return hike. More later. The second takes off to the right for a scree slog I have no intent to hike.
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 my left a field of talus leads to a steep, long, intimidating grass slope. After working my 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 this steep hill in front of me, I imagine this would be similar to Hell. Instead, the majority of remaining energy is focussed 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 my position on the east end of the summit I will take a few photos of the relatively flat, stretched out, boomerang shaped ridge which is called ‘Old Baldy’.
The surrounding view from ‘Old Baldy’ seems to me to be worthy of a short video.
The tarn, now beneath me, is dwarfed by its very beautiful surroundings. After plenty of rest, I will return the way I came, even though there is an alternative off the scree slopes of the west ridge. There is a more gentle valley dip just west of my position so I hike that direction and take pictures of the valley below me which leads to the draw we 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 struggle to flourish at the harsh conditions of higher altitude. Earth colors are prevalent with the exception of a single, lonely, uniquely colored and very conspicuous Paintbrush. I hike out of my way to take a picture of this solitary plant which clearly deserves the effort. It could represent a manifestation of my own preference and comfort zone.
The draw, into which I descend, steepens to track another cascading, white-water creek where crystal water alternatively flows above ground and below the surface. This offtrail descent route picks up what I first believe are snippets of game trail. I am clearly descending on the opposite side of the scree slope I negotiated, on the way up, to reach the alpine tarn.
The trail becomes more organized on steep descent adjacent to the creek and into evergreen forest. When I pop out at the valley bottom near McDougall Creek, I discover I have been hiking on the left branch of the fork I had 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. My full 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, I am clocking aggressive time on this hot and humid day. I have had enough. Clear, cold water in the trunk of my car beckons.
On the Evan-Thomas Creek Road, a bird, a robin, lands on the trail about 20 metres (65 feet) in front of me and begins hopping in the same direction I am hiking. My aggressive pace is faster than the tiny bird can hop. I think nothing of it. As I gradually close the distance between us, I fully expect the bird to fly away. This is not what happens. As the distance closes to 10 metres, my little buddy flies ahead on the trail to restore the original distance and begins hopping again. This occurs many times over the next kilometre and a half (mile) until my new friend is hopped out and flies away towards Evans-Thomas Creek and the Wedge. On this day, I do not hike 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 my relationship with nature which brings a smile every time I think of it, but is too embarrassing to mention out loud because there are many who do not share my relationship with nature, and could not believe. It is another wonderful day.