I have decided to include the Zephyr Creek hike in the ‘Easy Hikes’ category, however, there is an important proviso. The hike along Zephyr Creek, with a left turn through Painted Creek Valley is 4.5 KM (2.8 miles), one-way, with modest net and gross elevation gain near 150 m (492 ft). The trailhead is near the east end of the equestrian side of the Sentinel Recreation Area in the Highwood region of South Kananaskis Country about 37 KM (23.1 miles) west of Longview, Alberta. To begin this hike, the proviso is the necessity to cross the 25 m (82 foot) wide Highwood River.
The Highwood River is a significant and important water course, fed by a large Rocky Mountain watershed and renowned for fly fishing and white water rafting. We are here in late fall when water levels are as low as they are likely to get before snowfall. At spring runoff, the mighty river will be unsafe to cross and the risk of being swept away will be too high. Upstream, 1,905 m (6,250 ft) Mount Mann majestically dominates the horizon with heavy weather looming overhead. Anything is possible. We are prepared for anything.
My hiking partner for this day is Seija (Say-ah). This will be her first major river crossing. We approach in shorts and sandals. Although it may be overkill for this easy crossing, we practise standard river crossing protocol. Packs are shoulder hung with hip and sternum straps undone. In the event we fall, or are knocked down by the force of the water, we can quickly extricate the heavy pack to aid recovery and potentially survival. Hiking boots are hanging around our necks on laces. Electronics and cameras are secure in Ziploc bags within zippered pockets. On this well-chosen day, water level and force are low. The water is crystal clear and the bottom is fully visible. The water appears deceivingly shallow but, at its deepest point, it is just above the knees. Seija and I are nearly the same height. We are using hiking poles for increased stability and placing feet and poles carefully, in the three points stable, one point moving pattern, as we cross over uneven, round and slippery rocks. The water is cold, brutally cold, stinging cold. The trick is to make the crossing as quickly as possible without compromising safety.
After drying off, we change footwear, and stash sandals for the return crossing. Today I am trying a pair of Feetures performance socks. I have heard good things about them and the crew length reaches high on my calf which is very helpful in the recovery from wading in very cold water. We pick up the reasonably obvious Zephyr Creek Trail which initially gains a bit of elevation through forest, levels, then climbs a short rise into an open grassy plain.
The grass field is surrounded by magnificent hills and mountains, still clinging to the last vestiges of fall color. This field has obviously hosted a ti-jurabi-chubi and we shall explore with the care and respect this Stoney First Nation ceremonial site deserves. We are on sacred ground. The ti-jurabi-chubi is a spiritual lodge where time is set aside to gather, dance, and pay homage to creation, the elements, and the importance and joy of life within changing seasons. The lodge was constructed from newly cut trees and shrubs, then embellished with colorful cloth hanging from its central pole. Following the ceremony, the lodge and ancillary structures remain a religious symbol left for nature to dismantle. We shall leave nothing beyond reverent thoughts. It appears to be an older ceremonial site. The centre pole of the sweat lodge has fallen and weathered timber lies in disarray. The large grassy area is also populated with isolated stands of aspen which are decorated with fresh and brightly colored cloth, so the sacred site remains in service to the aboriginal community.
There are two prominent valleys towards the west and south. We will hike towards the valley on the left, between groups of ceremonial banners onto clear trail which will alternate between sections of dense forest, containing the occasional stream crossing requiring a bit of rock hopping or offtrail routing around mud, and open grassy fields.
There are a lot of unmarked trails in this historical area. Route uncertainty is resolved when the trail begins to parallel the very beautiful and moss bordered Zephyr Creek.
One of the grass fields contains a single rusted barrel and an above average number of scattered boulders, but we can find no evidence of past milling or mining activity.
On our left is a prominent ridge as we hike through the broad valley with the North Ridge of Mount Burke to our right.
After 4 KM (2.5 miles) of hiking we arrive at the trail intersection into Painted Creek Valley. There is a stone cairn about midway in the Y junction where the Zephyr Creek Trail heads left and east across Zephyr Creek. From here, it is a 1/2 kilometre hike to the pictographs.
The tiny, but clear and well-travelled, trail into Painted Creek Valley crosses Painted Creek six times prior to arriving at the end of a rocky ridge.
Initially elusive, the three-century-old pictographs are near eye level and the red ochre figures become easily discernible as we approach the rock face. Decades of natural erosion have left only two ancient drawings. The first is a man and beast: the second is half of a bird. Natural deterioration of the rock face has destroyed prior pictographs. Seija and I rest here to enjoy our lunch at this peaceful and pretty place in the presence of the remaining art work.
Our hiking guide-book indicates new pictographs have been appearing over the past 300 years, each time higher on the ridge. There is a steep scree slope, to the right side of the pictographs, which will provide access to the high point above. We decide to make an attempt at the scramble even though we are ill-equipped to navigate the sharp rock. After an energetic climb of about 3/4 of way to the top, it is exposure to powerful, gusting wind which decides we should leave this to another day.
As well as the advantage of great exercise, the robust and rapid gain in elevation delivers excellent views across Painted Creek Valley, as well as south to Zephyr/Bear Pass. It appears the Painted Creek Valley Trail may continue south to merge again with the Zephyr Creek Trail although it is not shown on the Gem Trek Map.
On our return, Seija and I repeat our six Painted Creek crossings to intersect with the Zephyr Creek Trail. We have a choice to turn left and continue south for 3.5 KM (2. 2 miles) with 370 m (1,214 ft) of elevation gain to grand views from Zephyr/Bear Pass and the beginning of the eastbound Bear Creek Trail. We choose to turn north and return the same way we hiked in. It is always interesting how the same trail often appears substantially different in the opposite direction.
Seija and I approach the Highwood River and the large grass field hosting the Ti-jurabi-chubi. a sacred site for the Stoney First Nations. There are outstanding views north to Gunnery Mountain, Grass Pass and the Bull Creek Hills.
Back at the Highwood River, we change footwear again to ford the stunningly cold, 25 m (82 ft) stretch of water.
Seija has an elk vertebrae as a reminder of her first wilderness river crossing and my Feetures socks performed exceptionally well.
It is an excellent hike with lots of variety and plenty of options to extend the day. I shall return to the Sentinel Recreation Area another day to hike the Lower Cataract Creek Trail which hosts the Lower, Middle and Upper Falls as well as the ‘Weeping Wall’. But first, I will need to psych myself up for that brutally cold crossing of the Highwood River.