Mount Murray Viewpoint is a picturesque snowshoe in Kananaskis Country west of Calgary, Alberta.
The drive from Calgary begins in reasonable time to accommodate warmer mountain temperatures following the two hour trip west using the TransCanada Highway, then south between the spectacular mountains of the Fisher Range and the Opal Range on Kananaskis Trail (Hwy 40), to the mandatory right turn at the gate onto Kananaskis Lakes Road for the south-westerly jog past the junction with Smith-Dorrien Trail (Hwy 742) to the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park Visitor Centre to ensure there is acceptably low avalanche risk. The winter weather patterns of the 2016-2017 snow season have created the worst avalanche conditions in more than 30 years. The best defense is to limit activities to areas of negligible risk.
Park Rangers confirm no perceived risk for the planned route, and gain an understanding of exactly where we will be, so the drive continues north on the Smith-Dorrien Trail (Hwy 742) on rugged road compromised with frequent washboard and deep potholes created by Spring freeze-thaw cycles. The 1999 Toyota Tercel continues to serve with grace and dignity.
Access to parking and signage at the Chester Lake parking area is completely camouflaged by 2½ yards (8 foot) high snow banks. The difference from Calgary to one mountain valley and then to the second, is striking.
Snow shoe partners for this 7+ KM (4+ miles) route are Anna and Ewa. The clearly-signed trailhead, marked by florescent red/orange tags, begins from the south end of the Chester Lake parking area at the Frost Heave trailhead closest to the Smith-Dorrien Trail. Map reference for this trail is the Alberta Government Explore Winter Trail Map in the Provincial Lougheed Provincial Park, Smith Dorrien / Spray Snowshoe Trails section. These excellent maps are free and available from Alberta Parks Visitor Centers and many outdoor adventure stores like Norseman Ski, Hike and Climb. There are also signposts hosting weather protected route maps at trail junctions along the snowshoe trail to maintain course in this area which is rich with winter snowshoe trails and summer hiking trails.
Trail is well-defined into forest with snow drifts providing incredible winter mosaics. A switchback aids elevation gain in beautiful and fascinating winter terrain as intermittent, light snowfall enhances the experience on a 2.7 meter (6 foot) base of snow.
Past the first trail junction, the snowshoe trail passes the junction which will be used for return and continues along a relatively straight southeast course on well packed trail for 1.6 KMs (one mile) through a predominantly evergreen forest corridor with periodic views of surrounding mountains subdued by snowfall at higher elevations.
The junction with the short 0.6 KM (⅜ mile), uphill snow shoe trail is a clearly marked junction in a forest opening surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. The short uphill jaunt swings left near the end into another forest opening which is intuitively the Mount Murray Viewpoint. Tall trees truncate views on this day when overcast skies and snowfall at higher elevations create a uniquely beautiful mosaic of the resident mountain topography.
The return snowshoe is initially via the route taken in with a short pause to repair a broken snowshoe binding. The 0.8 KM descent from Mount Murray Viewpoint finishes with a right turn back towards the Chester Lake parking area.
An alternative is available at the Mount Murray Viewpoint trail junction to take a turn left (east) onto the Snowdrift Trail which will swing south and 3.3 KM later intersect with the Sawmill Loop Trail. Trail alternatives in the Sawmill Loop complex offer well marked routes which culminate at the Sawmill parking area. Return to the vehicle at the Chester Lake parking area could be achieved on the 5.6 KM uphill Graupel snowshoe trail with 167 m (548 ft) of net elevation adjacent to the east side of Smith-Dorrien Trail. This total round trip would be about 17.8 KM or just over 11 miles with significant gross elevation differential.
The return endeavor is less ambitious with a 0.6 KM (⅜ mile) retreat along trail used for access to an alternate and clearly defined 2.1 KM (1¼ mile) snowshoe trail offering gentle passage through snow draped forest and snow drifts sculptured over ancient tree stumps, to a left curl back into the Chester Lake parking area.
In snowshoeing terms, this short excursion is perfect for a light recreational day. The full snowshoe route to Sawmill and back or the classic and ever popular Chester Lake route with an option to Elephant Rocks would be more aggressive, full day options.
And, from the Burstall Pass parking area on the opposite side of Smith Dorrien Trail from Chester Lake parking, snowshoe day trips around Hogarth Lakes or along Burstall Lakes provide outstanding winter and summer scenic opportunities. This is a good area to begin snowshoeing. A variety of organizations, including the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre provide opportunities to allow this exhilarating sport the opportunity to enrich an individuals life.
Photographs captured on the snowshoe from Chester Lake parking to Mount Murray Viewpoint in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada on Saturday, April 1, 2017.