Coulee Climb is a hiking trail near Helen Schuler Nature Centre in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.
Following the exit from Highway 3 heading west, paved road into Indian Battle Park passes beneath and past the dramatic and impressive High Level Bridge. Just beyond Fort Whoop Up, a well-signed right turn swings north and passes Baroness Picnic Shelter and Park before continuing beneath the High Level Bridge again to terminate at a small paved parking lot adjacent to the Helen Schuler Nature Centre.
Inside the Helen Schuler Nature Centre (check hours of operation), which is a specifically designed structure promoting environmental efficiency with limited environmental impact, a rack of brochures just inside the entrance hosts a wide range of interesting and informative literature which includes hiking brochures for three adjacent interpretive trails including the Coulee Climb. The two other self-guided trails are Oxbow Loop and Nature Quest.
The short Coulee Climb hike, with a significant vertical component, offers the opportunity for some exercise and fresh air while learning about the nature and function of a coulee. There are several auxiliary benefits to this hike which include phenomenal views across the Oldman River Valley combined with up close and personal interaction beneath the fascinating High Level Bridge (Lethbridge Viaduct) which opened in August of 1909 to facilitate heavy rail traffic across the expansive Oldman River Valley.
This trail is best negotiated from the north trailhead to the south, ending at the Coal Banks Kiosk which is also an informative and historically interesting experience. This short 2.4 KM (1½ mile) hike provides a diverse range of unique and fascinating experiences.
Trail beginning at the base terminus of the coulee is a wide and well-graded gravel ramp rising gently on trail adjacent to grassland banks hosting a wide variety of colorful and diverse shrubbery. The trailhead is also the obvious delineation point between lush cottonwood forest on the river plain and the challenging parched conditions within the coulee. The route continues uphill through 12,000 years of history where relentless drainage has created these coulees culminating in the formation of the present day Oldman River Valley.
More challenging portions of the trail are supplemented with wooden steps along the relentless route ascending alternate sides of the coulee. The swing south onto a long stretch of wooden stairs begins the climb towards the base of the High Level Bridge framed dramatically by clear blue sky. Expansive views of the Oldman River Valley begin to take shape with constant modification and scope as higher altitude is relentlessly achieved.
A wide variety of avian life flutters about performing the duties of their daily existence and seemingly accustomed to being comfortable and accepting of human presence. No doubt they entertain local custodians who assist in their feeding and care.
The historic bridge began its service in 1909 and has carried heavy railroad traffic for well over a century across a river valley which frequently entertains high wind. From the base of this massive structure, the bridge doesn't seem like a good idea. Surely the heavy burdens endured for decades must have an impact over time. From a significant distance the bridge is an awesome sight.
From beneath the bridge the range of feeling is quite different and definitely a unique photographic opportunity. Geometric forms and shadows create a mosaic of images deeply in conflict with surrounding, free-form river valley scenery. Each footstep alters the nature of the images. Photographers are at the mercy of an infinity of form, shadow, and content within an endless array of fascinating compositions.
A matrix of trail surrounds the base of the bridge columns as altitude is relinquished beginning the decent to the base of the coulee. Eventually formal trail ramps down the side of the coulee through desert-like terrain until a civilized wide and evenly-sloped ramp terminates at the Coal Banks Kiosk.
This small museum and interpretive center is constructed at the entrance to old coal mining shafts. Fascinating exhibits of coal mining artifacts are combined with historical information which documents the history of this specific mining operation as well as providing an overview of the massive mining operations which fired the furnaces of homes, businesses and economic development throughout a good portion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Larger than life, pioneer entrepreneurs forged an industrial revolution within this newly developing nation. Long ago, a 2,100 ft (693 m) Incline Rail System carried coal from the mine to the surface 300 m above for linking to the narrow gauge railway line. This likely explains the well graded trail near the beginning of Coulee Climb. This particular mining operation ceased production in 1893.
Coulee Climb is an excellent way to begin a sunny autumn day. The short tour, which may consume one or two hours for the average participant, offers a wide variety of experiences with plenty more options immediately nearby. This early morning, sun rising into clear blue sky day offered the coolness of morning air to counteract the warmth of exercise while providing a cornucopia of unique images embellished by unique structure and moving shadow. What a phenomenal way to start the day.
There are three major interpretive trails which begin from parking at the Helen Schuler Nature Centre in the Lethbridge Nature Reserve. Coulee Climb, documented here, is one. The Oxbow Loop explores a nearby Oldman River delta and riverside where swales nourish new growth during high water. The Oldman River is sourced at Mount Lyall in the Rocky Mountains and flows about 350 KM (218 miles) to join the Bow River and create the South Saskatchewan River.
The other formal trail emanating from the Helen Schuler Nature Centre is Nature Quest which offers multiple options and 12 interpretive stations tending towards the Baroness Picnic Shelters and the Oldman River.
On the other side of the Oldman River from the Lethbridge Nature Reserve are the picturesque Elizabeth Hall Wetlands.
For every kilometer of formal trail, there are several times that distance on informal trails which provide multiple hours of exercise and exploration opportunity. The entire river valley hosts a matrix of quality hiking opportunity.
Photographs on the short Coulee Climb trail are captured near the Helen Schuler Nature Centre within the Lethbridge Nature Reserve on Wednesday, September 20, 2017.