Distance: 15 – 17km
Elevation Gain/Loss: +1,285m / -1,250m
Living and working in Crowsnest Pass, I have become very familiar with the Alberta side of the South Canadian Rockies. Not much compares to the beautiful iron-enriched rock of the mountains just north of Waterton and southwest of Pincher Creek. Mixing the beautiful red and green argillite rock with the golden larches, makes for a match made in heaven.
The Whistler to Table Mountain traverse has been a local favourite for several years, well before the Castle was designed a park. While this hike is significantly challenging, it is significantly beautiful. The trailhead is marked by an Alberta Park’s sign, but the remainder of the trail has limited signage and may require some route-finding skills.
How to get to there
First you need to shuffle vehicles around so that there is a car at both ends. I like to drop a car off at the trail head for Table Mountain first. Your other vehicle will be parked just north of the trail head to Whistler Mountain along the South Castle River Road, you don’t have much option as you will have to park at the barricades. The South Castle Road was closed to vehicles in 2018, but Parks is currently allowing access via vehicle just shy of the official trail head. The road is in okay condition after the wildfire crews improved it after the Kenow Fire in 2017. Now, keep in mind, that it hasn’t been maintained since, so there are still pot holes and the travel will not be fast. It is recommended to take a vehicle with high clearance.
Along the hike
Signs will direct you to the trailhead for Whistler Mountain and Parks staff have improved the first part of this trail. I absolutely love the journey up the mountain as you look down the South Castle Valley and watch the transition of a montane forest going into the subalpine. You see windswept slopes with whitebark pine trees showing their strength against the forces of nature. The neat thing about Whistler Mountain is that there is an old fire lookout at the top. I like to have lunch at this spot and tell my guests about the wildfire lookouts across our province and how much we depend on the lookout stations for early detection of fire. I’ve done some digging on this topic and fortunately I have some great friends that work in wildfire due to my past work with Alberta Environment and Parks. They even dug up past photos of this lookout for me to share with people.
As you walk along the ridge, take note of the lichen growing and the colour of this amazing rock. It is really something else! Mean the rocks along this hike make it the most spectacular, even in the summer months. I joke that it makes me want to eat watermelon because.. well, I think you will know why when you see it for yourself. I experienced one of my favourite memories this summer along this trail while zipping in and out through sparse subalpine fir forests and along ridges that will make my jaw drop. A family hired me to guide them along this mountain traverse and I spotted a line of mountain sheep in the distance. They had the same idea as us that day – they wanted to do the Whistle to Table Mountain Traverse. So, we watched their light brown bodies walk single-file against the dark brown rock backdrop. Then, they disappeared. It wasn’t a magic trick either, but the colour of the rock very abruptly changed to the same colour as the sheep. One by one as the sheep entered their light brown backdrop, they disappeared…never to be seen again. This memory is engrained in my brain and my passion for connecting people to the outdoors becomes more intense. I worried that leaving a career of environmental science wouldn’t be gratifying, but when you get moments like this and get to share them and educate others on the beauty we see…it is more than gratifying.
The hike in itself is quite long. With a group, it typically takes between 10 – 11 hours to do the traverse and this doesn’t include the car shuffling. There is a lot of elevation gain and loss throughout the day and as to be expected, there is no water along the ridge.
Just when you are thinking, ‘Wow, this is a long hike and I’m tired.” You will be rewarded with the beautiful slope of alpine larches. One, two, three…hundreds of larches. As you brush against the trees as the trail goes right through them, you will think that the hard work is worth it. As a professional guide, I enjoy using these moments to dive into teaching people about subalpine forests and why they are so special.
Once you have navigated your way through this subalpine forest, you will see the true summit of Table Mountain. You will think to yourself, “Should I go and summit?” And you will likely opt to head towards the famous cliffs of Table. Towering over the prairies, looking down on Beaver Mines Lake, you can’t help but get a few pictures of you looking bad-ass. Maybe you will throw in a yoga pose, maybe you will strike a Charlie’s Angels pose, but whatever pose you pick…it will be a hit on Instagram. There is no doubt. Just be smart about where you stand as you don’t want to get too close to the edge.
Heading down Table Mountain has become my least favourite part of this journey. First, it is a reminder that the trip is coming to an end. Second, everyone is tired. And third, it is steep and has that loss rock overtop of slabby rock. I hope you read through this entire blog and took my advice to wear some quality outdoor hikers and not those running shoes that you wear to the gym. Because if you got this far in gym shoes, you will not enjoy your trip down Table Mountain.
If you planned your trip wrong, then it might be dark now, but if you are lucky then you are catching the golden hour when getting viewscapes of the Continental Divide. If it were summer time, you’ll be munching on the Saskatoon bushes that line the trail. But if it is fall and daylight is lessening, you hear a snap in the trees and walk a little bit faster while calling out, “Yo Bear!” As you approach your friendly car that you left earlier, you frantically look for the keys. Let’s hope you didn’t leave them in the other vehicle…
Enjoy your fall hiking. I enjoy writing stories and trips for you. Please share these stories with others and encourage them to support your local guiding company. Guides are trained professionals who keep you safe, educate, and enhance your experience while in the outdoors.
Heather Davis – Owner & Guide of Uplift Adventures
Heather is trained by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides as a Hiking Guide and Interpretive Guide Association currently as an Apprentice Interpreter Guide, with a University Degree in Environmental Science and a Professional Agrologist with the Alberta Institute of Agrology. She has a passion for the outdoors and connecting others to the environment – a place that has given her the space to heal after traumatic events. She believes that we are always learning more about ourselves and our surroundings – let’s go find out more and see what we are capable of.
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