It was -18 °C at the trailhead. The full moon was slipping away behind the mountain ridge. Even though the air nipped at my face, there was something magical about the cold, especially as it was December. As I zipped up my Sulka puffy jacket, my cheeks already as pink as the fabric, we set out across the lakeshore to begin our ascent, admiring the frosty peaks surrounding us.
Barrier Lake Fire Lookout, also known as Prairie View Lookout, Jewell Pass, Yates Mountain, or its traditional Stoney Nakoda First Nation name, Tokyapebi ipa, is part of the front range of the Rocky Mountains just west of Calgary. The vast prairies suddenly give way to towering, rocky peaks; this viewpoint is an incredible place to take in the extreme transition. The 12 km out-and-back route takes you through snow-covered pine, aspen, and juniper glades. It meanders through the trees to reach two rocky outcrops before the true summit, where you’ll find picnic benches, a helipad, which is perfect for enjoying the view, and the fire lookout station. The views from the summit offer 360-degree mountainscapes of the Rockies, which make the trek well worth the 600 m of elevation gain!
These mountains are as nostalgic to me as they are beautiful. Hiking is a way for me to connect to a lifetime of memories formed at these very peaks. The crisp air, heavy with the scent of pine, brings back childhood memories of Christmas ski days, snowshoes, and bonfires with my family. One range over is the summit where my husband proposed to me, on a calm, clear day like this. My eye is drawn to details, like the sparkle of the snow, a Canada jay perched in a tree, and how beautifully the dappled light falls through the tree branches. They remind me of my grandmother, who always appreciated the little things during adventures in the mountains. Since childhood, I have felt the awe of these towering summits, spellbound by the beauty, ferocity, and mystery they embody.
As we ascended through the trees up to the first lookout, I was nice and warm with my Maskorra shell pant and Sulka insulator. When I reached the first lookout, I was met with an amazing view of Mount Baldy, directly east, and the entire Barrier Lake. Upwards, I could see both the second lookout perched atop a rocky cliff and the final approach to the summit.
After climbing up the steepest section of the trail and navigating some slippery rocks (trees make a great handhold!), I reached the second lookout, which is the most iconic photo spot on the hike. The snow got quite deep here, and I was glad I put on my Liga Gaiters as I trudged through the knee-deep powder to get to the viewpoint.
A major transition had occurred when we reached the helipad at the summit. The temperature at the peak was only about -4 °C, the sun was out, and it was extremely calm, which is rare at the top of any peak in the Rockies. To keep warm while I soaked up the winter sun, I layered up with my Schale shell jacket. Although I brought a Pecora fleece as well, it was so warm I didn’t need it! The views were incredible. The sky was a cloudless, deep blue. The mountains were a patchwork of emeralds, purples, blues, and pops of white. After enjoying a thermos of coffee and some well-deserved chocolate, we headed back down into the cold.
Connecting with nature and challenging yourself to conquer the peak of the day is an experience like no other. For me, there is no other activity where I can reflect on the past, and be immersed in the present moment, all while feeling adventure’s pull toward the future. Getting lost in the peaks truly connects me to myself. It is where I feel my most authentic.
The hike :
I acknowledge that I travel, explore, and play in the Treaty 7 Territory region of Southern Alberta. Treaty 7 encompasses the traditional lands of the Îyârhe Nakoda Nations of Chiniki, Wesley, and Bearspaw, the Tsuut’ina First Nation, the Kainai, Siksika, and Piikani Nations of the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) Confederacy, and Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.
Written by Janelle Forster