March 20, 2020
Mount McGillivary is a giant of a mountain that everyone sees, but no one notices. That’s because you curve around its massive base as you drive towards Banff from Calgary. On the east side is Lac des Arcs and a twisty road, which usually takes all your attention.
I considered climbing Mount McGillivary, but it is a technical and difficult scramble, with a low likelihood of success. So I was very pleased to discover that I could explore the canyon below!
We need to thank the local Bow Valley climbing community for putting in this trail and the infrastructure. Please do not abuse their equipment, ropes or ladders. If hikers abuse it, the climbers will remove them.
I did this hike in winter, which is the best time if you are not a climber. It can also be done in the summer, but be prepared for more challenging obstacles and the possibility of getting wet.
For clothing, remember that this is a canyon with little to no sunshine to keep you warm. Plus, there is some standing around while you wait your turn going up the canyon obstacles. I wore long underwear, and soft shell guide pants on my legs. Upper body was long underwear, wool sweater, vest, and gore-tex jacket. I also had a microdown in reserve. As it’s a short hike, I elected to not wear my heated socks, but my feet did get cold despite wearing my Boot Gloves over my boots. I wore microspikes for traction.
Access to the canyon is straightforward. From the parking lot, start at the trail head. Turn right at the Y junction to follow a cut line. Keep your eye out for the left turn into the forest. Follow this trail until you hit the water crossing, then turn left up the creek. Go as far as you want. Most people turn around at the chock stone. There is an alternate return route that avoids most of the canyon. This is helpful for getting back safely, and avoiding line-ups if people are coming up the trail towards you.
The parking for this trail is on the west side of the TransCanada Highway. If coming from Calgary, do not cross the highway. Instead, simply go the extra few kilometres and take the Dead Man’s Flats overpass to safely backtrack. The parking lot is unmarked, but it’s the only turn off prior to Lac des Arcs. This is an unofficial trail, so there are no facilities or signs.
The trail head is blessedly obvious even when unmarked. Simply walk straight towards the mountain and enter the forest. After about 100 metres, there is a Y junction. Go right.
You are now on a cut line that parallels the highway. The traffic noise is very loud here, but don’t worry, it will soon disappear.
After about 200 or 300 metres from the trail head, turn Left into the forest.
Follow the trail straight towards Mount McGillivary until you hit the creek crossing. There are several ways down the steep embankment, so pick your route.
Once across the creek bed, turn Left to head up the narrow canyon. This is where the fun begins!
The views through the canyon are amazing. I absolutely love being down at the level of the water, instead of admiring it from above. Tracing the water lines, and playing in the cutouts made by ages of swirling water is fascinating.
Before we get too far – a word about overhead environments in the winter. Canyons are terrain traps for avalanches. There is a giant mountain loaded with snow above every canyon in the mountains. If you do not know the terrain above you, be wary about entering a canyon in the winter. Just because someone else did it with no problems does not mean that it’s 100% safe. This is especially true after major snowfalls, or in the spring when the snow is melting (and avalanching!) off the mountain.
The start of the canyon is amazing. You are guided forward by towering limestone walls on either side.
Being at the base of the canyon allowed us to have fun exploring the cut outs made by centuries of swirling water.
As this area is accessed mainly in the summer, there are several places where the trail heads up out of the water course. We played around climbing some of these, but otherwise just ignore and continue straight down the base of the canyon.
Once you enter the narrowest part of the canyon, the obstacle course begins. Be prepared for ladders, ropes and chains. Again, be kind to the equipment. When using the ladders, do not ram your cleats into the rungs, as that will destroy the wood. It is possible to step on the ladder rungs and avoid making cleat marks.
We all had small black gloves to use on the chains, or else used bare hands for grip. We also carried big fleecy mitts to warm up our hands after the climbing was done. I had emergency Hot Shot heat packs in my pack just in case.
The next few sections require some upper body strength, and a little bit of climbing experience to make it up.
These last two are the hardest.
Once above this final section, you are back out onto the wider canyon and can enjoy the views.
The Reason the Trail is Here – A Geology Lesson
You may be wondering why climbers would want to come to this area. It’s because of a giant vertical limestone wall.
This is a bit of an anomaly in the Rocky Mountains, but not unheard of. The most famous wall is of course Mount Yamnuska.
This wall was made many billions of years ago, under the water. This whole area was ocean floor, and was built up as layers of sediment settled on the ground. Some layers were harder than others.
When British Columbia unceremoniously crashed into Alberta, it formed the Rocky Mountains. The impact caused the ocean floor to buckle up, and form the Rocky Mountains. This type of mountain formation is called slip fold. The type of sedimentary rock is limestone.
The wall is here because this once horizontal layer was stronger than the layers above it. Over time, the layers above crumbled away, exposing this now vertical layer.
The vast majority of the limestone in the Rockies is crumbly like the layers on the left, which is why climbing here is so difficult.
The Chock Stone
From the climbing wall, continue on towards the end. You’ll know it’s the end because of the giant chock stone. This would have tumbled down from Mount McGillivary many years before, and just so happens to fit perfectly into the V of the canyon wall.
This is the end of the hike. We did try and continue on for a ways, but there is no trail and Mike was post-holing up to his waist.
McGillivary Canyon Return
Turn around at the Chock Stone and make your way back to the start of the Obstacle Course. If people are coming up, then please consider taking the forest route back home. This allows for one way travel up through the canyon, and speeds everyone’s travel. This is especially important in the winter when standing around is not desirable.
At the top of the final obstacle (the one with the lay back move), go right and follow the trail that takes you up and out of the canyon. Follow the forest trail back to the main trail just above the creek embankment.
As we were the only ones out that day, we elected to go down the obstacle course. This means I do not have tracks to take the alternate back, but it’s easy to find. Please be aware that down-climbing can be harder for some people than going up.
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Totals – Tracked on Strava
Date: March 20, 2020
Group: Five (Alisen, Mike, Kayla, Mackenzie and Annette)
Distance: 6 km
Elevation: 226 m (746′)
Time: 2 hours 15 minutes