Hailstone Butte Fire Lookout

May 13, 2022
July 17, 2022

Hailstone Butte is the most southern fire lookout in Kananaskis Country. Both Hailstone and Raspberry Ridge Fire Lookout replaced the old Mount Burke fire lookout in 1954. I wanted to hike this ever since I saw a photo of the amazing rock work done by Tom Johnson, one of the lookouts. Despite having to take two tries at it, I was not disappointed. For more information on the history of Hailstone Butte, visit Friends of Kananaskis Country.

Sonya and I originally tried to hike Hailstone Butte in mid May. Even though this was an epic snow year, I was surprised to see the amount of snow still accumulated here. I was hoping that the mountains further south would have melted out a bit more, but alas, I was wrong. It was still a great day out, and after we got turned around below the cornices, Sonya and I had a ‘consolation hike’ up Windy Peak Hills. I probably would not have made Windy Peak Hills a priority, so this was a win-win in my book.

The cornices were still going strong in mid-May. With the wet snow avalanches, it was a pretty easy decision to leave this for another day.
Here is a better view of the cornices, and the danger they posed. First, it was a turning into a very warm day, and the sun heating the snowpack had the potential for a cornice collapse. Second, the cornices were all above the rock band. Any cornice collapse with us nearby would sweep us over these rocks. Most death and damage from avalanches is caused by trauma from being dragged over terrain. Third, the snow from the rock band to the cornice was sun modified. I could see that while it was a short slope, it was a very steep wall of snow, and the top surface was probably bullet proof. Without an ice axe, a slip would send us over the rock ridge. Sonya and Pyro were in agreement, so we descended and hiked up Windy Peak Hills instead.

I came back to Hailstone Butte with Erin in mid-July. I had just done two 20 km days in Waterton National Park, and I was leaving for a week of mountaineering in a few days. I needed a short hit of mountain time, and Hailstone Butte was ideal.

While this is a short hike with not much elevation gain, there is a pretty good section of scrambly bits to get through, both on the way up and the alternate route down. Once on the ridge, the views are endless and gorgeous.

Gear

Hiking boots, poles and regular day pack kit. Due to cornices and road closures, winter travel is not recommended/available.

Overview

From Highway 532, walk up the trail beside the creek drainage. Once above the creek, angle up to the rock wall. Scramble up. Hike north to the fire lookout, and/or south to the radio repeater. Descend via the ascent route, or take the alternate descent at the low point. Angle towards the middle of the drainage to meet up with the main trail.

Road Closure

Highway 532 is closed between Highway 22 and Highway 940 annually between December 1 to April 30th. Visit Alberta Parks for more information and to check the status of the road.

At the start of Highway 532 from the Highway 22 turnoff, there are several signs. The Road Closure sign says the highway is closed after Indian Graves, while the Alberta Parks website says the road is closed right at Highway 22. I would think the website would be more up to date but you never know.

Parking and Trail Head

From Highway 22, turn west onto Highway 532. The parking for Hailstone Butte is about 21.5 km from Highway 22. There is a wide pullout on the east side, at the crest of the gravel road. Depending on when the grader has been through, this road can be in great shape, or it can be a washboard nightmare.

Looking at Hailstone Butte from Highway 532. The high point is the location of the Fire Lookout. The second bump on the left is the location of the radio repeater. Keep an eye out for cyclists on this gravel road.

This is a multiuse road. The gravel cyclists like this route, so please be on the lookout for them. If you see cyclists (or any other users), be polite and slow down to reduce the amount of dust kicked up.

From the parking lot, cross Highway 532 and walk up the short embankment. The trail, and the whole Hailstone Butte, is now visible.

The parking for Hailstone Butte is on the east side of the highway, in a wide pull out. Pyro was SUPER excited to go for a hike. It had been a few weeks since she’d been hiking and was beside herself with excitement.
The embankment on the other side of the highway. Just walk up anywhere. The moon is just setting on the far left side of the butte.

Main Trail

From the embankment, pick up the main trail. It splits at one point, but comes together at a low point. Both work, but I seemed to take the higher trail both times. The trail dips down and follows the creek for a bit, but then climbs back up. When I was here with Sonya in May, the trail was mostly snow covered, and we had a bit of post-holing to contend with. When I came back in July, the snow was gone, but we were treated to a herd of Rocky Mountain Sheep. As this is hunting territory, they were none too pleased to see us, and quickly vacated the area.

The trail starts at the top of the embankment, and can be seen curving around the side of the hill.
Once we hiked around the corner, there was a small hummock. From the other side, we angled northwest to the base of the rocks.

The trail heads off to the northwest, angling towards the base of the fire lookout. The trail begins to fade in and out, as people find their own way up.

Hiking up the grassy slope below the rock band.
Looking south to the second bump where the radio repeater is located. The alternate descent route is above the copse of trees, at the dip in the ridge.
I saw these trails when I was here in May, so wandered over to have a closer look. I think they are sheep trails, and it looks like that scree runs all the way down to Highway 532.

There is a short but fun scrambly bit right below the top of the butte. This is a Pick Your Own Adventure route. I went left, and enjoyed several sections of solid rock.

Looking up at the rock band. Lots of steps and endless possibilities to find your own way up.
Alisen about half way up, deciding on next section. Photo credit: Erin Bailey.
Erin coming up one of the steep sections. From here, the big bend in Highway 532 is visible below.

Once above the rocks, we were now on top of the butte. We turned north, and ambled over to the fire lookout. I am always hesitant to just walk up to an active fire lookout as it is a workplace and a private residence. The shutters were closed on the south side, so we quietly took some photos of the amazing stone work and left before we became a thorn in someone’s side.

Time to summit of Hailstone Butte was 1 hour. Distance was 1.6 km with an elevation gain of 344 m.

It’s a short hike up to the fire lookout. Be aware of helicopter activity. If a helicopter is around, stay well back, and hold onto hats, sunglasses, or anything that can be blown away.
The Hailstone Butte Fire Lookout with the amazing stonework done by Lookout Tom Johnson. Simply amazing.
What attention to detail. Finding different coloured and sized rocks to create this compass must have taken years of patience.
Close up of the inner compass point.
This is the view west to Plateau Mountain. Unfortunately, we had clouds moving in and out all day, and our view to the north of Raspberry Ridge and Mount Burke were both obscured.

South Radio Repeater Bump

Erin and I headed south along the ridge to gain the second bump on the butte, which houses a radio repeater station. We found some interesting rock formations along the way. It was a very enjoyable walk.

It’s a gorgeous hike along the top of the ridge.
Some interesting rock formations along the way.
Looking back towards the north. Almost at the top of the south bump.
The cairn and radio repeater that marks the top of the south Hailstone Butte bump.

I thought that I would wander down to the third bump on the butte, but when I looked down at it, I though ‘nah.’ The wind was up (Erin lost her ball cap. If you see a gorgeous Ridley’s Cycle hat, please nab it!), and the clouds were in and out. I had a big week ahead of me, and Erin and I agreed that getting home early for once was not a bad thing.

Looking south to the next small bump on the butte. From here, there is alternate descent route that heads west. You can then walk back along Highway 532, or go with friends and leave a second vehicle.

Hailstone Butte Return

We retraced our steps north along the butte. Instead of descending at our uptrack, we went for the optional descent at the low point on the ridge. This is marked with a cairn. While descending a sight unseen scramble can be nerve-wracking, this was fairly straight-forward as I made my way down a series of short rock bands. I then headed to the middle of the drainage. This lead us directly back to the main trail.

The cairn marking the optional descent route is closer to the south end. I didn’t particularly notice the cairn when heading south, but it was fairly obvious when heading north and keeping an eye out for a good spot to go down.
Erin contemplating her options. It looks bad, but there was a nice route down just to the left.
Alisen traversing north along a rock band. Where possible, I would head north as we needed to go there anyway to pick up the drainage.
Looking down from the drainage that leads directly back to the main trail.
A great view back towards the parking spot, with an impressive view of Windy Peak Hills across the highway.

Hailstone Butte was definitely worth a second try. Due to the wind patterns, cornices will build every year. After speaking with local expert Claudia, she only goes to Hailstone from late June onwards. Lesson learned! Don’t push the seasons, and I won’t be disappointed.

Thanks for reading! Please do me a huge favour and click the Star button to “Like” it. You can also follow my blog, join my FaceBook page Al’s Adventurers, or follow me on Instagram

Alisen

Totals – Downloadable Tracks on Gaia, Displayed on Strava

Date: July 17, 2022
Group:  Two (Alisen and Erin)
Distance:  4.8  km
Elevation:  370 m (1,221′)
Time:  2 hours 52 minutes (includes breaks)

Hailstone Butte is a short hike to a short scramble, but is long on gorgeous views.
With only 370 m of elevation gain, this is a very doable objective for most people, however I can see the scrambly bits at the top might be enough to deter some people who prefer to not have hands on rocks.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Adventures, Hiking, Scrambling
10 comments on “Hailstone Butte Fire Lookout
  1. Diana says:

    I really love the curvature of the summit ridge! Also, I learned a new word: hummock. I’ve never heard it before and had to look it up.

  2. jacekkrolikowski says:

    It is a very nice hike indeed. We went there in October 2021, there was a very, very strong wind.
    We could hardly stay in a vertical position at Hailstone Butte Fire Lookout. Walk to South Radio Repeater Bump was not an option in these conditions.
    Unfortunately, Tom Johnson’s stonework was already covered by new but crusty snow.
    We continued north a bit longer until we hit the old fire road and then turned south to the main trail.
    “Parking lot” was getting a lot of wind too, we were pleasantly surprised that the ski box mounted on top of the car did not fly away 🙂
    The combination of fall colours and new snow on top was awesome.

    • alisendopf says:

      There is nothing like the shoulder season winds to pretty much ruin an otherwise great day in the mountains. Even in July, Erin lost her ball cap when the win ran away with it.

      My first trip in May, we almost didn’t get out of the car it was so windy. Once we got into the wind shadow of the Butte, it let up, but if we’d been able to get on top, it would have been a cold and nasty wind.

      So glad you were able to venture south and enjoy a quiet day in the mountains. Not many people come down this far, so it’s nice to avoid the crowds.

      Take care, and I’ll see you soon!
      Alisen

  3. Glad to hear that you had a second chance to tackle Hailstone Butte. It’s crazy how the landscape can change so drastically in a couple of months. The pick your own adventure route through the rocky terrain sounds like a lot of fun. I didn’t realize that the fire lookout was still active and serves as a private residence. The stone work looks beautiful.

    • alisendopf says:

      Yes, all the fire lookouts are ‘homes’ for the men and women who serve as lookouts. They are there all summer. It’s an ideal job for a writer 🙂
      In the winter, the lookouts are shut up tight.

  4. Widdershins says:

    Heavens to Murgatroid! That shot of you, on the way down, betwixt a steep drop-off and a hard place! 😀 … took my breath away it did. 🙂

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