Fire Road Trails: Cascade and Little Elbow

In the past, when fires in the mountain parks were considered a bad thing and every effort was made to put them out, a number of fire access roads were constructed into the backcountry. Policies with respect to fire management have now changed, so many of these fire roads have been converted into multi-use trails, with hikers, backpackers, horseback riders and cyclists sharing the way.

These fire road trails can be some of the earliest to be clear of snow in the spring, and some of the first areas to have vegetation along the sides, so they can also be popular with wildlife. In late May, I had the chance to explore parts of the Cascade Fire Road and the Little Elbow trail, and while we didn’t encounter any animals in the flesh, we saw plenty of tracks and scat along the muddy edges, including one bear track as big as a hiking boot. We weren’t shy about yodelling and calling out.

Cascade River Bridge – Pencil sketch

We hiked Cascade Fire Road from it’s southernmost starting point (Upper Bankhead Day Use) out to the backcountry campground at the Cascade River Bridge, a round trip distance of about 13km. While the elevation gain is pretty modest (90m), the road does gently ramble up and down a bit.

Cascade River Bridge Campground – Pencil Sketch

At the trailhead, there were open meadows and terrific mountain views, with Mount Rundle behind us, Cascade to our left, and the peaks surrounding Lake Minnewanka to the right and ahead of us. It was a clear, sunny day – we couldn’t have asked for a better day for a spring hike. The first section is a narrow trail in forest, before you pass a horse corral and another open meadow, where the fire road proper starts. For most of the way, we followed along an unnamed creek, criss-crossed with small trickles and the occasional wetland pond. Along the way, we spotted a grouse, though it was hiding well in the shrub branches and we couldn’t get a clear photo of it. We had lunch at the campground, near the water, listening to the river rush by and the birds sing, before heading back the way we came in.

Aspen trees in early spring – Pencil Sketch
View along Cascade Fire Road – Pencil Sketch

A few days later, I hiked with a different group, starting out at Forgetmenot Pond and making our way to the Little Elbow trail. Forgetmenot Pond has lovely mountain reflections on it when it’s calm, as it was that day, so it’s well worth taking the loop trail around it before heading up Little Elbow. We saw several deer near the parking lot. We then took the connector trail that passes the bridge over the Elbow River and wanders along the edge of the bluff, past the campground.

Forgetmenot Pond – Inktense sketch

There are good views looking up the river valley along there, so I was glad we didn’t take the easy way along the campground road. While many hikers use this as an access point to get to Nihahi Ridge above the right side of the trail, or even Nihahi Creek, I just wanted to get to a waterfall a friend had told me about. At the turnoff to Nihahi Creek trail, we turned in the opposite direction and headed across the rock to the river shoreline, then turned west again, following the shore a short distance up the Elbow. There is an unnamed double waterfall there, with good views up and downriver. This was our lunch destination.

Unnamed Waterfall along Elbow River – Soft Pastel on paper

Plenty of large boulders make for good picnic seats, and we spent a good amount of time there, taking photos and looking around, before retracing our steps back to Forgetmenot Pond.

In honour of Canada Day, and Canada’s 150th Birthday, I did an Inktense drawing of a view taken from the top of the hill along the Barrier Interpretive Trail in Kananaskis.


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