Heart Mountain Horseshoe (East End)
Bow Valley Corridor
Time: 4 hours (return)
Distance: 6 km
Elevation Gain: 940 m
How To Get There: From Calgary, travel west on Hwy 1 until you reach the overpass for Lac Des Arcs. If you go left on the overpass (following the sign for Heart Creek), it will bring you to the trailhead parking lot.
One of the best things about social media is the opportunity to connect with other people that have the same interests and hobbies as you do, that you wouldn’t otherwise meet in the real world. One such case was when I connected with someone on Hike Alberta, a fantastic and highly recommended Facebook group dedicated to posting pictures, information and group meetups for various hikes across the province. Her name was Erika and much like me, she had only just moved to Central Alberta and was looking for some new hiking companions.
After realizing Erika and I had about a million things in common, we decided to go on a hike together. I had explored Heart Creek once long ago and she had scrambled up the west side of Heart Mountain horseshoe, so we decided to attempt the east side together. It was the easier option, and since she was bringing along a friend that had never hiked a mountain before, the better option. She also brought Lexa, her pit-bull mix, who by far is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever hiked with.
We met at Heart Creek trailhead where the sign is very obvious for the creek hike itself.
We started on a wide and well-maintained gravel path that starts off so close to the highway that you can clearly hear the cars passing by. The trail narrows briefly as the trees stretch over on either side before hopping over Heart Creek via a narrow bridge.
The path continues to an intersection where we turned to our left, following the continued sound of car engines before being greeted by a “scrambling” sign and another intersection.
If we followed the scrambling path, we would be heading up the far more difficult route where we would be facing exposed rock faces. We continued on the much friendlier looking route to the left, continuing to follow parallel to the highway.
The trail was almost mundane as we travelled along at an easy pace. There was barely even an exposed root along the way to keep us on our toes.
If you are interested in cutting this portion of the hike short (as it can drag on a little bit, though there are a lot of beautiful wildflowers along the way), you can always park along the highway and various obvious points, and cut up into the trees where you’ll find the trail easily enough. We passed several of these short-cut trails that take you down to the highway.
Finally, we reached a change in scenery as marshland came into full view. We crossed two bridges to avoid stepping in the muck and then took a quick glance at the clearing in the trees before continuing on.
The trail carries on through more forest before finally opening up to a dried up creek bed.
Keep an eye out for red tape, which sits almost directly under a power-line. The trail continues on under the power-line for a short while before another red flag appears, signifying that it’s time to go up.
And up we went. The trail moves through an assortment of vegetation as it climbs gradually at first, then more aggressively.
Roots, rocks and pine needles litter the ground and every now and again we were able to get a glance at Heart Mountain itself. While this route up the mountain is far less exposed and much safer, it doesn’t make it any easier on the legs.
After a while, the elevation gain is unrelenting. Certain points show how much ground erosion has begun to expose to roots of the surrounding trees.
As we continued to gain ground, the path began to collect more stones and Heart Mountain became a permanent fixture to our right.
It wasn’t much longer before we were able to see the Lafarge Exshaw Plant below us and the first of many rock outcrops popped out to greet us.
A few tiny man-made cairns helped us along the way as the trees began to thin and shrink. Every time I turned around to enjoy my progress, I was able to spot a new mountain or body of water.
After a certain point, the trail fades away into light scree and there are several sections where the ground flattens, providing a nice excuse to stop and take a breather.
The rocks began to grow into a strange mixture of scree and talus as we continued to gain elevation and wildflowers began to pop out of the strangest of places.
The path appears once more, seemingly cutting right through the mountain itself before heading out to a beautiful short-grass landing.
The reprieve is short lived however as we then climbed up the final section of forest that still manages to cling near the top.
Then it’s not much more than giant slabs of rock to climb up, often on hands and feet. Reaching the top of the east side of the horseshoe becomes obvious at that point as there are no more trees to block the view of our intended destination. We took our time as some of the rock was smooth from years of exposure and the tiny pebbles that settled on top acted almost like marbles under our feet.
Using your hands is necessary the closer you get to the top though there is a small rock wall to the right to act as a support if you need to lean against something to lessen the struggle.
One last push up rocky surface and we made it to the ridge top where you’re greeted with a small cairn (though it more looks like a half-hazard pile of rocks that just happened to all fall in the same spot).
Right away we were able to take in the view of the entire horseshoe and the valley it cupped below.
To the south sat the run off from Barrier Lake. It was definitely the right time to do a starfish pose as the views of the surrounding Rockies were phenomenal. We made sure to take in the moment before pushing further along the ridge.
Though the sun was hot and the sky was clear, it was still technically spring, which meant that remnants of snow remained up top. There is virtually no elevation at all once you’re on the ridge itself save for a few small rolling hills.
We walked for a few more minutes before coming upon another, far more impressive cairn. This one indicates you’ve reached one of the highest points of the horseshoe, which seemed like a great place to stop for lunch.
The sounds of a busy highway had long since passed and all that remained was a peaceful gentle breeze, coupled with amazing views of Bow Valley.
At that point, we all made the executive decision that it was time to turn around the way we had come. While it would have been a lot of fun to finish the horseshoe and go down the west end, it was risky, and we were on a time crunch, with a long drive ahead of us. And some of us were getting sleepy.
So we took a few pictures, shared a few more stories, and then began the descent.
If you are interested in climbing Heart Mountain Horseshoe, but don’t have a lot of experience with scrambles, this is a great place to start (so long as you take the east route). The trail is simple enough and you attain the same goal at the end of the day. While the climb up is gruelling no matter which way you summit, the east end is far less tricky, giving you ample opportunity to stop and take in the moment!