A Mountain Full of Heart
Just outside of Canmore, and a short drive from Calgary, the trail up Heart Mountain is an ideal first mountain running experience
Like many trail runners, I have a rather strange disdain for outand-back runs, so I often find myself seeking running loops whenever I can. If I can add in a bit of a scramble, a ridge traverse, an esthetic peak and some amazing views into the run, then its status is instantly elevated in my mind. The Heart Mountain Horseshoe loop ticks all these boxes.
Located 75 kilometres west of Calgary and 16 kilometres east of Canmore, Heart Mountain’s aspect makes it accessible year-round, although it can get icy in winter and the summit ridge can have deep snow drifts, adding to the difficulty. Traction devices are strongly advised in winter, spring and fall. By mid-June the approach to the first false peak is typically completely clear and dry. Strong winds here are a force to be reckoned with on a cold day.
To get to the trail, take Highway 1 west from Calgary past Deadmans Flats to the Seebe/Exshaw exit just east of Lac Des Arcs, proceed over the overpass to the south side of the highway where you will find a parking area. From here follow the Heart Creek trail that runs parallel to the highway for approximately 700 m. Due to recent f looding, you have to find a way across the creek, which isn’t really a big challenge. Once on the far side of the creek, a sign will point you towards the Heart Mountain trailhead to the left of the trail.
Although named for the heart-shaped dual peak that marks the summit of the route, the name is also appropriate for the heartpounding climb at the start of the loop. The first 2.8 kilometres of the route are steep, climbing almost 750 m over a well-defined trail. Hikers have been known to wander off route and have had to be rescued from the cliffs to the right, so give them lots of space and stick to the trail.
The opening section increases in steepness as you make your way up a series of slabs, roots and loose rock. All but the fittest of mountain runners will have to hike this section. About two-thirds of the way up the climb, there is a short crux that interrupts the trail. For many people new to the mountains, this crux is their first
simple scramble experience. The crux is a short, vertical scramble of about four metres, but it has good hand and footholds that see frequent use and the easiest route is marked by a small sign. From there the trail’s steepness finally relents and gives you some relief to the first summit cairn.
From the first cairn, the trail continues to undulate along a roller coaster of a ride along a fantastic and technical section until you reach the true summit at the 3.5-kilometre mark. The view from the ridge is spectacular. With sweeping vistas of Grotto Mountain, Mount Yamnuska to the east, Mount Lorette and Mount McGillivray to the west as well as the south view of Calgary and north view of Exshaw. Even on a cloudy day, the drop along the sides is visually countered by mist-filled valleys and it’s not uncommon to see mountain goats grazing in the upper bowls.
From the summit cairn wrap back down the mountain, where the somewhat technical descent will distract you from the views and will give your quads a good shake. Follow the worn path to the forested valley. From the base of the mountain take a left turn onto the f lat, often muddy, but good quality Quaite Creek trail. You’ll pass a pristine swamp with mirror surface water as you make your way past the mountain trailhead and back onto the Heart Creek trail that takes you to the parking lot.
Due to the views and accessible nature of the route, the trail can get busy on a warm summer day, so an early start is advised. Most hikers turn back at the first cairn and go back down the initial climbing route, so keep your head up for hikers coming down upon you. I strongly advise following the full horseshoe as the descent is far nicer and the ridge is absolutely worth the effort.
“Although named for the heart-shaped dual peak that marks the summit of the route, the name is also appropriate for the heart-pounding climb at the start of the loop.”