Our tireless, adventurous friend, Ian, recently accompanied us on a 12-hour-marathon, bike-hike trip to Piper Pass via the Little Elbow and West Fork Little Elbow river valleys. Approaching the pass, I asked him, “How many people do you think get here each summer?” He paused, glanced at the feint route underfoot, gazed at the gorgeous valley we’d just traversed, and said, “Not many. Maybe three parties each summer, at most.” Kathy and I agreed with his assessment, which prompted another question: Why so few?
Sure, reaching Piper Pass this way is an arduously long daytrip requiring athletic endurance. But Calgary and Canmore are heavily populated with outdoor athletes, many of whom are skilled, enthusiastic mountainbikers. And judging by the number of cars parked on weekends at many K-Country trailheads, hiking is as popular as ever. So why aren’t the strongest and keenest probing the wilder niches of their backyard wilderness?
We have no idea. But we do know this: A decade ago, more people were surmounting Piper Pass this way, because back then the final approach (southward, through the upper reaches of the West Fork Little Elbow River Valley) was much more apparent than it is now.
Thanks to equestrians, the former road extending 4.7 km (2.9 mi) past Romulus campground is obvious to its end. On the ensuing trail, you’ll face no navigational difficulty until you’re beyond the big meadow and have begun ascending the last swath of forest. Here, however, the way forward withers as the the grade steepens. The narrow-but-distinct trail gradually dwindles to a route, then sporadically vanishes. Unless you’ve been here before and know how to proceed, or your navigational instincts are honed by experience, the various game paths are as helpful as they are confusing.
You have the heart of an explorer and the stamina of a triathlete? You’re aware the word “epic” is vastly overused, and you understand its true meaning? We need you out there. Maintaining a route like this requires the passage of many boots. You’ll be richly rewarded. You’ll see a wild, spectacular valley surrounded by rugged, handsome peaks. You’ll earn a gratifying sense of accomplishment. And you’ll no doubt enjoy it all in solitude.
But when tranquility becomes a near-permanent state, that means the trails are not receiving the boot-beating they need to remain in existence. Better to say “hello” a couple times along the way then have to wonder “where the heck did the route go?”
You’ll find complete directions to Piper Pass via the Little Elbow in Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies, Trip 39. Here are a few updates you’ll find helpful:
• At the first ford, look left. You’ll find a trail traverses the steep forest allowing you to bypass the first and second fords. This bypass takes only a couple minutes.
• At the minor fork described in the 3rd paragraph on page 203, do not stay left on the bench. Instead, bear right, descend toward the river, then turn left (upstream). Hike through the rough, washed-out gully to regain the trail just ahead.
• After crossing the big meadow in the West Fork Little Elbow River Valley (where Piper Pass is visible ahead), note when you re-enter forest at the meadow’s south end. About seven minutes farther, you’ll encounter a fork. Proceed left (south-southeast). Right (southwest) soon ends in a rocky wash-out among the trees.
• Where the grade finally steepens and the route all but disappears, don’t worry. Go up. Do not continue traversing south. Game paths will assist you if you’re unable to keep to “the” route. By ascending, you’ll promptly dispatch the forest and attain the edge of a steep-walled ravine. From there, continue ascending along the ravine, quickly passing the last of the trees. You’ll soon be in the alpine zone, with Piper Pass in view just ahead.
Final suggestions: (1) Bring friends. The more boots pounding the route to Piper Pass, the better, and the more of us appreciating wild places, the more us who’ll protect them. (2) If you can bear the extra weight, carry a pair of clippers. By snipping a few tree branches here and there, you’ll help ensure this exciting wilderness route remains hikeable.
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