Prairie Mountain is a popular hiking summit, close to the city of Calgary, just West of Bragg Creek in the Kananaskis Country area of Alberta. It is a short yet challenging hike of just under 7 km with about 700 m elevation gain. Due to its popularity, it is a great summit to attempt any time of year and in any season, summer, winter, spring or fall – so long as you come prepared.
The trailhead is on the north side of highway 22x, about 18 km west of the Bragg Creek turnoff. If you are using GPS or google maps to get there, it is best to put in ‘Elbow Falls’. The Elbow Falls staging area has a parking lot with outhouses. Alternatively, you can park on the north side of the highway, right before the winter gates and across from the entrance to the Elbow Falls parking lot. The winter gates are closed between December 1 and May 14 each year. The true trailhead is just past the winter gates, on the north side of the highway, however we typically start on one of the well-worn paths going straight up the hill before the winter gates. In the winter however, the main trailhead is the best option.
Hiking up Prairie Mountain:
The trail for Prairie Mountain starts out very steep, with a few different forks along the way. All forks end up leading to the same trail; some are just a little steeper than others. We tend to choose the steepest options to try to get up faster.
The trail stays fairly steep for the first while before becoming a little more bearable. Just when you start to think this hike isn’t so bad, you hit the next steep portion. This climb is the longest part of the trail and is quite challenging. If you take your time getting up this part, it is pretty manageable.
If you keep looking ahead, eventually you will notice the trees start to thin and you can see the sky. Once you break out of the trees, the slope goes back to a more manageable climb the rest of the way to the summit.
At the Summit
There is usually some prairie grass and wild flowers throughout this area and up to the summit.
The summit is marked by a large cairn of rocks and some flags, along with a spectacular view stretching all the way to the prairies. On a clear day, you can even see the skyscrapers of downtown Calgary to the east while standing on the summit.
If looking to the north, you will see the Moose Mountain Fire Lookout on the next ridge and you can also see the entrance to the Elbow Ice Caves!
There are great views in all directions and we stayed on the summit for over 30 minutes taking pictures and enjoying the view. There is even cell reception for some epic Snapchats, Instagram posts, live Facebook posts or tweets.
You may want to pack a sweater or jacket for the summit. It can be windy and chilly, even on a warm summer day!
Hiking Back Down
On our way down, I noticed a woman going back up the mountain who had passed us going up and down on our way up. I asked her how many round trips she was doing for the day and she told me, “Just 3.” Apparently she was training for a big climb. Seeing her powering up the mountain on her third summit of the day made us feel a silly at how tired we were from ‘just’ one summit!
When we made it down, we went and got the cooler out of our car with our lunch and took it down by the Elbow River to enjoy. Elbow Falls are right off of the parking lot. Dipping your feet in the river is a good way to end this hike.
The round trip hike took us just over 3 hours, including over 30 minutes on the summit. In the winter or shoulder seasons (early spring or late fall), it would be wise to bring crampons and/or snowshoes and to take care on the summit of cornices (snow and ice overhangs).
This hike is also family friendly; we have seen many children as young as 5 or 6 hiking and many even younger in carriers. Fur babies are also very welcome and on a busy day you will see plenty of dogs on the trails.
For more details and visuals of the hike, check out this video:
The Wild Wanderers