The Bull Creek Hills (Highwood)
When does a foothill become a mountain? Is it possible to be more than a foothill? What makes a foothill… a foothill? Is it the twisted Limber Pines, the Prairie Crocus covered meadows with Balsam Root and shooting stars? Is it the scent of lodgepole pines in the heat, or the lichen crusted sandstone outcroppings near low summits? Is it the short elevation gain and freedom from the snow during the shoulder seasons?
The Bull Creek Hills of the Highwood straddle the definition and leaves your feeling like you’ve summited a lofter peak and experienced a kaleidoscope of landscapes, views and emotions more reminiscent of the western valleys and ranges. Hiking at its finest. All it’s missing is a waterfall, and a creek to refill you water! (Bring 3 L on a hot day).
The Bull Creek Hills west of Longview are among the largest of K Country’s foothills with an elevation gain between 700-900 M (over 900 cumulative) topping out at 2179 m. Hiking from west to east, our route encompassed Grass Pass (a hike worthy of its own outing) and followed the ridge crest of unknown proportions in the foothills over 4 of the 5 summits. It was over 12 km in length. Finishing at Marston Col this journey took us 7 hours on this blistering mid-April day of the strange spring of 2016. It must have been +30 C.
The first section follows pack trail coulee up to Grass Pass where the views of Mount Burke ignite your excitement towards what lies ahead. Passing colossal Douglas Fir trees with bracket fungus and Prairie Crocus. We resisted our urge to lounge at the Pass knowing we had a long trek ahead.
Departing Grass Pass we sauntered up countless hills each unique with its own view, outcroppings and Limber Pines. Fir Creek Valley yawned below as we picked our way through the maze of game trails leading through patches of dense forest to open pine slopes and back again. The final route to the top is a bit disorienting, stick together and keep climbing, you’ll eventually reach the summit.
Upon arriving at a small meadow backed by pine an open to a view west, you have a choice to follow the ridge west to the first summit or keep walking eastward to summit two with a fine lunch spot and a panorama of the Highwood foothills, the Sheep/Highwood divide, Mt. Head, Holy Cross and the Great Divide! Watch out for the ticks in spring, and look for bizarre insects like the Backswimmer we found flopping around in a patch of snow.
Onward to summit three, a quick drop to the top of Fir Creek valley and then a short ascent to the summit. Consider an off trail decent by the glorious limber pined ridge to Marston Col. We continue over the tops and experience the endless bliss of foothill wandering as we cross barron, sun backed slopes reaching to the fourth and largest of the Bull Creek Hills.
With water running low we eat wonderfully cold snow in the heat as it melts in our hands. The decent eastward is dicey in places with a steep grade. We plateau along the broad summit of the fifth hill before the descent along its celebrated Limber Pined ridge.
The magnificent decent ridge of the fifth hill calms our spirits as we have been wandering for five hours with heat unknown since last summer. The vibrant green of Kinnikinnick along with the purple hues of the countless Croci elate our weary minds (and legs) as we wander through dozens of primordial Limber Pine skeletons over of over 1,000 years old. As we descend, the first days of spring awake with fresh flowers of Shooting Star, Balsam Route and Puccon.
We descend further to Marston Creek and picked up a trail through meadows to a fence that we follow south to a magnificent stand of Douglas Fir encrusted with lichen of a thousand forms. I feel as though I’m in Pacific Spirit, or along the east shore of Kootenay Lake. The following walk westwards along Marston Col must be one of K Country’s greatest Limber Pine experience as the meadows and views westward are euphoric to say the least with the fresh burst of new aspen leaves and the smells of a cooling evening. As we wandered down to our bikes that we ditched at the entrance as we drove in, we passed the greatest tree of the day. A Limber Pine in full health beside the trail. The largest I have ever seen. This leg of the journey is worthy of a day trip of its own.
– Kaptain Kananaskis