The Crowsnest – A Southern B.C./Alberta Mountain Pass

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 By: Bob Kenyon

Crowsnest Mountain

Crowsnest Mountain

The Crowsnest Pass provides an excellent southern route between Alberta and British Columbia, with great outdoors opportunities for camping, hiking, backpacking, cycling, horseback riding and other adventure tourism activities. The pass is also well known for its glimpses of the dangerous soft rock (limestone) coal mining history.

The Crowsnest Pass developed as a major coal supply area for early twentieth century railroad and industry and eastern coking coal, for the steel industry, with great outdoors opportunities and glimpses of its dangerous past. Throughout the area, travelers will find abandoned mine site tours and related interpretive centres.

The pass also contains the site of one of the world’s biggest rock slides (Frank: 1903) and Canada’s worst mining disaster (Hillcrest: 1914). Legend has it that the legendary “Lost Lemon Mine”, is also in the vicinity of the Crowsnest Pass.

The majority of the Crowsnest Pass is in Alberta and is travelled by the #3 highway, which runs through a variety of mountain ranges comprised of the Livingstone, Flathead and High Rock Ranges. Though not like the densely compact ranges, of the northern Canadian Rockies, these limestone ranges offer excellent scenery, as well as trekking opportunities. It’s two major peaks are Turtle Mountain and the ancient volcanic peak of Crowsnest Mountain, both of which can be hiked and/or scrambled.

Travelers into the back country of the Crowsnest Pass must be aware that this is wild country. Back country trails and campgrounds are much more rustic that those accessed from the highway. Maps, compass use, proper gear, clothing, food storage/disposal and experience and bear avoidance skills are mandatory! For those that are prepared…a fabulous trip is in order.

A must stop in the pass is the Frank Slide Interpretative Centre, at the site of the one of the most devastating rock slides in the world, which all but eliminated the town of Frank (1903) and killed 70 people. The centre offers static displays and presentations about the dangers of limestone rock coal mining and the causes of the slide. There are also trails, which can take visitors though the slide area.

Some other interesting site treks in the Pass are the:

  • Hillcrest Mine disaster site, which is Canada’s worst mining disaster where carbon monoxide and dioxide gases from methane gas explosion, claimed the lives of 189 men and boys.
  • Leitch Collieries, an Alberta Provincial Historic site, with the remains of this very active coal coking operation.
  • Bellevue Mine Tours, where visitors can experience the underground of a mine (May 15 – Labour Day)
  • Lille Town/Minesite where trekkers can visit the remains of a mining town and it’s operations.
  • Crowsnest Museum, where visitors can explore exhibits and view artifacts of the history of the pass

From Alberta the Pass is accessed from the #2 highway by going west from Fort MacLeod. For an excellent historical tour, about the Northwest Mounted Police (Now the world famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police), be sure to visit The Fort Museum of The Northwest Mounted Police. If you go into Fort McLeod, make sure you check out the historical Empress Theatre. It’s the oldest theatre, in Alberta and has operated since 1912.

While in this part of southern Alberta, look for the red wagon wheels, that mark the traces, 130-year old wagon ruts, of the original Macleod Trail. The trail was originally an aboriginal trail. When used by ranchers, settlers, whisky trades and the Northwest Mounted Police it  ran from Fort Benton in Montana up through Canada via Fort MacLeod and Fort Calgary.

If you travel this route, be sure to visit the ancient aboriginal buffalo killing site of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. It’s a fabulous UNESCO World Heritage Site and give yourself time to go through the site!

Looking West Top of Head Smashed In

Looking West – Top of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Photo: Bob Kenyon

As an archaeological site, known around the world, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump preserves the remarkable history of the Plains People through the millennia. Because of their excellent understanding of the regional topography and bison behaviour, the native people were able to hunt bison by stampeding them over a cliff. They then carved up the carcasses and dragged the pieces to be butchered and processed in the butchering camp set up on the flats beyond the cliffs.

The interpretive centre, is built into the cliffs, so not to destroy the view of the cliffs. From the entrance, of the centre visitors go up in time and history of the site. You eventually arrive outside, at the top. Stay on the marked path and don’t go over, into the grasslands, as it it is a sacred Aboriginal site.

Wind Power Generation

Wind Power Generation, North of Pincher Creek
Photo: Bob Kenyon

Other southern Alberta locations and areas that are accessible, from the pass, are:

  • The town of Pincher Creek, with a great example of wind power usage, by traveling south from Highway #3 via secondary road #507.
  • Nearer to Ft. MacLeod travelers can go north on Highway #22, to the ranching country, south of Calgary.

On the British Columbia side of the pass is Sparwood, where visitors can view 21st century coal mining. Travelers from southern British Columbia can access the Crowsnest Pass from there and those going west via Cranbrook and Kimberly will access the beautiful West Kootenays via the Purcell mountain range.

If you enjoyed this article about Alberta and British Columbia’s Crowsnest Pass, on Ya’Gotta, you may also like:

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