You probably haven’t heard of the Castle Wilderness but if you are an adventurer who shuns crowds, you will love this incredible wilderness gem!
The Castle Wilderness is located in the southwestern corner of Alberta, Canada, ~225km south from Calgary. I grew up in the town of Pincher Creek, just 20km away. As a kid, I spent my summers camping and exploring here and the winters skiing Castle Mountain Ski Resort, although it was called Westcastle when I first started skiing there. It was where I developed my passion for adventure and the outdoors. It served as my playground when I was a child, although many people choose to retire here. After a visit it’s easy to see why. Here’s your comprehensive summer guide to making the most of this incredibly special place.
Hiking in the Castle Wilderness
As an adult, I’ve spent far less time there than I would have liked, having moved away from Pincher Creek, but it has always remained close to my heart. I share this gem of a place for people who crave the solitude of a place that only locals know about. For the kind of people who relish being the only hikers on a trail! That’s why I was giddy with excitement to introduce my German husband, J.P. to the area. While there are numerous hikes and mountains to climb in the region, I was feeling nostalgic, and choose the Carbondale Fire Lookout. It’s an active fire lookout, and the last time I had hiked it, was when I was 8 years old on a school trip. It obviously was quite the adventure and made quite the impression because 20 some years – ok 30 some years, later I wanted to return.
It’s an easy 4 km hike up and with only 457m of elevation gain, it offers spectacular, far reaching views of the Castle Wilderness for minimal effort. The difficult part is finding the hiking trail head as it’s unmarked and my memory from 30 plus years failed me. I was asked by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry to only provide vague directions to respect the privacy, and not to use the last names of the fire lookout observers who live there full time. I will honour their requests by saying it’s on the way to Castle Falls. You can inquire for more specific information at the Beaver Mines General Store as we did (mentioned below) or by doing a thorough Google search.
If you do make it, please note that the fire observers may, or may not come to greet you depending on how busy they are. If they do, consider it a gift, as they are not obligated to do so. We were incredibly fortunate that Harvey and Ingrid choose to greet us and told what it was like living in a fire observation lookout. I knew that Carbondale Fire Lookout was really only known by locals, but was still surprised to learn that besides school groups, there are only ~50 hikers each summer! Given that information, unsurprisingly, we didn’t see a single other hiker on the trail! Even more surprisingly, is that neither of them had ever hiked it – they always drove!
I was also surprised to learn that the fire observers rarely see fire, but smoke instead! Life can get lonely up there they tell us, but technology has made staying in touch easier. The Carbondale Fire Lookout has a telephone and internet, but internet only came in 7 years ago! In the early days, the only communication was via a radio, one connected to all the other fire observers, so there was no such thing as a private conversation!
Depending on the location and season, the fire observers work for ~ 5 months of the year, with very few days off. You can feel like you’re going crazy by the end of the season, Harvey admits but just as quickly points out that his carpeted forest green view of the 1000km area and the Rocky Mountains from his office is hard to beat! I left in awe of Harvey and Ingrid. They are the first line of defence of forest fire prevention in Alberta and for that I saw a heartfelt thank you!
If you are looking for hike that’s easier to find, then I recommend Table Mountain, an 8km long, 765m elevation gain scramble (you’ll have to use your hands on part of of the mountain) named for it’s flat table-top. The trail head is marked and it starts at Beaver Mines Campground. Another bonus of this hike? You may just be greeted by mountain sheep at the top! Somehow, I don’t think you’ll mind that kind of “crowd”.
What Else to Do in the Castle Wilderness
Besides hiking, the area is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise with 25 major headwater steams and 24 alpine lakes. Opportunities abound for fishing, canoeing/kayaking and swimming! I learned to fish at Beaver Mines Lake (also a campground), and chased minnows while swimming in the lake! As a child, I also loved the small swimming hole at Castle Falls (also a campground)! On our recent visit there, we spotted 10 trout in the crystal clear waters within minutes! You can rent kayaks from Krazy Kayak Rentals in nearby Pincher Creek.
Wildlife in Castle Wilderness
An incredible 59 mammal species can be found in the Castle Wilderness. I’ve seen moose several times while driving to Beaver Mines Lake. While, I haven’t personally seen a bear in the area, most locals have and both black and grizzly bears, so ensure that you are never alone.There is safety in numbers! While returning from the Carbondale Fire Lookout, we spotted a deer resting in a meadow above us. She calmly observed us, appeared to determine that we weren’t a threat and went back to her afternoon nap! The area is also home to 10 rare/endangered butterflies and to a number of butterfly species found nowhere else in Canada!
You may notice that I refer to Castle Wilderness as an area instead of a park. That’s because despite its incredible richness in flora and fauna, it remains an unprotected area. The Castle Crown Wilderness Coalition is an advocacy group working to protect it. I sincerely hope they succeed in protecting this gem that so few people beyond locals are aware even exists!
Special Events in the Castle Wilderness
- The Castle Crown Wilderness Coalition offers hikes throughout the summer. Here’s the Summer 2015 hiking schedule.
- The Huckleberry Festival. The highlight of this festival is huckelberry picking. You can either hike up the mountain or take the chair lift for a fee. It’s held in late August every year. This year it’s on Friday, August 28th. Details here.
Where to Eat in the Castle Wilderness
- The Beaver Mines General Store has a wonderful little deli serving fresh soup and sandwiches, along with ice-cream, including my personal favourite, Tiger ice cream. Open until 7:00 pm.
- Stella’s Pub & Grill, Beaver Mines. I’ve eaten here before and really enjoyed it, but it was closed when I was there with no sign indicating opening hours. They don’t have a website, but can be reached at (403) 627-2588.
- T-Bar Pub and Grill at Castle Mountain Ski Resort is open Friday evening – Sunday. They’re known for their pizza, but having a gluten-allergy, I haven’t tried it.
Where to Stay in the Castle Wilderness
- There are B&B accommodations near the hamlet of Beaver Mines in the Castle Wilderness and also some accommodation on Castle Mountain Ski Resort.
- If you want to stay in a hotel, or a place with more amenities, check out the nearby towns of either Pincher Creek or the Municipality of the Crowsnest Pass.
- Camping is available at Beaver Mines Lake or Castle Falls.
Helpful Tips to Enjoy Your Stay in the Castle Wilderness
- The Beaver Mines General Store has fuel, groceries and camping and fishing supplies, along with maps. It’s also a great place to get tips from locals about the area.