It’s one thing to see 82 million tons of rock piled up at the foot of a mountain. It’s quite another to hike the mountain that it all toppled from resulting in Canada’s deadliest rock slide!
Although I’ve lived in Germany for the past five years, I’ve from Alberta, Canada. I’ve done somewhere between 150 – 200 hikes in the Canadian Rockies. Hiking up the west side of Turtle Mountain is the most unique hike I’ve ever done! It’s not something you will forget – EVER! It’s also in an area, the Crowsnest Pass in SW Alberta, that many visitors bypass for the more popular national parks.
In 1903, part of Turtle Mountain collapsed, spreading boulders as big as houses across 3 square kilometres. The rock slide was the deadliest in Canadian history and tragically killed ~70 people in 100 seconds. Most of the bodies were never recovered. The role of cole mining in the rock slide has long been debated, but scientists currently working on the Turtle Mountain Monitoring Project consider it to be a factor.
Here’s where the really freaky part about hiking Turtle Mountain comes in – its structure is still unstable and scientists predict that it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when more of it will come tumbling down.
The hike, which turns into a scramble after the first peak – meaning you have to use your hands as well to scramble up the mountain, starts in the residential district of Blairmore. It starts off as a very steep climb up the spine of Turtle Mountain. You will find yourself clinging to tree branches to brace yourself, especially if the trail is muddy, but it gets less slippery after the first few minutes. And the steepness does relent…in places. But the good news is that there’s a well worn, albeit unsigned trail to the first summit. In my book, an unsigned hike is usually a good sign – pun intended! And Turtle Mountain is no exception!
Within minutes you will be able to see the first summit, but no signs of the rock slide on the other side of the mountain. For that incredible, not to mention scary view, you’ll have to continue to just below the first summit. My heart was racing as I took this photo:
Soon after that you’ll reach the first summit. Expect it to take 1 1/2 to 2 hours. From the first summit, you’ll see exactly how humongous the rock slide was:
This is where your head starts to fill with thoughts like What if it collapses again while I’m on it? Relax and take a deep breath. You are safe. The mountain is continually monitored. Nobody wants a repeat of 1903. If there were any significant signs of seismic activity, the area would be closed off.
For more positive thoughts, face west for far reaching views over the Crowsnest River Valley and over the town of Blairmore and Crowsnest Mountain to the north! That’s another scramble that I really enjoyed, but with 1200 m elevation gain, it should be attempted only by those with hiking/scrambling experience.
The first time I hiked Turtle Mountain several years ago, I continued on. Trust me, you’re going to want to. However this time, my husband and I were forced to turn around due to bad weather.
You could literally see the rain moving towards the mountain and I’m guessing the wind was at least 50km an hour, probably more. I had difficulty standing without falling over. As hard as it was to turn around, it simply wasn’t safe to continue. Check out the video and you’ll see what I mean:
This next part is from the first time I hiked Turtle Mountain. Now, assuming that weather is on your side, the best part is yet to come – the part that makes this hike truly unique! But before you can get to that part, you’re going to have to do a bit of a dreaded down climb – about 25 m. I know, I know, you’ve just spent the last couple of hours climbing up and now you’re going to have to climb down, only to climb up another 50m! Trust me, it’s SO worth it!
Ignore the voice in your head that shouts: LOOK AT HOW UNSTABLE I AM! This is truly the fun part for adventure lovers! My heart was beating as I visually created my route up the mountain, only to have it be interrupted by fractures and boulders blocking my way. It’s like a giant puzzle on top of a mountain. Your job is to figure it out. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this part!
Try to stay relatively near the top of the mountain as I found it was easier going this way. At this point, your heart will be pounding – both from the effort and overcoming the fear that the mountain could collapse at any time – it won’t! Then, you start to see all the seismic solar powered monitoring equipment. All of a sudden another rock slide seems imminent. Your heart starts beating even quicker. Remember, despite what your eyes are seeing, you are safe – mind over matter!
While the second summit is not far, it’s slow going and will take you at least 45 minutes to reach it! Enjoy it, this is the part that makes it such a unique hike! You also have the option to continue on a bit further to the helicopter landing pad! And no, not for your rescue, but just because it’s cool!
When you return, try to stay close to the top of the mountain until you reach the path again. I made the mistake of descending too quickly. Trust me, it’s a natural tendency to want to put some distance between you and the monitoring equipment and black hole crevices. But it’s actually easier if you stay closer to the top and figure your way down through the maze. Take your time and go slowly.
Most of all take in a few deep breaths of fresh mountain air. You have just summited the most unique mountain in the Canadian Rockies!
Frank Slide and the Crowsnest Pass for the Less Adventurous
After reading that you will probably have one of two reactions: 1)That sounds like SO much fun, I can’t wait! or 2) Never, ever going to happen! If you choose #1, have fun and let me know how you like it. If you choose #2, you’re in the majority. Fortunately there’s some fun stuff for you too – that doesn’t involve deep crevices – I promise!
You’ll definitely want to stop by the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre. It’s worth checking out the exhibitions, but even if you don’t go inside, there is a short interpretive loop outside which is informative. The Frank Slide Lookout is also a good choice for giving you one of the best views of Frank Slide – without having to climb up a mountain. It’s one of several short cycling/walking routes you can choose from.
After your hike, or your visit to the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, you’ll probably have worked up an appetite. I really enjoyed Stone’s Throw Cafe located at 13019 20 Ave Blairmore. It’s where the locals hang out and the homemade goodies, friendly service and cozy atmosphere reminded me more of a cafe in Europe than in Canada (trust me that’s a good thing, Europeans know how to do cafes!)
Downtown Coleman Walking Tour
There’s also a 1 to 1.5 hour self-guided walking tour through Coleman. It’s a historic town that grew up around the mine in the early 1900s. Highlights include the Coleman National Historic Site and the Coke Ovens, along with historic buildings. The route is well signed and will give you an overview of the area’s history.
Heritage Driving Route
It’s also worth taking a drive, or cycling through the beautiful Crownest River Valley through the communities of Coleman, Blairmore, Frank, Hillcrest and Bellevue. The 20 km long route will show you the highlights of these mining towns.
Know Before You Go to the Crowsnest Pass
- Even if you don’t plan to hike Turtle Mountain, the Crowsnest Pass is still worth a visit to explore Frank Slide and its mining history.
- Check out these suggestions from Travel Alberta for more things to do in the Crowsnest Pass.
- You could easily spend a week hiking in the area and the nearby Castle Wilderness.
- If you’re not planning on hiking, 1 -2 days is long enough to see the highlights.
- If you plan on hiking Turtle Mountain, the trail head is located near 134th Street in Blairmore. It starts under a power line, just before a chain lain fence blocking access to an old quarry. There are yellow painted rocks indicated the trail head, but no sign. The hike is 900 m of elevation gain and takes ~ 5 hours return.
- Weather can change very quickly in the mountains as it did on my second visit to Turtle Mountain. Be prepared to turn around if conditions become unsafe.
Disclosure: My visit to the Crowsnest Pass was made possible by Travel Alberta. I climbed Turtle Mountain on my own initiative. As always, all opinions are my own.