Mount Burke

Mount Burke is a lesser-known front-range peak that sits just south of Kananaskis off Highway 940. Standing at 8,340’ (2540 m), it’s the second highest mountain in the Livingstone Range, the easternmost subrange of the Canadian Rockies. Mount Burke is unique in that it’s crowned with a defunct and dilapidated fire lookout that was once the highest in Canada. Built in 1929, the historic Cameron Lookout was used for nearly twenty-five years before being abandoned in 1953 for a new, lower-elevation post that was easier to access. After hiking to the lookout, it’s easy to see why access was challenging. In a couple spots the exposed ridge narrows to just a few feet wide, making it hard to imagine packing in supplies on horseback once a week. Additionally, the ranger on duty had to regularly hoof it back to treeline to gather wood to burn for cooking and warmth – an arduous task in itself and one that could have been deadly in an unexpected lightning storm.

With its isolated location out in the front range, Mount Burke doesn’t seem like a particularly popular peak. However, it makes a great shoulder season objective when other peaks are snowed in. The summit’s attainable even under snow, however traction is probably a necessity given how narrow the ridge is in places. The scree scrambling is easy, though there is some minor exposure. As always, check winter conditions and know your limits if you’re heading out in the off-season.

Mount Burke’s trail begins near the Cataract Creek Campground. Because we hiked at the end of November, the campground’s access road was closed. Consequently, we had to add an additional kilometer each way to reach the trailhead (about 1.5 miles roundtrip). The -7C (19F) temps felt exceptionally raw as we started out along the shaded service road, but things started to feel better once we really got moving.

As we neared the campground, we spotted the trailhead cairn just off the road to our right. Here, a narrow path briefly skirted the edge of Salter Creek before making a sharp left and entering the forest. Once in the trees, the trail remained there for the next two miles (3 km). The new approach we followed tracked a cut line that, if you look at the GPS, is a mile-long stretch that’s straight as an arrow through the thick woods. According to sources, Mount Burke’s old approach was heavily damaged during the 2013 floods, making this new track the preferred route.

After the more direct length of trail, the path turned to more conventional switchbacks, zig-zagging up the remaining mile (1.5 km) to the treeline. Once we reached the treeline, we noticed a rapid change in conditions. Every trail report I read had mentioned the crazy winds that begin to pummel hikers beyond the protection of the evergreens. With absolutely zero wind for the entire three miles (5 km) up to treeline, I was convinced we had avoided these typical squalls. It was the most picture-perfect calm day and there wasn’t as much as a whisper of a breeze.

However, as soon as we reached the top of the first rock-strewn knoll above the trees, the howling winds all at once smacked our faces with a shocking chill. In an uncharacteristic move, I immediately reached for my gaiter and secured it up around my face with only my eyes showing. This area of the Rockies is known for its ferocious winds, and the day we visited was clearly going to be no exception.

From here to the summit, it was just under a mile along an exposed ridge. The winds were swirling snow around us and we couldn’t hear each other talking from just a foot or two away. While the gusts were annoying, the sun was bright and the views lovely. Looking west, we could see many large peaks along the Continental Divide including Mount Etherington, Baril Peak and a more distant Courcelette Peak. In front of the collection of banded summits was Raspberry Ridge – a small pleat in the landscape and the site of the fire lookout that replaced Mount Burke’s back in 1953.

To the northwest we had a great look at Mist Mountain and many peaks in the Highwood Range. To the southeast we spotted shorter Sentinel Peak with the prairies stretching out further east. We were also able to gaze straight up at the timeworn Cameron Lookout, a tiny speck atop the massive, snow-covered ridgeline. We both agreed that it was a surprisingly scenic ridge walk.

When we reached the top, we thought maybe we’d hunker down in the shelter for a bit and enjoy an early lunch. However, the tumble-down lookout offered zero relief from the whipping wind. Between the panoramic windows on three sides of the hut, the open doorway, and large gaps that had been ripped in the battered wood walls, a windbreak was not to be had. After a very brief stay at the top, we headed back to seek refuge below the ridge.

Though it was a technically easy peak for her, poor Sanchez ended up being somewhat uncomfortable with the relentless winds and swirling snow blowing across the exposed ridgeline. At one point on the way down, she even let out a quick howl – totally out of character for our intrepid, all-weather scrambler. She pushed on like a champ, but worked surprisingly hard (at least mentally) to earn her 96th summit. When we returned to the sheltered treeline, she immediately returned to her old self, prancing around with excitement and once again wanting to sniff everything in sight. Of course, her bravery and perseverance were quickly rewarded with a special salmon stick.

Despite the chilly temps and brutal wind gusts, we really liked this one. It was our first real front-range summit and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It felt great to be able to still get up that high the last week in November and, if we lived permanently in the area, I could definitely see us revisiting Mount Burke.

Total distance: 7.7 miles (12.5 km)
Elevation gain: 3,174 feet (1000 meters)
Scramble rating: Easy (Nugara)

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