Last year when we were in Golden, Smutwood Peak sat near the top of my list of must-do hikes/scrambles. However, with a nearly three-hour drive and intermittent highway closures across Kicking Horse Canyon, we put it off for closer objectives. After all, we had months of hiking ahead of us. Eventually, we decided to save it for our October stay at Mount Engadine Lodge. The rustic retreat was just a kilometer from the trailhead. An added bonus? The larches might also still be golden. This brilliant plan turned out to be a totally boneheaded move, however, as the trail ended up closed due to grizzly activity when we arrived for our weekend getaway at the lodge. The temporary closure remained in place until the first snowstorm of the season blanketed the area, dashing any hope we had of scrambling the peak.
When we returned to Canada the following summer, we refused to make the same mistake twice. On July 23rd, we arrived in Cochrane. Ten days later, we headed down the Smith-Dorrien to bag Smutwood.
Knowing that this Kananaskis hike was becoming increasingly popular, we opted for a Wednesday outing. There was no way I was touching this one on a sunny Saturday or Sunday. While the weather looked fantastic, the air quality forecast looked less so. Smoke from the hundreds of wildfires now burning across BC had been rolling in and out our first week in the Rockies – at times so bad that you couldn’t see the mountains from the foothills. With fire activity showing no signs of slowing, we knew we’d just have to just take a chance. Although it was only four weeks into summer, 2023 was already Canada’s worst wildfire season on record. Regrettably, this became the first of many hikes this year where we’d be forced to take advantage of any day where the air quality was better than ‘poor’ or some level of ‘unhealthy.’
Smutwood is an unofficial name coined by local scrambler Andrew Nugara. Aptly, he came up with the summit’s portmanteau because of its location between (and killer views of) two prominent neighbors – Mount Smuts and Mount Birdwood. Standing at 8,832 feet (2692 m), Smutwood is dwarfed by most of the surrounding summits. However, the views from this diminutive peak in the Spray Mountains are kind of unrivaled.
The trail for Smutwood Peak begins from Mount Shark Road, about a kilometer off the Smith-Dorrien Trail. Starting out on an old logging road just west of Commonwealth Creek, the first two-thirds of the trip aren’t particularly scenic or exciting. For the first four miles (6.5 km), the path is virtually flat – so flat, in fact, that you start to wonder (1) if you’re actually en route to a summit, and (2) when in the world you’re going to start gaining any elevation. Given that the one-way distance to the top is less than six miles (10 km), we quickly realized that every inch of gain was going to come in the last third of the trip up.
About two miles (3 km) into our gainless ramble, the trail entered a marshy area along the Commonwealth Creek Valley. For the next mile (1.5 km), we encountered every kind of mud and muck. Although there hadn’t been much in the way of recent rain, it was still insanely boggy and saturated (be ready for it). Once we were freed from the muck, it was another mile or so (1.5 km) of strolling through scrubby vegetation along the forest’s edge before we started our ascent.
After four miles, the trail abruptly steepened as it climbed to Smuts Pass, and we finally felt like we were headed somewhere. As we crested the pass and skirted beneath the northern end of Mount Birdwood, the lackluster landscape transformed into stunning scenery. Nestled in a verdant basin, the jewel-toned Birdwood Lakes dazzled in the midday sun beneath the soaring summit of Mount Smuts. As the path climbed higher, we were treated to views of both the upper and lower lakes. Just west of Mount Smuts’ intimidating 9,639-foot (2938 m) crown, we got our first sights of the false and true summits of much smaller and much tamer Smutwood Peak.
As the path curled around Upper Birdwood Lake, it again steepened as we gained the southeast end of Smutwood’s ridge. Atop the ridge, we traversed hiker’s left around the false summit, then continued across the saddle between the false and true summits. The final scramble to the summit was fairly straightforward, though the path wasn’t always discernible. In general, we stayed close to the ridge crest, remaining mindful of the steep drop-off on the east side (hiker’s right).
The views from Smutwood’s summit are pretty mind-blowing. Mount Birdwood and the Birdwood Lakes easily steal the show; however, you also get a great look at a host of surrounding summits – Commonwealth Peak, Pig’s Tail, Mounts French, Robertson, and Sir Douglas, as well as Snow Peak. Surprisingly, there was just one other party of three hikers when we arrived at the summit, and their stay was relatively short. While we never expected to have the top to ourselves on such a popular trail, we thoroughly enjoyed every second.
While the showstopping southeast views we came for were blue-skied and phenomenal, our views to the west were somewhat obscured by a thick haze of wildfire smoke that was rapidly moving in. On a clear day, the views out to Red Man Mountain and Alcantara are gorgeous; while further northwest, you get a nice look at Mounts Eon, Aye, and Assiniboine. We got a hazy peek, but we certainly wouldn’t mind coming back on a crystal clear day.
By the time we arrived back in Canmore to grab dinner – just four hours after we left the summit – the skies were so smoky you could hardly see the Three Sisters. We were shocked at just how fast that much smoke moved in, and feeling grateful for the views we did get. While Birdwood was breathtaking, I’ll take my sub-stellar western vistas as a great excuse to return… and perhaps in larch season next time!
Total distance: 11.6 miles (19 km)
Elevation gain: 3,263 feet (1000 meters)
Scramble rating: Easy (Nugara)