Tent Ridge, Kananaskis

About an hour south of Canmore off the Smith Dorrien Trail, Tent Ridge is a Kananaskis favorite with high reward for little work. Clocking in at just 6.4 miles (10 km) with 2,650 feet (810 m) of elevation gain, the open ridge keeps you above treeline for nearly 3.5 miles (5.6 km). The prize is enduring views of the peaks surrounding the southern end of Spray Lakes.

Tent Ridge is becoming increasingly popular thanks to its great views and accessibility. Because of this, people of all levels and abilities are taking on this objective. Consequently, it’s pretty difficult to glean any meaningful insight about this route using more popular trail resources such as AllTrails. The hike reports here range from cake walk to death trap with everything in between. To try and help those thinking about taking on Tent Ridge for the first time, here are our thoughts on the route.

In terms of distance and gain, Tent Ridge is a pretty moderate little outing. Six miles and 2,600 feet of gain is not particularly aggressive if you hike regularly. That said, Tent Ridge is technically considered a scramble. For those unfamiliar with the word, a scramble is often more difficult than a hike, usually requiring the use of hands over more challenging terrain (e.g. rocks or scree). Although Tent Ridge is almost entirely an on-trail hike, there is one very short section of scrambling that does require the use of hands. While the scrambling here is considered easy, it might be intimidating for those who have only ever hiked. Skimming the AllTrails trip reports, there are a number of individuals who have clearly never scrambled, describing the route as dangerous with all kinds of colorful embellishment.

The reality is that this is an easy scramble with a brief section of minor exposure. If you’ve done any scrambling in the Rockies, it is really benign. The reality also, however, is that you are up high; and if you aren’t comfortable using your hands to pull yourself up or have a fear of heights, this trail may not be for you. Also, if this is your first time in the mountains, as seems to be the case for many, this might not be the best place to start. The one hands-on section technically makes Tent Ridge a scramble rather than a simple hike, so it’s not for everyone.

Because of its burgeoning popularity, we opted to visit Tent Ridge on a weekday. Thank goodness. The day we hiked we saw maybe a couple dozen other hikers on the trail. It was still way more people than we’re used to seeing, but it was at least bearable. When we drove past on a random Saturday later in the season en route to the Mount Shark Trailhead, we became very grateful that we had opted for mid-week. The number of cars we saw lining the road made us both cringe. I’m pretty sure I even saw Sanchez wince from the back seat.

Tent Ridge was a special one for us – not because of the gorgeous scenery or because it was our first time exploring Kananaskis, but because of the company. My life-long friend’s mom happened to be in Canmore vacationing with her friend and longtime hiking partner. While the four of us all share the same love of hiking, we’ve never actually gone out together before. We were so happy to finally be able to share this passion with the two of them.

After meeting up with Nancy and Pat at the trailhead on Mount Shark Road, we headed out in a clockwise direction. While this is technically an unofficial trail, and therefore not maintained by Alberta Parks, it is very well-trodden and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding your way. The trail starts out in the forest, climbing moderately for about a mile until it opens onto a small valley. From here, we got our first look at Tent Ridge’s horseshoe-shaped profile with the ‘summit’ rising almost directly in front of us.

From the sheltered basin, the trail makes a sharp left as it heads briefly back into the woods before ascending the first section of ridge. As you move above treeline, the views behind you quickly open up onto Spray Lakes. To the north and northeast, there’s a great look at Mount Engadine and the more distant Mount Buller rising above the Smith Dorrien Trail. Beyond the reservoir, Nestor and Goat Mountain also come into view. After an overcast start to our morning, the clouds decided to part just as we started to gain the ridgeline. As the ceiling pushed out and blue skies prevailed, we couldn’t believe our luck.

After breaking out of the trees, it was less than half a mile to the weather station that sits atop the first highpoint. There’s a trail almost the entire way, save for the one very brief section of scrambling. You’ll almost certainly need to use your hands here, and while there is only a mild amount of exposure, it can feel much bigger if you’ve not spent a lot of time in the mountains.

As you gain elevation along the ridge, the view to the north over Spray Lakes improves significantly. Looking directly down to the east, you can spot Mount Engadine Lodge nestled at the edge of Moose Meadows.

Once you crest the top of the ridge, The Fist and Mount Smuts tower directly overhead. From here, the path to Tent Ridge’s ‘summit’ is obvious, requiring a quick jaunt down to the saddle and another moderately steep ascent up. The trail loses about 250 feet (80 m) in elevation over the quarter of a mile (0.4 km) down to the saddle, then gains about 400 feet (120 m) over the same distance to the top. As you make your way to the highpoint, you can gaze down at your route in through the Monica Brook drainage on one side, and down to Tryst Lake and the Commonwealth Creek Valley on the other.

From Tent Ridge’s 8,200-foot (2500 m) summit, the views are incredible. This is also the midpoint of the hike, and the perfect spot to stop and enjoy lunch and soak up the gorgeous panoramas. From every direction we were enveloped by peaks. To the south and west stood Commonwealth Peak, Pig’s Tail, Mount Birdwood, The Fist, Mount Smuts and Mount Shark. To the north were the scenic summits of Nestor and Old Goat rising above Spray Lakes. To the east stood Mount Engadine, The Tower, and Galatea – the first and last commemorating WWI’s Battle of Jutland. Curiously, a number of Kananaskis peaks are named for warships and naval commanders that fought in the 1916 naval battle. As Canada’s Interprovincial Boundary Survey overlapped with wartime, government officials decided to assign these names as a nod to the power and solidary of the British Empire.

After enjoying a long lunch at the highpoint, we finally pulled ourselves away from the views to finish the last half of the hike. This final section of ridge was undoubtedly my favorite, with over a mile (2 km) of endless views as the trail rolled gently along an undulating spine. Here, the jewel-toned pools of Shark and Watridge Lakes exploded from a shadowy blanket of pines. Just beyond, Mount Turner and Cone Mountain soared on either side of the Bryant Creek Valley. In the distance, Mount Assiniboine’s partially clouded crest peeked up above Mount Turner. And with the ever-present view of Spray Lakes in front of us, this last stretch was incredibly scenic.

Eventually, the trail reaches one last viewpoint along a scree-covered promontory before dipping back into the forest. For the last couple miles, the moderate descent follows a well-worn trail and old logging road as it meanders back to the unmarked trailhead along Mount Shark Road.

While both the weather and smoke forecast looked a little dicey when we set out that morning, we were gifted with both beautifully clear skies and shockingly decent air quality. Given the recent wildfire haze that had saturated the area, we felt extremely fortunate for such a perfect day. The best part, though, was being able to share it with Nancy and Pat. After all, it’s not every day that you and a couple of old friends randomly find yourselves together 2,600 miles from home.  

Total distance: 6.4 miles (10 km)
Elevation gain: 2,653 feet (810 meters)
Scramble rating: Easy

Know before you go:

  • While you should carry bear spray everywhere here in the Rockies, make sure that it is both on your person and accessible when you hike Tent Ridge. The area is known for grizzly activity, and there was a hiker who was bluff charged near the trailhead this past fall.
  • It is recommended that you hike the loop clockwise, especially if you’re new to scrambling. Hiking clockwise will have you going up the scrambling sections, rather than trying to downclimb. Additionally, you should only hike Tent Ridge under dry conditions, especially if you’re inexperienced. The scrambling bit can get slick with rain or snow, which adds an extra layer of difficulty to the trip.
  • If you really want to visit Tent Ridge but are not comfortable scrambling, it is possible to hike counterclockwise to the ‘summit’ and return the same way you came. This alternate out-and-back approach would eliminate any scrambling and keep it at a simple hike. You could even hike down to the saddle and up to the weather station, then turn around and go back the way you came. The ‘summit’ is about the halfway point, so an out-and-back would be about the same distance and gain as completing the circuit.

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