The Centennial Trail is the highest maintained trail in the Canadian Rockies and an absolutely breathtaking hike. It is definitely the most challenging day hike my husband Colin and I have completed as we racked up 26 kilometres with 1900 metres of elevation gain as we traversed from the Ribbon Creek trailhead near the Nakiska ski resort up and over Olympic Summit and Mt. Allan to the trailhead near Deadman’s Flats near Canmore. What made the day even more thrilling was to do it in the company of Leigh McAdam (author, adventure writer and travel blogger) and her husband John. I am a huge fan of Leigh’s blog: Hike Bike Travel as well as her best selling books, Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures and 125 Nature Hotspots in Alberta.
I had attempted to make it to the summit of Mt. Allan two weeks earlier with good friends but we had to turn back due to poor weather shortly after making it up to Olympic Summit, which has the ski runs of Nakiska Ski Resort dressing its lower slopes. With the summit of Mt. Allan looking tantalizing close on that day, we had to be respectful of the deteriorating weather which can turn a great day into a dangerous one. But it left me hungry for a repeat attempt. July 20th was a perfect day, sunny skies and seasonable temperatures.
After dropping off one vehicle at Deadman’s Flats, the four of us drove to the start of our trek at the Ribbon Creek trailhead, just off highway 40, near the Ribbon Creek Hostel. Despite taking a wrong turn early on and adding an extra 2 km to our day, we were soon out of the forest and into the glorious sub-alpine, with carpets of wildflowers and views that grew more impressive with every upwards step taken. The trail snaked relentlessly upwards at this point. My Adventure Poles were shortened much more than they usually are to account for the steep uphill grade and I could sure feel my chest, abs, shoulders and arms working with every step taken to help my legs with the slow, steady upwards grind. Soon, we had reached Olympic Summit with panoramic views of Kananaskis Country to behold and photos to be taken.
Next came a brief descent into the saddle between Olympic Summit and Mt. Allan, with in-your-face views of Mt. Sparrowhawk and Mt. Lougheed on one side of our ridge walk and the Kananaskis River valley on the other. We had lunch in this saddle section, in the heart of the fascinating rock garden, filled with huge conglomerate rocks and boulders, with some as big as a house. We were provided with excellent protection from the increasingly strong early afternoon winds. The next section of the hike was my favourite as we began to ascend out of the saddle and into a section marked by soaring rock spires. After leaving the spires behind it was a relatively short, steep ascent to the summit of Mt. Allan.
What an incredible feeling of elation it was to stand on the summit, with the views now taking in the more familiar and iconic front face of Mt. Lougheed and a huge expanse of the Bow Valley including Canmore and beyond. The joy I felt wasn’t dampened by the fact my geocaching app was not working, meaning it was fruitless to search for the summit geocache that would have been my highest find. But what did cause me some embarrassment and cause for concern was the fact that as the trip planner, I had resorted to reading a few previous blogs about this hike that had reported the total distance as 18 or 19 km. I had not confirmed this by double checking the distances myself on the top map. As we sat and soaked in the scenery at the summit, it became apparent we still had about 17 km to go….. Ouch!
It was now time to shorten my poles in order to maintain a 90 degree bend at my elbows to maximize the assistance to my knees, hips and lower back for the long, gradual, spectacular ridge walk. It was several kilometres long, punctuated by having to negotiate a few rock bands. Here I would strongly argue with guidebooks and trip posts that say this is purely a hiking trail with no scrambling. In this section, there were definitely a few “scrambly” bits by my reckoning that took me out of my comfort zone and had my heart racing. With a knee that will not bend more than 90 degrees after a total knee replacement, I have a very difficult time down climbing through any rock bands. There were also a few steep bits where the trail was covered with what I like to call “ball bearings” which are also very difficult for me to come down. They slowed me to a crawl which made me anxious about slowing down the rest of my party. There was also one very steep section where we lost the apparent trail. A trail marker would have been most welcome at this point. The two men forged on ahead to do a little reconnaissance, with John finding a super steep route back to the obvious trail and Colin finding a slightly less steep and more hiker friendly route which led to a trail marker not visible from where we lost the trail. Other than the brief sections that were a challenge for me, there is nothing I love more than descending from the heights of a big hike along a spectacular ridge walk and that is what the Mt. Allan traverse provided.
The final section of several kilometres was once again along forested trails. The descent was gradual which allowed us to pick up the pace of walking and talking. I was once again able to angle my poles behind me in the typical “plant, push, propel” style to maximize the assistance to my very weary legs. After 10 hours of enjoyable trekking with great company the Mt. Allan traverse was a “fait accompli!”