A new mountain bike trail has appeared along the section of McConnell Ridge north of Barrier Lookout. This aesthetically-routed trail makes an excellent loop out of the boring Quaite Valley-Jewell Pass trail. If you are mountain biking, the trail is designed for riding in the counter clockwise direction, using the wide, easy Quaite Valley trail to gain elevation for the fun descent back to the highway.
If you are hiking the trail works better the other way round, going in a clockwise direction from the Trans-Canada Highway. That is how I’ll describe the route.
Drive 2 km east of the Lac des Arcs/Heart Creek overpass and park at the unofficial pull-off at the Quaite Valley road. Hike east along the highway for about 1 km until you come to to a small draw after the wide rock-cut. Look for some pruned trees and perhaps a cairn or flagging to start onto the trail. The trail goes up the draw a short distance and then contours across an open slope above the second rock-cut. It crosses over a ridge-line and descends slightly through the trees to a tiny stream. If you missed this section, don’t worry, simply go to past the second rock-cut and make your way up the east side of the next gully. After crossing the gully, the trail again contours east and slightly up hill to get above the next rock-cut. From here, the trail follows a series of limestone outcrops near the crest of the ridgeline. The route is marked with cairns and lined with bits of deadfall. You know if you are on the route if the path is clear of debris. If the path seems a bit steep, simply look around for an easier way. This section is very open, with great views of Yamnuska and the rest of the lower Bow Valley.
The ridgeline levels out after about 200 m of elevation and the bare limestone comes to an end. A very nice trail enters the forest and gradually climbs along a bench on the east side of the north peak of McConnell Ridge. The trail is close enough to the edge of the bench to offer frequent views towards the Camp Chief Hector area to the east. At about 1600 m elevation, you emerge from the shady forest to an open ridge-line with views to the west.
From the ridge, the trail again follows bands of bare limestone, with short jogs to the east in a couple of spots. This is the most scenic section of the hike, with superb views of Mt. Yamnuska, the peaks of the Exshaw Valley, Barrier Lookout and the entrance to the Kananaskis Valley, Jewell Pass, the Heart Mountain loop and more. The trail continues south along McConnell Ridge to a low saddle at the base of the steep, rocky slope with Barrier Lookout on the top. Along this section, there are a few spots where the mountain bike route takes a steep drop down a bit of limestone slab. Wherever these bits are too steep for hiking up, there is always an easier route that gets you back up onto the trail.
From the saddle, look for a well flagged trail that leads southwest, roughly following the 1650 m contour. This nicely made trail winds through a mossy pine and spruce forest until it reaches the Prairie View trail, 500 m from Jewell Pass. Follow the Prairie View trail to the view-less Jewell Pass 4-way junction and hike down the Quaite Valley trail back to your car.