By Jeromy Farkas
In July 2022, I found myself in the middle of the remote Oregon high desert. After struggling to stand in the 105°F (40.5°C) heat, I was forced to accept the futility of my situation.
I sat on the side of the road, stuck out my thumb, and started waiting.
After what seemed like an eternity, a van pulled up. Hope was relieved when his driver gestured for me to get on. Climbing into the back seat, I learned that my rescuers were on their way home from an adventure at Smith Rock, a world-renowned rock climbing mecca.
He’s no stranger to hitchhiking, and I’ve found that conversation can be unpredictable. But upon learning that I was from Calgary, my companions immediately immersed themselves in stories of their climbing exploits on “Yam.”
Towering over the Bow Valley at 2,232 meters (7,323 ft), is the first mountain you will see on the way to Banff. But despite having witnessed the impressive cliff of Mount Laurie (Yamnuska) hundreds of times, and have been to the top a few times – I had no idea it was such a revered climbing destination. That is, until I found out from strangers, thousands of miles from home.
When we got into town, I offered the driver some money for gas. “Keep it,” they said. “Just give ‘Yam’ a hug for me next time you see her.”
When my friend Dave Dormer recently proposed a last-minute weekend hike, I knew exactly where to go. We left Calgary around noon and arrived at the Yamnuska trailhead in less than an hour.
We set out along the East Ridge Trail. Known as Raven’s End, this hike takes you most of the way up the mountain, but without the need for equipment or a full day commitment. The first leg offers a modest elevation gain and loss, making it easy to warm up.
The mud and softly packed snow made for easy travel under aspen and pine trees. After a few hundred meters the path becomes steeper and remains that way. At about mile 1, Dave and I climbed a series of rock steps, a recent improvement by Alberta Parks. Immediately afterward we reached a trail junction. Climbers head left, directly towards the cliffs. Hikers go to the right, ascending a more gradual route.
We followed the hiking trail east, then north, up the mountainside. From one of the several viewpoints we remember the surprising height gained in a short time. I see some favorite and familiar peaks of the Front Range, including Doorjam and Heart Mountain.
At 2.8 km, the trail suddenly turns west, bringing the mountain back into view. We soon reached another major trail junction, this time marking the option between continuing straight towards the mountain hike and climb, or towards the descent into the CMC valley. We continue straight.
We reach the rock wall at km 3.5, which is the ideal detour for most. To travel beyond this place it is necessary to climb and pass through the first “chimney”, a narrow and steep passage that leads to the climbing route at the back of the mountain. Continuing beyond that is a more challenging “hands-on” experience, only for those who know what they are getting into.
Given the time, we decided to leave it here rather than attempt the much more challenging full circuit. The incredible views from Raven’s End gave us a real sense of achievement in just a few hours. We descend the way we came and return to Calgary with plenty of daylight to spare.
(Thanks to Rob Shotclose, executive director of Bearspaw First Nation, and Jennifer Bobrovitz of the Stoney Tribal Administration, for sharing research with me on the importance of this mountain. Its colloquial name is derived from “Îyâmnathka”, which means “flat-faced mountain “. Its official name, at the request of the Stoney people, is Mount Laurie: in memory of John Laurie, honorary chief, beloved teacher and defender of indigenous rights).
- Where to start: Yamnuska Ridge and CMC Valley Trailhead
- Driving time: 55 minutes from Calgary
- Difficulty: Easy to moderate
- When to walk: The trail is open all year round. Do not proceed towards the back of the mountain without essential equipment, training and route knowledge.
- Distance: 7.5 kilometers round trip, or 2-3 hours.
- Elevation: 525 meters.
- Do not forget: Kananaskis Conservation Pass and backcountry preparations, such as a trip plan, bear spray, microspikes, layers, headlamp, and trekking poles.
Final verdict: Known far and wide, the historic Mount Laurie (Yamnuska) and its spectacular limestone cliffs should not be underestimated. Raven’s End is an easy and valuable early start to the hiking season, and a preview of summer adventures to come.
Former City Councilor Jeromy “Pathfinder” Farkas is executive director of the Glenbow Ranch Park Foundation, whose mission is to protect and promote one of Alberta’s iconic provincial parks through engagement, education and conservation. [email protected]