The Cougar Creek to Exshaw mountain route
The Canmore Cougar Creek to Exshaw mountain route is a perfect remote adventure to do in the busy summer months. You can check out some remote valleys not far from the town of Canmore, Alberta on the front ranges of the Rockies. This is a great place to go to get away from busy backcountry areas!
This area really does feel like a remote wilderness. There is no trail much of the time, hence it’s a route. This keeps the crowds away. You’re unlikely to run into anyone except for climbers and some hikers in Cougar Creek. The only telling evidence of people is some effort that has been put into marking some campsites in the valleys and on some of the ridges.
This trip is not recommended in snow, rain or inclement weather. There are some short sections of bushwacking that would be miserable in the rain or snow. Some of the grassy slopes are steep and would be slippery if they are wet. There is quite a bit of travel on creek beds full of boulders of all size and fallen logs with incredible log jams in some spots, so wet conditions would make travel quite treacherous.
The creeks and drainages are also wildly affected by the floods, so travel can be very slow and tedious, particularly through Exshaw Creek. I will be hard pressed to ever come out that way again because of how rough it is to travel through there.
Highlights of the Cougar Creek to Exshaw route
The main appeal of this trip is definitely the amount of time you spend walking around in the alpine. There are numerous excellent places to camp in the alpine and a gorgeous alpine lake you won’t want to leave.
Alpine ridge above Cougar creek
Once you get above Cougar creek, you can walk for hours on the beautiful alpine ridge all the way down to Stenton Lake. If you have water (and a warm sleeping bag), you can even camp up here.
Stenton lake is a beautiful, high alpine lake. At 2300 m this lake is completely in the open with only a few small, stunted trees around the east and west shores. This seldom visted lake is also stocked with plenty of cutthroat trout and the fly fishing is fantastic. Make sure you have a fishing license and check regulations here. When we were there, regulations stated you can keep one fish 40 cm or larger. There is also a bait ban.
Guinn’s camp is a great place to hang out and rest for the evening. The flood has widened the river here and made the area flat and great for camping. Some people have spent a lot of time putting some work into this great spot, including building a food cache, fire pit, and picnic table.
Coming up from Guinn’s camp, you’ll love hanging out at Exshaw pass. The views are endless and include South Ghost Peak. This is also a great spot to camp.
Dangers and Annoyances
Without a doubt, the biggest annoyance here is the amount of flood damage done to the Cougar Creek and Exshaw drainages in the big flood of 2013. Though ravaged, Cougar Creek and it’s feeder creeks were much less affected than Exshaw Creek. Exshaw creek was simply destroyed during the flood. It is virtually unrecognizable.
Steep valley walls were torn off and tumbled into the once-narrow Exshaw creek, huge trees were piled along tight corners which created massive pile-ups and damns, and large boulders are everywhere. There was a trail once to Mount Fable up Exshaw creek that is destroyed, and now part of the creekbed. The walking here is slow!
Due to the lack of trails, there is a small amount of bushwacking to deal with. The worse sections are ascending the col towards the Park Boundary, crossing the creek coming out of Stenton lake to gain the Carrot Creek Route.
The rest varies, for example the trail from Guinn’s camp to Exshaw pass is rather thick, even though there is a trail. The area also recently experienced a fairly significant wind event, which knocked down some very large trees, and made travel tedious for about a kilometre.
This area, like most high mountain routes, is subject to cold, inclement weather that comes in quickly and it can snow any time of year. Stay away from ridges during thunderstorms and if there are thunderstorms in the forecast, plan your travel so as not to be in these exposed places when they hit. We had snow in July when we were there, it doesn’t accumulate, but it was chilly!
At the end of July, we found enough water for when we needed it. There is a long section from Guinn’s camp to Exshaw pass where you can’t access water, and down from the pass and about 7 kilometers into Exshaw creek, we couldn’t find any water. Later in the summer you should keep in mind that this is a very dry section.
When crossing creeks, avoid stepping on any wet rocks as these creeks have a healthy algae population which makes for very slippery footing. Two trekking poles are recommended for this route because of all the creek crossings and boulder hopping.
It’s grizzly bear country
This is a very grizzly bear dense area, so take all the proper precautions when planning the trip. In the summer, the bears are low in the valleys and your chances of running into one are low, but they may be around later in the summer when the berries bloom in the alpine. As usual, practice good bear safety: make lots of noise in dense areas and carry bear spray.
As always, make sure to stash your food and scented items away from camp.
We recommend doing the trip from Canmore via Cougar Creek to Exshaw. It’s better to exit via Exshaw creek rather than start on it due to the rough condition of the creek. To finish on Exshaw creek leaves much of the very unpleasant hiking to the end, and going down Exshaw pass is much easier than going up it.
The drainage is rather treacherous and slow going on the way down, on the way up it will be slower. The first part of the alpine meadow going to up Exshaw pass is also quite steep. It’s possible that the treacherous hike up Exshaw creek will spoil your reserve to complete the route.
Head up Cougar Creek, following the hiking trail from Canmore. It’s hot hiking at creek valley bottom on the first day. Take a left (North) to an unnamed drainage (this drainage originates west of the summit of Mount Charles Stewart). You’ll come across quite a lot of boulder and some log hopping. It wasn’t too bad compared to the Exshaw Creek. The hiking was reasonable.
At one point, you’ll encounter a very nice two-tiered waterfall that has a decent trail on the west side. About halfway up the drainage, we came upon what is a very organized, and fairly frequently used campsite. This is a good place to stop for the night if you have a late start. The alpine is only about an hour or less hike from here.
This camping spot we found looks well used, looks maintained and it’s clean. It is about 4 hours from the start of the Cougar Creek trailhead at about 1900 meters, it has a fire pit, a table, and sitting logs cut from old trees. Getting to it is not too tedious, if you’re prepared for a bit of route finding, log and river boulder scrambling.
Once you reach another steep section of creek, bear left (west) to find a trail in the forest near the drainage. This trail will eventually cross the creek to a stunning sub-alpine meadow, which will require about 20 minutes of fairly unpleasant, dense bushwacking. This is prime grizzly bear habitat. We saw no signs of bear activity since all the bears are likely in the much warmer valleys feeding on berries. Later in the summer and in September there may be bears here, so make lots of noise since visibility is quite obscured in this dense section.
Into the alpine
To get into the alpine as fast as possible, go as straight up as you can instead of heading along the creek. When you pop out, you’ll be impressed at the wide alpine cirque with hanging valleys and simply a giant swath of alpine meadows. The walking here is incredible. You’ll cross some talus and may see some curious big horn sheep. There is a stream here that goes in and out and may be gone later in the summer. It would be a great place to camp.
Once you reach the col, you’ll come across the boundary of Banff National Park which is right on the ridge. The Park boundary follows this beautiful alpine ridge for a long stretch. From the col, head up the peak directly to the east of you, which is an easy alpine ridge walk.
Further up the col, we found some stones that may be a sign of campers, and you can certainly camp here if you have enough water with you.
Since we didn’t make it to Stenton lake on the first day, we headed there first thing in the morning intending to spend several hours there, following the ridge.
Stenton lake is completely doable in a day and would likely take about 7 hours to reach from Canmore. From the col, ascend to the summit of a small peak (unnamed) at about 2700m, and follow a pretty good trail on the scree along the ridge. This is a very scenic and beautiful spot, and easy to navigate. The trail will take you down the entire ridge to a small tarn, and Stenton lake is just slightly below.
Stenton lake is awesome, and you will especially love it if you’re into fly fishing. The lake is stocked with cutthroat trout and we found the fishing excellent. It’s usually chilly and windy, so dress warm. You may be lucky and hit the lake on a fine weather day which would be our version of paradise in the Rocky Mountains.
Be sure to buy a fishing license (if you don’t already have one) and check the regulations before you fish. You’re only allowed to keep fish longer than 40 cm, bait fishing is not allowed and you must use barbless hooks.
After we left Stenton, it took us about two hours to walk to the spot known as Guinn’s Camp from the lake. Follow the northern drainage of the lake down to the confluence with the Carrot creek route. This requires some short bushwacking up the other side of the creek. You’ll pick up a really good trail and follow it east along and eventually down to the creek, and the camp. This is called the Carrot Creek Route.
The hike out from Guinn’s camp is long in terms of distances, at 17.5 km, with 564 m of elevation gain and 1103 m of elevation loss. But the worst part is the slow going down Exshaw creek on the other side of the pass.
Something that resembles a trail is definitely there starting from Guinn’s camp, but it is quite overgrown and bushy in spots. At about 2000 meters elevation, a big wind storm knocked over a swath of large trees, making travel difficult. We pushed up into the alpine as fast as we could, traversed the steep sides of the creek drainage, and entered the dry creek and scrambled up to the top. Exshaw pass is stunning with incredible views in all directions, including a distant view of Exshaw and the Bow Valley. At this point, Exshaw is 13 km away.
Heading down the stunning alpine meadows, you’ll see lots of bear diggings so make lots of noise, particularly in areas of restricted visibility. These meadows are grizzly hot spots at certain times of year.
Once you head down the final steep meadow, enter Exshaw creek, picking up trails on the side when the creek becomes rough. Eventually, it opens out to be as wide as a highway, it also becomes quite flat and walking becomes easy for a few kilometers. This eventually changes as you begin to encounter more and more log jams.
About 5 km from the end, when you can, make your way up the steep east side of the drainage and pick up the Prospector bike trail to exit to Exshaw. The drainage eventually is unpassable for the last few kilometers and will take you several (miserable!) hours to negotiate.
Exshaw pass is really the last highlight of the trip. The area is frequented by helicopter scenic tours, and when you see one you’ll be tempted to grab a ride back to Canmore and save yourself many hours of difficult walking.
The first view you get of civilization is the Exshaw aggregate plant! Anti-climactic, but Canmore isn’t far away for a much deserved meal.
Total kilometers: About 37 km
Elevation gain: 2334 m
Elevation loss: 2483 m
Total Walking time (approximate, including breaks): 20 hours