Are you like me and love hiking, but grumble every time switchbacks come your way? I’ve done a fair amount of hiking in the Kananaskis region, and I just experienced a completely new adventure – private hiking Fortress Mountain. More than a hike, it’s an ATV assisted hiking experience that I’ve got two passes to giveaway!
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Hiking Fortress Mountain
If you’re a skier or grew up around Calgary, you’re probably familiar with Fortress Mountain Resort. This ski hill has been closed for over a decade, but it’s actually scheduled to reopen in 2021. In the meantime, you can go hiking at Fortress Mountain even though this crown land is privately leased.
White Mountain Adventures just launched three new adventures at Fortress Mountain. These guided adventures tick all the right boxes:
- No crowds: check
- Easy parking: check
- New to you trails: check
- Unspoiled, pristine mountain wilderness: check, check and check
The landscape is so hella gorgeous, you’ll quickly realize why Hollywood shoots so many movies out here. Films like The Revenant, Inception, Jumanji: The Next Level and The Bourne Supremacy were all shot either on mountain or nearby.
Fortress Mountain Tours
White Mountain’s Fortress Wildlife and Nature Explorer tour would be good for those who want to soak up sweeping Rocky Mountain views without having to sweat their way to them. This half day tour takes you to postcard pretty stops via an all terrain vehicle (ATV), with a few short (easy!) walks along the way.
Along with The Huz and our daughter, Eve, we tested out the Backcountry Ridgeline Hiking Adventure, another half day tour, but one where you’re actually hiking along a mountain ridgeline. And come fall, they’ll be running larch tours (more on that below).
Backcountry Ridgeline Hiking Adventure
Tours meet at Fortress Junction, a gas station and parking lot set along the stunningly beautiful Highway 40. You’ll leave your vehicle there and climb into their van for the 15-minute drive up to Fortress.
At Fortress, you’ll have time to use the outhouse and meet Mountain Mel, a 79-year-old gent who lives here year round.Then it’s into the ATV for a rip roaring ride across the wilderness.
Our first stop was to Bonsai Garden, a jade-hued lake ringed by staggering peaks. Because Fortress sees next to no hikers, the marmots are especially curious. You’ll want to watch your food should you decide to picnic there. Check out this super quick Twitter video I took of our new BFF.
Back in the ATV, you’ll cruise along a rough gravel road flanked by a kaleidoscope of wildflowers. A female swainson’s hawk calls this area home, and if you’re as lucky as we were, she’ll guide you part of the way as you head up to the base of Mt. Baldy.
There’s more than one Mt Baldy in North America and this one sees so much wind, the snow blows off of it. This is where you’ll begin your hike – a steep, but short 200 ft. uphill grind to paradise.
Once at the top, you’ll have your Sound of Music Moment. Or at least I did on Instagram. It’s an incredibly panoramic scene with the Opal Range on one side and the Fortress range on the other. You’ll peer down into three provincial parks: Bow Valley, Peter Lougheed and Spray Valley. Paddlers on Wedge Pond looked like colourful tiny specs in the distance.
We were happily hiking along for a good while when we spotted a big horned sheep several hundred feet below us. True to form, he scampered away, but as we wound around the ridge, we ran into him again, this time digging for food. Then the dude laid down. On our path.
He simply wasn’t moving and there was no way around him. With herbivores, Parks Canada recommends you stay a minimum of 30 metres away and because this hike is led by a certified professional mountain guide, you’re following ALL the rules. (On that note, do NOT bring beer or alcohol of any kind with you. They won’t let you drink it.)
Still, it was one of those quintessentially Canadian, pinch me now moments. The Rockies are regal, but that big horned sheep was simply majestic. After taking countless snaps, we scuttled off to a few different areas our guide had planned as backup.
When we weren’t traipsing across scree and rock, we were submerged in carpets of wildflowers from purple fleabane to crimson paintbrush to yellow arnica and periwinkle forget me knots.
Banff ATV Tours
Even though we weren’t in Banff, this ATV tour was one of the most picturesque outdoor experiences I’ve had in the Rockies. It’s actually pretty hard to do any ATV tour in Banff National Park because of all the Parks Canada regulations. If ATV action is what you’re looking for, look beyond the National Park to spots like the Kananaskis, where this experience took place.
The main difference between earning your views with your own two feet and ATV tours is that the ATV does the hard work for you. You get to experience the great outdoors without really having to rough it. Because you’ve got that extra power, you’re also able to go further in a shorter amount of time, seeing a lot more than a hiker would.
Because of COVID, you’ll be required to wear masks in the van and in the ATV. It’s max 5 people per ATV and your guide will be the one driving. That’s right, participants don’t get to drive their own ATV as you do in Hawaii or on other popular ATV tours. You’re a passenger on this experience.
Who is it good for?
This type of assisted activity is ideal for those who love the great outdoors, but perhaps don’t have the stamina to grind their way up significant inclines. If you like outdoor adventure, and heli-hiking appeals to you, then ATV assisted hiking would be right up your alley.
If you’re into photography, but don’t have your hiking legs under you, this tour would also be a great fit. Likewise for families of teens who aren’t avid hikers. ATV riders need to be over the age of 12 to participate.
Best time to hike Fortress
Late spring and summer are good times to get out on the trails. My absolute favourite time to hike in the Rockies is fall. In September and early October, there’s less crowds, more pleasant weather, less bugs and … the trees look amazing.
In the Canadian Rockies, we don’t have many trees that morph into blazing red and orange foliage, but we do have larches. Larch trees look coniferous, but are actually deciduous with lime green needles. Before they shed their needles, they turn golden yellow, but blink and you’ll miss them!
Once the larches start to turn colour, you’ve only got about two weeks to catch them before they’ve completely shed their needles. So many people hike Larch Valley in Lake Louise, it can be hard to enjoy that hike unless you’re doing it mid-week.
Luckily for us, White Mountain Adventures is offering this ATV tour and hike until the end of September (and possibly into October). You’ll have these pristine mountain and fall foliage views all to yourself!
What to pack for ATV hiking
As with any hike, bring layers. Even on a hot day, it’s at least 10 degrees cooler up on the mountain than in the valley. It can get quite windy up at Fortress, so bring an ear mask if you’re prone to earaches.
- Hike poles – White Mountain supplies, and you ought to use them, but if yours are your fave, bring ‘em.
- Mask/buff to wear in the van and ATV.
- Water and snacks.
- Your guide will have bug and bear spray, but it’s always smart to bring your own.
- The usual: hat, sunscreen, kleenex, hand sanitizer, ziplock bag to tote out garbage, etc…
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