Porcupine Hills Northern Traverse

On 30 May 2020, Zosia Zgolak and I were back for our third visit in four weeks to the Porcupine Hills of southwest Alberta.  Building on our previous separate hikes to Trout Creek Ridge and Porcupine Hills North, I conceived of a hiking route which continues north from Porcupine Hills North to the high point of Trout Creek Ridge and finishes along another ridge flanking the east side of Trout Creek.  Of course, this traverse necessitates setting up a car shuttle, but our friends, Asieh Ghodratabadi and Ali Shariat, agreed to join us for this adventure and provide the requisite second vehicle.

For the western starting point of the traverse, park in a turnoff along Highway 22 located 21.0 kilometres south of the junction with Highway 533 or 6.0 kilometres north of the junction with Highway 520.  Be sure not to block the nearby locked gate.  As of this writing, there are two convenient porta-potties situated here.  For the eastern end point of the traverse, turn east from Highway 22 onto Highway 520 and drive 3.3 kilometres to a 4-way intersection with Skyline Road.  Turn left and drive north for 8.8 kilometres to a crossroads and staging area.  Park a second vehicle here.  The trailhead for Porcupine Hills Ridge Trail is located 3.5 kilometres north of the 4-way intersection and can be used as an alternate starting point for the traverse.  The road beyond this trailhead to the staging area may be rutted in places but should generally be passable for 2WD vehicles in dry conditions.

Since Zosia and I had already previously hiked to Porcupine Hills North via Porcupine Hills Ridge Trail, we opted to take the shorter approach from Highway 22.  Crossing to the east side of the highway, we squeezed through a barbed wire fence before climbing up a northeast trending ridge which ultimately leads to Porcupine Hills North.  Smatterings of trail and an overgrown exploration road on this ridge helped ease our ascent, but the forest is open enough to allow easy route-finding regardless.  The final pull to the top is steep but not technically difficult despite the presence of bluffs guarding the ridge.  The weather was very pleasant on top of Porcupine Hills North on this day, and we took a short break here before resuming our hike.

Utilizing a mix of ATV and foot trails, we followed the undulating crest of the main ridge northward.  The next high point is guarded by an unexpectedly impressive cliff band, but just when I thought that we would have to make a big detour around this obstacle, we found an easy scramble route right on the ridge crest.  Descending beyond this high point, we wound up straying from the ridge crest and entering a huge clear cut.  At first glance, it seemed to make sense to make a beeline across the clear cut to reach a prominent bump at the west end of Trout Creek Ridge.  However, we soon found that walking through the clear cut is more tedious than it looks because the enticing grasses hide a lot of ankle-twisting debris.  We made better and more enjoyable progress by sticking to the untouched forest at the edge of the clear cut on the ridge crest.  We soon reached the top of the prominent bump at the west end of Trout Creek Ridge, and this was a good place to stop for lunch.

When lunch was finished, we continued eastward along Trout Creek Ridge and eventually picked up the 4x4 road that Zosia and I had previously hiked on our first visit here.  We followed this road for about 1.4 kilometres before leaving it to gain the crest of another ridge branching away to the southeast (the road carries on along the rest of Trout Creek Ridge to the northeast).  Once again, a mix of ATV and foot trails helped facilitate easy route-finding and travel along this branching ridge which flanks the east side of Trout Creek valley.  We eventually abandoned the trail to ascend our last high point of the day before descending into the valley.

The descent into Trout Creek valley was not without some route-finding challenges as I tried to reconcile the out-of-date roads on my GPS map with some of the dirt tracks we came across.  Once again, we resorted to walking through some clear cuts, and as expected, the footing was not the most pleasant.  We eventually stumbled onto a reclaimed road running alongside a flowing side creek, and we were able to follow this road until it merged with a well-used ATV track.  This ATV track, in turn, intersects a 4x4 road near the valley bottom, and although we intuitively turned right to follow the road downhill toward Trout Creek, we should have instead turned left to go uphill albeit only briefly.  This left branch of the 4x4 road eventually descends to Trout Creek further downstream and continues to the staging area without any problems.  By taking the right branch immediately down to the creek, we were soon facing possible multiple fords which would have slowed us considerably.  Fortunately, we managed to find a rough bypass trail on the north bank of Trout Creek, and we subsequently gained the aforementioned left branch of the 4x4 road.

For some strange reason, Ali took off at this point to retrieve his car at the staging area and return along the 4x4 road to pick the rest of us up.  While I was grateful that he saved the rest of us an extra 400 metres of walking, I am not sure if it was really worth the risk of driving his car through Trout Creek (a nearby footbridge makes the crossing easy for walkers).  In any case, Ali is a braver driver than me, and he drove back across Trout Creek for a second time without any mishaps.  From the staging area, Ali drove us all back to our starting point along Highway 22 to conclude our adventure.

Be sure to check out Ali's interactive record of this traverse.
Not trespassing! Asieh and Ali assist Zosia in getting through a barbed wire fence at the start.  The ridge behind them leads directly to Porcupine Hills North which is visible at upper right.
Beautiful! Aspen trees cover the ridge leading to Porcupine Hills North.
Be sure to check out the little window just below the top. The group grinds up the steep slope below the bluffs on Porcupine Hills North.
It's all downhill from here...almost! Sonny, Zosia, Asieh and Ali reach the top of Porcupine Hills North (1798 metres), the highest point of the day.

Tempting to just call it a day here!

Here is the view looking west from Porcupine Hills North.


Interesting cliff band up ahead... Leaving the top of Porcupine Hills North, the group turns its attention to the next high point.
Hmmm...I wonder if we'll need to circumvent this obstacle. More bluffs guard the southern approach to the next high point.
Should we go for it? The best place to surmount the bluffs is right on the ridge crest.
Easy scrambling! The group enjoys some unexpected scrambling.
More impressive than Sand Bluffs in my opinion. The impressive bluffs stretch away to the east for quite a distance.
Great perch! This is looking back at Porcupine Hills North (left) from the top of the bluffs.
Not as easy as it looks to walk through the clear cuts! Zosia follows Ali and Asieh through a clear cut as they head for the prominent bump (right) at the west end of Trout Creek Ridge.
Approaching familiar ground for Zosia and me. The group hikes along the edge of another clear cut as they make their way toward the high point of Trout Creek Ridge (right of centre).
We saw several OHV enthusiasts throughout the day, but all were courteous and friendly. The group allows an ATV and a dirt bike to pass through on the road along Trout Creek Ridge.

We're now on the back stretch of the traverse.

Near the high point of Trout Creek Ridge (1753 metres), Zosia stops for a drink of water and surveys the route she has walked thus far from Porcupine Hills North (far left).


There's definitely more to explore on the eastern half of Trout Creek Ridge. Asieh and Ali hike along a branching ridge southeast of Trout Creek Ridge's high point.  The eastern half of Trout Creek Ridge is in the background.
Zosia is resting like a dead bird! The group takes another break on some bluffs overlooking Trout Creek valley.  Right of centre is Porcupine Hills North.
And neither are conducive to easy walking here. Thank goodness for the dirt track along the fence! The contrast between this clear cut and the forest is stark.
We had to leave the trail a little further ahead in order to climb up the last high point. The group approaches the last high point of the day.
Wasn't really worth it to come here! Sonny, Zosia, Asieh and Ali stand on some stumps atop the last high point (1721 metres) of the day.
Still a lot of mostly uninspiring walking left from here! The descent into Trout Creek valley is not as straightforward as it looks.
This turned out better than expected. Total Distance:  21.0 kilometres
Round-Trip Time:  8 hours 55 minutes
Total Elevation Gain:  753 metres

GPX Data