Fire lookouts provide an incredible vantage point from their location perched on top of a mountain or ridge top. Many of them are easy to reach as well, often with a wide road that can be hiked all the way to the lookout house.
Below are five fire lookouts near Calgary that can be accessed with the kids for a fun day hike this fall:
Hailstone Butte Lookout
This is a very short hike, and the lookout is worth visiting for the drive alone to the top of the “Hump” on Highway 532 south of Longview (a gravel road that isn’t commonly traveled unless you’re out for an adventure). The road is fine with a regular vehicle and the hike is only 3km round trip. You’ll gain just over 300m of height on the steep hike, but most families should be able to make it to the top in 60 to 90 minutes.
You’ll follow a good trail most of the way to the ridge, but there is a short scrambly section you have to climb at the top where you’ll navigate your way through a short rocky cliff band. Spot young children carefully here and choose a different hike if you have a fear of heights. I also recommend downloading a map for this one on a trail app, because there are no signs, and you won’t be following an official trail.
The biggest highlight of this visit is a chance to view the gorgeous rock mosaics created by one of the former fire lookout attendants. You’ll see beautiful patterns created in the rock surrounding the lookout house. This is also your opportunity to have lunch on top of the world at the most scenic picnic table in Kananaskis, perched on the edge of the ridge.
Raspberry Ridge Lookout
This lookout is located in the Highwood area of South Kananaskis across the road from the Cataract Creek Campground off Highway 940. The road is gravel but not very rough, and suitable for all vehicles. It is a longer hike suitable for families with older youth with a round-trip distance of 9.5km. You’ll gain 650m of height, giving the true feeling that one is actually climbing a mountain.
To reach the lookout, you’ll follow an old road with gradual switchbacks (with an alternate option of climbing a steeper path that makes a direct line for the ridge). I prefer the switchbacks on the way up and the direct route on the way down. Again, downloading a map will help you for this one, because there is no official trail or signage en route.
The highlight of this visit is the opportunity to have your lunch on the scenic helicopter pad located on the ridge beside the lookout house.
Moose Mountain Lookout
This lookout is located in the Elbow Valley off Highway 66 west of Calgary. To access the trailhead, you’ll have to drive up the steep gravel Moose Mountain Road. It’s a steep rough road, but most vehicles should do fine if you drive slowly.
This is another longer hike at 14km round trip distance with 500m of height gain. What I like best about this hike is that you reach the top of an actual summit when you arrive on top of Moose Mountain. You can also see this prominent mountain from Calgary where it’s visible on a clear day.
The hike starts out on an old road for the first 4km before starting a steeply switchbacked climb to the false summit where you reach an open plateau. From this point, gaining the true summit looks daunting but the lookout is only 75m above you so don’t despair. The views from the top are worth the final steep push.
Note this lookout is monitored by an attendant working on site and there is no access to the actual house or helicopter pad. If you want more freedom to look around, I recommend visiting Raspberry Ridge which has nobody working at it this season.
You’ll want to visit this lookout if you’re camping in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park this fall or you’re looking for a short day trip from Calgary. This is also the easiest hike of the options listed in this story because you’ll be on wide ski trails the entire time (and the road is paved the entire way to the trailhead).
The hike is 8km return with less than 300m of height gain, and the lookout is so easy to reach that people cross-country ski to the top in winter. You’ll begin by parking at a small pullout off Highway 40 just beyond the winter gate. You’ll then follow a wide ski trail for the first 3km, relatively flat and doable on a bike, before starting the climb to the lookout. (Bring a lock if you’re using a bike for the first part and continue up the steeper lookout trail on foot.)
From the top you’ll be able to look out over the Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes so choose a sunny day to appreciate the views. Respect anybody working at the top.
Barrier Lake Lookout
This is another great day trip from Calgary, and you’ll start the hike from the Barrier Dam parking lot off Highway 40 in Kananaskis. Of all the lookouts mentioned in this story, this is the most popular to visit, so I recommend going early if you want to find a parking spot (and enjoy some solitude at the summit).
The lookout is perched on the summit of Yates Mountain and is reached in a 12km return hike with 600m of elevation gain. Don’t be scared by the numbers though because you’ll follow a wide switchbacked trail for the first 5km to the top of a beautiful ridge where the climbing is gradual enough to make for a popular mountain bike trail by strong cyclists. Rest here and enjoy the views down over the lake before continuing to a second rocky viewpoint and the final summit in another kilometre where the trail climbs much more steeply.
There will be a lookout attendant working at the site so please obey all signage and avoid approaching the house. The helicopter pad is open to hikers though, so enjoy your lunch on this beautiful platform with an incredible view over the Kananaskis Valley.
Etiquette to follow when visiting lookouts:
Many of the lookouts mentioned in this story are active working sites. There may be a person working and living at the site, taking weather readings multiple times a day, and scanning for forest fires.
Give the lookout attendant space and do not approach the house or the helipad platform beside the house unless invited. You’ll find a picnic table and an area where hikers can have their lunch at most sites a short distance away from the actual house.
Please also avoid visiting the private bathroom (outhouse) which belongs to the person living at the site. It is his/her personal space along with the house and this person lives on site full time.
If you see the lookout attendant, it is acceptable to give a friendly wave or to say hello but respect the fact that they may be working and might not have time for a lengthy chat (again, unless they approach you).
As of the time of writing, you shouldn’t meet anybody working at either Raspberry Ridge or Hailstone Butte for the 2023 season. Respect the sites, but enjoy the freedom to look around.
Tanya is a freelance writer and mom to a spunky six-year-old. She loves hiking, camping, skiing and all things mountain-related. She is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, rockiesfamilyadventures.com.
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