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Hotel Hiking is so luxurious. Because Grande Cache, Alberta, is still relatively unknown to most hikers, you can get a really nice hotel room for $69.00/night. Split it two ways, and it's just a bit more than camping! 21 nearby peaks to hike, followed by a hot shower, a restaurant meal and a soft bed. Nice!
The Mt. Stearn hike starts from the Sulphur Gates access road beside the Smoky River. The first part sucks - it's an 850 meter grind straight up over about 4 or 5 km, with just a few views through the forest. Do-able, and nice for a forest walk, but nasty and hard on the knees and even worse if it's been raining. Unlike the Parks Canada trails, the Grande Cache trails are completely unmaintained, and there are stream crossings, unpleasant washouts, roots and boulders to deal with.
I had a group of ten people, all fairly experienced, and while some were a bit slower than others, they all had the strength to keep up. Me, Michel, nine women and one dog. Forecast highs near 26°C with sunny skies. We started at about 10:00AM and slogged our way up the hill. There are a couple of campsites beside the trail as you reach the higher sections, and they make a good place to stop for a break.
It's when you break out of the treeline that it all becomes worthwhile. The trail opens up onto an alpine meadow. Lightning Ridge is straight ahead and we followed the trail towards it for a km or so before reaching the turnoff to the left for Mt. Stearn. It is important NOT to take the tempting route up the first ridge - you'll wind up having to backtrack. The proper one leaves from the small pond farther down the valley.
There's a narrow trail heading up the slope and a bit of bushwhacking, then you break free onto a spongy, moss-covered slope. The trail is gone so you just keep heading higher until you reach the first summit. Nice place to stop, so we ate our lunches and soaked up the sunshine and the great views.
Then on to the true summit. We parked our bags just below the scramble, then clambered up to the top. The scramble is an easy one of perhaps 10 metres, but the exposure would mean a 300 m. butt slide in the event of a fall. The dog had the easiest time of it - must be the 4WD.
More great views, and we signed the register and took a lot of photos.
As anyone who's done it knows, going up a scramble is easy, but going down again is a bit harder. I had a rope to rig as a handline if needed, but all I wound up having to do was talk a few people down, step by step, and stand by with a hand out for them to grab onto. The dog just picked up his leash so he wouldn't trip over it, and scooted on down to wait for us at the bottom.
Once everybody was down safely, we headed back to the first summit, and got organized for the return trip. More great views, then the descent down to the valley. Back into the forest, and an excruciating downhill grind. Sore knees for some people, and bad footing, made the descent almost as hard and long as the climb, but we all made it down safely.
Total elevation gain was about 1010 m according to my altimeter, and the total distance was 15.6 km round trip. Signage at the TH is wrong, showing only 6 km each way, but the correct distance and elevation is given in Terry Deamer's hiking guide, available at the GC Information Centre - it's the only reliable resource I've ever found for the area. With lunch and rest stops, the whole hike took about six hours.
Back to the trailhead at about 4:00, then back to the hotel for a shower, then to the Vegas bar for pub food and cold beer. A great day all around.