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For those looking for a hike in the Canadian Rockies that is both a challenge but also rewarding, the Heart Mountain Hike/Horseshoe Trail is a great choice. It is rated as one of the best things to do in Canmore and I couldn’t agree more.
Starting only 1 hour from Calgary and 15 minutes from Canmore, the trail takes you to some pretty spectacular viewpoints, three mountain summits, and is great practice for beginner scramblers.
The trail is rated as “hard” and when compared with hikes like Ha Ling Peak I’d have to agree! After completing the entire Heart Mountain Horseshoe I was relieved. Reviews of the hike hadn’t done the difficulty justice and on a hot summer’s day running out of water two-thirds of the way was not what I’d call fun.
Because of the difficulty of the trail, there is a lot to know before you go. So in this blog, I’ll share everything you need to know about the Heart Mountain Hike and how to best prepare! Oh, and you’ll get to see some amazing photos of what to expect!
Heart Mountain Hike Overview
Distance: 13.5 kilometers/8.4 miles (AllTrails states 11.9 kilometers/7.5 miles, however, multiple hiking trackers say 13.5km)
Elevation gain: 940 meters/3084 feet (hiking trackers say 1100 meters/3610 feet with ups and downs)
Time needed: 6 to 9 hours
Type of Trail: Loop
The full Heart Mountain Horseshoe Loop is a difficult trail that climbs over 1000 meters (3610 feet) in elevation and is 13.5 kilometers long (8.4 miles). What makes the trail so hard is the technical climbing/scrambling required on one side of the trail.
This long climb to the top involves climbing up steep rock faces and at some points, even short vertical climbs. On top of that, without the proper knowledge beforehand, it can be easy to get off the trail and lose the markers.
The trail can be hiked in a loop, or for a shorter version, an out-and-back trail. The out-and-back trail is 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) each way and involves hiking the counter-clockwise side up and back down. This is a shorter climb where you only summit one mountain, however, getting down this steep section is technical, and in my opinion, somewhat dangerous.
Only hikers with some experience should consider hiking the trail and those afraid of heights should either steer clear or hike with experienced hikers. Also, you should avoid this trial on days with high winds or any rain as the rocks can become dangerously slippery.
Heart Mountain Hike FAQs
What to Pack to Hike Horseshoe Mountain
Hiking boots – Hiking boots are highly recommended for the trail. Runners leave your ankles exposed and on difficult terrain, I wouldn’t advise wearing them.
Bear spray – This is most definitely bear country. We saw bear scat on the trail so always bring your spray and make noise. I’m pretty sure my singing helps keep them away.
Phone – Because of the risks on the trail bringing your phone is a great idea just in case bad weather or injury occurs. There is phone reception on the entire trail.
Water – Bailey and I brought 3 liters of water on the trail and it wasn’t enough. I would recommend at least 2 liters per person – probably more on a hot day.
Food – It’s a long day and snacks and lunch are needed!
Helmet – Bailey and I did not have helmets, however, a Parks Canada ranger said they are a great idea as the loose rock from hikers above you can fall.
Warm clothes – It can be hot at the start of the trail but once you reach the summit and walk the horseshoe you are exposed to the elements. Bringing warm layers is a must.
Hiking poles – Bailey had hers but I’m not sure if they were more annoying than helpful. On the climbing parts, she had to give them to me so she could climb. Just be aware of this before packing them.
Parking and the Heart Mountain Hike Trailhead
Heart Mountain Horseshoe Trail starts from the Heart Creek Trailhead car parking lot near the Lac Des Arcs. A parking lot specifically for Heart Mountain is now being built, however, it is currently unfinished so for now the trail starts from the Heart Creek lot.
Getting to the parking lot can be a little confusing. Simply head down the Trans Canada Highway until you see the exit for Lac Des Arcs. Here, exit and turn to your right before crossing the overpass into a small car parking lot that is signed for the Heart Creek Trail.
If you want to ensure you get a parking space in the summer, it’s best to head out before 10 am in the morning. This parking lot is hugely popular among rock climbers who hike down to Heart Creek.
Once parked, you won’t see any signs for Heart Mountain Hike. Instead, just jump on the Heart Creek Trail and continue hiking for around 10 minutes until you cross a few bridges over Heart Creek. After you cross the last bridge you’ll see a sign that points one way for Heart Creek and the other way for Heart Mountain. If the sign isn’t there (for a random reason) you must turn left (towards the highway) not right.
From here, just keep following the trail until you reach another sign warning that the trail now becomes a scramble. Here is where you want to start climbing up as this is the counterclockwise way to hike. You could hike clockwise but I personally, as well as many reviews, warn against it as it’s more dangerous coming down the steepest part than going up.
After this sign, it’s time for the relentless climb to the top of the horseshoe!
The Scramble to the Top of Heart Mountain
Heart Mountain Trail begins in the forest which provides stable ground to walk on. This first part is steep and tiring, but not technical. It isn’t until the trees begin to disappear that the technical part starts.
On this section of the trail, simply follow the orange markers. Although there aren’t many of them, just be sure to always find the path to the left. On the right, the path is harder and I have heard of people getting off track and having to backtrack.
It is important to note that as the trees begin to disappear you must look for blue markers. The blue markers indicate areas you need to scramble or climb, so once you see the first blue marker expect them until you reach the top.
The blue markers are either triangles or squares. The triangles point to the direction you need to follow and the squares simply mean to go straight over the marker. This is especially important at one section where you need to physically climb a two-meter vertical wall with a square marker on it. If you don’t climb this wall and hike beside the wall you’ll end up with nowhere to go and you must turn around and backtrack.
The scramble to the top can be nerve-racking in some parts especially if heights aren’t your thing. Just take it slow and get on your hands and knees if you need to. Keeping yourself low to the ground and your body weight forward is the safest way to climb.
The technical part of the climb is only for around 30 minutes right near the top of Heart Mountain, after this, the rest of the hike is easier.
Important: Finding the markers is not something you need to stress about before tackling the trail. However, the best advice I got was to keep left, look for orange markers, and then transition to the blue ones. It’s really that simple! When you see the big wall with the blue marker, climb up over it!
Hiking the Three Peaks on Heart Mountain Horseshoe
One of the coolest things about Heart Mountain Horseshoe Hike is the fact you get to summit not one, but three mountain peaks! This easily makes it one of the best hikes in Canmore.
After summiting Heart Mountain, you’ll then need to walk a ridgeline that visits two more peaks. The first is Grant MacEwan Peak and to reach it you’ll need to hike for around 45 minutes to an hour along the ridgeline.
This part of the trail is up and down but only slightly. It was honestly a great rest from the massive climb we had just done!
Along this section the views are amazing! Walking the ridgeline gives you uninterrupted views of the surrounding mountains. Bailey and I stopped a few different times to admire the views and when we finally made it to Grant MacEwan Peak we stopped for lunch.
At Grant MacEwan Peak, you can sign your name in the register at the summit. If you have good weather it’s a great place to relax before continuing on. This is the highest part of the hike at 2149 meters (7051 feet).
The 3rd peak is another 45 minutes of walking past the second. This last and final peak before you begin your descent doesn’t actually have a name (or at least I couldn’t find it.) It is marked by a pile of rocks and once you get here there is no more uphill hiking left… yay!
By this point Bailey and I had run out of water and were ready to get down, so we didn’t stop for long!
Climbing Down to Finish the Trail
When beginning the descent after the last peak, you’ll have to navigate a small section of loose rock and scramble the terrain. This section was a little scary for us so we took it slow and luckily it only took 25 minutes to get past this section. After that, we entered the tree line where the trail began to flatten out to a gradual decline until we reached the bottom.
At the bottom, the trail turns left and walks back along the side of the highway to the start of the trail. There are a lot of wild berries in this area (ideal bear territory) so make lots of noise!
By the time Bailey and I made it back to the parking lot we were both exhausted and very thirsty! Overall though, what an amazing hike and our first-ever scramble!
Essential Info You Need to Know About Heart Mountain Trail
Hiking in winter isn’t a good idea – The trail is not safe to hike in the cold winter months. In fact, I’d avoid anytime when temperatures are low enough to create icy conditions.
Hiking in groups is best – Not only is this bear country but hiking in groups is also much safer on a trail such as this one. For one, it’s not a very popular trail so you may not see other hikers (the day we went we saw only one) and the terrain is more dangerous than other hikes such as Grassi Lakes or Ha Ling Peak.
Toilets – There are no toilets on the trail, only at the Heart Creek parking lot.
Related Read: If you’re interested in guided hikes or other experiences (like exploring a cave), check out the top tours in Canmore!
Other Things to do While You’re in Canmore
If you’re still putting together your Canmore itinerary here are some of my personal favorite activities across all seasons that I would recommend to anyone!
- Explore the Canmore Caves – one of the best and most popular adventure tours on the outskirts of Canmore is this Canmore Caving adventure tour. You’ll rappel down into the Rat’s Nest Cave system and explore underground through narrow spaces before reaching a clear pool of water with impressive stalactites and stalagmites. This tour lasts 6 hours, costs $179 CAD, and includes all climbing gear and your own guide so you don’t get lost.
- Go ice skating on a frozen lake – if visiting Canmore in the winter one of the most epic and non-touristy experiences to have is to go skating on one of the area’s frozen lakes (usually frozen solid by mid-December). A few of my favorites are Gap Lake, Lake Louise, and Vermilion Lakes. If you don’t have your own skates you can easily rent a pair from Gear Up in town.
- Whitewater Rafting – an iconic Canadian activity that is sure to provide lots of scenic views, thrills, and laughs! After a safety briefing, this whitewater rafting tour will have you splashing through rapids for around 2 hours. It costs $130 CAD and is available in the summer from mid-May until mid-September.
- Wildlife Safari – Canmore is home to an abundance of wildlife, including black bears, grizzlies, moose, bighorn sheep, foxes, cougars, elk, coyotes, lynx, mountain goats, wolves, and more. Spotting wildlife on your own is often a coinflip so I recommend going on a wildlife tour with an expert who knows where and what to look for along with how to do so in a safe manner. This private half-day wildlife safari tour is a fantastic option that spends 2 hours on a drive through the Rocky Mountains and a 1.5-hour nature walk to track wildlife. It is pricey at $325 per person but it’s worth it if you’ve been dying to see the native animals!
- Hike to Grassi Lake – this hike to a naturally emerald-colored lake is one of Canmore’s main attractions. The color is so bright it’s hard to believe it’s real! This 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) long trail only gains 125 meters (410 ft) in elevation and takes most people about 2 hours to complete. It’s totally doable for most ages and experience levels so you really have no reason to miss out on the incredible views of Grassi Lake! Just get here early before the parking fills up.
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Thanks for reading!
Heart Mountain Horseshoe Hike is one of the harder day hikes around Banff I have done. However, it was also super rewarding. Despite some reviews stating the views of the concrete plant ruin the trail, I disagree. The mountain views are breathtaking and being so far from the busy trails around Canmore is peaceful. I would definitely add Heart Mountain Hike to your bucket list!
Thanks so much for reading! I hope this guide to Heart Mountain Horseshoe has helped you plan your upcoming adventure. If you found this blog helpful e sure to check all our other Canada blogs or these related articles below!