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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’s 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’s 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 (AllTrails states 11.7 kilometers, however, multiple hiking trackers say 13.5km)
Elevation gain: 940 meters (hiking trackers say 1100 meters 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 in elevation and is 13.5 kilometers long. 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 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
Unfortunately no, the trail is simply too technical and long for beginner hikers.
The hike takes anywhere between 6 to 9 hours depending on the speed you go and your fitness level. For most, it will take around 8 hours.
Yes, you can, however, because of the trail’s difficulty, it is recommended that you don’t.
Yes, it can be. In fact, people have died on the trail.
Heart Mountain is located about 10-minutes from Canmore just across the highway from Exshaw.
What to Pack to Hike Horseshoe Mountain
Hiking boots – Hiking boots are highly recommended for the trail. Runners leave your ankles exposed and on the 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 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 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.
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 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 carpark 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 where 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.
Canada Travel Essentials
Before you decide to head off and explore the gorgeous mountains, lakes, towns, and cities around Canada it’s important to have the right equipment. Of course, it’s likely you’ll have most of the basics already but there are some common items people forget that I never travel without.
Crampons: In winter crampons are super handy, but what people don’t realize is that they come in handy in summer too. In fact, up until mid-July, you can still expect icy conditions in the mountains. The pair I use is only $29 and they have lasted me 3 seasons so far!
Waterproof shell: Most people will have this item but I thought I’d include it anyway since it’s so handy in Canada. The Columbia waterproof jacket is a lightweight windproof jacket that will seriously save you in many situations. The best part though? It comes in pink!
Scent-proof bag (for bears): Most people think you only need to keep the smell of food away from you when you’re overnight camping. However, bears can smell the food in your bag while you’re hiking and the best way to avoid an encounter is to use a scent-proof bear bag. Basically, you put your food in the bag and the bear cannot smell it while you’re hiking. This is one item most people never have (I never hike without it) but it could save you and the bear.
Buff: I love my buff! Seriously, I go nowhere without it both in winter and summer. There are a few brands around but I always buy the original Buff (you know, the one from Survivor!) They’re a little more expensive but the material is good quality and both breathable and quick drying.
Dry bag: I have expensive camera equipment so I always travel with a dry bag large enough to fit some of my equipment. It can be a camera, book, binoculars, or even my keys. Regardless, a dry bag gives me peace of mind! The MARCHWAY bag is really good quality, and when not in use, takes up only a small amount of room.
Binoculars: I love my binoculars! Seriously they have come in hand so many times especially when I’m looking for wildlife. The best part is, I use a set that only costs $27 and they serve my basic needs without any issues!
Before you go…
Heart Mountain Horseshoe Hike is one of the harder day hikes 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!