If you’re searching for a quiet hike with a little adventure mixed in Zephyr Creek Trail might just be what you’re looking for. Situated in the picturesque Highwood region of Kananaskis Country, Zephyr Creek is a relatively easy day-hike with one important caveat, you must ford the icy cold Highwood River to access the trail. The Highwood is a tributary of the Bow River that originates near Highwood Pass in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. This glacier-fed river runs cold even in Alberta’s warmest months so it’s important to know what you’re getting into before embarking on this trek. Previously one could park at the Sentinel Provincial Recreation Area before crossing the river, but the devastating floods of 2013 wiped out this day-use area, which resulted in us parking along Highway 40 and making our way to the river over the flood debris. We packed a change of shoes and socks, as well as a towel, to assist in the river crossing because hiking in sopping wet feet is a recipe for blisters and discomfort. Once across the river locating the trail also proved to be difficult as the flood had badly eroded the opposite bank. Some off-trail exploration and a little bushwacking were required before finding the correct spot. The hike itself is approximately 9km roundtrip with about 150m gained in elevation.
After a short distance the trail opens into a large meadow that was once the site of a ti-jurabi-chubi or Sun Dance Ceremony, performed by the Stoney First Nation. Roughly translated ti-jurabi-chubi means “to make a lodge or dwelling for a religious ceremony”. According to Chief John Snow the dance that accompanies the ceremony is, “an expression of the joy and ecstasy of religious life, of being thankful for life, the beautiful creation, the rain, the sun, and the changing seasons.” Each lodge is constructed from freshly cut trees and shrubs and adorned with colourful banners affixed to a central pole. After the completion of the ceremony the lodge is left to time and weather for dismantling. There is a similar site near Sibbald Lake that was constructed in 1984, but when comparing the two this particular site appears to be much older as the structures have all fallen down and weathered timber is strewn about. Nearby stands of Aspen are decorated with colourful cloth, which leads me to believe this culturally significant site is still being used by local First Nation communities and demands the utmost respect.
Leaving the meadow behind us we continue along the trail, crossing Zephyr Creek a couple of times before reaching an intersection. Here we make a left-hand turn and enter Painted Valley, so named for the ancient rock art found within. Painted Valley was to be our final destination on the day, but it also makes a nice side-trip for those continuing to Bear Pass, another 3.5km and 370m in elevation down the trail. The Painted Valley trail zig-zags across Painted Creek six times in half a kilometre before reaching the sacred site. Archaeologists believe the pictographs are over 300 years old and were painted by either the Kootenai or Salish People who lived on the edge of the prairies. Due to their isolated location is is believed the paintings are from a successful completion of a Vision Quest Ceremony. The site was originally home to a large collection of pictographs, but a rock slide in 1975 destroyed most of them. Today there are two very distinct paintings with a few more unprotected pieces that are slowly being lost to time. There are reports of additional pictographs high on the ridge above, which is accessible by a steep scree slope to the right of the paintings. A few members of our group scrambled up the slope in search of more rock art but only found a few small red smudges.
After a successful outing we were back on the trail headed for the parking lot. The hike back was without incident and the final challenge of fording the river seemed less daunting as the ambient temperature was much warmer than our earlier crossing. It always amazes me how the same trail appears substantially different when travelling the opposite direction, allowing for new perspectives on familiar landscapes. Happy trails everyone!