The amazing Smutwood Peak hike in Kananaskis Country in the heart of the Canadian Rockies topped our list of Best Hikes Near Canmore, and for good reason. At least until we made it to phenomenal Lake O’Hara. But it’s still a close second. Or maybe 1A.
Also known as Mount Smutwood, the views were absolutely stunning even though we hiked it on a mostly cloudy day with screaming winds and only occasionally bursts of sun. We can only imagine how incredible it might be on a clear day with bright blue skies to go along with the dozens of dazzling peaks and the luminescent waters of the twin Birdwood Lakes. As it was, the photos still turned out all right…
How to get to Smutwood Peak trailhead
You follow the rough and annoying but tremendously scenic Smith Dorrien Trail south out of Canmore past Grassi Lakes. About 40 kilometres from the city, and just after passing the fabulous and often serene Spray Lakes, you will turn off near the Engadine Lodge.
From there you cross the small bridge and the trailhead arrives soon after on a small logging road off to the left. Even though the journey is only 40 kilometres, the drive could easily take an hour because of the rough gravel road and occasionally slow line of hikers driving way out of the city.
If you continue a little bit further up this gravel road instead of turning left you will reach the Tent Ridge Horseshoe trailhead, our other favourite hike in the Canmore area.
Smutwood Peak hike details
20 km / 7 hrs / 950m / max elevation 2,650m
This is obviously a long, strenuous hike but, given enough time, anyone without a severe fear of heights should be able to manage it. And even then, you can reach some pretty fantastic viewpoints above the lakes without even tackling the more exposed, scrambly final kilometre to the top.
The overall time will vary considerably depending on fitness and, possibly, weather. In rain or snow some parts could get pretty slippery (even treacherous) so consider the forecast carefully if you are at all concerned and be sure to get out there early to give yourself extra time to finish.
Smutwood Peak Trail
Like most of the trails in Kananaskis Country, Smutwood Peak is an out and back trip that is basically all uphill the first half, then almost entirely downhill after you’ve reached the summit. However, unlike most of the trails in Kananaskis Country which head immediately up the side of a mountain, this hike actually starts off very pleasantly. The route starts out along an old logging road and the first 6 kilometres have just a very gradual incline. There is a small stretch where the trail gets a bit rough through the trees but it soon emerges into a very picturesque meadow where you follow Commonwealth Creek on an easy stroll for the final couple kilometres before the real climb starts.
At the end of the valley, which will be obvious when you’re there, you can see Smuts Pass looming high above. From here, the trail heads straight up the hill, with most of the elevation coming in the next 4 km, so get ready for some huffing and puffing. And don’t be fooled by the false summit, or Smuts Pass soon after. You’re not there yet, not even close. But it is something. Because as soon as you reach that first pass the views are amazing – back down the valley, into the bowl of the first Birdwood lake, up to Mount Birdwood (on the left), Mount Smuts (on the right), and Mount Smutwood (in the middle). The ridge you still need to climb is very clear at this point.
From here, the route follows a narrow trail across a rocky slope to the west side of the lake until you reach a grassy ridge with views of both lakes, more valleys and several more mountains, including Snow Peak, Mount Vavasour and the unfortunately named White Man Mountain. And, honestly, if this was the end of the hike it would still be a tremendous trail. But it keeps going and it keeps getting better.
From there, you follow the ridge all the way to the top, or just as far as you are comfortable going. While some of the spots look pretty sketchy, they are almost always far less difficult than they appear from a distance. And at each level the scenery back down to the lakes gets even more outstanding, including views of Mount Shark off to the north from the very top. Pretty unbeatable.
Smutwood Peak Weather
We would recommend keeping a close eye on the forecast to try to time the weather as well as possible. Mountain Forecast is an excellent site for detailed weather predictions up at higher altitudes, which can often be very different from what is happening back down at the road. Of course, mountain weather is notoriously unpredictable at the best of times, so always make sure you are prepared for anything. Smutwood Peak is not a place you want to find yourself unprepared, and when we were there the conditions changed significantly several times throughout the day.
What to Take
It is always important to be prepared when venturing out hiking, especially in the mountains, and Smutwood Peak is particularly exposed. Obviously, long, challenging hikes require more advance planning and safety gear but even for short hikes you still need to be properly equipped. Dressing properly will make the experience much more enjoyable and carrying useful safety supplies can ensure you are prepared in case mishaps take place (as they tend to). Here is a quick checklist of items we alway carry, wear or use while hiking:
A good day pack is essential. We have recently become big fans of Gregory packs and would recommend the Gregory Miwok 18 for short hikes or when your gear is split between two people. And the Gregory Optic 48 for longer hikes. I know 48L sounds big but it is a super-light and comfortable pack that cinches down smaller when it isn’t full.
Water is obviously important and we go back and forth between using a Camelbak bladder and just a couple of water bottles. We also keep a few Aquatabs with us at all times just in case we ever run low and want to treat some river or lake water. They are tiny and every now and then come in quite handy. It is always a good idea to carry some snacks as well. It never hurts and sometimes hikes end up taking longer than planned.
Laynni always hikes in compression leggings that she swears by for the extra knee, hip and muscle support.
Layers, baby! Considering the route starts below 1,900 metres elevation and climbs to Smutwood Peak at a height of over 2,650 metres, it is understandable that you may experience a wide variety of weather. There were times (in late September) when I was down to a single long-sleeve shirt. There were other times when I was huddled behind a rock trying to stay out of the wind while wearing my down winter jacket. Then it rained for a little while so I had my poncho on. Overall, the weather swings were the most dramatic of any of the hikes we did in the Kananaskis region.
Merino wool is definitely the way to go for your base layer. Warm, quick-drying and doesn’t smell.
Fleece is usually the ideal second layer, providing warmth and comfort.
You will definitely want a wind resistant layer, either a windbreaker or a rain jacket, which can do double duty if it comes to that. As I mentioned, I had my down jacket along mostly to fill space in my 45L backpack (it is more comfortable when the heavier items are up toward the middle instead of at the bottom) but used it during our lunch break.
Once again, depending on the temperature you may also want to carry a toque (i.e. beanie or ski cap) and gloves as it can feel 5-10 degrees colder in the wind on the ridge than it does down at the parking lot.
And just in case we are so impressed by the scenery that we decide it’s worth a photo with both of us in it we always carry the tiny, extremely handy octopus tripod.
Of course, a comprehensive first-aid kit is key to make sure those “mishaps” are simply inconvenient and don’t ruin your whole day.
Other useful items that we sometimes carry and sometimes don’t, depending on the hike:
There are lots of steep sections along this hike where poles can be helpful, both in dragging yourself up and bracing yourself on the way down. They help you balance on the exposed ridges and save wear and tear on your knees going down. And make sure you have a way to attach them to your backpack for the parts where you need to the use of both your hands.
Grizzlies are commonly spotted in the area so take all the normal precautions for hiking in bear country – stay alert, make a lot of noise, consider a bear bell (can’t hurt, right?), and definitely carry bear spray in an easily accessible location.
Sunscreen. Much of this trail is very exposed, which doesn’t just mean wind and/or rain, but also a lot of sun. And at these altitudes the sun can be a lot stronger than you expect.
Well, that probably covers most of it, although somehow we have even more to say on the matter in our Day Hike Packing List post. Check it out if you’re looking for even more detailed info.
Day hikes don’t get much better than this. Usually you need to embark on a multi-day backpacking journey to find the kind of wild, expansive viewpoints you reach several times throughout the hike to Mount Smutwood. Plus, even though it gets overshadowed by the big viewpoints at the end, the nice walk through beautiful Commonwealth Creek valley and the up close look at the Birdwood lakes would both be considered the highlights of many other trails. With this kind of variety in addition to those rockstar viewpoints, Smutwood Peak easily makes our shortlist of best day hikes anywhere in the world.
Where to Stay in Canmore
A benefit of slow travel and staying for a month is that we can also rent a fully-equipped apartment, get a monthly rate and have plenty of space and all the comforts of home. We stayed at the Canadian Rockies Chalets and it was excellent – well-equipped, roomy and walking distance to grocery stores and downtown. A couple other good choices are Base Camp Chalets (next door) and the Lamphouse Inn, which is right downtown.
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