Sugarloaf Fire Lookout, 12 July 2020

The Sugarloaf Fire Lookout (2514 m; centre) as viewed from the summit of “Vicary Creek Ridge”. Three things made this a really interesting trip: 1) it was Jeff’s first time up a mountain since his knee surgery; 2) we saw a funnel cloud from the summit that was later confirmed to be a tornado and; 3) it is Canada’s highest active lookout. On top of all this, the sheer variety and number of wildflowers was incredible. It was definitely another great day to be on a mountain!

⚠️ Hiking and scrambling are inherently dangerous activities. Please read my Disclaimer⚠️

The last mountain that Jeff and I were on together was, “Lightning Peak”, back in 2017. How he accomplished that ascent while suffering from a previously torn meniscus and ACL is beyond me -it was truly a Herculean feat. Jeff would go on to summit one more peak on Vancouver Island before undergoing knee surgery in mid-2018. Since then, he has been working diligently on his recovery – cue the Six Million Dollar Man theme – and today, it finally worked out that he could test his repaired knee on a mountain. Yahoo!! 😁

The question was, which mountain would provide the most favourable conditions? I was partial to a fire lookout, but wanted to avoid one that we had already visited. After reading trip reports by Bob Spirko and Sonny Bou, I determined that the Sugarloaf Lookout was the best choice, as it presented the options of sticking to a road for the entire trip, or going off-trail and gaining elevation up a steep, but manageable slope. We ended up choosing the latter when Jeff said that his knee felt fine after walking the first ~4 km or so along the road. We then proceeded to ascend Sugarloaf’s grassy east slope to a series of rock bands beneath the summit. With his knee still feeling fine (though I’m not sure about his lungs 😏), Jeff tested it even further by scrambling up a couple short sections before enjoying the easy walk to the summit. Well done nephew! 👏

The lookout itself was shuttered as part of an alternating schedule of use, but according to Mike Potter, “it is the highest active L/O in Canada.” (Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, second edition, 2008, 36) It was while we were enjoying lunch on the summit, that we noticed a small funnel cloud extend down from a large thunderstorm hovering just beyond Coffin Mountain. It was active for several minutes before retracting and then reappearing again for a shorter cycle. When we returned to Lethbridge, we learned that it had actually turned into a small tornado close to the town of Nanton. I’ve seen many interesting things while hiking, but this was the first time that I’ve witnessed a tornado!

Another highlight of the day, was the sheer variety and abundance of wildflowers. This was a frequent topic of conversation and the reason behind many of our impromptu breaks along the way. When set against a rich blue sky, there was no shortage of colour or aromas – well, we could’ve done without the smell of cattle, but in southern Alberta, that’s also the smell of money. 😉 Yes, this was definitely a great day!

To get to the Sugarloaf Fire (and Tornado 😉) Lookout from Lethbridge, drive west on Highway 3 until you reach the junction with Highway 22 shortly past the hamlet of Lundbreck. Turn onto Highway 22 and drive north for ~25 km until you reach the Maycroft Road just prior to crossing the Oldman River. Turn left (west) and onto the Maycroft Road, and drive west for ~21 km until you come to the T-intersection with the Forestry Trunk Road. Turn right (north) and proceed for another ~5 .2 km until you come to the Dutch Creek Recreational Area on your lefthand side. Turn here and drive for another ~7.8 km until you come to an ATV trail/road on your righthand side. The only marking is a series of small orange triangles on a pole. This is the trailhead.

We then followed the road for ~4.6 km until we came to what looked to be a well-trodden foot path leading towards the east slope of Sugarloaf. On my Garmin Canada West Topo map, it was marked as the ‘Sugarloaf Shortcut’ and so we followed it for ~400 m until it began to curve away from the mountain. This is when we left the trail to make the ~ 80 m hike reach the base of the east slope. From here, it was a ~1.1 km hike (~470 m elevation gain) to reach the summit. My topo map said we were on the Shortcut all the way to the top, but there was no actual trail to speak of.

After enjoying the views, we descended along road, making the ~8.4 km walk back to my 4Runner in good time.

Our total distance travelled was 15.4 km with total elevation gains of 979 m. Our total roundtrip time was 5 hours even.

The trailhead (right) is located ~7.8 km from its junction with the Forestry Trunk Road. It is really easy to miss and as Mike Potter notes, if you come to a ‘No Road Maintenance Beyond This Point’ sign, you’ve gone about ~300 m too far. The only trail marker is a post with four orange diamonds indicating that it is a snowmobile and ATV route.

Hmmm… the summit is further away than I thought. That’s okay, it will give Jeff’s bionic knee time to get warmed up. 😉

A wild rose in bloom.

Heading into a section of trees. In hindsight, it may have been better to bring our bikes for the approach…

Gorgeous sticky purple geraniums.

Yarrow with silky lupine behind it and a sticky purple geranium to the right.

Heart-leaved arnica.

Approximately 3.3 km from the trailhead, we came to this gate – presumably to keep the cattle that we encountered near the trailhead, confined to the lower section of the road.

Wild rose, silky lupine, and heart-leaved arnica bunched together alongside the road.

As Jeff said his knee was feeling fine, we began to discuss leaving the road and ascending the slope directly beneath the summit.

Gazing back along the road.

We would eventually head up the slope to the right of centre.

We came across what appeared to be an old sluice box sitting beside the road.

Jeff snaps a photo of the interesting contraption. Maybe this is where the little-known, four-man bobsleigh team called the ‘Sugarloaf Daddies’ used to train? 😂

Not far from the sluice box and ~4.6 km from the trailhead, we came to this well-trodden footpath on the lefthand side of the road. According to my Garmin Canada West Topo map, this was supposed to be the Sugarloaf Shortcut. With Jeff’s knee doing well, we decided to follow it towards the mountain.

Jeff follows me along the trail.

So far, so good. The trail appeared to lead toward the grassy slope in the centre.

However, after ~400 m, it began to curl southward and away from the mountain before bifurcating (pictured). We followed the trail on the right for only 5 more minutes, before leaving it and heading back towards the grassy slope.

After leaving the trail, we followed this clear route through the trees for ~80 m until we were at the base of the grassy slope – and according to my topo map, back on the Sugarloaf Shortcut, though there was no trail of any form to speak of.

We would ascend directly up this slope to Sugarloaf’s east ridge and then the summit.

Jeff’s first off-trail foray since his knee surgery. 😊

Jeff “Bionic” Lang leads the way. I kept listening for bionic sounds, but I guess technology has progressed a bit since the 1970s. 😏

The slope was steep but scenic. The south end of Cabin Ridge is in the background.

Arriving at the start of the rock bands.

A view back at our route so far with the road cutting across the centre.

This short section of scrambling presented itself as the most obvious route up the first band.

After tackling the steep grassy slope, Jeff further tests his knee by scrambling up behind me.

Looking southward as Jeff continues to ascend without issue. “Vicary Creek Ridge” is behind him on the left.

Gazing back towards the Livingstone Gap that sits between Thrift Peak (distant centre) and Thunder Mountain (distant right). The Livingstone Fire Lookout sits atop Thrift Peak.

Silky phacelia sericea.

The terrain along the ridge was fun to navigate.

Some cool overhangs mark the second band.

We skirted the second band by heading to climber’s left.

This patch of alpine buttercup was growing in the middle of a cliff face. Good thing it wasn’t alpine butterfingers! 😉

Jeff easily scrambles up the third band of rock.

From here, it was an easy hike to the top.

This was when we first noticed the storm sitting above Mount Livingstone and Coffin Mountain.

Sugarloaf is a surprisingly high mountain and it wasn’t a chore to keep looking back at the views.

Arriving on the summit ridge and getting a solid glimpse of Gould Dome (left) and Tornado Mountain (right).

The summit was now only a short walk away.

Jeff makes the final few steps before reaching the summit ridge.

The art from previous lookout observers was on full display as we neared the summit. I was worried that the current observer would not want us to come any closer due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, much to our surprise, the lookout was shuttered and no observer was present.

According to Mike Potter, this impressive summit mosaic “is the creative effort of Tom Johnston, who worked here from 1979 to 1982. The design includes a compass rose that Johnston told the author is orientated correctly, thanks to the fire finder.” (Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, second edition, 2008, 36)

He’s back! Jeff celebrates his first summit since undergoing major knee surgery.

Another mosaic is situated next to the lookout. Mike Potter notes that the original lookout was constructed in 1954 and was replaced by the current structure in 1978. (Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, second edition, 2008, 36)

A pano to the north.

A pano to the northeast.

A pano to the southeast

A pano to the south.

And finally, a pano to the west.

The lookout has a fantastic view of Gould Dome (left) and Tornado Mountain (right).  On the far left is Mount Erris.

A telephoto of Tornado Mountain (left) which at 3099 m is the highest peak in the area. Ever since I led a group of university students up Tornado Pass in 2003, I’ve wanted to go back and complete this summit. Though after 17 years, it’s probably safe to say that I’ve been a little sidetracked. 😂  The name however, is fitting for what Jeff and I would see shortly after I took this picture.

Regarding the mountain, its name comes from the unpredictable and violent weather in the area. A.O Wheeler of the Boundary Commission wrote of his experiences on the mountain in 1915: “Tornado Mountain is the storm centre of the locality and, on occasion of two ascents, the party had narrow escapes, first through a cloud-burst accompanied by sheets of hail, which caused the mountain to run wild, torrents of water cascading down its slopes in every direction, and rockfalls, loosened by the water, crashing on all sides; on the second occasion, a fierce electrical storm encircled the summit and severe shocks were felt by members of the party. For days at a time dark thunder clouds, rent by vivid flashes of lightning, were seen to gather around the summit and similar storms were encountered while on the other adjacent heights.” (Jay Sherwood, Surveying the Great Divide: The Alberta/BC Boundary Survey, 1913-1917, Caitlin Press, 2017, 91-92)

A telephoto of Gould Dome. Further to the preceding information about Tornado Mountain, historian Jay Sherwood notes that Tornado Mountain “was originally named Gould’s Dome by Thomas Blakiston in the 1860s. However, [Morris Parsons] Bridgland changed the name to Tornado in 1915 and transferred the name Gould’s Dome to a smaller mountain nearby.” (Surveying the Great Divide: The Alberta/BC Boundary Survey, 1913-1917, Caitlin Press, 2017, 91) Blakiston chose the name Gould to honour the British ornithologist, John Gould (The Great Divide Trail Association) and over the years, the name has been shortened to, Gould Dome.

A telephoto to the northwest shows the upper half of Beehive Mountain (centre).

A telephoto to the southwest of Mount Secord (left) and Mount Erris (right).

Looking further to the southwest along the High Rock Range and a number of unnamed peaks. Racehorse Mountain is on the far left and behind it in the distance is, Allison Peak.

The Seven Sisters and Crowsnest Mountain sit in the centre of this telephoto to the south. The small peak on the far left is Ma Butte, while Mount Tecumseh is on the far right.

Gazing to the southeast at Thunder Mountain (left), “Lightning Peak” (centre), and Centre Peak on the Livingstone Range.

A closer look at “Lightning Peak” (centre) which was the last summit that Jeff and I were on together before his knee surgery in 2018.

The view east at Thrift Peak and the Livingstone Fire Lookout. Far off in the distance is the Porcupine Lookout, showing how all three lookouts form an observation line.

The thunderstorm that I previously noted, is looking more ominous as it moves east beyond Coffin Mountain.

A closer look at the south end of Cabin Ridge.

Another storm moves through to the north.

How big was that fish? (Note the fish in the mural in front of me – I’m not sure it was originally supposed to be a fish, but maybe it was?)

Initially, I was surprised to see it shuttered, but Mike Potter states that the “season on Sugarloaf since 1985 has been combined with that of the Livingstone L/O, which begins earlier in the summer.” (Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, second edition, 2008, 36)

Another view of the lookout.

It was while we were eating lunch, that I noticed a funnel cloud (left of centre) descending from the storm that we had been watching earlier. It was active for several minutes before retracting and then reappearing again for a shorter cycle. When we returned to Lethbridge, we learned that it had actually turned into a small tornado close to the town of Nanton. I’ve seen many interesting things while hiking, but this was the first time that I’ve witnessed a tornado!

An enlarged image of the funnel cloud. I guess this is also the Sugarloaf Tornado Lookout. 😉

While Jeff’s knee did great on the ascent, we decided to play it safe and descend using the road.

Beginning the ~8.4 km hike back to my 4Runner.

No route finding was required here.

‘No Motorized Vehicles Beyond This Point’ – unless of course you own a dirt bike and can ride by on the embankment. 😠

A cool high point on the north side of Sugarloaf.

One more look back at Tornado Mountain (left) and the High Rock Range.

We made quick time along the road.

This section of the road offered some decent views.

Jeff checks out a massive boulder beside the road.

Anyone have some scissors and some paper? I know a game!

Jeff pauses to check out the trail that we used earlier in the day.

On the way back, we shared the road with quite a few dirt bikers. My first bike when I was a kid was a ’78 Suzuki RM 80 – it was in crap condition but I loved it.

Casting a final glance back to the summit.

Arriving back at the trailhead after a roundtrip distance of 15.4 km and a total time of 5 hours even. While it was cool to visit Canada’s highest active lookout and see a tornado, the real highlight for me was seeing Jeff summit his first mountain since his surgery. Hopefully this will be the first of many more!

One more pic of the trailhead that shows the pole with the 4 orange diamond markers. You can also see where I parked in the background.


    1. I love your philosophy about hiking with your kids! It is not about getting from point A to B, but allowing their sense of exploration and wonder take over. It is something to watch my adult kids head up mountains on their own now, knowing that they were once the same age as your son. He must have loved being in the fire lookout! I thought your history on the lookout was interesting as well – thank you so much for sharing!

      1. Hi Dave,

        Nice to know more people think alike and I certainly agree with you about the way I would like my son to experythe outdoors.

        Also with the climbing activities, although he wants to go climbing a lot, I introduce him the whole climbing philosophy and the “rules” from scratch.

        He is till young and he has plenty of time to enjoy climbing, but I want him to get a solid foundation on safety and to understand is not just a game.

        Thanks for taking the time to read the post.

      2. Your trip reports are fantastic and are fun to read. I drilled it into my kids – especially when they became teenagers and think they are invincible – the mantra, “There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old bold climbers.” My one son recently went on scramble with some friends and he made sure he and the others were wearing helmets and not walking above each other. You are doing the right thing by teaching proper techniques and safety at a young age so that it becomes second nature. Everyone says this, but it is true. They grow up so fast and soon he will be leading you up new routes – and you will be proud to follow! Take care!

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