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Return to Cutoff Creek: With An Ascent of Scalp Peak

Easy Scramble
Elevation [m]: 
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YDS Difficulty: 
Not Too Bad
Saturday, November 12, 2016

With the winds of winter not yet really starting to blow, another trip into the front ranges seemed in order.  While the original plan of aiming for the fearsomly named Forbidden Peak fizzed due to group scheduling issues the core of the plan (biking in along the hopefully largely frozen Cutoff Creek PLUZ ATV/horse road) seemed solid.  Eric and I had biked into the 40 Mile Campground back in the spring and it was an area worth coming back to.  With Forbidden off the table the next likely candidate was what Google Maps calls Scalp Peak (the highest point on a large network of ridges to the south of the Clearwater River).

PLUZ (public land use zones) like Cutoff Creek are replete with ATV, horse, and snowmobile traffic so heading in during shoulder seasons is generally a good plan to avoid some mechanical hazards while biking or hiking on the trails.  The bike approach to the campground played out quite similarly to the trip in the spring only patches of deep spring snow were replaced by surprisingly deep early winter mud!  See the spring TR for info on the approach.  Overall it took about the same time to bike in as previously (muddy sections making for quite slow going, at times there was enough mud to stop the tires from actually rotating, getting an earlier start on the way out while things were frozen would be key the next day).


Starting off from the Cutoff Creek Staging Area.


Quite the wide (and often muddy) trail.


Looking up an unnamed peaks from part way towards the campsite.


Some interesting rock on some of the front range peaks around here.


A new bridge along the road since Eric and I were back in the spring.


View from around the 40 Mile Patrol Cabin right beside the campsite.


This unnamed peak is quite worthy of a trip at some point.


Like in the spring I had the whole campsite to myself, lots of space!


After setting up camp and making a quick coffee, it was time to change gears and head south towards one of the ribs leading up Scalp Peak.  The Forbidden Creek and Skeleton Creek trails are accessed from the junction just before the campground and thankfully looked far less muddy than the main trail!  On the map the best route seemed to be about 2 km after the trail left Forbidden Creek. While the first bit of biking was very good (and non-muddy) travel, the gravel flats by the creek were much less bikable.  I regretted not leaving my bike right at the start of the flats and ended up stashing it in the bush a few hundred meters furtheron.  From the flats views to the north of "Burnt Peak" were actually fairly decent.


The junction between the road back to the staging area, the road to the campsite, and the Forbidden and Skeleton Creek trails.


A beastie roaming the other side of Forbidden Creek.


After crossing Forbidden Creek several times (the trail very much assumes you are not walking on foot) sticking in the bush on the eastern shore seemed like a less soggy option and worked out quite well.  There are plenty of game trails around here to weave a route paralelling the creek.  From the end of the flats, the trail returned to its previous quality and quickly lead to the base of the ascent rib.  Bushwhacking was actually not too bad and with a fairly steep grade, elevation was gained swiftly towards treeline.  One concerning development became obvious at a clearing about 30 minutes before treeline. While here in the front ranges was bright, sunny, and warm grim wet clouds were building in the west.  Before long Forbidden Peak itself was out of view and a few sprinkles were coming down.  Thankfully some blue sky started peeking through to the far west, it seemed like only a short wave of grumpy clouds rather than something more sinister (so there was still hope for decent views higher up too).


Getting back on good road after crossing the flats of Forbidden Creek.


This part of the trail would also be quite good for biking.


Quite nice forest for traveling in.


Some forboding clouds towards Forbidden Peak.


A few sprinkels started to come down after this point.


Nothing too tricky scrambling-wise to get past treeline.


There is no real getting around the fact that the trek from treeline to the summit of Scalp Peak is sloggy.  A solid 550 m of height and 2.5 km of scree travel awaits you from treeline.  Thankfully there are some pretty cool front range views to be had along the way to mitigate some of the slogitude.  The true summit doesn't actually reveal itself for a long time until you are quite close to it.  While a tad fearsome from afar the whole route is pretty much just a hike.  From the summit, a great many peaks are visible but woefully few are named.  There is a lot of potential in this area for good scrambles and climbs if you are willing to bushwhack a bit.  I was a little bit surprised to see a decent sized cairn with a summit register atop the peak (apparently set as a geocache) in an old ATV battery box.  With a very brisk wind blowing and not that much daylight left my summit stay was not a long one but the late afternoon lighting did make for some neat pictures.


Blue sky on the horizon, might have good weather after all!


Looking over at "Burn't Peak" and "Grassdome" that Eric and I wandered up beforehand.


Spooky lighting behind Forbidden Peak.


Quite the difference in clouds.  One of the unnamed summits in view in the middle.


Looking over at the unnamed peak and the Clearwater River.


Ptarmagins are actually quite tricky to see in snow-patches!


Finally the true summit is in view.


Looking to the true summit on the left and some near height subpeaks in the center.


Lovely lighting around here.


A full summit panorama for good measure.


Descending back to camp was a bit of a race against the sun.  Getting back to my bike before dark would be nice, back across the creek flats would be great, and getting back to camp would be fabulous.  I Ended up working out the second opinion which meant a bit of headlamp biking needed to get back to camp. It didn't seem like it on the way up, but the trail from Forbidden Creek to the trail junction is ever so slightly angled to make for quick biking down.  After getting a cozy fire going and gobbling down a grub the almost full moon was too good to pass up for some long exposure night pictures.


One last pano on the way out.


Back at the camp just before things got properly dark out.


A very bright moon made for nice long exposure images.


In the morning after a quick breakfast it was time to get back on the bike and peddle out towards the staging area.  Thankfully clear skies overnight led to a pretty good freeze and my bike was able to stay on top of the deep mud that plagued me in some sections on the way in.  There was still no sign of anyone else on the road until just before the staging area when a pair of ATVs zoomed by (they seemed very surprised to see someone on a bike!).  As with the previous trip in the spring, I was very impressed with the views and peaks in this neck of the woods.  There are certainly a lot of other peaks worth coming back for (Forbidden and the unnamed horn-shaped beastie for certain) not to mention heading further up the Clearwater and into Banff via this approach.  Lots to do in the future!


The next morning looking up towards Forbidden Peak on the left.


A quick bike ride later and back at the staging area.


Zoomed in towards the peaks visible from the staging area.


Quite a good objective for this time of year.

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We ascended Scalp Peak as a day hike from Yaha Tinda (parking beside Bighorn Creek) in early June 2016. There is an excellent road from the Yaha Tinda boundary to the Forty Mile Patrol Cabin. If you come in from the south, pick up the ridge to the east of the road just past the Scalp Creek Natural Area and enjoy the ridge walk to the summits in the Scalp Peak Series. We were just over 50 km round trip with similar elevation numbers for the hike. The trip would be best with a bike approach from Yaha Tinda - excellent road - apparently a sledding area in the winter.

Thanks for sharing your trip report and we're glad you enjoyed the cairn we built at the Scalp Summit.

By Don McLaughlin

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