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Bighorn Range

The Bighorn Range is a small outlying collection of peaks that’s located to the east of the Rocky Mountain front ranges in central Alberta, Canada. This low-lying range has six named peaks that rise above the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Largehorn Peak is the tallest mountain in the Bighorn Range with an elevation of 2,601 m (8,386 ft).

Geography

The Bighorn Range is located in Clearwater County of western Alberta, Canada, and it is a subrange of the Canadian Rockies. There are six peaks that are considered to be part of the Bighorn Range, the tallest of which is Largehorn Peak (2,601 m/8,533 ft).

The northern part of the Bighorns is home to Chungo Peak, which is also the most prominent peak in the range. Chungo Peak is 2,556 m (8,386 ft) tall and it has a prominence of 723 m (2,372 ft).

Another notable high point in the Bighorn Range is Grassy Mountain (1,523 m/ 4,997 ft). Technically, Grassy Mountain is located about 10 km (6 mi) to the east of the rest of the range and is really just a tall hill in the Rocky Mountain Foothills as opposed to a mountain peak.

Highway 40 runs adjacent to Grassy Mountain and about 10 km (6 mi) to the east of the main peaks of the Bighorn Range. Meanwhile, Highway 11 passes near the southern end of the range.

There are also several recreation areas adjacent to the Bighorn Range that offer OHV access to the region. Furthermore, there are also many horse and hiking trails that lead into and around the Bighorn Range.

The southern end of the Bighorn Range is part of the Blackstone/Wapiabi Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ). The Blackstone/Wapiabi PLUZ is part of the greater Bighorn Backcountry, which envelopes the Rocky Mountains adjacent to Highway 11 and to the east of Banff and Jasper National Parks.

The following are some of the other PLUZs and parks that are located near the Bighorn Range:

Geology

The Bighorn Range is situated to the west of the Central Front Ranges of the Canadian Rockies. It is a bit of an outlier when compared to the Rockies as it has about 5 km (3 mi) of foothills terrain between itself and the rest of the Rocky Mountains. However, the Bighorn Range was created much the same way as the rest of the Rockies and is composed of similar geologic layers.

The Canadian Rockies started forming about 75 million years ago due to the subduction of a Pacific tectonic plate under the west coast of North America. The collision between these portions of the Earth’s crust caused parts of it to compress, fold, and rise to create mountains. This mountain-building process is called an orogeny.

The Laramide orogeny included many of the events that created the Rocky Mountains, and it occurred roughly between 75 and 40 million years ago. During the Laramide orogeny, massive layers of Paleozoic limestone and dolomite were cracked and thrust up and over the younger Cretaceous sandstone and shale.

At the beginning of the Laramide orogeny, the western ranges were the first to form and the eastern ranges, or Front Ranges, were the last to form. The foothills, which are located to the east of the Rockies, formed when there wasn’t enough force to crack and displace the Paleozoic layers, but only the upper, Cretaceous layers of rock.

The Bighorn Range is composed of limestone peaks like much of the rest of the Rockies. But it is located about 5 km (3 mi) away from the Front Ranges and is a bit of a geologic anomaly.

It’s possible that the Bighorns formed as a result of one last major tectonic event that occurred as the Laramide orogeny came to an end. Nevertheless, even though it rises well above the surrounding foothills, the Bighorn Range is significantly lower in elevation than the adjacent First Range and Ram Range.

Ecology

The Bighorn Range is part of the Rocky Mountain Natural Region, which consists of three ecological subregions: the alpine, the subalpine, and the montane. The alpine is found in the highest elevation of the mountains above the treeline. Meanwhile, the subalpine includes the range’s forested slopes and the montane subregion includes the foothills and valleys that surround the Bighorn Range.

In the alpine region of the Bighorn Range, plants and animals are sparse and consist mainly of lichen-covered rocks, grassy meadows, mat vegetation, shrubs, and krummholz. The Alpine Natural Region of the Rocky Mountains is generally barren, rocky ground, with minimal vegetation.

Shrubs, such as grouseberry, grow in protected areas in the range while sedges and heathers typically cling to the edges of snowbeds. Subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce in this region are stunted and twisted from the freezing winter winds. Lengthy snow cover and cold temperatures prevent most flora from thriving in the area.

The subalpine regions of the Bighorn Range are warmer and less windy than the alpine region, which allows the subalpine to support significantly more flora and fauna when compared to the alpine. Forests of lodgepole pine dominate the lower slopes of the range, while subalpine fir, Engelman spruce, and larch are dominant at higher elevations and along ridges.

Within the range, the subalpine forests extend to the tops of the foothills; however, stands of Douglas fir occasionally occur in these areas alongside willows, poplar, and aspens. The montane natural region is the most diverse of the Rocky Mountain ecosystems as it is home to an abundance of plants that only occur in this area.

 

There are many recognizable predators that inhabit the Bighorn Range and the surrounding foothills. Grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, and wolves also make their home in the area. Additionally, ungulates such as elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer, are all common in the range.

Mountain goats and bighorn sheep may be seen among the peaks of the Bighorn Range, too, as can marmots and Columbian ground squirrels who make their burrows along the treeline. Additionally, several bird species are found in the range’s alpine during nesting season, such as white-tailed ptarmigan, gray-crowned rosy finch, horned lark, and the American pipit.

Human History

The Bighorn Range is located on the traditional territory of the Cree, Ktunaxa, Stoney, Tsuu T’ina, and Blackfoot First Nations as well as the Métis Nation. Some of the first Europeans to visit the area were David Thompson in the early nineteenth century and the members of the Palliser Expedition of 1858.

The eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies are of particular interest to archeologists because the region was a possible corridor for migration into North America. It was also likely the first area to be inhabited after the Pleistocene.

There are no known archeological sites in the Bighorn Range, though this does not mean that these cultural sites do not exist. Rather, as the area surrounding the range is a roadless wilderness and most archaeological sites in the Rockies are discovered during road construction, any important artifacts that do exist have yet to be uncovered.

People likely started arriving in the area around the Bighorn Range as early as 10,000 years ago. For example, an archeological site that’s located to the southwest of the range in Banff National Park includes a campsite that hunters used over 10,000 years ago. A little further south, an area known as the Sibbald Creek Site has evidence of continued use for the past 11,000 years.

Furthermore, members of the Ktunaxa First Nations were known to come over the mountain passes to hunt buffalo in the area that is now Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve. The ecological reserve is also a known location for important First Nations ceremonies.

Within the Bighorn Range itself, there are currently only hiking and equestrian trails. The range as a whole has gone mostly undeveloped, especially when compared to some of the region’s nearby recreation areas, which allow for snowmobile and OHV use.

Best Hikes in the Bighorn Range

The Bighorn Range is home to several hiking and equestrian trails that visitors can enjoy. These include:

  • Wapiabi Gap Trail – The Wapiabi Gap Trail crosses the southernmost of the three passes in the Bighorn Range. This hike starts from a trailhead near the edge of Wapiabi Provincial Recreation Area at the end of Wapiabi Road. It connects to the Sunkay Creek Trail and the Bighorn Blackstone Trail in Blackstone/Wapiabi PLUZ.
  • Blackstone Gap Trail – The Blackstone Gap Trail passes through the middle of the Bighorn Range and is often traveled as part of the Blackstone Chungo Gap Circuit. This trail connects the Blackstone River to the Mons Lakes Trail and Bighorn Blackstone Trail in Blackstone/Wapiabi PLUZ.
  • Chungo Gap Trail – Located at the north end of the Bighorn Range, the Chungo Gap Trail is part of the Chungo Blackstone Circuit. It connects to Mons Lakes Trail and other trails that run through Job/Cline PLUZ and Jasper National Park.
  • Chungo Fire Lookout via the Brazeau River Trail – The Brazeau River Trail connects hikers to the trail that leads up to the Chungo Fire Lookout at the northern end of the Bighorn Range. The Chungo Fire Lookout offers views across Job/Cline PLUZ, Blackstone/Wapiabi PLUZ, and toward the eastern side of Jasper National Park.

Cities and Communities near the Bighorn Range

The Bighorn Range is one of the easternmost ranges of the Canadian Rockies in central Alberta. The following are some of the major cities and communities that are located near the range.

Rocky Mountain House

Rocky Mountain House is located about 70 km (42 mi) to the east of the Bighorn Range. The city, which was built around the historic trading post along the North Saskatchewan River, is a nice starting point for trips into Bighorn Backcountry.

The town’s main attraction is the Rocky Mountain House Historic Site, which gives visitors an opportunity to see and experience the historic Canadian fur trade. The historic site is home to the archeological remains of the four separate forts that were built over the years, a campground, and many fantastic trails for hiking and biking.

As it is situated in the foothills of the Rockies, Rocky Mountain House boasts beautiful wilderness scenery and great access to nearby recreation areas. Some of the popular places to visit from Rocky Mountain House include Crimson Lake Provincial Park, Bighorn Backcountry, and even Banff and Jasper national parks.

Calgary

Calgary is the largest city in Alberta, and it is located along the Bow River between the foothills and the prairies. While in Calgary, visitors can enjoy the near-constant view of the Rockies, which are a major reason people live in and visit the city.

Calgary, Alberta

The Bighorn Range is located about 350 km (210 mi) to the northwest of Calgary; however, there are many other hiking areas located near the city that you can check out on your travels.

Kananaskis Country is my favorite place to visit from Calgary, as it offers an abundance of adventure opportunities like scrambling up Heart Mountain in Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park or kayaking in Peter Lougheed and Spray Valley provincial parks.

Canmore is also located a relatively short drive to the west of Calgary, and Banff townsite and Banff National Park are nestled only a little further away from the city, too. Plus, there are hundreds of kilometers of trails connecting the green spaces and parks across the city of Calgary, such as Nose Hill, the Glenmore Reservoir, and Fish Creek Provincial Park.

Furthermore, there are many attractions in the city for visitors to enjoy such as historic Fort Calgary and Heritage Park, the Glenbow Museum, and the National Music Centre – Studio Bell. The summer months in the city are typically filled with different music and cultural festivals in addition to the annual Calgary Stampede, which is self-styled as the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.”

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