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Athabasca Lookout Hike- William A. Switzer Provincial Park

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The Athabasca Lookout Trail leads to one of the most picturesque viewpoints in William A. Switzer Provincial Park near Hinton. 

Athabasca Lookout Viewpoint.

From the Athabasca Lookout Viewpoint, and at several spots along the forested ridge trail, you’ll get to enjoy panoramic views of the Joachim Valley and front ranges of the Rocky Mountains.

View of mountains and the Joachim Valley from Athabasca Lookout Trail.

The Athabasca Lookout hike is a steep one, but you don’t need to go all the way to the end of the trail to experience the beautiful views it has to offer.

Mountains at the far end of the Joachim Valley.

Athabasca Lookout Hike

Distance: 10.5 km round trip

Difficulty: Strenuous with an easy section

Elevation Gain: 409 m

Surface: Dirt, some rock

Trail Type: Out and back (can also be done as a point to point with two vehicles)

Time: 3.5- 4.5 hours

Trailhead: Across from the Jarvis Lake Campground (as described here) or at the end of the Hinton Nordic Centre Road (luge parking lot).

Track log/map of the Athabasca Lookout hike.
Track log/map of Athabasca Lookout Trail

Athabasca Lookout Trail has two trailheads at opposite ends, but the hike is most often done as an out and back rather than a point to point, since this would require a vehicle to be left at each end of the trail.

Map of Athabasca Lookout Trail posted at the trailhead.
Map of Athabasca Lookout Trail posted at the trailhead

The shortest way to reach Athabasca Lookout is via the Hinton Nordic Centre. Starting from the end of the Hinton Nordic Centre Road, it’s approximately a 1 km uphill hike to the viewpoint. 

The longer option is to start across from the Jarvis Lake Campground and access the steep Athabasca Lookout Trail via the Joachim Valley. This route has some additional points of interest and offers a better workout. The following trail description will explain the Athabasca Lookout hike starting from Jarvis Lake Campground.

Map of Joachim Valley Trail posted at the trailhead.
Map of Joachim Valley Trail posted at the trailhead

Across from the campground entrance you’ll see a short driveway leading to a closed gate. This is the trailhead and there’s room for a few vehicles to park here, but it’s not a proper lot. You could also check in the campground for visitor parking and then walk over.

Cars parked at the trailhead.

At the trailhead you’ll see some signs and a map indicating trail distances. To reach Athabasca Lookout Trail you first have to walk a portion of the Joachim Valley Trail.

Sign with hike distances posted at the trailhead.

Setting off from the trailhead you’ll be travelling along an old gravel road. This stretch is the easiest part of the hike because it’s flat all the way to the start of Athabasca Lookout Trail, about 2.5 km into the hike.

Gravel road lined with trees.

After travelling along the tree-framed road for about 0.8 km, the view opens up to showcase the valley’s meadows and surrounding foothills. This is also where the first point of interest on the trail is- an indigenous burial site where there are spirit houses covering the graves.

Spirit houses in the burial ground.
Spirit houses.
Cemetery.

After the burial site the old road continues along the valley floor, passing through some pretty meadows. 

Path going through a meadow towards some trees and foothills.

About 1.3 km into the hike you’ll see a signpost and arrow directing you to turn left onto a double track trail where motorized vehicles aren’t allowed. Follow this trail along the edge of the forest for approximately 1.2 km until you reach the next trail junction.

Sign post.
Trail going along the edge of the forest.
Trail in an open forest.

This junction is the Athabasca Lookout trailhead. Once again you’ll see a signpost with a map and distances. Turn left here and head into the forest (keeping straight on Joachim Valley Trail will take you to an old army training airplane). 

Trail sign and map at the Athabasca Lookout trailhead.
Athabasca Lookout Trail leading into the forest.
Trail in the forest.

Very soon after embarking on Athabasca Lookout Trail you’ll begin the steep ascent towards the viewpoint. It’s a relentless 3 km climb that can feel never ending, but it’s worth it to persevere for the views.

As you get higher up on the trail there will start to be openings in the forest offering glimpses of the valley down below.

A hill seen through gaps between trees.

A little further ahead you’ll come to the first good viewpoint where you can enjoy a nicely framed view of the Joachim Valley from some boulders at the edge of the ridge trail. 

View of mountains and the Joachim Valley seen from Athabasca Lookout Trail.
View of mountains and the Joachim Valley.

Going onwards and upwards, there are more wonderful views as the trail proceeds above the hillside. 

Athabasca Lookout Trail above a hillside.
View of the Joachim Valley.

The path then becomes sheltered by trees and you’ll notice more boulders in the landscape as you keep gaining elevation. 

Athabasca Lookout Trail going over a big rock in the forest.
Athabasca Lookout Trail in the forest.

Later on the trail emerges from the trees, once again offering great vantage points for admiring the valley, foothills, and distant mountains. 

View of mountains and the valley seen on the Athabasca Lookout hike.

Soon you’ll come to a viewpoint that you might think (or hope) is the Athabasca Lookout, since it has such a beautiful perspective of the Joachim Valley, but it is not the official lookout point. That is still just under 2 km away. 

Viewpoint looking out over the Joachim Valley.

This spot is a wonderful place to take a break because you can sit on the rocks and stretch your legs out while you admire the scenery.

Hiker resting on the rocks at a viewpoint on Athabasca Lookout Trail.
Viewpoint on Athabasca Lookout Trail looking out over the valley.

This is also a good time to evaluate if you want to continue on with the hike, or if you’re done with the uphill grind. If you turn around here, you honestly won’t be missing out on much, since the scenery at Athabasca Lookout is pretty much the same as what you can see at this lower viewpoint.

Mountains and valley seen from a viewpoint on Athabasca Lookout Trail.

Continuing towards the Athabasca Lookout Viewpoint, the trail alternates between being in the trees and being close to the cliff.

Trail going past some rocks in the forest.
Yellow wildflower.
Athabasca Lookout Trail above the valley.

Next you’ll reach a section where the trail becomes rocky and passes over some boulders before re-entering the forest again.

Rocky trail at the edge of the forest.
Trail going over some boulders in the hillside.
Trail in the forest with an arrow nailed to a tree pointing the way.

Once you see the towers you’ll know you’ve finally arrived at the Athabasca Lookout. From this flat, rocky viewpoint you can enjoy a wide view of the Joachim Valley and Rocky Mountains to the west. 

Communication towers seen from the lookout.
Athabasca Lookout Viewpoint.
View of the foothills, mountains and valley.

You can walk a bit further to where the towers are, which is actually the official Athabasca Lookout Viewpoint, but the view is better at this spot on the ridge. However, there is an interpretive sign at the towers with information about the area, if that’s of interest.

Athabasca Lookout Viewpoint.
Athabasca Lookout Viewpoint.

When you’re ready for the return hike, follow the same trail downhill to the bottom of the valley and back to the trailhead by the campground.

View of the valley and mountains from Athabasca Lookout Viewpoint.

Review of the Athabasca Lookout Hike

Athabasca Lookout Trail isn’t for everyone, due to its leg burning steepness, but if you’re up for a challenge that pays off at the end then it’s a worthwhile hike.

View of mountains and the valley seen while hiking Athabasca Lookout Trail.

The view at Athabasca Lookout is wonderful, however the best part of this hike is that you get samples on route of what the final destination has to offer. This helps keep motivation up, but also allows people who only want to complete a portion of the hike to experience some of the valley’s beauty from above.

Athabasca Lookout Trail above the valley.
Forest and foothills seen on the Athabasca Lookout hike.
Athabasca Lookout Viewpoint.

Admittedly, the first part of the hike can be a bit boring, even though the scenery is nice. To cut down on hiking time you could bike the first 2.5 km of Joachim Valley Trail, then lock your bike to a tree when you hike up Athabasca Lookout Trail.

Trees and foothills in the Joachim Valley.
Joachim Valley

Tips for Hiking Athabasca Lookout Trail

Location: Athabasca Lookout Trail is located northwest of Hinton in William A. Switzer Provincial Park. The trailhead across from Jarvis Lake Campground is about 26 km from Hinton.

Getting to the Athabasca Lookout Trailhead: From Hinton go north on Highway 40 (signs for Grande Cache/Grande Prairie) then turn left onto Township Road 515A. Follow that all the way to Jarvis Lake Campground. The trailhead will be at a driveway on the left just before the campground entrance.

Best Time to Hike Athabasca Lookout Trail: This hike is best done from late spring through fall. The steep ascent can be miserable if conditions aren’t optimal, so it should be avoided if wet/muddy and on extremely hot days.

Facilities: None. The closest outhouses and water source are at Jarvis Lake Campground.

Visitor Guidelines and Safety: This hike is in bear country so bring bear spray, make noise while hiking, and educate yourself on what to do if you encounter one.

  • Leave no trace by packing out your garbage.

Gear and What to Bring: Hiking poles are essential for this hike because they take strain off your knees, add some thrust when going uphill, increase stability, and can help you catch your balance if you slip.

  • Hiking boots with ankle support and a sturdy sole are recommended.
  • Bring plenty of water and some food.
Gap between trees showing a view of the valley, mountains and hills

Nearby Activities

You may also enjoy these other things to do in William A. Switzer Provincial Park:

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