Known as the Heart Creek Bunker, Diefenbunker, Vault, and Bow Valley Bunker, the large caverns in Mount McGillivray are a unique hiking destination with a colorful history. Urban legend has it that the massive bunker was carved into the side of the mountain to house important government officials during the Cold War. The real purpose of the “bunker,” however, was to store sensitive documents1. Due to budget constraints and humidity, documents were never stored here, but the caverns remain as a testament to the politics and paranoia of the late ’50s. An interesting place to visit year round.
Hiking to the Heart Creek Bunker
The trail to the Heart Creek / Bow Valley Bunker begins at the Heart Creek Parking lot, just off the Trans Canada Highway, across from Lac des Arcs. Look for the Trans Canada Trail marker on the west side of the parking lot (NOT the the Heart Creek Trailhead). If you pass an interpretive sign about black bears within a few metres, you’re on the right track. Continue through mixed forest to a gravel-bed gulley (200 m from the parking lot). The path has been re-established post floods and is easy to follow.
At the halfway point (~1 km from parking lot), you will cross another gulley. Continue through the forest on a fairly level trail, then go down a big hill. At the junction (marked with a Trans Canada Trail marker), turn left. At the next junction (also marked), turn left again. From here, it’s only 200 metres to the cavern entrance.
Bring a bright headlamp so you may explore the 80′ x 25′ caverns2. There is also a smaller cavern that may have been meant to be a reception area or lounge3.
Allow 5-15 minutes to explore the caverns! We enjoyed some cocoa and cookies at the cave entrance after and watched a train go by Lac des Arcs below. This trail is a quick win when you want to try something new!
Bow Valley Bunker Trail At A Glance
SAFETY NOTE: The bunker entrance (and 100 metres of the trail before it) is on an avalanche slope. Do not do proceed if the slope is snow covered!
Distance: 3.8 km return
Elevation gain: 94 m
Chariot friendly: Yes
Directions from Calgary: Go west on Hwy 1 for 86 km. Take exit 105 (Lac des Arcs) and turn left. Continue straight to the Heart Creek Parking Lot. This is a fun hike to do on the way to or from Canmore as it’s quick and easy!
What to Bring
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Good hiking boots and a windproof/waterproof shell are must-haves. Trekking poles are recommended for the descent, especially if you have a heavy pack.
You should also carry The Ten Essentials including: water, extra food, extra clothes, a headlamp, a GPS/compass and map of the area, bug spray (this one contains 20% icaridin and will repel ticks), sunscreen (this one is safe for babies), and bear spray. Carry bear spray in a Frontiersman Bear Spray Holster (attaches to your backpack or belt) or Scat Belt.
In winter conditions, traction devices such as Kahtoola Microspikes (Available from Amazon, MEC, and Breathe Outdoors), or Hillsound Trail Crampons (Available at Amazon, Hillsound, and Sport Chek) are recommended.
1, 2, 3 A Dark Secret: Inside Alberta’s Nuclear Bunker, Highline Magazine.
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