Chapter 3. Where Mountains Meet Foothills
There was a hum of anticipation in the car approaching the Banded Group – the four mountains which form an imposing phalanx on the very eastern edge of the Front Ranges within the Elbow watershed. It is these four limestone behemoths — Banded Peak, Outlaw Peak, Mount Cornwall and Mount Glasgow — that we five hikers have decided to circumnavigate in our first backpacking trip together. At the end of Highway 66 in the Little Elbow campground, we help each other heft heavy packs onto our backs, ready to set out on the Elbow Loop in the cool, cloudy July morning.
The Elbow Loop is a 45-kilometre route of gravel fire roads and narrow trails that encircles the Banded Group. A favourite novice-to-intermediate circuit for mountain bikers, who can complete the loop in about eight hours, it is also a popular equestrian trail, and facilities for outfitting and horse camping are found along the way. For hikers, it is a three- or four-day journey. We have planned two days of 12-kilometre hikes with overnights at the Mount Romulus and Tombstone campgrounds, and a long final day of 20 kilometres to complete the loop back at the Little Elbow campground. Working counterclockwise, we will first be walking west into the mountains away from the foothills, and then circling back along mountain/foothills boundary to finish our trip.
The trip starts well, as we walk five abreast up the modest incline of the wide fire road, periodically adjusting our packs, listening to birdsong in the trees, and admiring the surrounding mountains. We are starting in the northeast corner of the loop, walking up the valley of the Little Elbow River and will cross this main Elbow tributary several times enroute. On our left stands the Banded Group (also known as the Glasgow Group) which lies between the Big (or main) Elbow and Little Elbow rivers. This group of peaks was distinctive enough to attract the attention of the Marquis of Lorne, then governor general of Canada, who sketched them in 1881, and alpinist-artist Edward Whymper, who published an engraving in 1885.