Wanting to explore a little more of Kananaskis country, we set out for Rae Lake on Canada Day. A busy day in the mountains, July 1st tends to be when Canadians come out in droves to celebrate one of the things they love best about our country: its great open spaces, its wide tracts of wilderness and its unparalleled natural beauty.
We chose to explore the popular trail that cuts through Sheep River Provincial Park, a place we’d never been before. A multipurpose trail, it takes you into a beautiful, wide open valley. Lots of people tend to go there on foot, horseback and bike and do a little back country camping, but it’s easy to get away from the crowds if you get off the main trail and head to one of the hidden gems, like Rae Lake.
The trail sets off from its parking lot alongside highway 40 and cuts steadily uphill through the forest on a wide, multiuse trail, until, quite quickly by mountain standards, you reach the shores of Elbow Lake. This lake is the headwaters of the Elbow River that ultimately runs through Calgary. (There are established backcountry campsites at this lake.) From that point on, your trail is relatively flat.At the far end of Elbow Lake you balance across a little log bridge… …and then find yourself following alongside the beginnings of the Elbow River as the lake empties down into the valley.It is a wide open valley, lightly forested and gravelly, that is surrounded by beautiful peaks. The short grasses that grow there were filled with wildflowers (especially strawberries!).As more streams and springs, run off and waterfalls fed into it, the river grew, and on this bright day, it sparkled and shimmered in the sunlight making a gorgeous, undulating ribbon in the green grass.A few hours into the hike we came to the first of our turn offs. Marked by a large cairn on the side of the main trail, it headed into a dense forest. It was finally time to leave the wide track that was the multi-use path and head away from the larger groups of campers and hikers. Let the adventure begin!Our trail rose up and soon we found ourselves in a second, higher valley. Strewn with large boulders, short grasses, wildflowers and the odd short tree, we were getting up into the alpine! We soon met another fork in the trail and set off on what was more or less an animal track that would take us to our destination.See? The trail was getting smaller and smaller and the people had disappeared. It was a beautiful valley we were exploring!We worked our way up and through little larch forests with their velvety-soft needles.
We got to the top of a particularly steep rise, full of wind blown trees, and found ourselves in a gorgeous meadow.
There was a boot-beaten path to follow that disappeared at times, but was very easy to pick up again on the other side of this juniper patch or that pile of deadfall.
We hiked through it briefly……and then found ourselves near the shores of our destination: Rae Lake. It was a perfect spot for a picnic lunch and a well deserved rest.
Soon the clouds were building and it was time to start heading back out, toward the main trail (and the salty chips waiting in the car!).
All in all, this is a very easy hike. Other than its distance, and the need to push through a tight forest for a bit (having branches snag your clothes in the last little push to the lake), there is simply nothing challenging about this trail. If we were to do it again, we’d probably ride bikes to the cairned exit from the main trail, and lock them up there and then continue the hike on foot. It would shorten the day considerably and perhaps leave us with energy and time to explore some of the rock areas and scramble up some of the high points around the lake.
17.2 km round trip; 366m elevation gain
For a great on-the-ground-while-hiking-tool, download your map from the Alltrails app. Then, for terrific directions (and wonderful inspiration) invest in one of our favourite guidebooks: Where The Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies, by Kathy & Craig Copeland.