Kananaskis is a large tract of land that lies outside of Banff National Park, just east of Canmore. It is divided into small provincial parks and day use areas and has less restrictions on use than you will find in the far more protected national parks. That’s in part, because it has hydroelectric dams and water reservoirs, and it has seen mining and forestry in sections.
There you will find places to cross country ski, snowshoe, hike, climb, mountaineer, horseback ride, bike (road and mountain… downhill and cross country), do RV and backcountry camping, and even hunt, snowmobile, boat, fish and ATV. It tends to be a place that is far less visited by tourists and is more where the locals go to play and get away from it all.
Its mountains are equally as stunning and iconic as those in the national park and there are some absolutely spectacular hikes to do there… especially in the Ribbon Creek Valley area. Kananaskis is accessed by a paved highway (#40) off the Trans Canada Highway, and by a gravel road, called the Spray Lakes Road, from above the Canmore Nordic Centre at the SW edge of town. There are also some spectacular lakes, due to the hydroelectric damming that is done in the area.
Listed in alphabetical order below are some of our favourite places in what is known (with great affection by the locals) as “K-Country.” I will continue to add hikes here as I cover them in my blog, slowly building up an archive of sorts, over time.
17.84km circuit route; 907m elevation gain
Excerpt: “The Buller and North Buller Passes trail is a circuit trail that takes you initially up a popular trail to Buller Pass (at 2,485m), a place that overlooks the Ribbon Creek Lake and Valley, and Guinn’s Pass, and then on to North Buller Pass, circumnavigating Buller Mountain. We did this trail in August, and had the trail, with the exception of one hiking couple that we saw on our way out, to ourselves.
The Buller Passes route is a Kananaskis area, back country hike with superb views, a bit of route finding and it makes for a very fun day. And if you are brave, there’s a perfect waterfall and swimming hole that the mountain stream plunges into (the size of a hot tub, the bowl is carved out of the rock by the passage of time… but being filled with mountain spring water, it is so very, very NOT hot!).“
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park: Distance 15km; Elevation Gain 480m
Excerpt: “Burstall Pass is one of my favourite Kananaskis hikes partly because it gets you up into a stunning alpine meadow relatively easily, but mostly because it has a fun, dynamic delta crossing. The run-off meltwaters from the Robertson glacier cascade down through a great big gravel fan of a marshland, passing through the landscape in a ton of shallow little meltwater streams, and every year the trail through that area changes. This makes for a fun game of hide ‘n seek as you try to spot the signposts that emerge through the gravel, marking your way diagonally across the watery delta to the forested slopes on the other side. ”
10km loop trail, 300m+ elevation gain
Excerpt: There’s nothing like a snowshoe adventure with fresh, new snow underfoot. It cloaks the forest in beautiful soundproofing, settling down on the landscape with a great hush. Snowshoeing up to Chester Lake is a popular winter activity up in the Spray. About a 45 minute drive up and above the town of Canmore, it is a pretty route that follows the Smith Dorrien Road, a well maintained gravel road that rises up through the pass between the Rundle range and the Nakoda Massif, and then along beautiful Spray Lake, into the back country.
11km loop trail; 800m elevation gain
2016 Excerpt: Contrary to popular belief, Valentine’s Day is not a day to buy commercialized heart-inspired things (though even in my purist world, chocolate is always welcome)…rather, it is a day to be spent with a loved one… hiking and scrambling up a HEART-SHAPED mountain! I have always enjoyed a scramble that includes a ridge walk (a narrow path that connects 2 mountain tops with drop-offs on either side). And Kananaskis has fantastic Heart Mountain, which fits the bill perfectly, with its connection to Grant MacEwan Peak and a third, unnamed peak, with beautiful ridges. The scramblers’ route can be accessed virtually year round, thanks to the Chinook winds that have a warm, drying effect on the outer mountains of the area, and can be done in an interesting day-long, horseshoe-shaped, loop hike.
15km loop trail, 552m elevation gain
Right at the top edge of K-Country and easily accessed from the Trans Canada via Hwy 40 is this excellent hike. On the rain shadow side of the mountain, it tends to be relatively free of snow and makes for a great winter hike.
Excerpt: “This hike goes to show you that with a little careful research, it is possible to hike year round in these snowy Rocky Mountains. Not ski: hike. And hike good, long day hikes.”
Excerpt: “Jura Canyon is an amazing place to take young children. The fun part of the first canyon is just minutes away from the trailhead, so even the youngest, smallest feet can make it there. And when you get there… well, let’s just say it’s the ultimate playground! Rock twists and turns, sculpted smooth by the passage of water through weaknesses in the rock over a millennia. Sunlight filters through, where it can, from the narrow opening above. The water is never deep (outside of spring run off time), and keeping feet dry becomes a fun game that encourages kids (and the kids inside every adult that goes there!) to use their bodies in new found ways, balancing on logs, doing the splits from wall to wall, making human bridges across water channels. The walls are close and ever so fun.”
Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park, Kananaskis (off hwy 40);
14.8 km to middle lake; 16km to upper lake… elevation gain: 599m to middle lake; 759m to upper lake
Excerpt: “Memorial Lakes… is a hike we’ve wanted to do for a while. It takes you on a wild track that branches off from the popular Ribbon Creek Trail, and heads up, precariously at times, to three alpine lakes. To reach the uppermost lake, you need to do a scramble of sorts that leaves most hikers behind. It’s a long hike that veers up, ever up, on a rough trail that at times seems little more than an animal track, scratched into the soft, heavily eroded dirt banks of the fast flowing north fork of Ribbon Creek.”
0.8km one way, after a 3.7km hike in to the trail head through the Mt. Shark Ski Trails; 100m elevation gain
Excerpt: “It’s been quite a challenge, working snowshoeing into our mountain experiences this season. We’ve been doing a lot of hiking with spikes on our feet, and snowshoes, strapped to our packs, on our backs. It should be the other way around… spikes in the pack and snowshoes on the feet! With the freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw cycle leaving the trails icy, at best, we decided to give one trail a try, a little higher up in elevation, hoping there’d be better snow up there. We’d read good things about the beauty of the Karst Spring Trail in the winter time and, though it is a very short 1.6km in and out trail, with very little elevation gain, we thought it might be worth checking out.”
Distance: somewhere between 7km and 9.2km; elevation gain: approximately 730m; some light scrambling & exposure.
Excerpt: “Fossils under foot and an accidental plunge were the jewels on the crown of this day that saw us hiking up King Creek Ridge, scrambling to connect it to King Creek Canyon, and then exploring the canyon itself.”
Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park: Distance: 14.8 km to middle lake; 16km to upper lake… Elevation gain: 599m to middle lake; 759m to upper lake
This is a rough trail, not for the faint of heart or for those that fear a bit of exposure. Some of the eroded creek banks are challenging to scale and the trail is quite narrow at times, through thick forest and undergrowth. To get to the second lake, you must hike up a scree slope, but it is not a difficult one.
Excerpt: “It takes you on a wild track that branches off from the popular Ribbon Creek Trail, and heads up, precariously at times, to three alpine lakes. To reach the uppermost lake, you need to do a scramble of sorts that leaves most hikers behind. It’s a long hike that veers up, ever up, on a rough trail that at times seems little more than an animal track, scratched into the soft, heavily eroded dirt banks of the fast flowing north fork of Ribbon Creek.”
19.26km one way (arrange shuttle or drop a car off at one end); some light scrambling & exposure; 1340m elevation gain
This hike lies in Kananaskis Country and takes you from a point just outside of Canmore, up and over Mount Allan, and down into the Nakiska Ski Resort. A long hike, it has fantastic views and a few very fun, all-hands-and-feet-on-the-rock scrambles. There is nothing like walking along the spine of a mountain. Nothing!
Excerpt: “Ascending Mount Allen was a highlight of this trip. It was rough & rugged and high, at 2,819m (9,249’). But what I loved most about it was that its flanks had these wonderful, towering rocky ridge spines… making it seem as if we were scrambling along the back of a gigantic dinosaur, going up and over, sometimes around, and often right in between its massive vertebrae. It was SO AWESOME hiking up there, even when the wind gusted powerfully and we had to head down, hiking through driving rain Descending the ridge gives you views of the Nakiska Ski hill. And from way up high on the ridge, I swear it looks like a flat golf course. Ha! That’s mountains for ya! You lose all sense of perspective in such a gigantic landscape.”
14.6km return; 932m elevation gain
This hike begins off highway 40, not far into K-Country at the eastern edge of the Rockies. Though the trail still has damage from the 2013 flood, it’s still easily passable and attaining the ridge makes for a fun adventure.
Excerpt: “There’s nothing like a good ridge walk. A ridge is hard to scale up, there’s no doubt about it. One look at a GemTrek map will show you that there’s lots of contour lines that need to be crossed to gain a ridge. But once you’re up and on a ridge, it’s thrilling because that feeling of being on top of the world, goes on and on and on as you walk along its length. Old Baldy, rearing its polished head up amongst the spectacular peaks of the area, did not disappoint.”
10.5 km return; 620m elevation
Old Goat Glacier is a hike that heads up from a campground on the shores of the Spray Lakes Reservoir, through a moss-cloaked forest alongside a beautiful creek, past a waterfall, and then up a scree slope, spitting you out high atop a moraine with views of a small glacier ahead & down below.
Excerpt: “We chose the Old Goat Glacier hike, as we knew the trail, knew it could possibly get us up above the smoke, and that it would be fun to explore it once again. I was also really curious to see what the glacier looked like, as we’d seen it last 3 years ago, almost to the day.”
16km return; 990m elevation gain
Lying on the outermost eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains in K-Country, Pigeon Mountain is a great shoulder-season hike, meaning that you can hike it in early spring or later fall when other hikes at altitude are beginning to be buried in snow, or lie beneath unstable avalanche terrain.
Excerpt: “For those of you familiar with the drive from Calgary into Canmore and Banff along the Trans Canada Highway, you will know the point at which you are driving below Pigeon Mountain. As the highway turns sharply around a large marsh/lake viewpoint area, and you are surrounded by wind gust warning signs, and you feel your car lurch sideways as those gusts come roaring down off nearby cliffs, you’re there. That’s nasty, temperamental Pigeon.”
18km return; 311m elevation gain (to the falls only)
Starting near Kananaskis Village and the Nakiska Ski Area, this trail is a popular back country camping access route in the summer. A late season hike is the perfect antidote to the summer crowds that use this trail.
Excerpt: “Iced waterfall after iced waterfall. Curtains of icicles, some as tall as a man. A creek, still flowing with a swift current even in early December, filling the landscape with its gurgling sounds. Steep canyon walls, worn smooth and carved into gracefully curving shapes by the passage of water over time. Large waterfalls, still visibly flowing behind thin & transparent ice sheets, plunging into rocky, snow-covered basins below. Startling blue ice clinging to cliff walls. And massive, towering mountains, like Mount Kidd, Mount Bogart and Ribbon Peak standing watch far above. This is what the narrow, Ribbon Creek Valley was like on the unseasonably warm December morning that we set out to hike her lovely trails.”
11.3km to the ridge; 655m elevation gain (300m to the lake; 355m more to gain the ridge)
This hike starts on the trail to a popular day hike & snowshoe destination that begins at the Upper Kananaskis Lake Day Use area: Rawson Lake, a tremendous place to explore in and of itself.
Excerpt: “However, go beyond the end of the lake, cross the remnants of snowy avalanche debris, trudge up a steep, loose dirt avalanche path, and you can gain the lofty heights of Sarrail Ridge with its spectacular vistas out over the massive Upper Kananaskis Lake. You can look across to incredible mountains like Mount Indefatiguable (locals call it Mount Fatty) along with the hike-in campground near Hidden Lake, and beyond.”
10km return; 1415m elevation gain
A lovely hike in the summer, you are into some amazing views of the Spray Lakes far below, and the beautiful mountain tarns (little ponds) that you can hike around and explore. Bring a picnic and plan to spend a day there… it can be beautiful. Of course, it is the mountains, and unexpected things can happen….
Excerpt: “Now, those of you that know mountains, know that rain at lower elevations quickly becomes snow as you head uphill during shoulder season. Ordinarilly, we’d have been in full-on spring/summer mode… but spring has been rather fleeting, and a somewhat late arriver to the Bow Valley this year! Best laid plans & all…. we set out to do a late spring hike that should have given us snow only at the very top of our elevation gain… but, as often happens in the mountains, the forecast was very, very wrong,…”
10.6km loop (5+ hours, with breaks); some light scrambling & exposure; elevation gain: 780m
This is a spectacular ridge walk that’s well worth finding if you have a day to spare. Located down the gravel Spray Lakes Road, the trail head is just off the Mount Shark Ski Area road. It has some light scrambling, so only do this if you’re okay with having hands and feet on the rock in places, with a little exposure.
Excerpt: “I know I’ve said it over and over again, but there’s just nothing like a good ridge walk for the exhilarating, prolonged views. You get the hard climbing done early, and on Tent Ridge, one of the iconic ridge walks in K-Country, you are in the views for hours!”
10km return; 600m elevation gain
The Three Sisters Mountains are the peaks that form one of the iconic backdrops to the Canmore townsite. There are a few ways to get up their lofty heights. This route is one of them.
Excerpt: “We have been bound and determined to find our way from our back door, out and up over the pass, and yet the bushwhacking route still evades us. We’ve attempted it three times now, with pre-flood Gem Trek contour maps in hand, and we have yet to get all the way up there without reaching something that is impassable (like a tall, steep and crumbly creek bed slope or a massive cliff face of a rock feature that the locals affectionately call the Ship’s Prow). So recently, we decided to approach it from the back side, up in the Spray, and see what our route might look like from its destination, above.”
17.3km loop; 50m elevation gain
This hike begins in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, deep in southern Kananaskis Country. It follows the shoreline of one of the dammed lakes in the area and is an easy day hike with negligible elevation gain.
Excerpt: Shoulder season is a tricky time in our northern mountains. The days are too short for long hikes, unless you plan to use headlamps. The snow is not good enough to ski or snowshoe, and yet there is too much snow to safely hike to the peaks of the mountains that beckon, tug on your heart strings and taunt your sense of adventure…. Circumnavigating Upper Kananaskis Lake seemed to fit the bill. A rambling 19.21km hike, it takes you around a lake that is stunningly beautiful, even if man-made. Created by a damn that was built in 1938, it is a large lake in the southern part of K-Country in the fantastic multi-use Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (the ultimate outdoor playground).
approx. 17km, return; 1100m elevation gain
Excerpt: In case you are wondering where to escape the hordes this Canada Day, here’s an idea: trek on up Wasootch Ridge in Kananaskis Country’s Wildland Provincial Park (on the eastern edge of Banff National Park) as we did last season. There were wide expanses of wilderness to see, heights to climb (like a series on mini mountain peaks), a picnic spot with tremendous views, and some terrific sunshine. Along the ridge itself, we only came across a handful of scattered hikers, so it was a great escape and adventure.
approximately 13.5km; 800m elevation gain
Excerpt: We set out on the trailhead at 2:30pm and had the entire trail, the entire ridge, the entire mountain… to ourselves. Come along for the hike and you’ll see a spectacular landscape greening up for summer, like a scene from the Emerald Isle (that’s a nod to the Irish electrician who was at our place in the morning), and alpine meadows bursting with a carpet of brightly coloured wildflowers, all fringed by magnificent mountains, just losing the ice and snow on their jagged peaks. The contrast of colours, the difficulty with which we trudged and scrambled up steep terrain, and the fact that we had the entire place to ourselves for five hours made for a truly spectacular end to our day.
10km return; 1000m elevation gain
Excerpt: One of the peaks of spectacular Mount Lougheed (pronounced law-heed), Windtower is one of those must-do hikes, especially if there is no wind in the forecast. It is only 10km long, return, so a great pay-off for the energy expended in getting up its 1000m elevation gain, and you are in the views quite quickly. This peak is well deserving of its name because it can get very, very windy up on its flanks! As luck would have it, the day we set out to hike this mountain at the very beginning of May, it was sunny and calm. So calm, in fact, that we didn’t have to use the rock wall shelters that people have built up top to protect you as you hastily gobble up your picnic and then race back down to the protection of the forested trails far below…