All photos taken by lotzacurls
Kananaskis Country is probably my preferred hiking spot in Alberta, Canada; its mountain ranges literally creep into my backyard and its beautiful, sweeping vistas just never get old.
Part of the Canadian Rockies, K-Country is made up of several small provincial parks. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy its plunging glaciers, green meadows filled with wildlife and alpine flowers, towering mountains and peaks, but won't miss the stifling crowds of the much larger Banff and Jasper National Parks.
These are my favourite hikes in K-Country; the best bang-for-your-buck trails, where the rewards surpass (or at least match) your efforts. The times and difficulty levels are subjective and approximative (I’m in decent shape and exercise on a regular basis), so don’t take it for gospel. Just strap on your boots and get hiking!
Oh, carry bear spray and know how to use it!
North Kananaskis Pass Map
(or Turbine Canyon via Maude-Lawson Trail)
* Overnight hike (2 days, 1 night)
* 16 kms one-way to Turbine Campground, 18 kms one-way to North Kananaskis Pass
* Trailhead: North Interlakes Parking Lot (Peter Lougheed Provincial Park)
This hike takes you out of Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and just into BC, so you leave footprints in two provinces in one day, which is kinda fun. North Kananaskis Pass is a rewarding, fun and relatively easy-going hike, as far as long hikes in the Canadian Rockies go.
From the North Interlakes Parking Lot (in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park), take the path around Upper Kananaskis Lake towards Forks Campground (signs might also indicate South Kananaskis Pass). The trail rambles through beautiful and diverse terrain; the going is pretty good so far. Once you hit Forks campground (at 7.2 kms), you’ll head North toward Turbine Canyon.
Eventually, you’ll head into some steep switchbacks and sustain a slower pace for at least one good hour. Keep huffing and puffing; this is the only real challenging part of the entire hike. Look up from time to time to catch the beautiful views of Mount Lyautey.
The switchbacks are done after about 1-1.5 hours of effort -- woop woop, you can breathe normally again! At roughly 11.5 kms, the trail meanders through a forest before breaking onto a plateau with a lovely watering hole called a tarn, Putnik Pond. (This water is for animals, not for humans; never drink stagnant water!) Keep walking along the plateau and enjoy the sight of larch trees and mountain ridges reaching up into the sky.
You’ll reach Turbine Campground after roughly four hours of walking (16 kms). This campground boasts 12 sites, an eating area with tables, bear-proof food storage and an outhouse.
After you pitch your tent and set up camp, check out nearby Turbine Canyon. It’s a cool spot and quite a sight to behold but man, it’s a long drop! Guys, don’t be punks and give your girlfriend a heart attack by showing off and jumping over the narrow gaps; there’s absolutely no way to survive the fall.
The next morning, I woke early and walked the remaining 2 kms to Maude Lake and North Kananaskis Pass, instant coffee in hand, to get a beautiful shot of the rising sun shining on the surrounding peaks. It’s a slightly uphill trek through meadows and small trees; not a problem, even at 7am.
I returned to Turbine Campground to pack up my tent, then walked all the way back to the car in a few hours of easy rambling. Much more chill on the way back. This hike was the highlight of my summer!
If you’ve got extra time, you might want to consider doing this trip in two nights and three days
(both nights at Forks Campground).
Day 1: Short hike from car to Forks Campground (7.2 kms), set up tent.
Day 2: Long day hike from Forks Campground to North Kananaskis Pass and back again (roughly 20 kms return), spend night 2 at Forks.
Day 3: Short hike from Forks Campground back to car (7.2 kms).
Forks Campground in a forested spot with 15 pads, outhouses, tables and benches as well as a metal food cache. Site #15 is the most coveted one.
The main advantage to this route is the climb through the switchbacks without your large backpack, as your tent was set up at Forks the night before. So it’s a much quicker run and much less of a puffer. Just bring your camera, water and snacks!
North Kananaskis Pass is one of the easiest and most accessible multi-day treks I’ve ever done. Kids who are in reasonably good shape could easily do it. The views are great, and the only minor slog is made a bit more tedious by the weight of your backpack through the switchbacks. Overall, this is a fantastic overnight hike that I strongly recommend.
Sarrail Ridge (via Rawson Lake) Map
* Day hike, in and out on the same trail
* 4 kms one-way to Rawson Lake (1.5 hrs), an extra 2 hrs for Sarrail Ridge
* Trailhead: Upper Lake Day Use Area, use southernmost of the 3 parking lots
The trail to Rawson Lake is part of the Upper Kananaskis Lake circuit, a chilled-out walk through forests of fir and spruce. About 1 km in, you’ll cross Sarrail Creek bridge; you’ll fork left toward Rawson Lake soon after.
After the fork, you’ll stride onwards for about 1.5 kms on wide switchbacks. You’ll gain an impressive amount of elevation here, but the steepness is still moderate. Roughly 1.5 hours after leaving your car, you should happily break through to beautiful Rawson Lake.
This magnificently calm body of water lies in a spectacular glacier-carved cirque. Don’t make the mistake of NOT walking around the lake; go left and follow the trail around the southeastern shore for beautiful views of small meadows lying below the impressive 1200-meter headwall. There are tons of opportunities for meditation and photography all along the lakeshore.
At the 4km mark, you’ll see the trail scramble upslope towards the saddle right of Mount Sarrail. If the walk to Rawson Lake failed to satisfy your lust for hearty hiking, the very steep climb to the saddle outta do it.
Now, this rather short section of Sarrail Ridge is the most precipitous bit of dirt that I have ever hiked. If you’re willing to endure the cardiovascular slog, I heartily encourage you to push upwards, as the reward far outweighs the effort. It’s a steep, straight-up 350m climb to the saddle, with no switchbacks to water down the grade; allow yourself a good 45 minutes to get there. I’m sure I panted like a bear in heat the whole way.
Know that you might have to use your hands on the path (Yes! Let’s get our hands dirty!), and the scramble down will seem even steeper; most people did it on their bums or backwards holding on to the stunted trees. Hikers might be lined up to head up or down the narrow trail, especially in the summer. There is a rope in one section to assist people going down (don’t let your ego interfere here; grab the damn rope). Don’t let any of these details deter you - I assure you it’s 100% worth it. Keep at it, my friend!
Once you euphorically reach the saddle, I strongly recommend that you keep heading upwards in either direction (left or right) for stunning views of Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes waaaay below. Enjoy your well-earned snack in one of the most stupendous sitting areas of the Canadian Rockies.
Pocaterra Ridge Map
* Day hike (challenging ridge walk)
* Roughly 10 kms one way (point to point) Give yourself 5-7 hours.
* Roughly 550 m elevation gain; 875 m elevation loss
* Option 1: Shuttle hike (point-to-point), roughly 10 kms, South to North. (Start at Highwood Pass (South), end at Little Highwood Pass (North). Two vehicles are necessary.) Pocaterra Ridge (Point to point) - AllTrails site
* Option 2: Out and back Pocaterra Ridge (Out and back) - AllTrails site
* Trailhead for both options: Highwood Pass parking lot
Option 1: In my honest opinion, the best way to hike Pocaterra Ridge is as a shuttle hike (point to point); this will give you more time on the ridge itself without having to retrace your steps. Park your 1st vehicle at Little Highwood Pass, then drive your 2nd car to Highwood Pass to start the hike. Once you finish at Little Highwood Pass, drive your 1st vehicle back to Highwood Pass to pick up your 2nd car.
Option 2: Park and start at Highwood Pass parking lot, turn around at any point in the hike and go back the way you came. That easy! I’d recommend going at least as far as the 3rd or 4th bump on the ridge before turning back, in order to see as much landscape as possible. You'll want hiking poles to descend that first steep hill that you slogged up earlier !
Highwood Pass is the highest point in Canada accessible by a public road - so you’ll get bragging rights even before starting this hike. Keep in mind that the road is closed every year between December 1st and June 15th.
Trail-finding is a bit tricky in the beginning, as there is lots of trail braiding but it’s difficult to get lost. In the beginning, make sure you don't follow the trail across the highway (that one's for Ptarmigan Cirque), but turn left at the sign in the meadow. You won’t be the only person there, as this is one of the premier hikes in Kananaskis (although it is not an official hike and consequently, not always well-marked).
You'll eventually find yourself following a stream and come to a (non-signed) fork in the road. The left trail goes up to Grizzly Col and Grizzly Ridge; you want to keep going straight, as the first hill is the big beautiful green one to your right and you'll want to slowly wind your way around it before eventually ascending it.
That first uphill climb (about an hour into your trek) is the only significant slog on this entire hike, but it’s such an incredible investment in your upcoming reward that skipping this hike because of it could never be justified. The steep incline only lasts about 30 minutes, so suck it up! And drink your water!
The cool thing about ridge hikes is that once you ascend that first hill, your views will be uninterrupted. On Pocaterra Ridge, that means roughly 10 kms (5-6 hrs) of happy tramping up and down gentle lumps, almost like traipsing along the rolling spine of a gigantic brontosaurus. You gain and lose quite a bit of elevation as you hike over its bumps, and a very steep descent through the forest awaits; hiking poles are strongly recommended. The path is usually very well-indicated; that is, until the last 5 minutes (300m) of your hike.
After a very steep final descent through forest, the trail seemingly stops. This is where many hikers seem to get lost; multiple trails have been created by people attempting to find the right path. You can hear traffic on Hwy 40, so you know you are frustratingly close. Here are precise directions that I would have appreciated having for this very last part of the hike: When you emerge from your steep descent through the forest, you will see a white ribbon hanging from a tree just past a dry creek of white rocks. Do not cross this dry creek: rather, take the very poorly-marked trail on your right (just before the dry creek, running alongside it), indicated by two worn orange ribbons. This will lead you to a small brook. You must cross this brook (you'll get your feet wet, but you're done your hike anyway), and then the trail will reappear towards the right on the other side of the brook (you can't see the trail until after you cross this brook, which can be really frustrating). After two minutes of walking through forest, you'll reemerge directly across Little Highwood Pass parking lot. Drive your car to Highwood Pass to pick up car #2.
EEOR (East End of Rundle) MAP
* Day hike, in-and-out
* 3.2 kms to summit (one-way), 1043 m elevation gain (rated as difficult)
* Also known as South Summit of Mount Rundle
This challenging hike offers beautiful views from the very beginning right up until the summit. It gets rather technical toward the top, and hiking boots (not running shoes), as well as hiking poles, are strongly advised. Microspikes or crampons are recommended in late spring/early summer or fall.
The trail starts out between the double telephone poles along Spray Lakes Road and immediately heads steeply into the forest. The views will be captivating from the get-go, but don’t walk distractedly; there isn’t much room for error on the rocky and sometimes exposed path. Pay attention to markers, which will guide you mostly toward the right flank of the mountain.
The path skirts the edges of cliffs on a few occasions; small ledges allow for stunning views of Ha Ling Peak and Whiteman’s Pond. Take advantage of this opportunity to take stunning photos, sneak in a bit of food and chug some water.
After grinding your way up for at least 60 - 75 minutes, the path relents a bit above the treeline and opens up into vast meadows. You’ll see the rockwall ahead of you (up on your left).
Keep climbing through the meadows toward the grassy bench and false summit (to the right). You’ve worked hard to get here; take time to refresh yourself and enjoy the far-away peaks beyond. Many people are satisfied and end their hike here, but it would be a shame to turn around now.
To tackle the final ascent, follow the trail that runs all along the bottom of the huge rockwall. Don’t make the mistake of trying to shortcut your way up; there aren’t many ways up the imposing wall of limestone and it would be folly (or even suicidal) to improvise it. You’ll eventually see a black rockband on the wall; here the trail clambers over some large boulders. After about 10 minutes of scrambling (use your hands to steady yourself, as the path narrows but retains its steep incline), you’ll suddenly see the summit promontory. Congrats; you’ve reached the top of one of the most imposing mountains in the Canadian Rockies!
On the way down, before you hit the tree line, the scree is tricky and sometimes frustrating to navigate; this is the time to take out those hiking poles. Lots of hikers were unsettled, as rocks and pebbles inevitably dislodged under their shoes from the steep incline. Naturally, it's easy to get off-trail here, as you concentrate on your steps - try to stop and look ahead to ensure you're on the proper trail, as you wouldn't want to backtrack or traverse on the scree.
When you reach the meadows, stick to the trails going left, hugging the mountain’s edge as you near the tree line. There are lots of trails braiding through the forest, but the main trail bears generally left throughout the descent.
Once you reach your car, dip your tired feet into Whiteman’s Pond for a cool treat. You’ve certainly earned it!
Tent Ridge Horseshoe Map
* Day hike, horseshoe loop (to be hiked clockwise)
* 10 kms round trip, 657m in elevation gain (Some exposure and scrambling - read warning in article below)
* Trailhead: Down Mount Shark Road (off Spray Lakes Trail). The parking lot is on the right, about 2 kms passed Mount Engadine Lodge. 1h 15mins from Canmore.
Tent Ridge is definitely one of the most rewarding hikes I've ever done and one of my all-time favourites. Average hikers will feel challenged but will be able to complete it, and it's tough enough to keep the crowds at bay. You'll walk through a mossy larch forest, cross an alpine meadow, trudge up loose exposed scree, then return via a steep hillside. Oh, and did I mention you'll see absolutely stunning views throughout? Yeah.
To find the proper trailhead (you don't want to accidentally take the return path, which is signed), walk back from the parking lot to the trail heading up a grassy hill. About ten minutes in, you'll be guided onto another path to your right, indicated by rocks placed in the form of an arrow and bright ribbons in a tree (photo, left). You'll head up into a steep, dense forest; enjoy the lushness, but make lots of noise.
After an hour of hiking, you'll enter a large meadow/basin. Tent Ridge Horseshoe looms ahead; the horseshoe's two arms straddle you on either side. Go left from the meadow, into another forest, which will begin the steep ascent onto the rockslide. This is where some short but adventurous scrambling begins.
Warning: On this ascent of the left arm, there will be a few exposed spots, where a fall could mean a helicopter ride to the hospital. There will also be a 15-foot vertical wall to climb up, so minimal rock climbing skills will help here. If you're not used to scrambling or are afraid of heights, you might want to reconsider this trail. Don't let more experienced hikers tell you that it's not really dangerous; sheer exposure doesn't lessen with experience, cockiness or comfort with heights. That being said, there is always a spot to place your feet or a ledge to hold onto with your hands. I am afraid of heights and found that I was nervous but capable. Do make sure you secure your hiking poles in your bag (tucked in the side pocket of my backpack, they caught the rock wall a few times, throwing me slightly off balance -- didn't help my nerves).
From the meadow, it took about an hour to scale the first arm and arrive at the communications cabin, and what an incredible sight awaited us there! This is an excellent spot for lunch. Descend the horseshoe saddle and climb back up, for about 30 minutes, to the 2nd peak (high point) for more stunning views. I found the saddle to be the most beautiful part of the hike.
The right arm stretches out in front of you and there's some exposure if you walk too close to the ledge. Stick to the left side of the slope. This is the most chilled-out part of the hike; you'll make your way back the second arm with unimpeded views of the Spray Valley. At the end of the arm, a very steep descent into an open gulch awaits you; lots of trails intersect here, but they all pretty much lead back to the main trail. Once you catch it, it's about an hour back to the parking lot through forest and a right turn onto an old 4x4 track.
This hike offers continual, unimpeded views, thanks to its horseshoe shape. There are a few places where one can lose track of the trail, so pay attention. But all in all, this ridge walk is an absolute gem and 100% worth the effort on a clear day.
Sparrowhawk Tarns Map
* Dayhike, in-and-out
* 7 kms one-way, 700 m elevation gain (roughly 6 hours)
* Trailhead: Across the Smith-Dorrien road from Sparrowhawk Day Use Parking Area
The trail to Sparrowhawk Tarns starts off a bit steeply through forest; it follows the same path used for Read's Ridge and Mount Sparrowhawk, so there are many trails continuously branching off.
Consequently, route-finding can be tricky; it’s easy to mistake the proper trail or to pass it altogether. There’s a cairn about 1 km in; make sure to keep going straight, as the trail to Read’s Ridge-Mount Sparrowhawk goes left and it’s easy to take it by accident. Better yet, bring a map; this is one hike where I’ve found a map to be quite useful.
Once out of the forest, the trail meanders uphill through fields of boulders and scree. The path isn’t always easy to see, but the valley is narrow; keep walking up the valley and you can’t go wrong. Look for fossils, as there are quite a bit strewn about in the rocks. You'll have to negotiate a path through many boulders, so good hiking boots will be a definite plus today. Have fun with it; you can't get lost!
The path eventually gives way to beautiful meadows of moss, intercut with narrow ribbons of glacier water. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll be there when the wildflowers are out.
The best thing about this trail is that it eventually leads to multiple tarns, small ponds of turquoise glacier water. At this point, a good part of your day will be spent hopping from tarn to tarn and exploring the ridges between them. On a hot summer day, the water will be shockingly refreshing; take your socks off and dip your feet in!
My only regret about doing this hike was NOT taking a photo of the lovely little tarns. I was too busy enjoying the sunshine and the cold water on my swollen feet. Definitely recommended.
Burstall Pass Map
* Dayhike, in-and-out
* 8 kms one-way, 470m elevation gain
Burstall Lake is one of the most well-travelled trails in Kananaskis, and for good reason. The relatively moderate path allows for splendid views of mountain peaks (including Mount Assiniboine) and beautiful open meadows. Do not let the crowds deter you.
Burstall Trail hike starts out casually; a logging road, then a single track, winding its way through forest for a few kilometres until you reach the Burstall plateau. You’ll have to cross this plateau to continue the hike But first, I suggest taking a short deviation left (south) into the obvious valley to take a quick peek at Robertson Glacier (not pictured). It’s kinda cool.
Back onto the plateau, you’ll have to cross many small, braided streams to continue to Burstall Pass. Depending on the time of year and the volume of melting water from the glacier, you’ll have to either skip and hop over stones or logs, or remove your socks and shoes and wade barefoot. The water is cold and ankle-deep, and the bottom is muddy, but none of it is even remotely dangerous. Have fun with it!
After the meadow, 4 kms in, the trail ascends up a steep footpath through forest, then open meadows. Beautiful, razor-sharp peaks across the valley pierce the sky, to the right of the trail as you’re ascending.
Eventually, at 7.5 kms, the trail arrives at Burstall Pass. You can continue on as far as you’d like before turning around, or find a cool spot to eat and enjoy the view. The boundary of Alberta and British Columbia is near, and on a clear day, you’ll be able to spot beautiful Mount Assiniboine, the tallest mountain in the Southern Canadian Rockies (about 20 kms away).
Once you’ve had your fill of beautiful Kananaskis countryside, simply turn around and head back down the way you came in. As with all hikes, bring bear spray, lots of water and food, as well as a chilly flask of wine to celebrate a beautiful day! * wink wink *
Wind Tower (via West Wind Pass) MAP
* Dayhike, in-and-out
* 6 kms to the top of the tower, 920m in elevation gain
* 5 to 8 hours (times vary enormously according to different cardio abilities)
What a hike this was! The one-hour hike to West Wind Pass is worth it on its own, but I promise that your hard efforts (and probable frustration) will be rewarded with absolutely stupendous views if you push yourself up to the tower! This hike is easily one of the most underrated hikes in the Rockies, and its difficulty keeps many hikers at bay.
I’ve divided this hike into 3 parts. The first part is the walk up to West Wind Pass. You’ll wander up a steady and steep pathway through the forest; make sure to take a right at the homemade sign about 4-5 minutes in (photo at left). There’s a lot of trail braiding throughout the trek; I tend to stick to the paths on the right. Be careful near the cliff bands; watch your step and use your hands if necessary.
Spray Lakes Reservoir will be visible through the trees throughout your climb. You’ll reach West Wind Pass in about 60 - 75 minutes. Enjoy the views from both sides of the pass and take advantage of the lovely meadow to eat and energize.
When facing Spray Lakes Reservoir, you’ll see the trail to Wind Tower continue up the slope on your left (ignore the sheep trail going down into the forest). For the next hour, this second part of the hike curves wide all around the mountain; you’ll need your hands frequently to scramble over rock faces and small cliff bands. I loved walking through these trees, scrambling over the boulders and getting increasingly better views of the lake below. Watch for cairns when the path fades; the route isn’t always super obvious but it’s nevertheless difficult to get lost.
The third part of the hike starts when the earthy and rocky trail becomes a scree slope. The path follows a steep scree path straight up to the top, with small switchbacks here and there.
Mount Lougheed to your right will loom larger and larger as you ascend, and the iconic Three Sisters mountain will gradually emerge from its hiding place to your left. Many hikers I crossed here complained of the interminable upward slog, but keep at it. You’ll reach the summit of the tower in about another 60 - 90 minutes.
Enjoy the incredible 360 views from the top; it’s taken you roughly 3-3.5 hours to get up here and the views are unparalleled. Watch for the sudden, sheer vertical cliffs; it’s an unsurvivable fall. Bring a good wind jacket and hold on to your belongings; Wind Tower has earned its name.
The return down is a steep slide down the same way you ascended; hiking poles and hiking boots (as opposed to running shoes) are a tremendous help here. It will take you 1.5-2 hours to descend. Don’t let the loose scree intimidate you; lead with your heel and slide down. Once you get back down to the wildflowers and the trees, the trekking feels pretty breezy again.
Chester Lake MAP
* Dayhike, in-and-out
* 5 kms one-way (roughly 4 hrs)
Just like Burstall Pass, you will not be alone on your hike to Chester Lake. It’s a short trek that’s well worth the effort, albeit less rewarding in terms of grand sweeping views than neighboring Burstall Pass (the two parking lots are on opposing sides of the Smith-Dorrien Road). Due to its easy grade and kid-friendly terrain, Chester Lake is easily the most popular hike in K-Country. As a local, I tend to avoid it, but you can decide for yourself whether or not this easy and short hike is worth the crowds.
The first 2 kms wind through forest on a broad logging road; don’t let this discourage you. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself surrounded by spruce and alpine fir.
At 3kms, the enclosed trail opens up into meadows strewn with yellow lilies and alpine buttercups in late June and early July. At 4kms, a few peaks (Mount Galatea, The Fortress and Mount Chester) start poking above the tree line, giving you a peek at what will await you once you reach the cirque.
The last part of the hike, approaching the lake, is mostly flat. You’ll have better and better views as you get closer. Mount Chester looms over the lake with sharp, serrated cliff edges; the whole thing is quite dramatic and lovely, and more than worth the small effort you’ve put in to get there. Try to spot a pika amongst the large boulders and enjoy your lunch along the lakeside. Strike up a conversation with your fellow hikers, as you certainly won’t be the only one enjoying the scenery.
This well-loved copy of Kathy and Craig Copeland's book, The PREMIER Trails in Kananaskis Country; Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies, is one of my hiking bibles. Not only is it well-written and dotted with beautiful photographs, I trust their taste and opinions implicitly. I have all their books.
I do not receive money from them and have never met them, though they supposedly live nearby. I'm just a big fan that strongly recommends this awesome resource.