Elk Lakes Report – Backcountry and winter camping

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While the Canadian Rockies have some of the most spectacular hiking in the world, one of the realities is that snow often arrives early and leaves late, particularly at the higher elevations. One of the things we’ve been trying to do more lately is getting out into the backcountry and doing some winter camping.

Last year I took my kids up to Rummel Lake in Spray Valley and slept in a quinzee (snow cave). One of my goals is to stay at every back country campground in Kananaskis, and while I have a few more to go, Rummel Lake is unique as it is only open in the winter.

Unfortunately temperatures dropped well below forecast that night (-28C), making it not exactly the best experience. While that night’s sleep wasn’t the most comfortable, we made it there and back no worse for wear. It did however turn my kids off the idea of doing another winter trip.

Enter the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) and their tremendous network of cabins and huts throughout the Rockies. While many of them are remote with challenging approaches,  several are well within the abilities of young kids to reach. In particular, the Elk Lakes Cabin located in Elk Lakes Provincial Park only 9km from the Elk Pass trail-head in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. With a gain (and loss) of 200m and no exposure to avalanche terrain, it seemed ideal. In summer the park is  accessible by foot and mountain bike, and winter by x-country ski and showshoe. Once my kids heard that we’d be sleeping in a cabin with a fire, they were in.  The Elf and his son were in, and we even convinced one of our friends who had decided that backpacking wasn’t his cup of tea, to give it a try.

I was able to book the night of Jan 2 for the 6 of us, and while I would have liked to have done 2 nights (giving us time to explore the area), these cabins book up fast so you’ll need to plan accordingly.

As Christmas approached, all of us  were getting pretty excited. Unfortunately, the Elf came down with a pretty bad cold that turned into pneumonia, making for a last minute cancellation. The 4 of us pressed on, and headed out early on Jan 2nd making it to the trailhead for 9:30am. It was a cold day (-28C again), but clear with virtually no wind. While the kids complained at first, once we got moving everyone warmed up and had a great time. In the winter Kananaskis grooms a whole network of x-country ski trails in the area, making for easy hiking. Even though we brought our snowshoes, we never really needed them. As always proper etiquette is to not step on the tracks for the skiers, so watch your step.

Elk Lakes Provincial Park

The easiest trail follows a hydro cut between Alberta and B.C. and the utility service road.  It’s not the most scenic trail in the summer (there are other much nicer trails that follow Fox Creek), but the snow covered trees made it a spectacular trip as we climbed our way to Elk Pass, across the great divide and down into B.C. One thing to note  when arriving at the picnic table at the top of the pass is the trail continues past the “end of trail” sign. This sign signifies the end of the Alberta side of the trail, but once past the sign you’ll see the gate that divides the two parks where it resumes on the B.C. side

From there is was all downhill and before we knew it we had made it to the cabin. The facility was great, a sizable kitchen equipped to cook a turkey dinner if you’re so inclined, lots of games, a comfortable common sleeping area up top and a nice fire to keep it all toasty.

The group photo (missing Dwarf)

Shortly after we got in, several other folks began to arrive. Some hiking in, some on touring skis and some on x-country. It was a mix of younger couples, an older gentleman and his grown children, all in all a great bunch.

We sat down to a dinner of pasta, potatoes and banana cream pie and as darkness fell, we fired up the propane lights and spent the evening playing games and chatting. Crawling into bed around 9:00 the cabin was almost too warm 🙂

Before we knew it, the sun was starting to rise and after quick breakfast we packed up and hit the trail, retracing our steps back to the trail-head. All in all it was a great overnight and we’ll definitely be back again, next time for 2 nights.

Beautiful creek near Elk Lakes

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Kelly McDonald

After spending 12 years in Ottawa Kelly returned to Calgary in 2012 and decided to pick off where he left off by roping his closest friends into some new back-country adventures (some more fun than others).

Kelly McDonald is a father of two hobbits ages 12 and 13 and tries to get them out into the wilderness as often as he can.

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For those new or unfamiliar with the outdoors, heading out can expose you to risks you may not be aware of.

To help you get started here are a few basic tips and tricks to help keep you safe on the trail.

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