One of the most complex items you’ll nees to sort out are Permits on the Great Divide Trail. This article originally appeared on The Trek.
2021 Update – Please note that dates for backcountry reservations in the National Parks have changed in 2021. For Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Jasper, backcountry reservations open April 16, 2021
- Waterton Lakes National Park – Parks Canada
- Akamina Kishinena Provincial Park – BC Parks
- Castle Wilderness Provincial Park – Alberta Parks
- Beehive Natural Area – Alberta Parks
- Elk Lakes Provincial Park – BC Parks
- Peter Lougheed Provincial Park – Alberta Parks
- Height of the Rockies Provincial Park – BC Parks
- Banff National Park – Parks Canada
The Great Divide Trail winds through five national parks, 11 provincial parks, wilderness, and natural areas. Each of these have different rules on where you can camp and if permits or reservations are required. Some spots are extremely popular and book up fast, others only see a handful of users a year. To make matters more urgent, many of these places open for reservations in April (or in the case of Mount Robson, last October). I’ll share all the details you’ll need in this post and the next.
“But Kelly,” you say, “this sounds really complicated. Can’t I just show up and hope for a spot?”
As Wil Wheaton says, “Don’t be a dick.” There is nothing more aggravating (and I’m sure many of you have experienced it) than showing up at a campsite you’ve booked and paid for, to find it full and knowing that someone is squatting on a site.
“But Kelly, you’re talking about hundreds of dollars in permits. I’m broke or don’t believe in paying to use public land.”
While public land may be “free,” keeping it that way isn’t. Fire suppression, search and rescue (none of the jurisdictions along the trail charge for rescue services), trail maintenance, changing out outhouse barrels, providing food lockers, all cost money. Purchasing permits helps these woefully underfunded parks provide the services that we as thru-hikers take advantage of.
“What if I stealth camp? That won’t hurt anyone.”
One of the challenges facing the GDT is that it hasn’t yet been formally recognized by all of the land managers along the trail (such as Parks Canada). The Great Divide Trail Association has been doing fantastic work to create a community, build relationships, and make the case for recognition (and fingers crossed, facilitate an easier permitting process). However, if thru-hikers develop a reputation for flaunting the rules, not getting permits, and impacting environmentally sensitive areas, it will made the case for recognition much harder.
Lastly, getting permits is a signal to land managers; it lets them know who is using which trails and where to direct their limited budgets in trail maintenance.
Anyway, rant over 🙂 Enjoy the gory details.
WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK – PARKS CANADA
Random camping is not permitted within Waterton Lakes National Park. Permits and reservations are needed to camp at Boundary Bay, Bertha Bay, Alderson Lake, Lone Lake, Twin Lakes, Snowshoe or Goat Lake. Reservations can be made 90 days in advance by calling the Waterton Lakes visitor center at 403-859-5133. Permits are $9.80 per night, per person, plus a $11.20 reservation fee. Additional accommodations are available within the Waterton townsite. Due to damage caused by the 2017 Kenlow fire keep an eye on the park website for the latest details on any park closures.
Note: A National Parks Discovery Pass is still required to enter any of the national parks (Waterton, Banff, Yoho, Kootenay or Jasper). While daily passes are available, if you plan to spend more than a few days in makes more sense to purchase the annual pass. The Discovery Pass does not cover camping or other services within the park.
AKAMINA KISHINENA PROVINCIAL PARK – BC PARKS
For folks taking the Mount Rowe Alternate, random camping is permitted within Akamina Kishinena Provincial Park. No permits or reservations are required. There is a first-come, first-served campground at Akamina Creek that is used by many folks coming from Alderson Lake and heading onto the Tamarak Trail. A $5 permit per person, per night, is required at this campground. It can be paid in cash at the nearby kiosk, or purchased online.
CASTLE WILDERNESS PROVINCIAL PARK – ALBERTA PARKS
Random camping is permitted in Castle Wilderness Provincial Park (and Castle Provincial Park) as long as you are more than 0.6 miles (1km) away from highway 774 and provincial recreational areas (such as Lynx Creek Campground). No permits or reservations are required in these areas.
First-come, first-serve camping is available at Lynx Creek for $18 a night (cash or check only). Several accommodation options also exist at the Castle Mountain Ski Resort.
BEEHIVE NATURAL AREA – ALBERTA PARKS
Random camping is permitted throughout the Beehive Natural Area. No permits or reservations are required.
ELK LAKES PROVINCIAL PARK – BC PARKS
With the exception of Fox Lake, random camping is permitted within Elk Lakes Provincial Park. No permits or reservations are required. There is a first-come, first-served campground at Lower Elk Lake. A $5 permit per person, per night, is required at this campground. It can be paid in cash at the nearby kiosk, or purchased online. For those taking the Coral Pass Alternate, there is a first-come, first-served campground at Petain Creek. No permit or reservation is needed for this campground. There is also a BC Parks Cabin at Elk Lakes that has historically been operated by the Alpine Club of Canada. Due to COVID-19 booking this cabin is limited to a single group at a time.
PETER LOUGHEED PROVINCIAL PARK – ALBERTA PARKS
Random camping is not permitted within Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Permits and reservations are required for the backcountry campgrounds at Point, Forks, Turbine, Three Isle Lake and Aster Lake. If you are planning to hike the Northover Ridge alternate, be aware that Aster Lake is a small (five site) campground and fills up quickly. Reservations can be made 90 days in advance Permits are $12 per person, per night.
2021 Update: The campground at Turbine Canyon may be closed this summer for reconstruction. Random camping is permitted once you cross into BC.
If you are unable to get a spot at Aster Lake, you can cross the Divide into Height of the Rockies Provincial Park and random camp at the Northover tarns without reservation or permit.
Frontcounty camping is available at Boulton Creek, Mount Sarrail and Interlakes for $26 per night. Unless it’s a long weekend, you can usually find a spot. Boulton Creek also has showers and a small store for basic resupply.
HEIGHT OF THE ROCKIES PROVINCIAL PARK – BC PARKS
With the exception of Beatty Lake on the South Kananskis Alternate, random camping is permitted throughout Height of the Rockies Provincial Park. No permits or reservations are required. If you choose to take the South Kanakaskis Alternate, there is a first-come, first-served campground at Beatty Lake. Again, no permits or reservations are required.
BANFF NATIONAL PARK – PARKS CANADA
Banff is probably the most complex of the parks when it comes to permits as the trail winds into and out of the park three times. Since each of these sections is different, I’ll cover them in detail.
For the most part, random camping is only permitted within the remote eastern portions of Banff National Park (nowhere near the GDT), or in the northern sections of the park, which I’ll describe farther down.
The first section is the remote Spray Valley. Random camping is not permitted in this part of the park. Reservations and permits are required for the campgrounds at Burstall Lake, Birdwood, Big Springs, Marvel Lake, McBride’s Camp, and Allenby Junction. The last three are more popular as they are on one of the two main routes into Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. For the 2020 season, reservations open April 16 at 8 a.m. MST. https://reservation.pc.gc.ca/). Permits are $9.80 per night, per person, plus a $11.20 reservation fee. There is also a cabin at Bryant Creek that can be booked for $16.60 per person, per night. (for 2021 the cabin will remain closed, Parks Canada is looking at rebuilding this cabin)
The middle section passes through the popular Egypt Lakes section of the park. Random camping is not permitted and reservations and permits are required for the campgrounds at Howard Douglas Lake, Healy Creek, Egypt Lake, and Ball Pass Junction. Somewhat off the main route of the GDT are campgrounds at Pharaoh Creek and Shadow Lake. This part of the park can be extremely popular. I urge folks to book sites as soon as they become available. For the 2020 season, reservations open January 23 at 8 a.m. MST. https://reservation.pc.gc.ca/). Permits are $9.80 per night per person, plus an 11.20 reservation fee. There is a cabin at Egypt Lake that can be booked for $16.60 per person, per night. (As with the cabin at Bryant Creek, this cabin will be closed in 2021)
The final section is the remote Howse River in the north of the park. Random camping is permitted as long as you are more than 2.5 miles (4 km) from the Icefields Parkway or Glacier Lake trail. There is also a campground that can be booked at Glacier Lake. While reservations are not required, a backcountry permit is still needed ($9.80 per night, per person). These permits can be obtained by calling the Banff Visitor Centre at 403-762-8421.
If you are planning to head off trail to visit the Banff Townsite or Lake Louise, you will want to look into accommodations as soon as possible. The park can be extremely busy during the peak summer season. If you are planning to stay at a frontcountry campground, reservations open January 8 at 8 a.m. MST. https://reservation.pc.gc.ca/). Campgrounds at Tunnel Mountain and Two Jack have good public transit options into Banff proper.
Check out my next post where I cover Mount Assiniboine and points north.