Permits on the Great Divide Trail – Part 1

by | Dec 1, 2019 | Great Divide Trail, Kananaskis, Lessons Learned, Planning

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When planning for the Great Divide Trail, one of the most complex items you’ll need to sort out are permits. This article originally appeared on The Trek.

2022 Update – There are several changes for 2022 so you’ll want to read through to familiarize yourself.

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The Great Divide Trail winds through five national parks, 11 provincial parks, and several wilderness/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 January. 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). We’re already starting to see some impact with Jasper making a “special” GDT only campsite available, and Alberta Parks installing bear bins at some locations along the trail. However, if thru-hikers develop a reputation for flaunting the rules, not getting permits, and impacting environmentally sensitive areas, it will make 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.

View of Upper Kananaskis Lake

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 $10.02 per night, (per person), plus a $11.96 reservation fee. Additional accommodations are available within the Waterton townsite. Due to damage caused by the 2017 Kelow fire keep an eye on the park website for the latest details on any park closures.

For those wishing to stay at the Waterton Townsite Campground, reservations open January 25th at 8am MST. Costs are $23 per night (per person), or $28 if you want showers. There is also a $11.96 reservation fee.

 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 it 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. The campground has food storage, an eating area and outhouse.

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 $23 a night (cash or check only). Several accommodation options also exist at the Castle Mountain Ski Resort.

LIVINGSTONE PUBLIC LAND USE ZONE

Random camping is permitted throughout the Livingstone PLUZ. No permits or reservations are required.

Note: A public lands camping pass is required to random camp in Livingstone Public Land Use Zone. The cost is $20 (per person) for a 3-day pass and $30 (per person) for an annual pass. A single annual pass will cover you for all provincial crown land random camping along the trail.

BEEHIVE NATURAL AREA – ALBERTA PARKS

Random camping is permitted throughout the Beehive Natural Area. No permits or reservations are required.

CATARACT CREEK SNOW VEHICLE PUBLIC LAND USE ZONE 

Random camping is permitted throughout the Cataract Creek Snow Vehicle PLUZ. No permits or reservations are required.

Note: Just to keep things confusing,  a public lands camping pass is NOT required to random camp in the Cataract Creek Snow Vehicle PLUZ. However, if you plan to park a vehicle in this area, a Kananaskis Conservation Pass is. The cost is $15 (per vehicle) for a 1-day pass and $90 (for up to 2 vehicles ) for an annual pass.

ELK LAKES FORESTRY SERVICE ROAD – BC FORESTRY

There are several first come, first served, rustic campgrounds operated by BC Forestry along the Elk Lakes Forestry Service Road.  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 (and it can be a bit pricey). Both campgrounds have foot storage, an eating area and outhouse.

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 which fills up quickly. Reservations can be made 90 days in advance Permits are $12 per person, per night.

2022 Update: The campground at Turbine Canyon should be open this summer. If Alberta Parks follows their pattern from the past few years they will be refurbishing one of the backcountry campgrounds in the area. I have reached out for details and will update this posting once I know more.

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 (walk in tenting only) and Interlakes for $31 per night. Unless it’s a long weekend, you can usually find a spot. While Mount Sarrail and Interlakes are first come first served, Boulton Creek can be reserved 90-days in advance for an additional $12 fee. Boulton Creek also has showers and a small store for basic resupply.

Note: If you plan to park a vehicle in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, a Kananaskis Conservation Pass is required. The cost is $15 (per vehicle) for a 1-day pass and $90 (for up to 2 vehicles ) for an annual pass.

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 2022 season, reservations open January 28 at 8 a.m. MST. Permits are $10.02 per night (per person) plus a $11.96 reservation fee. There is also a cabin at Bryant Creek that can be booked for $16.60 per person, per night. (for 2022 the cabin will remain closed as Parks Canada is in the process of 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, particularly on weekends. I urge folks to book sites as soon as they become available. For the 2022 season, reservations open January 28 at 8 a.m. MST. Permits are $10.02 per night (per person), plus an 11.96 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 2022)

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 ($10.02 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 26 at 8 a.m. MST. 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.

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