Backcountry Camping in Kananaskis
Updated for 2021
Living in Calgary, I am extremely fortunate to have so many backcountry campgrounds whose trailheads sit within a 2-hour drive of my house. Banff National Park alone has more than 50, the near-by Yoho and Kootenay National Parks have another dozen. However, it is the 14 sites in Kananaskis Country which occupy a special place in my heart. This is where I first went backpacking as a 13 year old Scout and for the past 8 years, I’ve spent at least one night in of these campgrounds each and every year.
For those unfamiliar with Kananaskis, it is a series of Provincial Parks, Wildland Parks, Natural Areas and Public Land Use Zones nestled in the foothills, front rages and main ranges of the Canadian Rockies. The region starts about 40km west of Calgary and extends all the way to the continental divide. To the north it borders on Banff National Park and runs ~140km to the south. You can find me there almost every other weekend.
In 2020 I managed to finish one of my backpacking bucket list items, something I called “Kananaskis Backcountry Bingo”. A few years back, I set a goal of spending at least one night in each and every formal backcountry campground in Kananaskis. To celebrate, I thought I’d share my perspectives on each of them. For each site I give you my “out of 10” rating and the difficulty level of reaching the campground.
These sites are operated and maintained by Alberta Parks and as such, camping at any of them requires a permit. Permits can be purchased at https://reserve.albertaparks.ca/. As of this writing, permits are $12 per adult, per night plus a $12 reservation fee. Sites can be booked 90-days in advance and many of them are popular in the summer.
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is the proverbial crown jewel of Kananaskis. Nestled along the Great Divide, it’s mountain lakes, towering peaks, and well developed infrastructure, makes it a popular destination for campers, kayakers, mountain bikers and hikers. 90min west of Calgary, just off Alberta Highway 40, the park is accessible year-round.
Updated May 2021
The campground at Point has a special meaning for me, it’s not only the first backcountry campground I ever slept in, but also the first place I took my wife and both of my kids for their first night in the backcountry. A popular campground, there are 20 sites, situated on a peninsula jutting into Upper Kananaskis Lake. It can be reached by an easy 4km (2.5mile) hike or canoe from the Interlakes Trailhead at the end of Kananaskis Lakes Trail (which is the trailhead for most backcountry campgrounds in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park). The sites are private, with each one close to the shore of the lake (which is also the water source). The campground was reconstructed in 2020 and they did a nice job, unfortunately as of May 2021 Parks has removed all firepits from the campground and prohibited fires. Outhouses and food storage lockers are provided. I recommend Point as a great destination to introduce someone to the world of backpacking. Views of nearby Mount Lyautey and the lake make for nice backdrops and kids can spend hours skipping rocks on the lake. People will camp here year-round. 7/10 (Easy)
Updated Oct 2021
Heading a bit deeper into the Upper Kananaskis Valley, Forks sits at a junction for the trails that lead to the South Kananaskis and North Kananaskis Passes (hence the name Forks). There are 15 sites located on a small rise above the Upper Kananaskis River (which is the water source). Access is via a 7km (4.5 mile) hike with 75m of elevation gain from the same Interlakes Trailhead that leads to Point. Much of the trail is through forest, so with the exception of some early views of Upper Kananaskis Lake, don’t expect much in the way of grand vistas. Outhouses, picnic tables and food storage lockers are provided. The campground no longer permits fires, and I’ve been told that the fire pits have been removed. It’s a good place for a simple in and out overnight trip, or if you’re travelling with younger kids. Not so much a destination itself, many folks use Forks as a basecamp for day hikes into the nearby upper valleys. 6/10 (Easy)
Three Isle Lake
This was the destination for my first backpacking trip, and I still remember tiredly climbing the headwall up to the lake. Three Isle Lake is an alpine lake surrounded by the mountains of the Continental Divide. Located 4km west from Forks, the trail steadily climbs past a waterfall and up a steep headwall with great views of the valley below. 11km from the Interlakes Trailhead with 475m elevation gain the trail does have some steep sections, but it is well worth it. A bit more challenging, most folks can hike to the lake in a day. There are 16 sites split between two campgrounds, one at Three Isle Lake and the second at Three Isle Creek (both also acting as water sources). Outhouses, picnic tables and food storage is provided, but being a remote alpine valley, fires are not allowed. I recommend planning to stay a few days in the area as there are several easy scrambles up to nearby peaks, and day hikes over South Kananaskis Pass into British Columbia and Beatty Lake. A good destination for someone looking for a destination to stay and explore. 8/10 (Moderate)
Updated Oct 2021
Closed for 2021 as the campground is being reconstructed. On my list of destinations for years, I finally made it up to Turbine last summer and I was not disappointed. Heading north from Forks, the 8km trail first takes you up the steep side of the Upper Kananaskis valley, offering expansive views. Once you gain the alpine, you’ll pass spectacular glacier tarns, meadows full of wildflowers and Lawson Lake. At the campground you can explore the nearby Turbine Canyon, where the creek disappears down a 2-foot wide crack in the rock. 15km from the Interlakes Trailhead with 525m elevation gain, the trail isn’t as steep as the one to Three Isle Lake. Fit hikers can make it to Turbine Canyon in a single day, while others will spend a night at Forks before. There are 12 sites along the bank of Maude Brook (which is the water source) with outhouses, picnic tables and food storage. As with Three Isle Lake, fires are not permitted. Another place to spend a couple of days, there are hikes to Maude Lake and North Kananaskis Pass, as well as Haig Glacier. I’ll definitely be back. 9/10 (Moderate)
Updated Sept 2021
My absolute favorite campground in all of Kananaskis, it’s also one of most challenging one to reach. Established for mountaineers ascending the nearby Mount Joffre and Warrior Mountain, the unmaintained trail takes you through dense forests, up two steep headwalls (with some exposure), and a one small section of easy scrambling. Our trip to Aster Lake in 2013 and the challenges we faced is ultimately what inspired this blog. We returned on September 2021 and had a great time, finding it much easier (going in with substantially lighter packs helped a lot). A small but highly popular campground in the high alpine, it boasts one of the nicest views from an outhouse you’ll ever see. 11km from the Upper Kananaskis Lakes Trailhead with 550m of elevation gain, navigation and routefinding skills are recommended, but not required. Several re-routes have made the trail much easier to follow up the first head wall Marlborough Creek. 5 spots are located next to Aster Creek (the water source) which book up quickly in the summer. Outhouses and food storage is provided, however there are no picnic tables, and fires are prohibited. Aster Lake is often the first night of the Northover Ridge loop which by some accounts is the most spectacular ridge walk in North America. For those unwilling to straddle the vertigo inducing Continental Divide, there are many options to explore the alpine in this high valley. 10/10 (Difficult)
Updated Oct 2021
While still technically within Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Elbow Pass and the lake beyond is an important access point into Elbow Sheep Wildland Provincial Park and its trails and campgrounds. The birthplace of the Big Elbow River, Elbow Lake is nestled between Mount Rae and Elpoca Mountain. Don’t be surprised if you see backcountry skiers packing in their gear to get some turns in on Rae Glacier year-round. An easy trail, the campground is only 1.5km (with 75m elevation gain) from the Elbow Pass Trailhead on Alberta Highway 40. 15 spots are located right on the lake (which is the water source) with outhouses, picnic tables, and food storage lockers. As of October 2021, fires are no longer permitted and the fire pits have been removed. This is a great destination for young kids, or someone looking for a quick Friday night getaway. 7/10 (very easy)
Elbow Sheep Wildland Provincial Park
Elbow Sheep Wildland Provincial Park extends from the end of Alberta Highway 66 on the east to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park on the west and covers the front ranges of the Elbow/ Sheep watershed. As a wildland provincial park, several activities are permitted which are normally restricted in regular provincial parks. For example, random camping (camping outside of campgrounds) is allowed in many areas, and depending on the wildlife management unit, you may encounter hunters at certain times of the year.
I remember reading about the 2-3 night Elbow Loop as a young Scout in Gillian Dafern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide. In 2018 I finally had the opportunity to complete it over a nice September long weekend. If hiking counter-clockwise, the campground at Mt Romulus is normally your first night, an easy 12 km from the Little Elbow Trailhead at the end of Alberta Highway 66 (175m of elevation gain), the trail is multi-use so don’t be surprised to see mountain bikers or equestrians out for the day. If hiking clockwise, this campground would normally your 2nd or 3rd night, being 31km from the same trailhead, with 650m of elevation gain. There are 2 campgrounds at Mount Romulus, the first is a 10 site backpackers campground, with the second being a 10 site equestrian campground. Both have outhouses, picnic tables, food storage lockers, hitching rails, firepits and firewood. While normally visited as part of the Elbow Loop, there are many day hikes that lead up the Little Elbow Valley and it is possible to connect to the Evan Thomas valley and the Kananaskis Village beyond. A great loop to introduce someone to multi-night backpacking don’t be surprised to encounter hunters using this campground a base camp in the fall. 7/10 (Easy)
Updated Oct 2021
The campground at Tombstone sits at the metaphoric heart of Elbow Sheep Wildland Provincial Park with access from several directions. The easiest access is from the west, with the trail over Elbow Pass being 7.5km with 125m of elevation gain (same trail head as Elbow Lake listed above). Since the trailhead starts at a fairly high elevation, you’ll gain the treeline fairly quickly and enjoy great alpine meadows and views of the valley. Be sure to check out Edworthy Falls. From the north, the trail from Little Elbow Trailhead (via Mount Romulus) is 21km with 400m of elevation gain along a old forestry road that is maintained for fire crew access and campground maintenance. If following this route, be sure to check out the Tombstone Lakes on your way there. From the east, the trail from Little Elbow Trailhead (via Big Elbow) is 22km with 650m of elevation gain. Again this section is on old (but maintained) forestry access roads, making it popular with mountain bikers and equestrians. From the south, the Sheep River trail starting at Bluerock Campground at the end of Alberta Highway 546 is 21.5km with 450m of elevation gain. This last route is unmaintained and has a few unbridged creek crossings, so we generally don’t recommend this access route. Like Mount Romulus, there are two campgrounds at Tombstone, an 11 site campground for hikers and 4 for equestrians. Outhouses, food storage, picnic tables, firepits, firewood and hitching posts are provided. Typically the second night for those hiking the Elbow Loop, there are a multitude of day hikes in the area as well, including the beautiful Rae and Tombstone Lakes. The campground was completely reconstructed in 2019 and they did a great job. If coming in from the Elbow Lake route, Tombstone makes a great weekend adventure, you can easily hike in on a Friday night after work and spend Saturday exploring the area. 7/10 (Easy)
A smaller campground on the Big Elbow River it is often used as the first night on the Big Elbow Loop if hitting the trail on a Friday afternoon. It is only 8km from the Little Elbow Trailhead at the end of Alberta Highway 66, with 125m of elevation gain. The trail is through forest for most of the way with some views of Threepoint Mountain and Banded Peak as you approach the campground. While we originally planned to stay here when completing the Big Elbow loop in 2018, we got to the campground by lunchtime and ended up pushing on to Tombstone. I headed back for a short weekend trip in 2019 with my son, so I could check it off. There aren’t a lot of day hikes in the area, with an easy scramble to the top of Threepoint Mountain being the main opportunity. For those trying random backcountry camping for the first time, camping near Big Elbow is a good option. You must be 1km from the campground, but there are many flat places to set up and an outhouse is never far away, if you’re not quite ready to try taking a number 2 in the woods. 5/10 (Easy)
Keep an eye out for part 2 when I’ll talk about the campgrounds in Spray Valley Provincial Park and Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park