More Backcountry Camping in Kananaskis
Check out part 1 where we cover campgrounds in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Elbow Sheep Wildland Provincial Park.
Spray Valley Provincial Park
Another great campground for a first trip, Jewell Bay sits on the shore of Barrier Lake, which for many is the first thing you encounter when entering Kananaskis from Alberta Highway 40. The trailhead is located just south of the visitor centre and is extremely busy. Plan to arrive early if you want a parking space. The campground itself is a 4km hike from the trailhead with minimal elevation gain. You’ll start by crossing the Barrier Dam which leads to a very popular hike to Barrier viewpoint and the nearby fire lookout. The trail to Jewell Bay branches off shortly after and sticks close to the shore of the lake. There are 7 sites at the campground with an outhouse, food storage lockers, firepits and firewood. Day hikes up to Jewell Pass (which connects to Quaite Valley) and further up the valley are possible, but it is more set up for an overnight getaway. I remember taking a group of Cub Scouts here for their first backpacking trip and much fun was had had by all. Don’t be surprised if you encounter equestrian or canoe campers at this site. 6/10 (Easy)
While some will visit Ribbon Falls as a day hike, it’s a nice destination for a quick weekend getaway. Nestled in the Ribbon Creek Valley, the falls themselves are cozy with the mountains nestled in close. Starting at the Ribbon Creek Day Use Area near Kananaskis Village and the Nakiska Ski Resort, the trail is 9km with 375m of elevation gain. The first half of the trail is a popular day hike with numerous bridges crossing the creek. There are multiple loops in this area, but the trail is well signed and popular with cross country skiers in the winter. There is a nice break area to grab lunch where most day hikers turn back. Here the trail becomes a little less well defined as it makes its way up the valley. At the Falls you’ll find 10 camping spots, with picnic tables, food storage, outhouses and firepits. As of this writing, firewood is not provided and it is likely that the fire pits will be removed (if not already). Once here, there isn’t much else to explore beyond the falls. The trail continues up to Ribbon Lake, or back the way you came. This is a great trip for those looking for something a little bit longer than the short trails to Point and Jewel Bay, but without the elevation of some of the other trails. 7/10 – (Easy)
Updated in March 2023
Like Tombstone, there are multiple routes into Ribbon Lake, but the remote lake sandwiched between Mount Bogart and Guinn’s Peak it’s well worth it. While I only spent a single night here, it’s a beautiful place to spend a long weekend. There are several nearby passes and peaks to explore. Most commonly, the campground is accessed by the same trail that leads to Ribbon Falls, it is 10km with 625m of elevation from the Ribbon Creek Trailhead. However, the last section is extremely steep, but the old chains used to scramble up a section of the headwall were replaced with easier to use ladders in 2022. You’ll need to be comfortable with some exposure if you take this route. The easier route is over Buller Pass which is only 9kms and 625m of elevation gain from the Buller Creek Trailhead on the gravel Smith Dorrien Trail (Alberta highway 742). This is the route I took when I visited the lake in 2019. The trail spends the first third in forest as you make your way up Buller Creek and through a burned area. With a moderate climb up the first headwall, you’ll enter a high valley where you quickly make the tree line and get to enjoy views that only get better and better as you switchback your way up to the pass. Dropping down into the Ribbon Creek Valley, you’ll pass an Alberta Parks Cabin on your way to the campground. A third alternate takes the same trail as Lillian Lake, but shortly after reaching that campground you’ll split off and head up and over Guinn’s Pass. While only 9.5km, there is almost 900m of elevation on this route. I’ve heard the views from the top of the pass are incredible and it’s on my list of trails to explore. Regardless of which route you take to Ribbon Lake, you’ll find 20 spots, outhouses, food storage and fire pits. As of this writing, firewood is not provided and like Ribbon Falls it is likely the firepits will be removed (if not already). With the close proximity to the parks cabin, don’t be surprised if a friendly conservation officer stops by to check your permits. 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
This was the one where I earned my “Bingo” in 2020. A beautiful little lake between Guinn’s Peak, Mt Galatea and The Tower. I’d recommend planning to stay for 2 nights so you can fully explore the upper valley. The trail is closed between April 1st and late June to protect wildlife and the tread of the trail (it can be pretty muddy in the spring). Only 6.5km from the Galatea Day Use Area on Alberta Highway 40, the trail does climb nearly 500m. Popular with day hikers (and backpackers) make sure you book a site early. Much of the trail is in forest and steps up a few benches on your way to the lake. Things begin to open up as you approach the lake, but you really need to explore further up the valley and the two Galatea Lakes if you want views. At the campground you’ll find 17 sites with food storage, picnic tables, and outhouses. As of this writing, fires are not longer permitted. What is unusual is that 9 of the sites are on raised wooden platforms (to prevent damage to the underlying soil) many offering great views of the lake. Day hikes to the Lower and Upper Galatea Lakes and Guinn’s pass offer additional options. Some will combine Lillian Lake with Ribbon Lake to make a loop. If you do this, you’ll either need two cars, or connect the two parking lots with the Terrace Trail along the Kananaskis Valley Bottom. 8/10 – (Moderate)
Rummel Lake (Winter)
A unique campground in Kananaskis, and a popular hike in the summer, this campground is only open between December 19 and April 1st for winter camping. The hike is only 5km with 400m of elevation from the Rummel Lake Trailhead on the Smith-Dorrien Trail (Alberta Highway 742). If you can, I recommend stopping in at the Mount Engadine Lodge for a hot chocolate or lunch. The lake itself is in a beautiful cirque overlooked by Mt Galetea. The main challenge with this campground is the weather and short days during the winter. Temperatures can easily drop at low as -30C and fires are not permitted. You’ll want to ensure you’re well prepared before planning to camp here. The campground doesn’t really have “sites” and the only amenity is an outhouse. Plan to arrive early so you’ll have time to build a Quinsy. These snow shelters are much warmer to sleep in than a tent. 7/10 (Moderate)
Trailhead Camping along the High Rock Trail
New in 2021
Alberta Parks has added hiker/biker camping at two day use areas along the Spray Valley Trail (Alberta Highway 762) to support those hiking the High Rock Trail. The trail starts at the Goat Creek Day use area and connects to the trail network in Banff National Park, from here it follows the Spray Valley for ~60km connecting with the trail network in Peter Lougheed Park. It forms a vital link in the Trans Canada Trail. For backpackers and mountain bikers (and only backpackers and mountain bikers), limited facilities are now available at the Bhuller Mountain and Sawmill Day Use areas. Washrooms and food storage lockers are provided on a first come, first serve basis. Campers must self register at a fairly steep $31 per night.
Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park
Another easy one, Quaite Valley is the only campground accessible from the TransCanada Highway as it makes its way to Canmore and Banff. Only 5km from the Heart Creek Day Use Area, the trail gains 100m. However, you can cut this down to just over a km by parking on the side of Highway 1. You’ll need to be heading east on the TransCanada, but about 3km from Heart Creek, you’ll see where an old forestry road intersects the main road. There will often be several cars parked here so it’s pretty hard to miss. I’ve done it both ways and recommend the short cut. The main trail is mainly in forest and never gets that far from the highway and its traffic noise. Rather, starting at the forestry road gets you right into the Quaite Creek Valley and away from the sounds of civilization. This trail is frequented by mountain bikers, so keep an eye out. Before long, you’ll come into a nice open meadow where the campground is located. There are 20 sites with outhouses, food storage, picnic tables, firepits and firewood. There are a few unofficial trails in the area that can be used to create loops, or head up to Jewell Pass for some views. When you just can’t get away for an entire weekend, Quaite Valley lets you head out after work on a Friday and be back in town before 10am on Saturday.
Now that I’ve stayed in each of these campgrounds, there’s a few I will definitely visit again. With some sites being reconstructed (Tombstone, Point and now Turbine Canyon) it will be a new experience. My next challenge will have to be all the backcountry campgrounds in Kootenay and Yoho, before starting to chip away at Banff (which might just take just a little bit longer). Feel free to reach out with any questions you have.