Things To Do: Hiking to the Continental Divide - Carnarvon Lake

Kananaskis Country, Alberta

Hiking at Lake Carnarvon, Kananaskis
The mountain in the background is in BC. Carnarvon Lake is in Alberta.
The U-shape slope is the Continental Divide and marks the Alberta/BC border.

We've been hiking in Kananaskis for decades. Exploring the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains is an escape from the urban world of Calgary. With no particular adventure in mind, we were content with just the popular trails forest trails, enjoying the quintessential Canadian scenery. And then we heard about the Carnarvon Lake hike.

A friend had done the day hike a few years before and had a panoramic photo of a clear mountain lake, surrounded by towering rugged mountains. Looking behind from the edge of the lake was a precipitous drop-off and a mountain canvas painted with a green lodge-pole pine blanket. I was captivated by the high-altitude beauty that reminded me of the fabled city of Shangri-La and was determined to explore this mountain.

K-Country is lush and green in the summer. The days are long and the sun is hot in this mountain playground known locally as Calgary's Backyard. In the winter, skiing at the Nakiska Resort is popular, but when summer arrives, the park becomes a hiker's paradise. Wildlife abounds in the pristine forest.

Most visitors to southern Alberta opt for the more popular mountain parks of Banff, Canmore and Lake Louise. K-Country, on the other hand, is about 2/3 the size of Banff National Park but with far fewer people. It's an uncrowded, local jewel - a not-so-well-kept Alberta secret.

The snow sometimes lingers until July at this high elevation. This year, it had melted but the rivers and streams were still cold - ice cold, as we discovered!

View Hiking in Kananaskis - Lake Carnarvon in a larger map

Located 1 hour southwest of Calgary, the trail starts at the Cat Creek picnic area along the banks of the Highwood River. Normally we drive past this turnoff along Highway 40, but this time we had reason to stop and explore.

From the parking lot, the lake is 8 kilometers away, mainly uphill. It took 3 hours to get there, 2 hours to enjoy the mountain scenery and 1.5 hours to return (on bikes, it's a screaming hoot downhill).

The trail was wide and well-defined for the first 5 kilometers so we took our mountain bikes to speed through the 'dull parts'. The dull parts were still beautiful, but not as scenic as Carnarvon Lake.

Hiking in Kananaskis, Alberta - Lake Carnarvon

Near the trail head, there were two river crossings. Fording the Highwood River was easier in late summer when the water level was at knee height. McPhail Creek was shallow, only ankle deep.

The incline started right after McPhail Creek and so we took plenty of breaks to catch our breath in the thin mountain air. The trail was muddy in sections with boulders which made for a bumpy ride. The view was open & expansive and our ultimate destination loomed in the distance. It was spectacular.

After about 2 kilometers, we came to an open area with a few adjoining trails. Fortunately, previous hikers had blocked most of the incorrect trails with large tree branches. There were only two open trails to choose from - the correct one heading uphill to Carnarvon Lake and a second one leading downhill, to a different trailhead.

The steep cut-line was uneven and strewn with large rocks. We quickly realized that it would be better to drop our bikes, put on our hiking boots and start the uphill hike. A paw print, in a soft muddy puddle, of a large bear motivated us to stick close together.

After 2 kilometers, we approached the rock headwall with only a small waterfall dancing over its edge. The wall looked formidable but from where we were, we could make out a thin path that wound its way up the face, leading to the high-altitude lake.

As we approached the headwall, the terrain became steep and wet as we wove around the rocky slope next to a rather unimpressive waterfall.

Hiking in Kananaskis - Approaching the headwall
Approaching the headwall to Lake Carnarvon.

A permanently affixed chain in the rock face was greatly appreciated! Without it, the climb would be very precarious - one wrong step could have been out last.

Standing at the top of the headwall was exhilarating and awe-inspiring. The distant highway and the deep valley from where we started, was laid out before us. We stood at the edge of Carnarvon Lake, quiet & beautiful with the continental divide behind it. The silence was amazing. The clouds seem so close. The beauty of the mountains was much more astonishing in person than in a mere photo.

Rules of the Trail

Help preserve the scenery and beauty for your next visit by minimizing your impact on the environment:

  • Stay on the trails and logging roads. Don't take shortcuts.
  • Camping is allowed near Lake Carnarvon but pack out what you pack in. These trails are not monitored so help keep it pristine for everyone.
  • Don't leave food behind for the wildlife.
  • Dogs are allowed on the trail but should be leashed. This is home to bear, elk and deer. And be bear aware since this is black and grizzly bear country!
  • Carnarvon Lake is at the headwater of the local creek and the water doesn't get much cleaner than this. Normally we don't drink untreated water but this fresh stuff looked too good to pass up (if you'd rather not, bring a water filter or purifier. Also, swimming is allowed but this water is COLD!
  • Relieve yourself at least 60 meters from any water... for obvious reasons.
  • This is not an easy trail. If you're looking for a leisurely walk in K-Country, consider the Mount Lorette picnic area 50 minutes to the north.

What To Bring

Bring at least a minimum of emergency equipment since you never know when an accident may happen.

  • Flashlight
  • Extra food
  • Warm clothing - snow can fall even in the summer months
  • First-aid kit (know how to use it!)
  • A paper map - cell phone coverage is likely not available
  • Tool kit and bike tools.

Hiking Tips for the Carnarvon Lake Trail

The Carnarvon Lake canyon
Hiking in the Carnarvon Creek Canyon

This is what we learned about this hike:

  • The first 5 kilometers follows an old logging road and can be done on a bike.
  • When fording the Highwood River, place the bike downstream of you so the current doesn't push it into your legs.
  • The Highwood River is slow and shallow in late summer (around August).
  • We crossed the river in our bare feet and our toes were pinched between the round river rocks. Bring a pair of sandals for protection and a towel to dry off on the other side.
  • Bring running shoes for riding, sandals for the river crossing and hiking boots for the headwall.
  • A pair of gloves would be handy for the chain climb, but is not necessary.
  • There is no cell phone coverage in the backcountry of Kanaskaskis.
  • You should have at least a moderate fitness level and be acclimated to hiking at high altitude.
  • A good guide book about hiking in the Rockies will make the journey easier.

There are a lot of offshoot trails. They directions may help:

  • After fording the Highwood River (the first river crossing), the trail goes uphill. After 400 meters, there's a junction. Take the trail heading south (towards the down-slope). The other fork takes you to the Lake of the Horns near Mt. McPhail. It's pretty but far away.
  • At the bottom of the down-slope is the second water crossing. McPhail creek is shallow with a sandy bottom and easy to cross. The uphill climb starts on the other side. We walked our bikes uphill in some sections.
  • At the large clearing, there are many offshoot trails. Some have been blocked by trees & rocks. Keep walking through the clearing and look for a straight cut-line heading uphill. It was previously marked with rocks in the shape of an arrow. You've gone too far and are on a wrong path if you continue straight down a hill and come to another creek-crossing.
  • Leave your bikes at the clearing. The slope is steep and the path covered with rocks. You'll end up pushing your bikes more than riding them from this point onwards. We didn't lock our bikes because there were so few people on the trail.
  • At the headwall, use caution. The path is steep and slippery. Use the chain!
  • Carnarvon Lake has cutt-throat trout and you may see anglers up here. I'm not sure if you need an Alberta Fishing License, but you'll probably won't come across any Fish & Wildlife officers.
  • You can camp up here but remember this is bear country.

Check out other places and things to discover in Alberta!