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.
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.
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.
Help preserve the scenery and beauty for your next visit by minimizing your impact on the environment:
Bring at least a minimum of emergency equipment since you never know when an accident may happen.
This is what we learned about this hike:
There are a lot of offshoot trails. They directions may help:
Check out other places and things to discover in Alberta!