If you are new to Calgary, you must have received advice to visit Kananaskis Country instead of Banff National Park during peak summer tourist season. If that left you searching for information, this article gives you an overview of things to do and places to visit in Kananaskis Country (pronounced Can-an-a-skiss).
What is Kananaskis Country: Located in Alberta, Kananaskis Country is system of 51 parks of various classifications administered by Alberta Tourism, Parks & Recreation. The area is about one hour west of Calgary in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies.
Kananaskis is the result of Alberta government’s decision to improve the life of Albertans by putting aside the Canadian Rockies foothills and wilderness area west for Calgary for recreational activities. The revenue from Alberta’s oil boom of the last century was used for this purpose.
Kananaskis Country with its pristine views, alpine meadows with bountiful wild flowers and abundant wildlife is a hiker’s dream destination. Every recreational activity you can find at Banff, can be enjoyed here. You can spend all your summer exploring Kananaskis Country and still would not have covered it all. The best part is that there is no day use fee (free entry).
Kananaskis country is governed as Improvement District No. 5 (Kananaskis) and is the only Alberta municipality located within a provincial park.
An Overview of Things to Do in Kananaskis Country
Geographically there are eight regions in Kananaskis Country.
- Bow Corridor
- Kananaskis Valley
- Spray Valley
- Peter Lougheed Provincial Park lies south of Spray Valley.
- Highwood / Cataract area – southern most part of Kananaskis Country.
- Sheep area (Sheep River Valley)
- Elbow area (Elbow River Valley)
- Sibbald Area
The following gives an overview of each region to help you plan your visit. Each region is worth a weekend (or more) of your time. There are plenty of campgrounds at each place and select locations have hotels and lodges.
I. Bow Corridor
Located at the Northern end Kananaskis Country, Bow Valley Area sits at the confluence of Kananaskis and Bow River. Bow Valley Provincial Park and Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park are situated here. Bow Valley Provincial Park was part of Banff National Park and was returned to Alberta Government in 1930.
How to get here: Follow Highway 40 or take Highway 68 from TransCanada Highway west.
In addition to plentiful hiking, fishing and canoeing, Bow Corridor is the main hub for many adventurous activities like white water rafting in Kananaskis River. Mt. Yamnuska cliff face provides a number of popular climbing routes.
Grotto Creek Canyon Trail that leads into a narrow canyon with vertical rock walls and waterfall is an Ice walk destination. You can go on guided hikes or go on your own. The frozen waterfall in winter is also a beginner ice climbing destination.
Cross country skiing and snowshoeing remains popular here.
Stay: Both summer and winter outdoor camping opportunities are available.
Visitor Information: Barrier Lake Visitor Centre (free Wifi) entrance from Highway 68 and Bow Valley Visitor Centre (from Highway 40) is open year round.
II. Kananaskis Valley
The most developed area of Kananaskis Country is the Evan-Thomas Provincial Recreational Area. This is where the Kananaskis Village that was developed for 1988 Winter Olympic Games is located. This area has all facilities including restaurants.
How to get here: Follow Highway 40 along follow Kananaskis River from TransCanada Highway.
Nakiska Ski Resort: Enjoy Snowboarding, Snowtubing and Skiing.
Kananaskis Golf Course: Situated in the Kananaskis Valley boreal forest, Kananaskis Golf Course is one of the premier golf destinations in the Canadian Rockies. It was destroyed in 2013 floods. Restorations are underway with a scheduled reopening of 2018.
Go Horse back riding at Boundary Ranch. The ranch offers old-fashioned horse drawn sleigh rides (~$35)during Christmas season, Dog-sledding in winter (courtesy Mad Dogs and Englishmen). They also organize white-water rafting at Kananaskis River, hayrides on horse-drawn wagons in summer.
Other Activities include hiking along various trails, Fishing/Ice Fishing, Hunting, Mt. Biking/Cycling, Fat Biking, Hunting at Marmot Basin area and Ice Climbing.
Hotel accommodation – Delta Lodge (Marriot): For those who prefer all the luxury of a hotel room.
Sundance Lodges offers comfort camping in beautiful canvas tipis, comfortable trapper’s tents and unserviced campsites. There is also hot coffee in the morning and sell basic groceries and gifts at the front of the Trading Post.
Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel managed by Hostelling International.
Mt. Kidd RV Park, a privately run, commercial campground with camper store, tennis courts and hot tubs.
III. Spray Valley
The north-western part of Kananaskis Country is the location of Spray Valley provincial park (and Spray Valley Reservoir).
How to get here: The park is located south of Canmore and is about 2 hrs from Calgary. Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail (Alberta Hwy 742, gravel) is the only road through the park.
The 60 km road makes an excellent road trip from Canmore winding through Goat pond, shoreline of Spray lakes, Buller Pond, Spray Valley provincial park, Smith Dorrien Creek Watershed and finally reaching Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in the south.
Activities include: Canoeing/Kayaking, Hiking including Backcountry, Power Boating, Wind Surfing, Cross Country Skiing, Ice Fishing, Snowshoeing and Dog sledding at Mount Shark area. Ruedi Setz Biathlon Range is situated here.
Both summer and winter camping options are available at Spray Valley provincial park.
Mount Engadine Lodge, accessible by car, provides creature comforts for those who do not like the concept of outdoor camping.
IV. Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Continuing south on Dorrien/Spray Trail, you reach Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, the second largest provincial park in Alberta. Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes Trail that branches from Dorrien/Spray Trail provides one with access to two spectacular water bodies (Upper and Lower Kananakis Lakes) that is centre to all water based recreational activities.
How to get to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park: Follow Dorrien/Spray Trail (Alberta Hwy 742) through Spray Valley provincial park or take Highway 40 from TransCanada Highway/Longview (541 – closed in winter) or Highway 68 (Sibbald Creek Trail) that eventually intersects Highway 40.
Highwood Pass is the highest paved pass in Canada and is located at the tree line, offering splendid views of the multi-coloured mountains. Highway 40, the main road through the park passes through Highwood Pass. Highway 4o, south of Dorrien/Spray Trail intersection is closed from December 1 to June 15 as it is an important wildlife corridor. There are designated picnic areas here. Ptarmigan Cirque (5.6 km) trail that start at Highwood Meadows picnic area is a hikers delight providing wildlife viewing (Big Horn Sheep, mountain goats, Hoary Marmots) opportunity along with a panoramic view of the Rockies. Highwood Meadows Trail that starts near the summit is a wheel-chair accessible trail – boardwalk through a fragile alpine meadow. There are many other accessible trails in the park.
Activities include: Canoeing/Kayaking, Hiking (must do: Rawson Lake Trail) including backcountry hikes, Equestrian (Elbow Lake is the only trail in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park that allows equestrian use), Power Boating, Wind Surfing, Sailing, Cross Country Skiing, Ice Fishing, Snowshoeing.
Only summer camping is allowed at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.
William Watson Lodge at the park (operated by Alberta Tourism, Parks, Recreation and Culture) provides year-round accommodations for Albertans with disabilities and Senior citizens 65 and over.
Peter Lougheed Park Discovery & Information Centre (free wi-fi available) holds interpretive Programs on weekends and you get all the necessary information here.
Pocaterra Warming Hut at Pocaterra Day Use Area (trail head for a number of cross-country ski trails) provides a fireplace, picnic tables and ample parking space wherea ross-country ski trails begin here, providing access to an extensive network of cross-country ski trails in the park.
V. Highwood / Cataract area
Travelling south on Highway 40, you reach Highwood/Cataract area. The Highwood/Cataract area stretches from the boundary of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park to the southern border of Kananaskis Country and encompasses the upper reaches of the Highwood River watershed. It includes a diversity of landscapes ranging from stark high alpine beauty, to lush spruce and lodgepole pine forests, to the rich grazing lands of the Rockies’ front ranges. The area is dominated by Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park and Highwood Road Corridor Wildlife Sanctuary (Highway 40 (old Highway 940) connects to Cowboy Trail – closed in winter).
How to get here: A road trip from Calgary through Longview through Highway 541 (also called Highway 40) to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is a great weekend/day trip in summer with multitude of hiking trails and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Stay & Recreation:
The area has many recreation areas which has summer camping facilities and random (undeveloped) backcountry camping opportunities. The area is well known for wildlife viewing, and hiking and mountain biking. Snowmobiling is the prominent winter recreation activity here.
Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park (Backcountry Camping, Equestrian, Fishing, Hiking – Backcountry, Mt. Biking/Cycling, Rock Climbing), Cataract Creek Provincial Recreation area (Fishing, Hiking) and Etherington Creek Recreation area (Fishing, Hiking, Horse Riding) has summer camping.
Hunting is allowed at Cataract Creek Provincial Recreation area, Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park and Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park.
Highwood House at the Highwood Junction is open year round and has a grocery store and gas station(seasonal).
VI. Sheep Area:
Immediately North of Highwood / Cataract area and East of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is Sheep River Valley dominated by Bluerock Wildland Provincial Park and the more famous Sheep River Provincial Park.
How to get here: Access to the area is through Highway 546 from the Town of Turner Valley. 546 ends at Junction Creek Picnic Area. There is no direct road access to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.
Activities at Bluerock Wildland Provincial Park include Horseback riding, Fishing, Hunting, Mt. Biking/Cycling.
Sheep River Falls Trail that follows the Sheep River gorge provides is a gorgeous hiking trail in Sheep River Provincial Park. Other activities in the park include fishing, horse riding, hiking, Mt. biking/cycling, cross country skiing and ice skating at Sandy McNabb Campground.
Stay: Summer Camping at Sheep River Provincial Park.
Sheep River Visitor Centre is open year round and you can get all the information you need here.
VII. Elbow area
Elbow River Valley that lies immediately north of Sheep valley (see map above) and west of Bragg Creek is home to several hiking trails along Elbow River and the 6 m high Elbow Falls at Elbow Falls Provincial Recreation Area.
How to get here: Follow Highway 66 west from Bragg Creek and you reach Elbow Valley Visitor Centre (Free Wi-Fi), which is open from Late Spring to Mid Fall located at Gooseberry PRA Provincial Recreation Area.
Activities include include horseback riding, fishing, Mt. biking/cycling, canoeing/kayaking, hiking.
There are numerous summer camping options spread across the Recreation areas. Little Elbow Recreation Area, Elbow Falls Provincial Recreation Area, Elbow River Provincial Recreation Area are the main three developed areas of the park.
VIII. Sibbald Area:
Sibbald Area is the north eastern border of Kananaskis area.
How to get here: The main access is through Highway 68 (Sibbald Creek Trail) which is connected to TransCanada Highway and to Highway 40. Powderface Trail (closed in winter) connects Elbow Valley to Sibbald area.
Hiking along various trails with views of meadows of Sibbald Flats and fishing at Sibbald Lake and Sibbald Meadows Pond are main recreational activities.
For more information see – Alberta Parks.
You should also be aware that You are in Bear country.