Looking for a great day hike near Calgary, Alberta? There are so many hikes in the Canadian Rockies to choose from that it is sometimes difficult deciding which one to do. Here are our top 10 hikes in the Kananaskis and Bow Valley areas.
1. Heart Mountain Horseshoe
The mountain received its name from its heart shaped ridge that can be seen from the Trans-Canada Highway. It even has a twin heart on the other side of the peak. The horseshoe trail involves 3 peaks spread over a long loop. The hike to the first summit of Heart Mountain is very popular, but doing the circuit offers better views, a longer workout and fewer people. This hike is a scramble as there are a few sections where you have to use your hands and feet. As you hike up the unrelenting trail to the first summit, there are rewarding views of the Heart Creek Canyon, the Bow River and down the valley as far as Canmore. From the top the view includes Lac des Arcs, Mt. Baldy and Mt. Lorette.
Continue on from the first summit to reach the second summit called Grant McEwan Peak. Looking back from this trail you can see the other side of the heart. The second summit offers amazing views of Barrier Lake, Mt Baldy and Mt Lorette in Kananaskis Country and Yamnuska on the other side of the Bow Valley. From the 3rd summit you can see all the way to Calgary. The descent is a steep with loose scree and rocky ridges until you reach the trees. Trekking poles are very useful here.
Distance – 10 ½ km
Elevation Gain – 950 m
Access – The Heart Creek Day Use Area is on the south side of the Lac des Arc interchange on the Trans-Canada Hwy. There are outhouses at the parking lot. There is no fee for this hike.
2. Wind Ridge
The first part of the trek is on a flat trail through the trees, but once you start climbing, you are quickly out of the trees and can enjoy the scenery. To reach the summit ridge you have to get over two rock bands. From below they look impassable, but continue to follow the trail to an easily managed break in the cliff. Once on top of the ridge, follow it on mostly flat ground to the summit. From the ridge and the summit are unimpeded views of Windtower, Mt. Lougheed and Rimwall.
Distance -7 ½ km one way
Elevation Gain – 810 m
Access – Take the access road on the south side of the #1 Highway at the Dead Man’s Flats interchange. A km or so up the road is a parking lot for hikes in the area. There are a few hikes that begin in this region, after crossing the bridge follow the trail to the right. There are outhouses at the parking lot. There are no fees for any of the hikes.
3. Chester Lake – Headwall Creek Circuit
The hike to Chester Lake can be an easy day. If you combine it with Headwall Creek and summiting The Fortress, it’s a long, but very rewarding day. Chester Lake is a small pretty lake set at the base of Mt. Chester. There are a few small trails from here that you could explore if you don’t plan to go to Headwall Creek.
From Chester Lake the trail to Headwall Creek crosses a moraine of large boulders and then climbs up the high pass between Fortress and Chester. From here you can continue to climb up to the top of The Fortress. Expect a lot of wind on the ridge and the peak, but the views toward south Kananaskis are worth the discomfort.
From the col you can return the way you came or continue down the steep descent to the valley. Headwall Creek doesn’t get many trekkers, but it’s a gorgeous valley bordered by rugged mountains so we’re not sure why it’s not more busy.
Distance – 17 ½ km for the circuit including The Fortress (5 ½ km to Chester Lake)
Elevation Gain – 1100 m including Fortress (310 m to Chester Lake)
Access – The Chester Lake parking lot is on the Smith Dorrien – Spray Lakes Road. There are outhouses at the parking lot. There are no fees and you do not require a park pass for Kananaskis.
4. Mt. Collembola – MT. Allan Circuit
This is a long day with a lot of elevation gain, but the views are worth the effort. The trail begins on an old logging road, but before long you can see your objective ahead, the summit ridge of Collembola looms above the trees. Once you get to the ridge, you’re above the trees and remain above them most of the hike. There is a rock band to cross before the summit of Collembola, but the trail is easy to follow and it’s not difficult. From the summit you have breathtaking views of Mt. Allan, Mt. Lougheed and Pigeon Mountain.
After enjoying the view from the summit there’s a quick descent down to the Collembola-Allan Col and then a short, but tiring climb back up to the summit of Mount Allan. Here you have even better views of the Kananaskis ranges, Mt. Lougheed and the Thee Sisters. From Mount Allan’s summit, there’s another long ridge walk with unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains until it quickly descends into the trees. Make sure you follow the Centennial Trail as there is another trail that leads to Ribbon Creek.
Note – The trail is closed April 1 – June 21 every year for protection of bighorn sheep during their sensitive birthing period.
Distance – 22.8 km loop
Elevation Gain – 1398 m to Collembola, 200m loss then 300 m gain to Allan.
Access – Take the access road on the south side of the #1 Highway from the Dead Man’s Flats interchange. A km or so up the road is a parking lot for hikes in the area. There are a few hikes that begin in this region. After crossing the bridge take the Centennial Trail toward Mt. Allan. After 45 – 60 minutes watch for a trail on the left marked by a cairn. There are outhouses at the parking lot. There are no fees for any of the hikes.
If you have two cars you could begin or end in the Ribbon Creek parking lot. This hike goes from Ribbon Creek to Mt. Allan where you can hike down to the col and up to Collembola summit.
5. Yamnuska Circuit
This is quite possibly the most popular day hike from Calgary. It offers good views, a bit of a challenge and a good work out. We often climb on one of the many rock climbing routes on the mountain’s face, but there’s also a great hike that takes you on the backside to the summit. The route is a scramble as there is a section that requires you to use your hands and feet and another area with chains.
The trek to reach the mountain’s base is quite easy and goes mostly though an Aspen forest with a few open benches. At the base of the mountain is a small scramble with many hand and foot holds. Many people stop at the base of the mountain, to avoid the scramble. From there it steepens over a scree-filled trail with many side options to reach different spots on the long ridge. Many people hike up to the ridge, but don’t continue with the circuit. There are hundreds of popular rock climbing routes below the ridge so be careful not to knock down any rocks, no matter how small.
To complete the circuit, the trail crosses a narrow shelf above a steep cliff where a chain offers security. From the summit is a fantastic view across to Heart Mountain and the rocky peaks in the Bow Valley. The descent trail is quite steep over loose scree. Hiking poles definitely help. The trail winds around the mountain and follows close to the face for a while until you can quickly descend down the deep scree. It used to be a lot of fun, but now you have to pick your descent carefully as there are many areas that are bare. Do not go closer to the mountain face as there are many climbers above who may inadvertently knock down rocks.
Distance – 10 km
Elevation Gain – 935 m
Access – Yamnuska Parking lot is located on the 1A Highway, just east of the intersection with the 1X. There are outhouses at the parking lot. There is no fee for the hike.
Note – July, 2020 – Due to recent hiking accidents including one death, access to Yamnuska is closed until further notice.
6. Burstall Pass
One of our favourite backcountry ski day trips is also a nice hiking trail. It can be very wet below the headwall so watch for trail makers to find your way through the flooded valley. As you negotiate through this area, don’t forget to look up the valley to the left where you have an awesome view of Robertson Glacier.
At the top of a step headwall you cross a large open plateau that passes under a huge avalanche slope that is clear by summer but is risky in the winter and spring. Burstall Pass is very scenic. It’s a wide open grassy area that looks onto the gorgeous peaks of Mt. Birdwood, Mt. Burstall and Commonwealth Peak.
You can continue walking to South Burstall Pass for fantastic views Mt. Sir Douglas, the Royal Group and the Palliser Range. Our picture below is from South Burstall in the winter on skis.
Distance – 8 km one way
Elevation Gain – 472 m
Access – From the Smith Dorrien – Spray Lakes Trail, park at the Mud Lake parking lot across the road from Chester Lake parking lot. There is an outhouse at the parking lot. There are no fees and you do not require a park pass for Kananaskis.
7. Wind Tower via West Wind Pass
The trek to West Wind Pass is very popular and there will often be other hikers on the trail and at the pass. To reach the pass it’s a gentle climb through the forest where you have occasional glimpses of Mount Lougheed. From the pass there are great views of Wind Valley and the sheer wall of Windtower which is a peak of Mount Lougheed. The trail is tougher from here as you head up toward Windtower. Fewer people continue on to Windtower’s summit, but it’s their loss as they miss out on the awesome views of Spray Lakes.
The trail works its way around a few rock bands. It’s difficult to follow in some areas, but there are enough cairns that you can find the trail. You’ll go by a very windy section at the col between Windtower and one of Mount Lougheed’s other peaks and then again at the top. Windtower definitely lives up to its name. The summit offers great views of nearby Mount Lougheed, Wind Ridge, Wind Valley and as far as the Bow Valley.
Distance – 5 km to Summit (3 km to West Wind Pass)
Elevation Gain – 969 m to summit (381 m to West Wind Pass)
Access – There’s a parking lot on the Spray Lakes Rd just north-west of Spurling Creek. The trail head is on the east side of the road. There is an outhouse at the parking lot. There are no fees and you do not require a park pass for Kananaskis.
8. Commonwealth Creek
This is an easy day that ends at two beautiful alpine lakes. On the other side of Commonwealth Peak from the Burstall Pass trail is a vague trail that follows along the side of Commonwealth Creek and Lake up to the Birdwood-Smuts Pass. Beyond the pass, it is technically Banff, but there’s an easy trail the goes down from the pass to two gorgeous unnamed alpine lakes.
Distance – 8 ½ km one way
Elevation Gain – 460 m
Access – Take the Smith Dorrien – Spray Lakes Rd. Drive 6.2 km north of the Mud Lakes parking lot, turn on to Watridge logging road at Mount Engadine Lodge. There is a small parking lot about 1 km west. There are no fees and you do not require a park pass for Kananaskis.
9. Mt. Lady MacDonald
This is another popular hike because it begins right in Canmore. After walking a short distance up the side of Cougar Creek, the hike begins climbing through the forest. Once you’re out of the trees, you can see large open meadows where we often see Rocky Mountain Sheep grazing on the grass. The trail continues straight up to a rest area. Originally there was supposed to be a tea house here, but it never materialized. Some people only go as far as the tea house as the next section is even steeper.
You can see the trail as it heads straight up the loose scree slope to the ridge of Mt. Lady MacDonald. It braids in areas so try to pick the best route. From the ridge, those with good shoes and experience can take the knife-edged ridge to the summit, but it is exposed so do not attempt if there is ice or snow. From the ridge and the summit, there are wide open views of the large Bow Valley with Mt. Rundle and the Three Sisters across the Trans-Canada Highway. On a clear day you can even see Mt. Assiniboine poking above the peaks.
Distance – 6 km to the summit (3.2 km to teahouse)
Elevation Gain – 1300 m to summit (900 m to teahouse)
Access – Cougar Creek Parking lot is on Benchlands Trail Road in Canmore. The parking lot is often full, but there is also street parking. There is no fee to hike.
10. Mt. Baldy Circuit
There are a few different ways to reach the summit of Mt. Baldy. Our preferred route is the hiking the circuit route in a counterclockwise direction. It is a scrambling route as there are a few short sections requiring use of hands and feet. You also have the option to scramble up the west peak of Baldy.
From the summit of Mt. Baldy you have a beautiful view of Barrier Lake and the surrounding rocky peaks. Unfortunately, we have done this peak so many times, we haven’t taken a picture of it in years.
Distance – 6.4 km
Elevation Gain – 959 m
Access – There is an unofficial parking lot on the east side of Highway #40 a few minutes beyond the turn off to Barrier Lake. There are no fees and you do not require a park pass for Kananaskis.
Tips for hiking in the Canadian Rockies
- Expect sudden changes in weather. Bring a rain jacket, an extra sweater, gloves and a toque.
- Hiking poles are useful in many areas and can help save your knees when going down steep descents.
- Bring enough water. Many hikes do not have fresh water sources on the trail.
- Bring bear spray and/or bear bangers and educate yourself on wildlife safety.
- Don’t forget the usual – good hiking shoes, bug spray, sunscreen, snacks.
Here’s a short video of our hikes and climbs in the Canadian Rockies.
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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