The circuit hike between Chester Lake and Headwall Lakes is a great day trek from Calgary that takes you to 3 gorgeous mountain lakes. An excellent option is to include a side trip up to the summit of The Fortress. The route offers awesome views along the way but the penultimate view is from The Fortress summit where you can see Mount Assiniboine, Mount Joffre and Haig Glacier. These views are one of the reasons this hike is one of our Top 10 Day-Hikes From Calgary.
The loop hike can be done in either direction, but we’ll describe it in a clockwise direction.
Distance – 19.2 km (12 miles)
Elevation gain – 1,162 m (3,812 ft)
Access – Chester Lake Parking Lot, Smith-Dorrien/Spray Lakes Trail
From Chester Lake Parking Lot the trail initially follows an old logging road. There aren’t many views and it isn’t an encouraging start. Soon though, the trail changes to a proper dirt hiking trail that winds its way through the tight forest, slowly gaining elevation. Finally you’ll reach an open meadow below the imposing Mount Chester. From here you begin to get a glimpse of the views to come.
After crossing the meadow the small but picturesque Chester Lake comes into view. Bordered by the impressive Mount Chester, the lake has a lovely setting. Since the hike to Chester Lake is only 5.5 km and 330 m elevation gain, it is a popular day hike. Not as many people travel much beyond the lake so even if it’s busy at the lake, don’t worry, you’ll soon be on your own.
From the lake you can just see the tip of The Fortress in the distance. To reach the pass between Mount Chester and The Fortress continue to walk around the east edge of the lake until the trail begins to climb through the trees. At the edge of the trees the trail traverses the undulating moraine above Chester Lake. As you ascend look behind for improving views toward Haig Glacier. Eventually you will reach a large, open, flat moraine and soon you can see the col between The Fortress and Mount Chester. This is your next objective.
The steep hike up the headwall to the col is a 140 m grind offering little reprieve from the climb. Once at the top, look down to see the valley that contains Headwall Lakes. The weather often changes quickly in this area so if it’s not a clear day you may want to consider turning around or heading straight down to Headwall Lakes instead of attempting to summit The Fortress.
If the weather is good, continue up toward The Fortress summit, approximately 200 meters above. The steep trail to the summit is on ball-bearing scree that follows the ridge. Don’t forget to look back occasionally for views of Chester Lake and across the highway to Haig Glacier.
The final ascent is a scramble over a small but exposed rock band. It is not difficult, but it does require a scramble using hands and feet. From the top, the 360 views of Kananaskis Country are awesome. On a clear day you can see the top of Mount Assiniboine, soaring high above the others.
Descend on the same path back to the col between Mount Chester and The Fortress. Hiking poles are very helpful here as you go down the steep trail on ball bearing-like rocks. From the col you could return to Chester Lake, but we suggest you make it a loop and go down the other side of the col to Headwall Lakes. This side of the headwall is similar to the Chester Lake side with loose scree and a steep slope.
From the bottom you can see a good trail that leads through the valley. It slowly but consistently descends to reach the highest Headwall Lake with the opposite side of Mount Chester on its edge. Behind you the distinctive peak of The Fortress stands proud.
Continue passed the upper Headwall Lake for another 10 minutes to reach the lower lake. The two lakes look very similar, except for the small waterfall at the end of the lower lake. Before leaving the lower lake, look back for your final view of The Fortress.
From the lower lake, you have to lose most of the remaining 472 meters elevation in a short distance. If it has recently rained, the trail will be very muddy and slippery as it quickly descends between trees and down rocky ledges. After a knee jarring descent you finally reach flatter ground and a good trail that takes you to an old logging road. Easy, although monotonous, walking for the final 3.2 km take you to your car at Chester Lake Parking Lot.
Tips for hiking in the Canadian Rockies
• Expect sudden changes in weather. Bring a rain jacket, an extra sweater, gloves and a toque for one-day or multi-day hikes.
• Hiking poles are useful in many areas and can help save your knees when going down steep descents.
• Water taken from streams will need to be treated, filtered or boiled
• Bring bear spray and/or bear bangers and educate yourself on wildlife safety.
• You will need to purchase a Kananaskis Conservation Pass.
Coming Next: What to do in Calgary this Summer
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