Hiking Around Highwood Range in Kananaskis

This three-day hike travels around Highwood Range on quiet trails with jaw-dropping views of untouched landscapes in the Kananaskis backcountry. The almost circular route begins at Picklejar Creek, travels up Misty Ridge to Rickert’s Pass, heads down Sheep River Provincial Park and then exits beyond Picklejar Lakes. It’s a backpacking trip in the Canadian Rockies you won’t easily forget. 

Day 1 – Picklejar Creek Day Use Area to Sheep River
– Approximately 14 km (8.7 miles)
Elevation Gain – 808 m (2,650 ft)
Access – Picklejar Creek Day Use Area, Highway 40

Leaving the Picklejar Creek Parking Lot the trail initially follows the small Picklejar Creek through a dense pine forest. It doesn’t take long though before the trail begins to climb and reaches a wide open slope. The trail is faint in this area but if you keep heading in the same direction you will soon reach the intersection between Picklejar Creek, Mist Ridge and Mist Creek trails. You can take Mist Creek but it spends a lot of time in the treed valley. Instead, we recommend continuing straight ahead on the long, open Mist Ridge trail.

From the long ridge walk you have unimpeded views of the surrounding rugged peaks. Mist Mountain is on one side and Highwood Peak on the other with the colourful Gibraltar Mountain further ahead. The undulating grassy ridge has a few false summits as it slowly makes its way to Rickert’s Pass.

Getting down to Sheep River on the opposite side of the pass is a bit more challenging. The steep descent on loose gravel is tiring and can be slippery. Hiking poles will help save your knees in this section. The trail though is well defined and easy to find.

Once you reach the valley below the walking is much easier. There’s a horse camp near the base of the pass with plenty of flat spots for your tent and running water in a nearby stream. Don’t take water from Sheep River as it is used by the horses.

The first time we attempted this hike was on Labour Day weekend, the first weekend in September. It had rained a little during the day and in the evening the temperature dropped quite a bit. When we woke in the morning, the ground was covered in a foot of fresh snow! Since we didn’t know the trail, we decided the safest thing to do was turn around and head back to the car. The next year we went on August Long weekend, the first weekend in August. The weather was perfect.

Note: part of the trail along Sheep River does pass through private land but it is our understanding that backpackers are allowed entry. There are also reports that this area sustained damage in the 2013 floods, so the terrain may be more difficult.

Day 2 – Sheep River to Junction Creek
– 11 km (6.8 miles)
Elevation Gain – Negligible

The route today is not the most scenic as it follows Sheep River along its course until it meets Junction Creek. Much of the trail is a wide horse trail with a few spots where you need to ford the river. Some sections may still not have been repaired since damage from the 2013 floods so route finding may be more difficult.

Just before reaching the confluence of Sheep River and Junction Creek you will pass the Junction Creek Day Use Area. You’re likely to see picnickers here which seems strange because until then the area felt very remote. There is road access to this part of Sheep River Provincial Park. Don’t worry though, most don’t travel much beyond the picnic area.

At the confluence turn south to follow Junction Creek on another horse trail. Continue for about 3 km and camp where you can find a flat area close to fresh running water along Junction Creek.

Day 3 – Junction Creek to Lantern Day Use Area
Distance – 8 km (5 miles)
Elevation Gain – 500m (1600 ft)

As you hike beside Junction Creek the rugged peaks of Highwood Range begin to show themselves over head. Continue to follow the creek south. After a kilometer watch for a faint trail on your right. We mistakenly missed this trail and continued going straight. The result for us was climbing up a ridge of loose scree. From there we could see the trail in the green valley below. We could have turned back, but instead we descended down the opposite side of the crumbling scree slope. It added another 300 m elevation gain to our hike, but at least we had gorgeous views.

Once we reached the valley below we found a faint trail and followed it to yet another steep scree ascent and descent, but this one lead to the pretty Picklejar Lakes.

These four mountain lakes are bordered by the rugged cliffs of Highwood Range. They have a gorgeous setting.

From the lakes there is a well defined trail that climbs up and down open hills to take you to Lantern Day Use Area on Highway 40. Then you have an unappealing 1½ km plod beside the road to Picklejar Creek Day Use Area where you left your car.

Note: This part of Kananaskis is closed between Dec 1 and June 15th every year.

Tips For Backpacking in Kananaskis

• 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
• Fires are not allowed at most backcountry campsites so you will need to bring your own stove.
• Bring bear spray and/or bear bangers and educate yourself on wildlife safety.
• You will need to purchase a Kananaskis Conservation Pass.

For more hikes in the Canadian Rockies look under Treks.

Coming Next: Sailing in BC’s Gulf Islands and Howe Sound

For extra pictures from Canada click here. For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read some of out other treks click here. To read more of our adventures from around the world go to Destinations.

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