Canmore is a hiking wonderland. Located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, just east of Banff National Park, Canmore offers even more convenient hiking options than its much more famous neighbour. Along with all the hikes around Banff, Lake Louise and in Yoho National Park, Canmore also has many trails right around town and dozens more just south in Kananaskis Country. With it being more central for hiking, brimming with outdoor activities and other things to do, a more affordable place to stay and far less touristy than Banff, Canmore was our first choice as one of the stops on our “slow travel in Canada” fall of 2020, and we quickly started working on our list of the best hikes Canmore, Banff and Kananaskis Country had to offer while the weather held.
Where to Stay in Canmore
We stayed at the Canadian Rockies Chalets and it was excellent – well-equipped, roomy and walking distance to grocery stores and downtown. A couple other good choices are Base Camp Chalets (next door) and the Lamphouse Inn, which is right downtown.
Most of our recent trips have been built around hiking or long-distance trekking so walking for hours every day was really nothing new, although there were certainly a few differences. First of all, the trails are generally well-maintained, virtually trash-free and almost always located directly in the middle of grizzly bear habitat. It’s just how we do things. Bear spray canisters in quick draw holsters are as common in the Rockies as Glock 19’s in a Texas Chick-Fil-A.
Also, thanks to the pandemic there are very few international visitors around right now and many of the Canadians who would normally be exploring abroad are home instead, enjoying the local nature, just like us. While there is a bit of universal hiking etiquette that holds up almost anywhere in the world, it was definitely noticeable sharing the trails with 95% Canadians, not to mention mostly Canadians who are avid enough to be hiking steep mountain trails in September. Everyone is so polite, always walking on the correct side of the path (the right, because that’s the side we drive on), happy to let faster hikers pass and always eager to stand aside to allow approaching hikers room on narrow trails. In fact, the most common problem has been two groups getting stuck at an overly polite impasse, both perched up off the trail, eagerly smiling at each other to continue on first, in some sort of weird, “after you, my dear Alphonse” stalemate. Eventually, though, it always ends with hearty chuckles and one group hurrying past slightly bashfully, embarrassed to have interrupted the momentum of complete strangers.
Anyway, we spent 4 weeks in Canmore in total and, in that time, did 19 hikes totaling 195 km and 9,500 metres of elevation gain (similar to the elevation gain of the Tour du Mont Blanc that we hiked in only 11 days last fall). Plus walks around town. It all had to be for something. And that something, apparently, is this list of the 9 best hikes around Canmore. These are the standouts, most of which involve a fair bit of time and elevation gain but, in every case, are very much worth the effort.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something a little, let’s say, leisurely, then check out our list of shorter Canmore hikes which include the Grassi Lakes trail, Bow River Loop, Grotto Canyon and Policeman’s Creek Trail:
After that, larch enthusiasts, or “larch lurkers” as Laynni refers to them (and herself) should check out these hiking trails:
And anyone who loves a great reflection, be it of looming mountains in a calm, clear alpine lake or just in the mirror right after a particularly masterful shave, might be interested in this list of top viewpoints:
9 Best Hikes Around Canmore
Now, on to the master list of best hikes near Canmore. Links are to trail details and GPS files on the AllTrails app. We usually use Wikiloc in Europe but find that AllTrails is much better and more extensively used in North America. You get almost all the features of the app with just the free version but will need to pay for the Pro version if you want to download trails for offline use (handy in the mountains).
1. Smutwood Peak
20 km / 7 hrs / 950m
It was, and is, a really tough call between this one and #2 on the list – Tent Ridge – for our choice as the best hike near Canmore in Kananaskis. I’m going to give it to Smutwood, located in the Spray Valley Provincial Park, in a photo finish mainly because it actually is a difficult decision even though we had absolutely ideal weather on Tent Ridge but a cold, windy and occasionally rainy day on Smutwood. I have to think that if the conditions were reversed then Smutwood Peak would be the clear choice (so to speak).
The first 6 kilometres of this hike are very easy, just a slight incline through the trees and, eventually, a long, picturesque meadow split by a classically babbling brook. Then, after about an hour and a half, you reach the end of the valley and the real work begins. You climb steeply up to a false summit, then up a bit more to a pass with great views of the mountain-lined valley behind and your first look at one of the Birdwood lakes and looming Mount Smuts (which is another hike altogether). From there, you follow a narrow, rocky trail around and past the second lake to a grassy ridge with terrific views of both lakes, all the mountains to the west (there are a lot) and the steep, narrow and rocky ridge you still have to climb to reach the top.
Luckily, even though that last bit looks daunting, and can occasionally be a bit scrambly, there are no parts that feel actually dangerous. And the scenery just gets better and better the higher you go, in all directions. It’s pretty fantastic. But, if you or any of your group don’t like heights or narrow trails or slippery sections, etc. even stopping on the back side of the lakes is well worth the time and effort it takes to get there.
In fact, this hike was so good we decided to dedicate an entire post to the planning details:
2. Tent Ridge Horseshoe
11 km / 5 hrs / 850m
Before we did Smutwood, this was the best hike we had done in Canmore and, honestly, one of the best day hikes we’ve done anywhere in the world and is another of the amazing Kananaskis hikes. After about an hour of easy climbing through the trees, you emerge into a valley surrounded on three sides by Tent Ridge. Now all you have to do is get up there. We hiked it clockwise, which we preferred because it meant we were going up on the steepest part that has a few scramble spots with ‘exposure’ – the polite way to say spots with steep drop-offs that would be a serious issue if you make a mistake – instead of climbing down it, which I think would increase the Tent Ridge hike difficulty.
Of course, the whole experience was certainly helped by the fact that we hiked it on possibly the best day of the entire fall (year?) – about 15C, not a cloud in the sky or breath of wind to distract us on the occasionally treacherous climb up to the ridge. Yes, it definitely does have some trickier spots to be negotiated. Once again, if you don’t like heights or aren’t confident doing some climbing and scrambling up a rocky slope then this probably isn’t the hike for you.
Once you reach the ridge, though, wow! The entire horseshoe is visible from then on, along with several mountains in behind (including Mount Smuts – these two hikes are very close to each other), an amazing forested valley with lakes and more peaks to the west, and the picturesque Spray Lakes off to the north that you passed on the way down from Canmore.
After the initial stretch getting up to the ridge (going clockwise) there really aren’t any more difficult spots, just up and down all the way around to the far corner. At the end of the horseshoe, after spending a few more minutes enjoying the last of the high views, you start down on a fairly steep set of slippery switchbacks, but at least ones that you will not have to use your hands to get down. After that you continue down, down, down through the trees back to the trailhead. All in all, phenomenal, but I wouldn’t want to try it in strong winds and definitely not in the rain or snow, so try to plan your visit around the weather. Read here for more detail on the Tent Ridge Horseshoe hike.
3. Devil’s Thumb and Little Beehive
15 km / 5 hrs / 1,000m
This hike starts at Lake Louise and there are several variations you can choose. We went twice and of the two routes we hiked, this was the more spectacular, although they both had their highlights (the other appears further down this list). Plus, Laynni kept getting mixed up and calling it the Devil’s Knob, which was also fun in its own way.
From the Fairmont hotel you head around the north side of the lake and follow the trail up to Lake Agnes. The 3 km trail to this quaint little teahouse is very popular and only involves a moderate climb. Along the way you’ll get a couple glimpses of the luminescent blue of Lake Louise below, although not as often or as much as you might expect. Lake Agnes is a pretty little lake surrounded by steep hills and, in season, bright yellow larches. Even if you aren’t going to climb up to the Devil’s Thumb or Big Beehive it is worth walking around to see the lake from the other side.
Looking up from the teahouse, the Beehive is obvious to the left and the Devil’s Thumb is the tall pointy rock just off the end of the lake. Getting to both involves climbing the switchbacks at the far end of the lake. Once you reach the pass you can take a left to the end of Big Beehive (only about a 5-minute walk) or you can go to the right to Devil’s Thumb (unsigned). There is a large log across the trail but don’t let that deter you, continue on and the trail is fairly clear, and there are even small, coloured ribbons occasionally to show you the way.
There is a little bit of scrambling, then a steep, slippery section but there are trees to grab if need be, then some easy rock scrambling at the very top. Then a stunning view of Lake Agnes, Lake Louise and the entire Bow Valley laid out in front of you. Well worth the extra effort.
After backtracking down to the Lake Agnes teahouse we added on an extra 2 km or so out to the Little Beehive viewpoint. Very nice in its own right, although a bit anticlimactic after the Devil’s Thumb.
4. Iceline via Celeste Lake (including Takkakaw Falls)
18km / 6 hrs / 950m
I’ve actually done this hike twice, that’s how much I liked it. It offers far more diversity than you will find on almost any other trail in the area. Incredible views, of course, from the Iceline Ridge. Mountains looming behind, passing alpine lakes along the way, the entire valley to the east backed by yet more mountains and even a good look at Takkakaw Falls from a distance. On the way down (or up) you’ll hit clear, placid Celeste Lake, spend some time in the trees, then get up close to Laughing Falls and follow the river back to Takkakaw Falls, the second highest in Canada. It is pretty special to have all these different highlights included in a single hike.
I hiked it clockwise the first time – steep climb to start, getting above the treeline and onto the ridge sooner but with a long, occasionally tedious final 6-7 kilometres down through the trees and past the waterfalls. Going counterclockwise lets you get started with a long, gradual incline, slowly building to the best parts (Celeste Lake and the ridge). It means going down the steep part at the end so those whose knees dislike that sort of thing might want to go clockwise, although it isn’t slippery or anything like that.
There are also a number of possible add-ons to this hike, including to Yoho Lake or Stanley Mitchell hut, which makes it a very popular area for overnight backpacking trips.
5. Moraine Lake – Sentinel Pass and Eiffel Lake
19 km / 5.5 hrs / 1,000m
Moraine Lake is famously one of the most beautiful lakes in the country, which is why it is such a tricky place to visit. If you want to see sunrise from “the rockpile”, which we would highly recommend, you probably need to arrive before 6 am to get a parking spot. It will change depending on time of year, but we arrived at 5:20 am in late September and it was at least ¾ full. Another option is to park in Lake Louise or the Lake Louise Overflow and take a shuttle up to Moraine. The schedules change seasonally so you’ll need to research the details before you go.
So, we just waited (slept) in our vehicle until it started to get light, then watched the sunrise and then started hiking up around 8. However, a lot of people apparently go early to hike up to Larch Valley or Sentinel Pass in the dark in time for sunrise (I think you’d need to be moving before 5 am to make it in time). For this reason, the parking lot is usually full until about 9:30 am and then spots begin to open up as the early crowd starts making it back to the bottom. So, if you’re not too bothered with seeing the sunrise, or simply aren’t an up-at-4am type (I assure you, I wasn’t thrilled to be getting up myself), you could plan your visit to hit this second wave of parking spots.
As for the hike, it is a pretty gradual, easy climb to Larch Valley (stunning in late September larch season, although presumably still pretty nice any time of year), at which point the trail flattens out for a while at the pretty Minnestimma Lakes, with Sentinel Pass looming in the background. Many people stop at the lakes but we would highly recommend tackling the final ascent to the pass. It looks daunting but is really pretty gradual on several long switchbacks, and the view from pass – in both directions – is amazing. There was even some interesting wildlife on display, although there’s no guarantee your lunch will also be interrupted by a weasel running by with a dead pika in its mouth, so I’d hate to make any promises.
If all this already seems like a full day you can certainly head straight back down, but if you have any energy left, about half an hour from the bottom you can veer off to the west and check out Eiffel Lake. This trail – a smooth, easy incline – was also a larch wonderland and the scenery of the lake and surrounding ridges at the end of the valley are well worth the extra effort. The sun was continually coming and going through the clouds, although the whole time we watched, and waited, and watched, and waited, the light never… quite… made… it onto Eiffel Lake, skirting all the way around it like repelled by a vortex of evil. Or just random chance. Either way, it was pretty weird.
6. Eohippus Lake
25km / 8 hrs / 850m gain
22 km / 7 hrs / 650m from Sunshine Meadows if the gondola is running
We were led on this hike by Walter and Sybille, friends from Calgary who have hiked the area extensively. Which was lucky because, although there are some popular hikes in the same area as Eohippus Lake, very few people venture onto this particular variation. In fact, after splitting off the main Healy Pass trail, we only saw one other hiker all day. Who just happened to be a solo man with a baby strapped to his chest fast asleep and sucking on his dad’s thumb. Bizarre might be too strong a word but, seriously, of all the people to be the only other person on the trail…?
You start off at Sunshine Village parking lot with 6 pleasantly gradual and shaded uphill kilometres before branching off into some awesome alpine meadows and bright larch forests. We passed a couple of gorgeous, calm lakes as we walked parallel to the photogenic “Rampart” ridge, then eventually reached extraordinary Eohippus Lake, also gorgeous and calm but also backed by the monstrous “Monarch” peak, with the Ramparts lingering off to the side. We spent an hour there with the place all to ourselves. It was pretty cool, I have to say.
This was the longest hike we did during our stay in Canmore but this meant the 850m of elevation gain was very gradual and, overall, the hike did not feel very difficult, even though it will take a full day to cover the distance. Under normal circumstances (damn you, COVID) the Sunshine gondola is running which will allow you to take it up and start the hike from Sunshine Meadows. This reduces the distance by about 3 km and the elevation gain by 200m and you can return on the regular trail to make it a partial loop.
7. Lake Louise – Lake Agnes to Big Beehive to Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse
19 km / 7 hrs / 1,000m
This route is all intertwined with hike #3 to the Devil’s Thumb and Little Beehive. You follow the same route up to Lake Agnes, circle it and climb the switchbacks again then, at the top, you go left to the end of Big Beehive for tremendous views of Lake Louise. If you follow the trail down and around at the end for 5 minutes you can also get a bird’s eye look at Lake Agnes. Both are great, you just can’t see both lakes at the same time like you can from the Devil’s Thumb.
In this version, instead of returning to Lake Agnes, we headed down the other side of the pass, eventually meeting up with the trail up the valley to the Plain of Six Glaciers and the eponymous teahouse (where they also serve soup and sandwiches) waiting at the end. Heed the prominent signs threatening a $500 fine for not using the bathroom. We took this to mean you’d be fined if you went to the bathroom anywhere but the bathroom, not that you were legally obligated to use the very nice outhouse they had went to all the trouble of building, but it wasn’t entirely clear.
It is a beautiful walk and the teahouse is in a great location, but if you still have more left in your legs you can add another 1.5 km each way to an additional viewpoint at the very end of the valley. All through this area we were treated to loud, spectacular avalanches on the mountains across the valley, although I can’t say how common this really is. If it was a daily occurrence you wouldn’t really think there’d be any snow left but then again, I’m not exactly an avalanche expert, so who can say?
From there it is a nice easy 6 km walk back down to the beginning of Lake Louise – although once you reach the paved lakeside portion of the trail you’ll notice a pretty major shift in demographic, from backpacks and hiking poles to dogs, babies and the elderly. Culture shock, mountain style. We wrote a full guide to the Big Beehive Hike since it’s one of our favourite viewpoints on Lake Louise.
8. Rawson Lake to Sarrail Ridge
11km / 4 hrs / 800m (AllTrails shows too much gain)
This one appears in both our Canmore “best hikes” and “best easy hikes” lists, since the hike up to Rawson Lake is pretty easy but those determined to get the absolute best view on offer can continue on around and way up to the top of Sarrail Ridge. While this flexibility probably contributes somewhat to its popularity, most people consider it a must-see for its amazing beauty anyway. Located in a sheltered bowl, Rawson Lake is typically very calm and delightfully reflective. There are also some larches around to add to the fun in the fall. Increasing its allure is the fact the trail starts at Upper Kananaskis Lake, which is no slouch itself and is a big favourite of canoers and kayakers. Unfortunately, during our latest visit the smoke from the American wildfires was restricting the grandest of the views but, as usual, the reflections were still pretty outstanding.
9. Pickle Jar Lakes
11 km / 4 hrs / 650m
We discovered this one on a blog describing it as a local favourite, and it was definitely a pleasant surprise. Very different from many of the viewpoint climbs we’d been doing, the Pickle Jar trail in Kananaskis goes steadily uphill along a scenic valley which, when we were there, was lined with a vast array of colourful fall leaves (although only a handful of them were larches, in case that happens to be your current obsession). The other unique thing about it – hardly any people. Compared with some of the hugely popular trails we’d recently been on (i.e. Chester Lake, Larch Valley) it seemed virtually deserted. We only saw about a dozen other people all day.
There are 4 different lakes, 3 of which are your usual nice, glassy mountain lakes, with number 3 standing out differently as the rocky remains of a massive landslide. The trail gets a bit rougher at that point but it’s still worth continuing on to get a look at lake 4. All in all, a nice, mid-range hike with pleasant scenery that gets you away from the bigger crowds.
So, those are the best hikes in the Canmore area that we can personally vouch for, although we certainly heard and read about many more that remain on the list for our next visit. Among those that sound worth checking out:
Rae Glacier via Elbow Lake
King’s Creek Ridge
Mount Lady MacDonald
East End of Rundle
Ha Ling Peak Hike
Heart Mountain Trail
Mount Lady MacDonald
Of course, my white whale in this region is Lake O’Hara. Reputedly one of the best hiking areas in the country, it is only available to those with camping and/or shuttle reservations, both of which are extremely difficult to get. Two years ago I somehow managed to book a couple nights in the campground right at the start of the season (finding success on phone call #503 -literally – when reservations opened April 1st) but ended up missing out thanks to an ill-timed late June blizzard. I thought maybe we would get a chance to sneak in on a cancellation this year but then found out they just completely cancelled the shuttles. So we’ll see, maybe next year…
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