Kananaskis Country is one of the most amazing hiking destinations in Canada, with Elbow Lake and Rae Glacier standing out as two of the many underrated gems in Alberta. All told, there are dozens of world-class hikes featuring outstanding scenery and fascinating wildlife in Kananaskis but the Elbow Lake campground is unique for its easy access to backcountry camping.
When trying to choose from our ever-growing list of bucket list hikes in Alberta it can sometimes feel like they all start with a 2-hour climb straight up the side of a mountain. Finding a more relaxing trail is still possible, though, as long as you know where to look. And Elbow Lake (with the potential to extend the hike up to Rae Glacier or Edworthy Falls) is the perfect mix of effort, scenery and setting for families and hikers simply looking for something a little less strenuous.
Elbow Lake is located in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park just off the wildly scenic Highway 40, also known as the Kananaskis Trail or Bighorn Highway, in Elbow Pass just north of the more well-known Highwood Pass. Got all that? Don’t worry, the parking lot is easy to find on Google Maps.
Elbow Lake sits at 2,100 metres above sea level and is one of the best family destinations in Kananaskis Country. The lake itself is at the mouth of the Elbow River, surrounded by lush forest and looming peaks. The water is an amazing emerald colour from above and crystal clear up close.
Since it is just a 1.5-kilometre walk in from the parking lot on Highway 40, it provides a pretty outstanding payoff for very little effort and is a great “backpacking for beginners” destination. You can easily haul in everything you need for a night or two at the lake, set up your base camp and then spend time enjoying the water and exploring the surrounding trails.
The Elbow Lake Hike
This is one of the best short Kananaskis Country hikes. After arriving via Highway 40, which is absolutely beautiful coming from either south or north, you will find a pair of decent-sized parking lots with pit toilets and garbage bins. From there, you follow a fairly steep trail, which is really an old logging road, to reach Elbow Lake and Elbow Lake Backcountry Campground. Be sure to wear proper hiking footwear, especially if it has rained recently (or is currently raining).
Keep an eye out for horses (they are usually pretty obvious) as the Elbow Lake trail is the only one in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park that is open to equestrian use. There are also several really good mountain biking trails in the area, which is something else to watch for and/or participate in.
On foot, you follow the well-marked path from the parking lot uphill for about a kilometre before reaching a pleasant opening featuring fantastic panoramic views, including the unique Mount Rae massif that looks just like a cresting wave from afar. From there it is just a few more minutes to clean, clear Elbow Lake.
The trail is family friendly (most kids will have no problem) but is maybe a bit too rough for a stroller so we’d recommend a baby backpack. Dogs are allowed but must be kept on a leash.
The Elbow Lake hike is typically open to walkers from late May until November but snow is definitely a possibility early or late in the season. Avalanches are also a concern at these times, with a very specific avalanche path cutting right across the trail. In spring or fall be sure to check https://avalanche.ca for the latest info. In the winter it is still possible to hike but you’ll need to use crampons or snowshoes.
How long is the Elbow Lake hike?
1.4 km one-way with 125 meters of elevation gain. Most people can make it to the lake in about half an hour.
Elbow Lake Campground
Officially referred to as the Elbow Lake Backcountry Campground, this gorgeous little collection of nicely treed sites found on the right as you approach the lake is a wonderful place to base yourself for a few days of mountain life. There are 15 small tenting pads, all located fairly close to the lake but if you get there early you might manage to get your hands on site 12 or 13 (see the Elbow Lake campground map), where you will be able to enjoy phenomenal lake views right from your sleeping bag.
Elbow Lake campground has pit toilets and bear lockers for storing your food and other bear attractants (i.e. toothpaste, bug spray, makeup). Coolers are not allowed as they are usually too large to fit in the bear lockers. There are some picnic tables a short distance from the tents and firewood is included with your backcountry permit (along with an axe so you don’t need to carry one in). The only source of water is the lake so you will need to filter/treat/boil it.
Elbow Lake camping sites cost $12/night and you can either book online or call 1-877-537-2757 (toll-free in North America) or 780-427-5980 (outside North America). Mid-summer sites tend to book up quickly so try to reserve a spot as early as possible.
Hikes From Elbow Lake
There are several more great Kananaskis hikes leading out from Elbow Lake to enjoy during your stay in the Elbow Lake campground or on day hikes.
Elbow Lake Loop
1.5 km / 30 min / 80m elev gain (loop around the lake from the campground)
4.2 km / 1 hr / 200m (from the highway and back)
This easy loop can be done in either direction. We went counterclockwise, completing the loop as part of our return trip from Rae Glacier. At the far northern end of Elbow Lake there is a small hidden “bridge” where you can cross the river (essentially just a flattened log).
The right side of the lake is more treed and the trail a bit rougher while the left side being more open. The views from both sides are equally good though.
5.5 km / 2 hrs / 340m (up and back from Elbow Lake campground)
8.2 km / 3 hrs / 460m (from Elbow Pass parking lot and back down on far side of the lake)
Following the right side of the lake from the Elbow Lake campground, the moderate trail to Rae Glacier follows pink ribbons strategically tied along the way. It is a very rocky trail with some steep spots and hiking poles are useful (although not absolutely necessary). There is a short, easy creek crossing, although this might be trickier following a heavy rain.
The views from the top of the glacier and back down the valley were terrific, as expected, but we were surprised at how great the scenery was all the way along the trail. From the pretty creek and peak views below the tree line to the expansive panoramas that opened up above the tree line, it was a very photogenic hike the entire way.
It is a shame to see how little is left of Rae Glacier itself, although the small lake at the top still had some tiny ice floes we could actually jump over to.
The trail isn’t always very clear so we would recommend downloading the AllTrails map for offline use and keeping your eyes peeled for pink ribbons.
The views back down the valley are unbelievable and we would also suggest adding on a brief detour east near the top. It takes you to a small waterfall with some fascinating pools and yet more views from above.
Back down at Elbow Lake you can return the way you came or continue the loop around the lake for maximum variety.
7 km / 2.5 hrs / 260m (to and from Elbow Lake campground)
10 km / 3.5 hrs / 385m (return from Elbow Pass parking lot)
There is an arrow made of rocks pointing the way on the far side of the lake and the narrow trail from there has become easier to see over time. However, the turn can be hard to spot so we would recommend downloading the AllTrails map for offline use to make sure you don’t end up off course. After passing the meadow watch for a rock cairn on the left – from here it is just a couple minutes to the falls. If you find yourself at Sheep Trail junction it means you’ve gone too far (by half a kilometre) and will need to backtrack.
While the hike to Edworthy Falls isn’t all that tough, it is pretty steep and it can be tricky getting right to the bottom of the falls. Be sure to make plenty of noise as bears are known to frequent this area. Hardy types may choose to take a dip in the beautiful (but cold, very cold) pool at the bottom.
16 km / 5 hrs / 560m (from Elbow Lake campground and back)
19 km / 6 hrs / 685m (from Elbow Pass parking lot and back)
To really get a glimpse into the Kananaskis backcountry you can continue on past Edworthy Falls to reach the Tombstone backcountry campground and gorgeous Tombstone Lakes. Located right in the heart of the Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park, this is remote mountain scenery at its finest.
It is quite manageable to get up there and stay the night or if you are relatively fit it can be done as a long day hike. If you decide to tent at the Tombstone campground you will need to be completely self-sufficient.
Elbow Lake Fishing
There is excellent fishing in the cold clear waters of Elbow Lake. Throughout the lake you will see cutthroat and brook trout jumping for bugs, especially late in the day into early evening.
Ice remains on the lake until late June, sometimes as long as early July. Because of the short season and small size of the lake the fish here tend to remain quite small (almost always less than a foot long). Think quantity, not record-breakers, but they are very active so expect plenty of action.
You’ll need to have your driver’s license, WIN (Wildlife Identification Number) card and fishing license on you to show the conservation officers that frequently patrol the area (although kids under 16 fish for free). Also, while you are allowed to use bait, you can’t use baitfish. People have reported success with a wide range of lures from spinners to orange-and-white Len Thompsons to nymphs.
How do I get to Elbow Lake?
If you are coming from Calgary it depends on your starting point. From the south side of the city it is best to head south to Okotoks, then west Turner Valley, making your way to Highway 541 that eventually joins up with Highway 40 (Kananaskis Trail) and you will arrive at the Elbow Pass parking lot from the south. From the north side of Calgary, just take Highway 1 (Trans-Canada Highway) west to Stoney Nakoda Casino where you take a left and head south on Highway 40. Whichever direction you choose, the Kananaskis Trail is pretty spectacular. If you have time we would recommend going out in one direction and coming back the other.
From Banff or Canmore you will usually head east on the Trans-Canada to Highway 40 and come in from the north. Another option is to take the 62-kilometre Smith Dorrien Trail south out of Canmore. It passes the beautiful Spray Lakes, eventually meets up with Highway 40 right near Upper Kananaskis Lake and is incredibly scenic.
However, it is also unpaved, full of potholes, usually badly washboarded and often busy and slow. It depends on your schedule, I suppose. There are a lot of hikes that start from that road so many of you have probably already had “The Smith Dorrien experience”.
Between December 1st and June 1st any or all of these roads might be closed – go here for the latest road closures. You can also check out this Spray Valley & Peter Lougheed Map to get a better idea of the exact location of Elbow Lake and the hikes around it. This is a very popular spot so in high season you will want to get there pretty early to avoid having to park well down the highway.
Can you swim in Elbow Lake?
Absolutely. It is cold, as you’d expect being full of glacier run-off, but more reasonable than some lakes because it is relatively small and (slowly) warms up from the sun in the summer. The best area for swimming is along the west side where it almost looks a bit like a beach and the water gets deep quickly.
Not that I can vouch for much more than how it felt when I dipped my hand in but we saw a group of girls swimming and they were only occasionally screaming from the cold…
Can you swim in Edworthy Falls?
You can but be prepared for it to be chilly. Even chillier than Elbow Lake since it is closer to the snow melt.
Kananaskis Conservation Pass
Starting June 1, 2021, all vehicles parking within the provincial parks and public land areas in Kananaskis Country and the Bow Valley need to purchase a Kananaskis Conservation Pass. You can buy a daily ($15), multi-day or annual ($90) pass online which registers your license plate. You don’t need a physical copy as the Conservation Officers will simply scan your plate. Although it wouldn’t hurt to have a digital copy on your phone in case an officer asks to see it during a random check.
You can also buy passes in person at one of the Kananaskis Visitor Information Centres (Barrier, Elbow, Peter Lougheed) or the Canmore Nordic Centre Day Lodge.
Two of our favourite hikes in the Rockies can be found along the Smith Dorrien Trail not far from Elbow Lake. Tent Ridge Horseshoe involves some scrambling and a pretty exposed ridge but the views of the Spray Lakes are unbelievable. Meanwhile, Smutwood Peak spends more time in a pleasant valley before heading straight up to the incredibly scenic Birdwood Lakes and one of the best panoramic viewpoints in Kananaskis.
For something a bit less challenging, Rawson Lake is a relatively easy couple-hour jaunt up past Upper Kananaskis Lake to a lake that always seems to be calm and reflective. And if you’re feeling energetic you can continue up to Sarrail Ridge for yet more great viewpoints. Here are our lists hikes in Kananaskis and Banff.
What to Take
It is always important to be prepared when venturing out hiking, especially in the mountains. Obviously, long, challenging hikes require more advance planning and safety gear but even for short hikes you still need to be properly equipped. Dressing properly will make the experience much more enjoyable and carrying useful safety supplies can ensure you are prepared in case mishaps take place (as they tend to). Here is a quick checklist of items we alway carry, wear or use while hiking:
A good day pack is essential. We have recently become big fans of Gregory packs and would recommend the Gregory Miwok 18 for short hikes or when your gear is split between two people. And the Gregory Optic 48 for longer hikes. I know 48L sounds big but it is a super-light and comfortable pack that cinches down smaller when it isn’t full.
Water is obviously important and we go back and forth between using a Camelbak bladder and just a couple of water bottles. We also keep a few Aquatabs with us at all times just in case we ever run low and want to treat some river or lake water. They are tiny and every now and then come in quite handy. It is always a good idea to carry some snacks as well. It never hurts and sometimes hikes end up taking longer than planned.
Laynni always hikes in compression leggings that she swears by for the extra knee, hip and muscle support.
Layers, baby! You never know what kind of weather nature will throw at you so it pays to be ready for anything. Obviously, the forecast might change what you carry but if there is any doubt (and there almost always is in the mountains), bring extra.
And just in case we are so impressed by the scenery that we decide it’s worth a photo with both of us in it we always carry the tiny, extremely handy octopus tripod.
Of course, a comprehensive first-aid kit is key to make sure those “mishaps” are simply inconvenient and don’t ruin your whole day.
Other useful items that we sometimes carry and sometimes don’t, depending on the hike:
Well, that probably covers most of it, although somehow we have even more to say on the matter in our Day Hike Packing List post. Check it out if you’re looking for even more detailed info.
The Elbow Lake hike and campground is a great combination of easy and scenic for families or people new to backcountry camping. However, those looking for a little bigger challenge also have plenty of add-ons to choose from, with Rae Glacier, Edworthy Falls and Tombstone Lakes all offering stunning views and great trails.
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