Explore the Rockies without the crowds in Kananaskis
Growing up in Calgary, I always took the Kananaskis scenery for granted. As a youngster I remember taking in the scenic drives from the back of my dad’s motorcycle, later in life I would head out with friends to go snowshoeing or hiking. Kananaskis Country — or K-country as it is locally called — was just a short drive away after all and always spectacular.
Now that I’ve lived in and travelled through other parts of the country, I know just how special this region is. If you’re planning a trip to the Canadian Rocky Mountains, I urge you to put Kananaskis on your must-see list.
Where is Kananaskis County?
Kananaskis Country is a protected wilderness and recreation area that borders Banff National Park. It covers an area of about 4,000 square kilometres on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, beginning just 22 kilometres from the Banff townsite. It is not one giant park but is instead a patchwork of different provincial parks, wilderness parks, recreational parks and ecological reserves.
From Calgary, you can get to Kananaskis in about an hour. There are several ways to get there and all of the drives are scenic. Below, I am recommending two particularly beautiful loops you can do in the area.
The Smith Dorrien Loop:
If you have a couple of hours and want to take in some truly amazing mountain scenery, head due west from Calgary along the TransCanada Highway and then turn south on Highway 40, known as the Kananaskis trail. This road then links up with Highway 742, a well-maintained gravel highway also known as the Smith Dorrien Trail. Head north on the Smith Dorrien to link back up to the TransCanada Highway in Canmore. This drive can be a scenic add-on road trip if you are heading to Banff from Calgary.
Although the Smith Dorrien is a gravel road, it is very well maintained in both summer and winter so the drive is pleasant year round. When the valleys are free of snow, it is also an excellent loop to drive in search of wildlife at sunrise or sunset and takes you past one of the best spots to see moose in the Canadian Rockies.
The Cowboy Trail Loop:
If you want to add some cowboy flair to your journey, I suggest linking the Cowboy Trail with the Kananaskis Trail into a very scenic loop that goes through the heart of Alberta’s cowboy country.
This route takes you though communities like Longview, Turner Valley and Black Diamond, all of which will give you an authentic taste of small town southern Alberta. You’ll have glorious westward views from the foothills — think rolling hills and farmer’s fields with the Rockies in the background. If you have the time, a stop at the Eau Claire Distillery in Black Diamond is always fun.
You can do this in either direction, of course, but I prefer to head down the Cowboy Trail (which is Highway 22) until it connects to the 541. Then you’ll have a full view of the mountains as you head west to connect with Highway 40 (the Kananaskis Trail). The north end of 40 connects back to the TransCanada and from there you can head east back to Calgary or west to Banff.
Related: Read our blog post on the Cowboy Trail
The landscape of Kananaskis
I know Banff gets all the glory when it comes to beautiful Rocky Mountain scenery but I believe that Kananaskis is every bit as special. That’s not to take away from Banff or Jasper — both of which are worth visiting, as are Yoho and Kootenay — but Kananaskis often gets overlooked by the domestic and international traveller and that’s a real shame.
As you’ll see below, Kananaskis has everything you’d expect to see in the Rockies — rugged peaks, stunning mountain vistas, sprawling coniferous forests, and big game like grizzly bears, moose and elk — but with less crowds to get in the way.
Jagged mountain summits:
The Kananaskis region contains several mountain ranges with two summits that sit over 11,000 feet. The tallest is Mount Joffre (11,318 ft or 3450 metres) followed by Mount Sir Douglas (11,174 ft or 3406 m).
If you’re up for a challenge, the Tent Ridge Horseshoe trail is a great hike during the summer months. At slightly more than 10 km, with an elevation gain of 2,460 feet, this hike is considered moderate/hard. But at the end you are rewarded with sweeping views of the Spray Valley and the Spray Reservoir. This trail is becoming increasingly popular (although still less so than many of the trails in Banff) so I’d recommend avoiding it on weekends and holidays.
Rolling meadows & lush valleys:
In the summer, Kananaskis Country is alive with lush greenery and wildflowers. Glacier lilies, rock jasmine and western anemones all flourish in the alpine meadows. In the fall, the area glows yellow during larch season.
In the winter and into spring, the valleys are popular for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Peace and solitude are easy to find when you have thousands of acres of forest to explore. Paths lined with lodgepole pines, white spruce and trembling aspen are located throughout the park and line many of the pretty lakes. During the fall, there are spots to view the golden hued larch trees, which are truly spectacular if you happen to catch the right week to arrive (generally the first two weeks of September but this can vary slightly year to year).
Throughout Kananaskis Country, you can find plenty of alpine lakes in that signature blue we’ve come to associate with the Rockies. In fact, you’ll find everything from small ponds that reflect the surrounding mountain peaks to large waterways and rivers.
One of the most popular hikes in the region is the short but picturesque trail that leads to the Grassi Lakes, a pair of turquoise alpine lakes. There are two trails that lead to these lakes — one is an easy wooded stroll while the other is a slightly steeper climb that rewards you with beautiful views of the lakes and the town of Canmore. If you are short on time, this is a good option for a quick walk with a rewarding view.
A huge variety of birds and mammals can be found in Kananaskis. If you drive through the park in the early morning or late in the evening, you are likely to spot one of the bigger animals such as moose, deer, elk or sometimes bear. Slow driving is highly recommended at all times on these roads. You wouldn’t want to zip past this scenery anyway.
Both black and grizzly bears live in these wilderness areas, as do bighorn sheep, cougars and wolves. With less traffic and smaller roads, Kananaskis is a great place for wildlife viewing.
Disconnect from tech and reconnect with nature
I can’t stress enough the tranquility that comes from a remote mountain getaway where you feel like you almost have the entire scenery to yourself.
Winters are perhaps my favourite time to visit Kananaskis because the mountains look even more epic covered in snow and the area is even quieter than in the summer months. Temperatures can be relatively mild and sunny due to a unique system, known as a Chinook, that brings warm and dry winds from the Pacific.
If you’re contemplating your first trip to the Canadian Rockies, I’m not here to tell you to skip Banff or to ignore some of the more popular attractions, but I do urge you to consider adding a night or two in the Kananaskis backcountry.
Take a look at this package I put together that has it all:
- A stay in Kananaskis at the secluded Mount Engadine Lodge
- A scenic flight over the Three Sisters Peaks, Mount Assiniboine (known as the Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies) and the Gloria Glacier
- A few days in Banff to explore the town, nearby Lake Louise and perhaps take a guided tour of Johnston Canyon
- And top it all off with an overnight in my hometown of Calgary.
Who’s ready to go?
If I haven’t managed to convince you yet, here are a few more of my favourite photos from around K-Country: