Kananaskis Country is a network of wilderness parks in the Alberta Rockies region on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies. This is a large region but its northern boundary is only about half an hour's drive west of the Alberta's largest city, Calgary, along the Trans-Canada Highway (#1). Commonly just called "Kananaskis" or "K-Country", this is the less-crowded cheaper alternative to nearby Banff National Park, but provides fewer services.
Pronounced as if it were the phrase "can an ass kiss?", this is not a single park, but rather a network of them, with varying legal statuses and levels of development including patches of relatively trackless wilderness, a golf resort, an R.V. campground, cross-country and downhill skiing facilities, and a artificial reservoir created by a hydroelectric dam. The important thing for the traveller to know is that this system of parks is operated by the provincial government of Alberta and not the Canadian federal government, so the fees to visit and the rules around camping and fishing are quite different.
The Kananaskis park area consists of a number of provincial parks and reserves including:
- Bluerock Wildland Provincial Park
- Bow Valley Provincial Park
- Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park
- Bragg Creek Provincial Park
- Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park
- Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park
- Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park
- Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
- Plateau Mountain Ecological Reserve
- Sheep River Provincial Park
- Spray Valley Provincial Park
There are no towns or villages in the area, "Kananaskis Village" being a hotel and activity complex, but the town of Canmore lies just outside the region.
The area has been home to indigenous peoples for at least eight thousand years, with bands of hunting families making the seasonal rotation between the open grasslands to the west and the forested mountains to the east. In recent history the Nakoda, Siksika, Blood, and Kootenai peoples have all had ties to the region.
Following the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877 between the indigenous peoples and the Canadian government, the area became federally-controlled. During this era, the area was opened to industrial development with the installation of a hydroelectric dam in 1913. In 1930 the area passed into the hands of the provincial government.
The first two parks in the region were Bow Valley Provincial Park in 1959 and Bragg Creek Provincial Park were created in 1960. However, the Alberta Wilderness Association had larger ambitions, and in 1972 proposed larger part that would include the Elbow, Sheep and Kananaskis river valleys. At the same time the provincial government wanted to upgrade the road through the area to a highway to divert some of the pressure away from ranchlands in the foothills near Calgary, due the rapidly expanding numbers of Calgarians spending weekends in the countryside. Calgary architect and environmentalist Bill Milne challenged the government to hold public consultations on the highway upgrade, and the Government of Alberta received over 48,000 responses to a survey about the future of the eastern slopes; the majority supported creating a large protected area. The legend is that Milne and Minister of Highways Clarence Copithorne convinced then-Premier Peter Lougheed to create the park with just one helicopter ride over the region. In 1978, Premier Peter Lougheed officially dedicated Kananaskis Country and Kananaskis Provincial Park (the later is now called Peter Lougheed Provincial Park).
By the time K-Country celebrated it's fortieth anniversary in 2018, it had hosted 75 million visitors.
This is archetypal Rocky Mountain terrain, with snowcapped craggy peaks, cold rivers rushing through narrow valley, and clear blue lakes. The peaks of the Kananaskis Range occupy most of the western part of K-Country with the Elk Range to the south. The highest point is Mount Galatea at 3,185 m (10,449 ft), and there are several other peaks above 3,000 m (10,000 ft). To the north and east the terrain is less jagged and the elevations are lower. The region is cut through by the Elbow, Sheep, and Kananaskis rivers as well as the Spray Lakes.
Flora and fauna
Wildlife is abundant, with lots of mountain goats, longhorn sheep, elk, moose, deer, bear, etc. If you come in late June or early July you will be amazed at the variety of wildflowers and songbirds making their home in the area.
This is a great area to do some wildlife spotting, even from the road. No guarantees if and where so make sure every one is keeping their eyes peeled as you drive though the area. Some examples:
- Grizzly bears - Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, particularly the area a few kilometres around the visitors centre.
- Moose - particularly around Mount Engadine Lodge and Lake Kananaskis areas
- Pika - Rock glacier trail
- Ground squirrels - just about everywhere though top of Highwood pass is a good place.
- Golden-mantled ground squirrel - North Interlakes Day Use
- Bighorn sheep - on the 40 Kananaskis Trail up towards Highwood pass and the Sheep River road
- Mountain goats - rare but sometimes above Canmore
- Coyotes - Smith Dorrien-Spray Road
- deer - all over the parks areas
- Osprey - Spray Lake, Kananaskis river (towards Bow river confluence)
- Golden Eagle - Upper Kananaskis lake
The parks provide a range of landscapes with the chance to see alpine meadow and wetland plants.
- Yellow lady's slipper orchid - Bow river park trails
- Western wood lily - Bow river park trails
- Shooting Star
- Indian paintbrush - just about everywhere
To get there, drive west from Calgary on Highway 1 until you see the Kananaskis sign (Highway 40). Turn south at the sign and follow the highway into Kananaskis country. You may also enter Peter Lougheed Provincial Park by taking the Spray Lakes Road/Smith-Dorrien Highway from Canmore. Follow the signs to the Nordic Ski Centre and keep going up the steep hill.
Fees and permits
You need to buy a Kananaskis Conservation Pass to park in day-use parking lots in Kananaskis provincial parks. Pass fees as of July 2022 are:
- $15 to park one vehicle for one day (good till midnight)
- $90 to park up to 2 vehicles for a year
You can buy a pass online or in person at park visitor centres.
The Kananaskis Conservation Pass is a motor vehicle parking pass, so you don't need to pay if you arrive on foot or by bicycle, or if you get dropped off in a car driven by someone else.
Fishing and hunting require ordinary Alberta permits which can be purchased online.
The Smith-Dorrien Trail past Spray Lake is a driving experience not to be missed: a wide stone gravel road from Highway 40 with a steep drop into Canmore.
- 1 Peter Lougheed Visitor Information Centre, Kananaskis Lakes Trail, ☏ . Information displays, rangers with advice and indoor washrooms. Free wifi.
- 2 Bow Valley Provincial Park. Leaflet from the centre on a number of short easy walks around the area. Drive to a number of parking spots around the campsite where you can then walk trails. In June lots of opportunities to see alpine meadow and wet land plants including orchids.
- 3 Elbow Falls.
- 4 Rock glacier trail. Rock scree on the side of the road with a very good chance of seeing Pika.
- 5 Highwood Pass. At 2,206 m it is the highest paved pass in Canada. From the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area car park just south of the pass high point is a small paved and board-walk providing a good opportunity to see alpine flowers as well as ground squirrels and the mountain scenery.
- 6 North Interlakes Day Use (between the Upper and lower Kananaskis lakes). Great views of the area and good starting point for hikes.
- 7 Bighorn Lookout, Sheep River Park. Short walk from car park to viewpoint of river ravine.
Many activities are available in Kananaskis country, both summer and winter. It includes an ATV area for ATV users, cross country and downhill skiing, ice fishing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, mountain biking, horseback riding, backpacking, backcountry camping, day hiking, canoeing, fishing, and golf.
There are two ski resorts in the Kananaskis area:
- 1 Nakiska. Site of the ski events at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary.
- 2 Fortress Mountain (K-Pow).
Excellent cross country skiing is also available within the region. It is also close to the Canmore Nordic Centre, home of the cross-country events in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Cross country and snow shoe trails are maintained by the parks staff. Various classic and skate skiing trails are set at Mount Shark Trails area and at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.
Kananaskis is also renowned for its top-notch biking, hiking and equestrian trails.
- 3 Boundary Ranch, ☏ . Trail riding
- Mountain biking. Some of Canada's best mountain bikers train at the Canmore Nordic Centre. With over 70 km of trails, there's something for everyone. Kananaskis is chock full of mountain biking trails, if you're considering coming here to ride, then a copy of Backcountry Biking in the Canadian Rockies by Doug Eastcott, (ISBN: 0-921102-69-0) is essential. There are trails for every skill level just waiting to be ridden. Being that this is a sub-alpine region, trails usually don't dry out from the Winter until mid to late May. Consult with the locals before attempting any trails around or before this date.
- Fishing. Kananaskis contains many streams, rivers, and several lakes, for the fishing enthusiast.
- Rafting. Accompanied rafting tripped down the Kananaskis river are organized by a number of companies from Canmore.
- 4 Kananaskis Country Golf. Home to one of the best (and busiest) golf courses in North America. 36 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr, surrounded by mountains. A good value price wise also considering the quality of the course. Reserving in advance is highly recommended. Weather can be tricky in the early season, be prepared. The course has received many great reviews. Because the course is so busy, the operators are quite strict about slow play, and will use their authority to speed things up a bit if it gets out of hand. You are expected to play your round in 4½ hours. If you remember to timestamp your scorecard and keep the pace, they give you a gift at the pro shop after the round. 2018 regular rate (Alberta resident rate): M-Th (excluding holidays) $118 ($88);F-Su $125 ($95); age 65 and up (weekdays) $108 ($78); age 17 and under $68 ($68); twilight rate $68 ($68); special rate for May 2018 $98 ($78); golf cart rental $20 per person.
You will find all kinds of summer (and winter) activities to do in the park including horse back riding, rafting, hiking, biking, birding and wildlife watching. The golf course is on Highway 40 which is the busiest area for visitors to the parks in Kananaskis. There is a very good information centre on Highway 40 near the entrance to the Park. On the Smith Dorrien side of Kananaskis, closer to the Banff National Park, wildlife, especially moose, can often be viewed especially around the corner of Shark Road near Mount Engadine Lodge. It is the remote, less travelled area in Kananaskis and on a well maintained gravel road.
Eat and drink
If you're camping in the "front-country" (road-accessible car camping), drinking (and talking or singing) around the fire is generally allowed until 11PM in Alberta, after which it's "quiet time". If you want to be indoors after a day on the trail, try:
- 1 The Village. There are six restaurants, dining rooms, cafeterias, bistros and bars within the complex.
- Mount Engadine Lodge. Offers evening dining (usually between June 15 and Oct 15 and Dec 15 to Easter).
- 2 Fortress Gas Plus (gas station on Highway 40). Has quick microwave meals.
- Bolton Creek Trading Post. summer months. Cafeteria and suppliers.
There are many camp sites in Kananaskis country.
- 1 Boulton Creek Campground, ☏ . Only fully serviced in the area, and reservations are required.
- 2 Mount Kidd RV Park, 1 Mount Kidd Drive, ☏ .
Hotels can be found in the Kananaskis town site (Kananaskis Village) as well as at the Dead Man Flats area.
If you want a backcountry lodge experience.
- 5 Mount Engadine Lodge (on the Smith Dorrien - Spray Valley Road about 35 km south of Canmore; you can drive to it on a well-maintained gravel road), ☏ . It is small, 9 rooms that have been renovated, and overnight accommodation includes all meals.
- 6 HI - Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel (previously known as Ribbon Creek Hostel), 1 Ribbon Creek Road, ☏ . For a cheaper option.
Kananaskis is a reasonable (and frequent) day trip from Calgary, depending on activity. If staying in Calgary but travelling to Kananaskis, choose a hotel in the west side of the city, preferably near 16th Avenue North (such as the ones in "Motel Village") or near Glenmore Trail or Highway 22x in the south, rather than one near the airport or downtown.
This is bear country so be careful. There is a good chance of coming across longhorn sheep, deer and moose on the road.
Canmore is the nearest community of size, at least a half-hour drive from the turnoff to Kananaskis on the Trans Canada Highway. Travelling from the Village area it is a about an hour to Banff, 45 minutes to Canmore or Calgary using the Trans Canada Highway. Many visitors to the park do the Kananaskis loop which includes driving on the Smith Dorrien-Spray Road (gravel). A round trip from Canmore through the park and out of the park on Highway 40 would take 2-3 hours with stops. Banff is another further 20 minutes to a half-hour from the Canmore area, but a must-see.