Spending a night or two beneath mountain silhouettes, soaking in starlight can hit the reset button in a much needed way and backpacking is the perfect way to do just that. If you have been feeling the call of a wilderness adventure but aren’t sure how to get started, try one of these three trips. The first two can be done in a weekend with one overnight. Save Skoki for a three-day weekend.
If you are new to backpacking, there are resources for how to get started following the trip descriptions. Don’t be intimidated! If you can learn to operate a camp stove (you can) and are willing to carry everything you need to survive on your back (you can…and it’s empowering) – you got this!
Reservations for Banff backcountry campsites (Lake Minnewanka and Skoki) are now open for the entire summer. You can reserve Alberta Parks backcountry campsites (Upper Kananaskis Lake and North Kananaskis Pass) up to 90 days in advance. Book as soon as possible too ensure you get your spot.
We have a brief overview of three trips with suggested itineraries and driving directions. Make sure you get maps and research these routes, trail conditions, and potential safety hazards more thoroughly before heading into the backcountry.
Lake Minnewanka Shoreline and Aylmer Lookout
23.4 km round trip
1 hour 15 minute drive from Calgary
In a nutshell
Perfect for beginners, this trip begins with an easy approach, minimal elevation gain and extraordinary views of bluest of blue Lake Minnewanka. Once you ditch your backpacking gear at the campground, you’ll tackle the hike up to Aylmer Lookout, the most strenuous part of the trip. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the sapphire lake below, Mount Inglismaldie, Mount Girouard, Mount Aylmer and Mount Rundle. This area is notorious for ticks, so wear pants and make sure to check your body and clothes when you finish.
Day 1: From Lake Minnewanka Trailhead, hike to Aylmer Pass Junction Campground (LM8) (8 km). Drop your gear, pack snacks and layers in a day pack and continue up to Aylmer Lookout. Make sure to stock up water at the stream near the Aylmer Pass Trail Junction.
At the Aylmer Lookout Fork turn Right to arrive at Aylmer Lookout (11.8 km from trailhead). If you are feeling ambitious, head back the Fork and go straight to take on Aylmer Pass too! (13.5 km from trailhead). Spend the night at Aylmer Pass Junction Campground.
Day 2: Hike back to Lake Minnewanka Trailhead (8 km).
Note: Book this trip soon! Aylmer Pass Junction Campground and the Aylmer Pass trail are closed July 10-September 15 because of bears. Aylmer Canyon (LM9) and Mt. Inglismaldie (LM11) Campgrounds are 9 km and 11 km one-way from the trailhead, respectively, and are open all summer. If you plan to travel the Lake Minnewanka shoreline between July 10 and September 15, plan to travel in a group of at least four and carry bear spray.
Driving directions: Drive west on Trans-Canada/Highway 1 to the first Banff/Lake Minnewanka exit. Take the exit and turn right onto Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive. Follow Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive to the Lake Minnewanka Day Use Area/Trailhead.
North Kananskis Pass
Moderate or Challenging
1 to 2 nights
34.4 km round trip
2 hour drive from Calgary
In a nutshell
Trout-filled lakes, brooks, creeks, streams, high meadows, forests thick with larches – this trip has it all. Perched above Maude Brook and just a stone’s throw from Maude Lake, a canyon and surrounded by jaw-dropping peaks, you will get your full dose of wilderness spending the night at Turbine Canyon Campground. Prepare yourself for some serious elevation gain and awesome views on the 15.1 km hike to the campground.
If you don’t have a lot of experience carrying all your gear, stay at Forks Campground (7.3 km) for a night on the way in, take on the most of the uphill on Day 2 and hike all the way out on Day 3.
Challenging: 1 night.
Day 1: Set off from the North Interlakes Day Use Area. Hike west (right if you are facing the lake) and follow the Upper Kananaskis Lakes Trail, then the Three Isle Lake Trail to Forks Campground (7.3 km). At the campground/junction, head right toward Turbine Canyon Campground and North Kananaskis Pass. Drop your backpacking gear at Turbine Canyon Campground. It’s up to you if you want to continue on to Maude Lake and North Kananaskis Pass on Day or 1 or Day 2 – or both!
Day 2: Swing up to the pass if you haven’t already. Maude Lake is full of trout (make sure you read up on fishing regulations and purchase a fishing license if you plan to fish). Retrace your steps back to your car at the North Interlakes Day Use Area.
Moderate: 2 nights
Day 1: Hike to Forks Campground. Stay the night.
Day 2: Press on to Turbine Canyon Campground. Drop your backpacking gear, pack up a few snacks and continue up to North Kananaskis Pass. Spend the night at Turbine Canyon Campground.
Day 3: Return to North Interlakes Day Use Area.
Driving directions: Drive west on Trans-Canada/Highway 1 toward Banff. Exit on Highway 40. Drive south on Highway 40. Take a right onto Kananskis Lakes Trail. Follow Kananaskis Lakes Trail to the North Interlakes Day Use Area.
35.2 km round trip
2 hour drive from Calgary
In a nutshell
I met a group of Texan fly fisherman at Red Deer Lakes who had been plotting their return to Skoki for 10 years. Finally, here they were, ready to throw their lines into these lakes they had been dreaming about for a decade. Iconic, tranquil, unforgettable-that’s Skoki. After your initial ascent, you will be rewarded with stunning backcountry terrain without too much more elevation gain. This area can be buggy so don’t forget bug spray; mosquito coils are ideal.
Many guidebooks recommend staying one night at Baker Lake and the next at Merlin Meadows, but I recommend staying both nights at Baker Lake. You add a few kilometres to your total trip, but you also get to hike the circuit without all of your gear – huge win.
Day 1: Start at Fishcreek Trailhead. Hike to Baker Lake Campground (SK 11) (13.1 km).
Day 2: Hike the circuit from Baker Lake Campground to Red Deer Lakes Campground (SK19) to Merlin Meadows Campground (SK18), past the Skoki Lodge, over Deception Pass and back to Baker Lake Campground. (15 km) You can shorten this loop by veering straight to Skoki Lodge from the Red Deer Lakes junction over Jones Pass (a mild uphill).
Day 3: Retrace your steps from Day 1 back to the Fishcreek Trailhead. (13.1 km)
Driving directions: Take the Trans-Canada/Highway 1 west to the Lake Louise exit. Turn right, following the signs for the Lake Louise Ski Area. Drive past Bow Valley Parkway on your right and then turn right onto Fish Creek Road. Follow this gravel road for 1.1 km to the trailhead.
How to get started with backpacking
If you just want to get your feet and wet and aren’t ready to purchase all of your gear, the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre rents everything you need. Here’s the info. ucalgary.ca
If you’re looking for a little guidance, the University of Calgary also offers backpacking lectures and leads backpacking trips over the summer. ucalgary.ca
This Mountain Equipment Co-op tutorial shows you how to pack your backpack.