Where to Go Wild-Ice Skating in the Rocky Mountains

The Alberta Rockies are known worldwide for scenic and spectacular natural skating spots. Here’s where to go gliding this winter.

Spray Lakes Reservoir, Kananaskis Country. Photo by Paul Zizka.

Every winter, if the conditions align, you can lace up your skates and glide on the frozen lakes, reservoirs and ponds in the mountains near Calgary. On a clear day, you’ll see the peaks of the Rockies reflected in the glassy ice below.

“There’s so much to appreciate all at once when the ice is good,” says Paul Zizka, a Banff-based photographer and wild-ice skating enthusiast.

Zizka has been skating the natural ice surfaces of the Rockies for the past 15 years and has captured stunning photos of other skaters, including a famous shot of Canadian figure skater Elladj Baldé backflipping against a bluebird sky on Lake Minnewanka. Zizka grew up skating outdoors in Quebec.

When he moved west, he found an avid community of wild-ice-chasers and an abundance of scenic spots. As a photographer, Zizka loves how wild ice gives him fresh elements to work with each winter.

“The ice forms completely differently every year, so you always find new features, new foreground, new textures that you’ve never seen before,” he says. Occasionally, Zizka adds, the ice is so clear you can look down to the lake bottom and see the odd stump or fish under your skates. “You add to that some of the best scenery in the world, when the landscape is mirrored all around you, and you’re effortlessly gliding past it, and that takes it up a notch,” he says.

The number of people skating in the mountains near Calgary has snowballed in recent years, in part because the picturesque sport translates well to social media. Zizka also noticed an uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic, as travel restrictions saw people sticking closer to home and seeking outdoor activities that allowed for social distancing.

Exceptional conditions in recent years also factor into the recent surge in skating activity. It’s also more accessible than other costly winter sports (hello, downhill skiing), requiring just skates, safety knowledge and a little help from Mother Nature — ideally, a cold snap early in the season that provides sustained low temperatures for thick, smooth ice, without an accumulation of snow on the surface. The strong winds in this region that clear the ice are another bonus — Zizka calls it the “Chinook Advantage” — in which lakes, particularly those in the easternmost parts of the Rockies, can be blown clean overnight.

Wild-ice enthusiast Marissa Hunter grew up playing hockey. In 2020, she got her first taste of skating in the mountains when a friend recommended she check out Spray Lakes Reservoir in Kananaskis Country. She has since skated on numerous other mountain lakes, seeking out the short windows when the surfaces are glassy and snow-free. “It’s a magical, memorable, cool experience,” Hunter says.

Here are five scenic, must-skate spots in the regional Rockies.

 

Lake Louise

Photo by Paul Zizka.

Scenic Lake Louise is among the most-visited destinations in Canada and arguably one of the most stunning wild-ice-skating spots in the world. Staff at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise clear the surface regularly and the skating area is lit up in the evenings. If you don’t have skates, you can rent them at Chateau Ski & Snow inside the hotel.

 

Vermilion Lakes

Photo by Paul Zizka.

One of the most accessible and picturesque places to skate near the town of Banff is Vermilion Lakes. “It’s like skating through a postcard,” Zizka says. The lakes are at the base of splendid Mount Rundle, one of Banff’s most recognizable sights. Zizka loves the friendly atmosphere on the three lakes, where he has watched beginners glide alongside experienced skaters. He warns, however, that warm springs keep some parts of the lakes unfrozen and that the ice thickness can be uneven.

 

Lake Minnewanka

Photo by Paul Zizka.

Approximately 20 kilometres long, Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park is a personal favourite spot for Zizka, who says that the size means you can essentially skate into the backcountry. However, due to its massive size — and depth — Minnewanka typically doesn’t fully freeze until mid-winter, with the west end of the lake, near Lake Minnewanka Road, the last part to fully harden.

 

Spray Lakes Reservoir

Spray Lakes Reservoir, Kananaskis Country. Photo by Paul Zizka.

Mountain views abound on Spray Lakes Reservoir in Kananaskis Country. At 21 km long, the reservoir provides an expansive skating surface (when conditions align), with the surrounding mountains reflecting beautifully on the glassy ice. Even though Spray Lakes is also a popular ice-fishing spot, it still doesn’t get too crowded, given that there are numerous access points to the reservoir along the gravel-surfaced Smith-Dorrien Highway (Highway 742).

 

Pyramid Lake

Photo by Paul Zizka.

Ten minutes north of the town of Jasper lies scenic Pyramid Lake, where you can skate backdropped by photogenic Pyramid Mountain. As with Lake Louise, the ice here is cleared regularly by staff at the recently renovated Pyramid Lake Lodge, part of the portfolio of properties run by international tourism experience company Pursuit. Roadtrippers should be aware the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) between Lake Louise and Jasper passes through rugged mountain terrain and winter closures are not uncommon.

 

Safe Skating

Skating on wild ice is undeniably alluring, but it can also be dangerous. Natural ice surfaces are not maintained nor monitored, so skating is at your own risk. Anyone skating on wild ice needs first to determine if the ice is thick enough to support them. Do not rely on seeing other people out on ice as an indication the surface is safe. Make your own observations and take a measurement to determine the thickness, using a tool such as an ice chisel, auger or cordless drill. Parks Canada recommends an ice thickness of 15 centimetres for walking or skating and 20 cm for skating parties or games. Be aware that ice thickness won’t necessarily be consistent across the entire surface, and conditions can change overnight — a spot that was safe to skate on one day may not be safe the next. Parks Canada also recommends carrying rescue gear, such as rope and ice picks, and wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) while skating if you are uncertain about ice thickness.

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This article appears in the January 2024 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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