Fall is a marvelous time in Alberta for hiking. The crowds are gone, as are the bugs and even though the wildflowers have died back, there’s usually some colour left in the forest. And it’s always a treat to have a Canadian Rocky Mountain backdrop. I’ve chosen these five fabulous fall hikes near Calgary (realistically within a two hour drive of Calgary) to get you outside having fun until the snow flies and in some cases even after the snow has stayed.
One of them, Prairie Mountain, you can do year-round and Upper Kananaskis Lake is usually fine until sometime in November.
Bears are active well into late November, so on any of the fall hikes near Calgary be bear aware and carry easy to access bear spray.
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1. Prairie Mountain – one of the must do fall hikes near Calgary:
Distance: 7.6 km return
Elevation gain: 726 m or 2,382 feet
Difficulty: Hard as its steep but not technical
Time needed: 2.5 – 4 hours return
The Prairie Mountain hikenear Bragg Creek is my go to hike from fall until spring, especially with the trailhead just 45 minutes from my Calgary doorstep. You always get a great workout when you hike up Prairie Mountain along with some mountain views and the Calgary skyline.
The hike is relentlessly steep until you pop out of the woods so it’s a great one to do to get into shape – or to stay in shape. If there’s snow on the ground take some microspikes and a pair of collapsiblehiking poles to make the going a little easier. Fit hikers should allow two to three hours.
You’ll find the trailhead about 15 minutes from Bragg Creek across from Elbow Falls by the winter gates. (The gates are closed annually from December 1st until May 14th). There is a parking lot with room for about 15 cars directly across from the trailhead, and parking along the highway is permitted.
You can also park in the large lot used to access Elbow Falls. There is an outhouse there as well.
2. Fairview Mountain, Banff National Park – one of the fall hikes near Calgary with a big elevation gain
Distance: 7.4 km round trip
Elevation gain: 600 metres (1,969 feet) to the Saddleback plus 414 metres (1,358 feet) to the summit.
Difficulty: Moderate to hard depending on how much hiking you do.
Time needed: 4 – 5 hours
It’s a steep 1,014 m climb from the shores of Lake Louise to the summit of Mount Fairview but it’s worth doing for the superlative views over Lake Louise and the Bow River Valley.
The 10.6 km return hike will take fit hikers between four and five hours to do. Many people opt to turn around at the Saddleback – 600 m up, a worthy turn around point if you’re short on time especially in larch season.
Otherwise I recommend continuing – and just slowing down if you find it aerobically challenging. In October there’s a good chance snow will already be on the ground as it was for us. (Continue only if it’s a small amount.) Take a pair of “icers” to make the final few hundred metres of hiking both safer and easier.
The trailhead is easy to find. After parking at Lake Louise, head for the lake itself and look for the building that rents canoes. You’ll see signage around there.
3. Fall hikes near Calgary: Buller Pass, in Kananaskis Country
Distance: 14.6 km return
Elevation gain: 670 m or 2,198 feet
Time needed: About 4 hours
Level of difficulty: Moderate
The hike to Buller Pass starts off pleasantly in mossy woods. When you emerge you’ll be a area of larches and in mid-September, though nothing on the scale of Larch Valley in Banff National Park, but enough to kick up the beauty of the hike a few notches.
Buller Pass itself offers incredible views down to Ribbon Lake, a popular camping spot in the summer and over to Guinn Pass. Look the other way and you’ll see unmistakable Mount Assiniboine.
You’ll find the trailhead along the Smith Dorrien – Spray Lakes Trail, 31 km up from the Canmore Nordic Centre. The trail starts directly across from the Buller Mountain day use area.
4. Chester Lake hike on the Smith Dorrien Road
Distance: 9.0 km (5.6 miles) return
Elevation gain: 315 m or 1,033 feet
Time needed: 3 – 4 hours
Level of difficulty: Moderate. Kids 8 and up should be able to handle it.
One of the top fall hikes near Calgary is Chester Lake, especially in mid to late September when the larches glow yellow. Catch it after a light snow and it’s even prettier. The hike is a moderate 4.5 km one way with an elevation gain of approximately 315 m, most of which happens at the start of the hike.
Circumnavigate Chester Lake for a real mix of views, including that of Fortress Mountain. In summer the trail doesn’t open until the beginning of July – but always check the Kananaskis Parks website for closures. I went up in early July and it was temporarily closed because of bear activity.
Once the snow sticks, visit Chester Lake on snowshoes or cross-country skis. It’s a real winter wonderland.
The Chester Lake trailhead is easy to find. The large parking lot is 46 km south of Canmore on the Smith Dorrien/Spray Lakes Trail across from the Burstall Pass parking lot.
5. Upper Kananaskis Lake hike, Kananaskis Country
Distance: 15.8 km or 9.8 miles
Elevation gain: 295 m or 968 feet
Level of difficulty: Moderate because of the distance.
Time needed: 4 – 5,5 hours
Backcountry campground: Yes – The Point Campground
The views are ever-changing and quite glorious and walking beside a lake is always a treat. Aim for a lunch stop at the lovely Point Backcountry Campground, one of the nicest campgrounds I’ve seen in Alberta offering private campsites with awesome views, tent pads and picnic tables. We took five hours to do the hike with lots of stops for photos and lunch.
You’ll find the trailhead via Highway 40 and Highway 742. There are a couple of parking options but if you’re planning to circumnavigate the whole lake it doesn’t matter where you start.
For added warmth early in the morning I’ll include a fleece. My go to outer layer that can be mixed and matched with short or long-sleeved shirts is aPatagonia down jacket with or without a hood. It weighs nothing so it’s always in my pack. I always like to have a bufftoo as it takes up almost no room.