The Chester Lake hike is one of the classics you must do in Kananaskis Country. It’s been called the most popular trail in Kananaskis Country – and yet on the summer weekend I hiked it, the parking lot was far less busy than the one that offers access to Black Prince Cirque and Galatea Lakes. That may be a function of the distance from Calgary but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.
Chester Lake itself is gorgeous. The meadows you meet on the Chester Lake hike are fine in summer – but dazzling in September when the larches put on their fall show. There are lovely places along the shore of Chester Lake to picnic, fish, swim or just plop. We saw a family that had carried in their SUP – so apparently that’s an option too.
It’s an easy enough hike that an active child can do it or an adult who only hikes occasionally. So pack up your family – and take a bathing suit, especially if it’s a hot day.
Be sure to check any trail advisories before you go – especially as bear closures can happen to a trail at any time. Note that there is an annual seasonal trail closure from May 1 – June 29th to allow the trail to dry and prevent damage.
Although Chester Lake is the final destination for most hikers there is the option to continue up the Three Lakes Valley. I highly recommend doing that but you’ll need to allow an additional 2 – 3 hours of hiking time. That option adds another 240 metres of climbing over an additional 4.5 kilometres round-trip.
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Chester Lake hike description
Total distance: 9.0 kilometres return
Elevation gain: 315 metres
Time needed: 3 – 4 hours if you only go to Chester Lake; 5 – 6 ours if you go to the third lake in the Three Lakes Valley
The Chester Lake hike is easy to follow. The trail starts near the washrooms in the northeast corner of the parking lot. You’ll see a giant sign with the trail to Chester Lake clearly marked.
Hike up the gravel road staying left at all intersections. The intersections are either signed or obvious. Do look out for spruce grouse along the road. On the couple of times I’ve hiked to Chester Lake, I’ve seen them along the road, most recently with two little grouselets (not a real word I know).
Look back occasionally as there are some great mountain views.
After hiking for about 40 minutes the road-size trail narrows and in short order you reach a meadow. From here on the trail moderates though certain family members accuse me of lying. At the 2.7 kilometre point there’s a short descent to reach a large meadow. Then it’s in and out of the trees a few more times before you reach the large meadow below Mt. Chester.
In the fall this part of the hike – alternating between trees and meadows is far more beautiful than in the summer because of the fall colours. Add a dusting of snow and it’s a notch or two more beautiful again.
When you reach Chester Lake you can cross a small bridge that will allow you to hike around the lake in a counter-clockwise direction. There are some nice picnic spots in the trees here. (Please pack out your garbage from lunch!!)
If you head left you’ll soon reach an intersection with the trail that takes you up to Elephant Rocks and the Three Lakes Valley. (See the description below.)
The route up Three Lakes Valley
To get to Three Lakes Valley take the trail that follows the west shore of Chester Lake. In very short order (about 60 metres) look for a spur trail heading up into the woods. Hike through dense woods for 5 to 8 minutes to reach giant boulders that some people call the Elephant Rocks. This is a popular spot for lunch and bouldering. If you have kids be sure to do the side-trip at least this far.
Stay left of the boulders and follow the well-worn trail for 5 to 10 minutes to reach a beautiful, wildflower -filled meadowy basin. This is where we saw the masses of mophead flowers. Ascend the rocky steps and in another five minutes reach the first lake at 2287 metres.
These are actually tarns – mountain lakes formed in a cirque by a glacier – and reportedly the first lake is the prettiest. It’s also one where you might want to cool off on a hot summer’s day.
We had one family member who was not interested in going all the way to the second and third lakes. Out of respect for leaving her by the first lake to be bitten by flies, we regretfully turned back a kilometre before reaching the second lake at 2410 metres of elevation. The hiking after the ascent above the first lake isn’t hard from what we saw – but it is rocky. I’d say you need a solid 30 minutes one way to get to the second lake though I might be off by a bit.
The third lake (elevation 2,460 metres) is reportedly dry at times but still a worthy destination, especially in the austere surroundings with Mt. Galatea lording over it. We did speak with one group of hikers who said they saw a large number of rams at the third lake.
Retrace your steps back to Chester Lake and finally to the parking lot.
Other options from the Chester Lake Trailhead
I have yet to do it, but reportedly the 13.6 kilometre hike to Headwall Lakes is a fantastic one. From there it’s possible to continue to Fortress Mountain via a moderate scramble though you need a full day to do it.
Finding the Chester Lake trailhead
The trailhead to Chester Lake is very easy to find. On Google maps you’ll find it here.
From Calgary I usually find it easiest to drive via Highway 40 rather than through Canmore.
From the Trans-Canada Highway drive 50 kilometres south on Highway 40 from to reach the Kananaskis Lakes Trail. Turn right (southwest) and then right again in another 2.2 kilometres onto the unpaved Smith Dorrien Trail. (Highway 742). Continue for another 20 kilometres to reach the large signed parking lot on the right – directly across from the Burstall day-use area.
In Canmore take Three Sisters Drive to the Smith Dorrien Spray Trail. At the Canmore Nordic Centre zero your odometer and continue for 41.5 kilometres on the Smith Dorrien Spray Trail to reach the Chester Lake parking lot on your left. Be prepared for a lot of dust.
Accommodation in Kananaskis Country
If you’re looking for a more upscale experience I highly recommend a stay at nearby Mount Engadine Lodge or at Kananaskis Mountain Lodge. If it’s a roof over your head that you want, then the Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel is a great choice.
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