Kananaskis Country is the new home of an 80 kilometre section of the Trans- Canada Trail (TCT) that they renamed as the High Rockies Trail. It travels uninterrupted from the Goat Creek trailhead at the border of Banff National Park near Canmore through three provincial parks – Bow Valley Wildland, Spray Valley and Peter Lougheed to finish on the Alberta – British Columbia border at Elk Pass.
The High Rockies Trail is the westernmost section of the TCT in Alberta. The trail, designed primarily for mountain bikers and hikers, is easily accessed at numerous locations off of the Smith Dorrien Trail (Highway 742). Maps showing the trail location are available at the Barrier Lake Visitor Centre.
Trail update: Before you head out, always check the Alberta Parks report. As of April 1, 2022 the Goat Creek parking lot will be closed for refurbishment until the end of the year, so there will be no access to the High Rockies Trail – though you can still access it from other trailheads.
Tackle the High Rockies Trail in sections
Unless you’re incredibly fit and like a challenge you’ll want to tackle the trail in sections – especially as there are no services along the length of the trail (unless you count an out of the way stop at Mount Engadine Lodge for tea).
Plan to take all your food, rain gear and a patch kit with you. Replenish water at streams but treat it first. Don’t forget the bear spray as you’re traveling through a wildlife corridor where bear and moose sightings are common.
We saw plenty of fresh bear scat on our bike ride. Use your bike bell and make a lot of noise.
A mix of old and new trails
From the sections I biked the trail is both well-built and well-signed. The trail is a mix of old and new trails, with connectors added so that you can access existing day use areas along the Smith Dorrien Trail. It also makes for easy access and parking.
The landscape you encounter is quite diverse. Travel through forest, sometimes in the valley bottom, though often the trail offers a view.
Bike the section between the Sparrowhawk Day Use Area and Buller Creek if it’s a panoramic view of the Spray Valley you’re after. The first section starting at Goat Creek also offers lovely mountain views, even before you get to Goat Pond. (Don’t be put off by the section of eroded trail near the Goat Creek Trailhead. It’s short and the trail after that is in great shape.)
As you travel south from the Sawmill Campground through to Lower Kananaskis Lake, the mountain views are also exceptional.
I didn’t get into the Elk Pass area but spoke with some bikers who did – and they loved it. But like many of the sections, you have to commit to and out and back ride unless you’ve been able to organize a car shuttle.
Look for wildflowers in summer along the High Rockies Trail
The trail is also enjoyable for the variety of wildflowers you might see. In wet areas you’ll find white camas, lousewort and elephanthead.
In the lodgepole pine forest look for calypso orchids, twinflowers, arnica and bunchberry. Around the lake and elsewhere brown-eyed Susan, buffalo berry, asters, alpine lupine, fireweed, milk and purple vetch, asters and bearberry are all in abundance.
The trail is surprisingly good for birding
There are plenty of birds to see if you stop and listen, with up to 130 bird species nesting in Kananaskis Country. You’re sure to see gray jays and ravens at popular picnic spots the minute the food comes out.
Along the shoreline look for spotted sandpipers and the black dipper (one of my favourite birds as it sticks around in the depths of winter, singing even when it’s miserable outside.) In the wood’s we heard both the Swainson’s thrush and the chipping sparrow singing their hearts out.
The High Rockies Trail is an relatively unheard of 80 km section of the Trans-Canada Trail and a great addition to the recreational opportunities offered in Kananaskis Country. Have fun exploring it.