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Heading For Piper Pass

Piper Pass Hike – A Pretty Trail in Kananaskis

The Piper Pass hike in Kananaskis Country’s Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park is fantastic. It exceeded all expectations in that it was easier and more beautiful than I thought it would be – and it was devoid of people. It’s one of a number of hikes you can do from the Elbow Pass Day-Use area and I think it’s the prettiest of the lot. You can do it as a long day hike from Highway 40 – or as a shorter day hike from the Tombstone Campground which is what we did as part of a multi-night stay.

In Kananaskis Country as many of you know, numerous trails are unofficial and lacking in any kind of signage. The Piper Pass hike is on one such trail. It is marked simply by a cairn at the side of the trail that ultimately takes you to the Tombstone Campground and onto the Tombstone Lakes. Once you’re on it, the rest of the route is straightforward, despite the fact you have to make one easy river and stream crossing.

Check the Kananaskis Trail report before you go and be sure to purchase a Kananaskis Conservation Pass.

Looking back at the sole other person we saw on the hike
Looking back at the sole other person we saw on the hike

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Piper Pass hike route description

Total distance from the trailhead on Highway 40: 24 km; 14.2 km return from the Tombstone Campground

Elevation gain: 617 m from the parking lot

Time needed: 7-8 hours as a day-hike; allow 5-6 hours return from the Tombstone Campground

The Piper Pass hike starts at the Elbow Pass Day-use area on Highway 40, 62 km south of the Trans-Canada Highway or 5.1 km north of Highwood Pass. On busy weekends you’ll be directed to park along the highway. Don’t be dissuaded by the number of people and cars. Most people stop at Elbow Lake.

Head up the steep road for 1.3 km to reach Elbow Lake. Follow the trail around the west shore of the emerald-green, crystal clear lake. When you get to the north end of the lake, look for a log over a creeklet. Cross it and go left. Follow the trail (though it’s more road like) for a total mileage of about 3.8 km past the lake.

Along the way, you’ll pass a large rock on the left with writing on it. That trail will take you on a short but worthwhile detour to Edworthy Falls. After the falls detour, you’ve got another 1.4 km to reach the intersection with the Piper Pass Trail. It’s on the left and is marked by a cairn – see photo below. There’s another cairn on your right, just 100 m up but that trail leads to Rae Lake. 

Beautiful Elbow Lake in Kananaskis Country
Beautiful Elbow Lake in Kananaskis Country
Easy walking along a road like trail in the direction of Tombstone Campground
Easy walking along a road like trail in the direction of the turnoff to Piper Pass
The trail to Piper Pass starts here at the cairn
The trail to Piper Pass starts here at the cairn; see how dense the vegetation is!
You can see a part of the trail off in the distance
You can see a part of the trail off in the distance – that’s where you’re heading
Hiking the main trail to the cairn
Hiking the main trail to the cairn but the view you get coming from Tombstone Campground where we spent a couple of nights

Once you’re on the Piper Pass trail, it’s very straightforward. You’ll be on it for the next 5.0 km to the top of Piper Pass. Descend to the Elbow River and cross it. A pair of water shoes come in handy here. Climb out of the gorge and hike through trees to reach Piper Creek. Ford it. Then follow the trail as it heads for Piper Creek Canyon. Although the trail steadily climbs through the trees, it’s at a moderate rate with the odd great view.

After approximately 30 minutes, reach wildflower-studded subalpine meadows. I saw lots of alpine forget-me-not (my favourite high alpine flower), yarrow, and enough other wildflowers that I wish I had carried a copy of my wildflower guide with me. This is a stunning section so take your time and enjoy it.

The way forward once you clear the trees is obvious even though the trail comes and goes. Basically, you’re heading for the giant boulder at the bottom of the dark-coloured scree slope off in the distance. Climb the talus slope on a boot-beaten trail. It will take you 20 – 30 minutes to get from the giant boulder to the pass. Piper Pass is an an elevation of 2580 m or 8465 feet. It’s an excellent place to survey the mountains. Elpoca Mountain (3029 m) is the big one you’ll see if you look back in the direction you came from.

Retrace your steps to the main trail. Go right to return to your car at Elbow Pass Day-use area and left to head to Tombstone Campground.

Entering the beautiful sub-alpine on the Piper Pass hike
Entering the beautiful sub-alpine on the Piper Pass hike
The first of the big boulders you pass on the hike
The first of the big boulders you pass on the hike – the second you can see off in the distance
John looking for big horned sheep on the plateau
John looking for big horned sheep on the plateau (we saw one)
Continuing on an easy grade to the scree slope
Continuing on an easy grade to the scree slope
The climbing starts in earnest after you pass this giant boulder
The climbing starts in earnest after you pass this giant boulder
Easy hiking on some of the last of the snow in late June
Easy hiking on some of the last of the snow in late June
It was hot going up and down Piper Pass
It was hot going up and down Piper Pass; that’s Elpoca Mountain you’re looking at on the right
View from Piper Pass into West Fork Little Elbow River Valley
View from Piper Pass into West Fork Little Elbow River Valley
Glorious views
Glorious views – and as you can se, there’s no one else around

A few things for this hike

We didn’t so much as see bear scat but I’d still recommend carrying a can of easy to access bear spray.

Take a copy of the Gem Trek Kananaskis Lakes map

If it’s a hot day, you might want some water purification tablets so you can refill water bottles and drink safely. 

Don’t forget the hiking essentials, a warm coat – because it is the mountains – and a ball cap or wide brim sun hat.

Further reading on hiking in Kananaskis

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The fabulous Piper Pass hike in Kananaskis Country, Alberta

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has One Comment

  1. This is maybe my favourite hike in the Canadian Rockies, we go nearly every year. I love the waterfall in the narrow canyon near the South end of the meadow, but also the wildflowers, coloured peaks surrounding you, and the solitude.
    Thanks for sharing.

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