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Rae Lake

Rae Lake Kananaskis – A Beautiful Little Known Hike

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The Rae Lake hike in Kananaskis Country, specifically in Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park, flies under the radar. Part of the reason is that it is an unofficial trail, and it isn’t signed. A cairn at the side of the trail can be seen when you’re heading to the Tombstone Backcountry Campground, but you’d have to be looking for it and know that it takes to Rae Lake. Once you’re on the trail, its boot-beaten and easy to follow.

We did the Rae Lake Kananaskis hike as part of a 3-day backpacking trip to the Tombstone Backcountry Campground. We also included hikes to Piper Pass and the Tombstone Lakes. Rae Lake can also be done as a 17.2 kilometre out and back hike from the Elbow Pass Day-use area.

Check the Kananaskis Trail report before you go – if only to get updates on the trails in the immediate area. Be sure to purchase a Kananaskis Conservation Pass.

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It's hard to get close to Rae Lake without getting your feet wet
It’s hard to get close to Rae Lake without getting your feet wet

Finding the trailhead

The trailhead is the same one that is used for Elbow Lake. It is located on Highway 40, 62 km south of the Trans-Canada Highway and just 5.1 km north of Highwood Pass. This stretch of highway is only open from June 15 until December 1 every year.

The parking lot can get very busy, especially on weekends. We ended up parking on the highway – and were able to safely leave our car there for two nights.

                                                           

Rae Lake details

Distance: Approximately 17.2 km round trip

Elevation gain: 432 metres

Time needed as a day hike: 5 – 7 hours

Season: By late June the snow was long gone; hike until the snow flies sometime in late October

Dogs allowed: Yes on leash

Random camping allowed: Yes but leave no trace. You might want to read How to Shit in the Woods by Bill McKibben. 

Map: Gem Trek Kananaskis Lakes (The route makes perfect sense when you see it laid out on the map.)

The Rae Lake hike to the cairns

Hike up to Elbow Lake from the Elbow Pass Day-use area. Follow the trail along the west shore of the lake to reach a creeklet with a log over it. Stay left and continue up a road (watch out for mountain bikers) into a beautiful meadow with gorgeous views.

At the 4.3 km mark, you’ll be able to see into Piper Creek Canyon. On route you’ll pass some stones that mark a short spur trail to Edworthy Falls. The falls are worth a short side trip.

In another kilometre look for cairns on the left-hand side of the road marking the trail to Piper Pass. Fifty paces later look for cairns on the right-hand side of the road – as you’re heading northeast. It marks one of the routes into Rae Lake. From there the trail to the lake is obvious though never expect to see a sign. 

The photos in this blog illustrate a clockwise loop to Rae Lake that starts at the cairns, turns right at the Sheep River Valley Trail, goes up to Rae Lake and then descends via a narrow trail to come out on the road coming up from Elbow Lake. But you don’t have to do a loop.

You could turn right at the first cairns and simply do and out and back hike to Rae Lake. 

Crossing the outlet to Elbow Lake on route to the Tombstone Lakes
Crossing the outlet to Elbow Lake on route to the Tombstone Lakes
Very scenic walking in the direction of the Tombstone Lakes
Very scenic walking in the direction of the Tombstone Lakes
It's worth making a short detour to Edworthy Falls
It’s worth making a short detour to Edworthy Falls

Directions from the top of the Elbow River Road Trail to Rae Lake

We did the Rae Lake hike from the Tombstone Backcountry Campground. We had to retrace our steps from the campground to reach the sign seen in the photo below. That intersection is at the end of the road coming up from Elbow Lake. As you face the sign you can see that you go left to the campground and right to continue on the Sheep River Valley Road-Trail that will lead you towards Rae Lake.

We hiked up the Sheep River Valley Road-Trail for 0.8 km. At that point there is a hairpin turn and if you look closely on the right you would see a cairn. (If you were trying to do a loop from the other direction, you would turn left here and follow the trail for 0.5 km to meet up with the trail you originally took up to Rae Lake.)

At the hairpin turn we stayed left on the road and followed it for a further 1.1 km. Keep your eyes open for a cairn on the right just before a culvert. At the cairn head right into the trees on an obvious trail and follow it as it climbs for 1.4 km to reach Rae Lake. The Rae Creek Gorge will be on your left all the way up to the lake. It’s quite a lovely section of hiking and the grade is moderate.

Go left at the T-junction to reach Tombstone Lakes and Campground
At a T-junction there is a map showing the Tombstone Lakes and Campground 
Look for a cairn on the right before the culvert - this trail goes directly up to Rae Lake
Look for a cairn on the right before the culvert – this trail goes directly up to Rae Lake
Heading towards Rae Lake from the Sheep River Valley Road
Heading towards Rae Lake from the Sheep River Valley Road
Pretty scenery on the way up to Rae Lake
Pretty mountain scenery on the way up to Rae Lake

Rae Lake

Rae Lake sits in a tranquil and very beautiful setting below the north end of Mount Rae, east of Tombstone Pass. The few people that visit do so primarily as a day hike. But there has been obvious camping near the outlet.

Random camping is allowed here because it’s in Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park. If you do camp, pack out what you pack in and leave no trace – something others have obviously not done. You could also camp in the meadows beyond the lake – and the hike to get water would be doable. 

In the fall, enjoy the larch trees in all their glory near the lake.

Rae Lake is in a beautiful setting
Rae Lake is in a beautiful setting

Rae Lake down to the road coming up from Elbow Lake

John and I thoroughly enjoyed the descent from the lake through meadows, grassy sections and open forest to reach the road-trail coming up from Elbow Lake. I found the trail to be well used and always obvious. 

When we reached the road-trail, we simply turned left and followed it for 5.3 km back to the car.

It was 36°C in the afternoon in late June so we made a beeline for cold drinks and ice cream at the gas station at Fortress Mountain on Highway 40. It was way too hot for our comfort but at least there weren’t many biting insects.

Trail leading away from the lake
Trail leading away from Rae Lake
Some wildflowers around in late June
Some wildflowers around in late June
Love the mountain scenery on the hike out
Love the mountain scenery on the hike out
An easy grade going up or down
An easy grade going up or down from Rae Lake
The trail is well defined
The trail is well defined
Enjoy beautiful meadows on the way out
Enjoy beautiful meadows on the hike out
When its 36C Elbow Lake looks particularly inviting
When its 36C Elbow Lake looks particularly inviting

A few things you might find useful on this hike

Further reading on hikes along Highway 40

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The Rae Lake Kananaskis hike can also be done as part of a backpacking trip

 

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