Drive about an hour northeast of Calgary or two and a half hours south of…
If you love a good waterfall hike, then put the Ribbon Falls hike in Kananaskis Country on your must do list. John and I chose to do it in late May – as many of Alberta’s mountain hikes are still snowbound. It was a great choice from a couple of perspectives.
First, it’s a good warm-up to get in shape for harder hikes with more elevation gain. All told its about a 20.8 km return hike with 447 m elevation gain – if you go about 10 minutes beyond the falls. I found the signage on the trails didn’t correspond with what Alberta Parks has on its website. Count on 10.0 km one way and you’ll be good. Alberta Parks says only 350 m of elevation gain, so use that number as a guideline only.
Reportedly it’s another 2.0 km to Ribbon Lake – where there is another backcountry campsite, but to get there you must use chains on a couple of very steep sections, and that’s not a good idea if you’re afraid of heights. Getting down the cliffs on a wet day can be particularly challenging. You can also access Ribbon Lake via the Buller Pass or Guinn Pass trails.
The hike to the falls is also far more beautiful than I figured it would be. It follows a spectacular valley hemmed in on either side by Mount Kidd to the southeast and Mount Bogart to the northwest.
Over the first few kilometres you cross Ribbon Creek seven or eight times via bridges constructed after the 2013 flood. There are lovely sections where you get close to waterfalls and pools of crystal- clear water. On a hot day these will beckon. The forested sections were mossy – and offered plenty of peek-a-boo views to keep you going.
When you arrive at Ribbon Falls, just 5 minutes past the Ribbon Falls backcountry campground, I think you’ll find it to be take your breath away beautiful. It’s in a stunning setting, best appreciated by climbing the steep trail for about 5 minutes to get the bigger picture of where it sits in the landscape.
I’d say count on a minimum of 3 to 4 hours each way depending on your group’s pace. It’s a full day hike.
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This is a great hike for dogs as there is lots of water
Camping at the Ribbon Falls Campground
There is quite a nice backcountry campground just before you reach Ribbon Falls. At most of the campsites you should be able to hear the falls. The actual campground is about 9.5 km from the trailhead.
The campsite features 10 sites – most with privacy, along with bear lockers, picnic tables and benches. They are typically open from mid-June until the end of November – though note that after the 4 km mark you are into avalanche terrain once the snow starts to fall.
Even though there is a firepit, you are not allowed to cut any wood so add that to the must hump into the campsite list, especially when you know it’s going to be a cold night. One of those long burning logs you can buy in a grocery store might do the trick quite nicely.
It is a popular campsite as it’s also a good base to explore Ribbon Lake. But to get there, you do have to negotiate a cliff face with chains – so don’t plan on taking your dog if you’re planning to hike there.
To book a campsite visit Alberta Parks.
The first view of Ribbon Falls exceeded all expectations. I certainly didn’t expect to see falls of this size – in as beautiful a setting.
The water from Ribbon Falls originates from Ribbon Lake. It flows over several headwalls, as you can see in the fourth photo below, to end at a 25 m sheer drop over a rock face. It’s far more impressive than I expected. I highly recommend climbing the steep trail for the slightly improved view of the falls above Ribbon Falls.
When we hiked to the falls in late May, there were remnants of a massive avalanche that I understand occurred in the last month. When you get a bit higher – as if you were heading for the chains, you can appreciate where all the snow comes from. It was a sobering reminder of the power of an avalanche as trees were snapped like toothpicks.
The hike back to the trailhead
The Ribbon Falls hike is an out and back affair, so the scenery doesn’t change. The light does though, and you see things differently on the return. I quite enjoyed it until the last few kilometres when my feet were tired and just wanted to be in sandals.
Finding the trailhead
From the intersection of the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 40 S, the trailhead is about 24.5 km and a 20-minute drive away.
Go south on Highway 40 for 22.8 km and turn right (west) onto Mt Allan Drive. Continue for 850 m. Take your first left onto Centennial Drive. Drive 250 m and turn right onto Ribbon Creek Road (you’ll pass the Kananaskis Hostel) and continue to the large parking lot.
The hike starts from the western end of the parking lot beside Ribbon Creek. There is signage. At the trailhead there are also washrooms and garbage cans. This parking lot is also the starting point for the fantastic but long and hard Centennial Ridge – Mount Allan hike.
A few things you might find helpful for this hike
Take bear spray in an easy to access holster.
I love looking at maps and find paper maps to be invaluable, perhaps a sign of my age. For this area pick up a copy of Gem Treks Canmore and Kananaskis Village.
Our friend Thomas who came with us ran out of water and it wasn’t even a hot day. So don’t forget a water filter or purification tablets so you don’t cramp up from dehydration. And take some energy-protein bars as it’s a long hike so you’ll need a boost for the final hour.
Thomas also had a new pair of hiking boots and ended up with one blister at the end. Consider taking a pair of lightweight socks you can change into especially if you typically wear heavier ones. Take Compeed – a product I swear by for blisters. It’s expensive but worth every penny as it speeds up healing time.
Further reading on hiking in Kananaskis
- Easy Kananaskis Hikes Everyone Will Love
- Raspberry Ridge Hike in Alberta
- 7 Bragg Creek Hikes along Highway 66
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