Southfork Lakes Hike & Camp in Southern Alberta

The Southfork Lakes are separated by a small strip of land

John and I finally got around to doing the Southfork Lakes hike. It’s been on my wish list since our son did it about four years ago. Two summers ago, we were thwarted by smoke, but I have no other excuses on why it took us so long. On the day we hiked in late June, we enjoyed fine weather with no wind.

The hike to Southfork Lakes can be done as an overnight trip – not that you need to, as it’s only 10 km return and very doable as a day hike. However, if you want to hike to the Amoeba or Barnaby Ridge, or you just want to hang out and fish, then it’s a great destination as a one-or-two-night trip, especially as you don’t need reservations.

The hike to Southfork Lake isn’t technically hard, but it sure is unremittingly steep for some time. (Take poles for the descent.) Throw in the heat of a sunny afternoon, and you may wonder what you got yourself into. But not for long. The three lakes are beautiful – and the backdrop is sweet, especially if you plan to camp.

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Some nice views looking towards Castle Mountain Resort - and lots of paintbrush in bloom too
Some nice views looking towards Castle Mountain Resort – and lots of paintbrush in bloom too

Southfork Lakes hike summary

Location: Castle Wildland Provincial Park

Distance: 10 km return

Elevation gain: 625 m or 2,051 feet

Time needed: 4 – 6 hours. We were up with backpacks after 2 hr 50 minutes.

Level of difficulty: Moderate to difficult but only because of long steep sections. There are no technical issues with the Southfork Lakes hike.

Permits: None needed but get a fishing license if you’re planning to fish the lakes.

Don’t forget: Pack the hiking essentials and practice the seven Leave No Trace principles.

Bears and wildlife: In this part of Alberta keep an eye out for black and grizzly bears as well as cougars. Carry bear spray that is easy to access and make plenty of noise. Know what to do if you see a bear – and a cougar for that matter. We didn’t so much as see bear scat but best to be prepared.

Dogs: Permitted on a leash.

Birds: With the help of the Merlin app my husband was able to identify at least 17 birds including the Northern waterthrush, the Pacific wren, MacGillvray’s warbler, black tern, Wilson’s warbler, fox sparrow and a pygmy nuthatch.

Options: Continue to the summit of Southfork Mountain (1.6 km return/+300m) from Southfork Lakes. Keep going to the Amoeba and add+3.7km return/+150m. From the Amoeba continue to the summit of Barnaby Ridge (+4km/+460m). As a day hike it would be 19.3 km return with+/-1,850 m of elevation gain and loss.

Camping: See below for detailed information. No reservations required.

Lots of wildflowers on the Southfork Lakes hike
Lots of wildflowers on the Southfork Lakes hike

Finding the trailhead for the Southfork Lakes hike

If you’re coming from Highway 3, go south on Highway 507 towards Beaver Mines and Castle Mountain Resort. If you’re coming from Pincher Creek, you can take Highway 507 west to Beaver Mines.

In Beaver Mines (where you can load up on cold drinks and snacks), continue south on Highway 774 for 24.8 km. The trailhead is on the left as you’re heading for Castle Mountain Resort.

You can park in the small turnoff – but don’t block the gate. You can also park along the highway – but pull completely off.

There is another option and that is to continue driving 600m further south from the trailhead turnoff. Turn right into the large parking lot with picnic tables, garbage cans and washrooms. When you’re ready to hike, simply cross the highway and pick up the trail on the far side leading to the Southfork Lakes trailhead.

It's a pretty drive along Highway 774 to get to the Southfork Lakes hike trailhead
It’s a pretty drive along Highway 774 to get to the Southfork Lakes hike trailhead

There is room for about 5 cars by the gates at the Southfork Lakes hike trailhead
There is room for about 5 cars by the gates at the Southfork Lakes hike trailhead

Southfork Lakes hike description

From the gate, where we met a couple of hummingbird researchers (rufous and calliope are in the area), follow the obvious trail as it bends left by a sign. Continue another few hundred metres to reach the bridge over the West Castle River.

A few years ago, wading the West Castle River was the crux of the hike. It can be deep, and often you’d have to hike to the Southfork Lakes later in the season, if you wanted to get there safely.

After crossing the bridge continue on an obvious trail through dense green growth. There are a couple of signs with the mileage to Barnaby and Southfork Lakes. Look for a variety of wildflowers as you make your way towards the open slopes.

Once you clear the trees, the hike steepens considerably as it climbs 600 metres up the west face. Take your time, catch your breath and enjoy the panoramic views over to Castle Mountain Resort.

At the top of the steep section you head back into the forest – again on a good trail – with ups and downs all the way to Barnaby Lake. You’re getting close when you can hear the rushing water from the waterfall.

Barnaby Lake is a pretty place. If its windy or the weather is threatening this would be a good place to stop for those of you camping. You could probably squeeze in 3 – 5 tents.

Continue right around Barnaby Lake. It’s only 0.9 km to the first of the Southfork Lakes – so you’ll be there in about 15 – 20 minutes. There is some elevation, but nothing like the you’ve done already. Note all the larch trees through here too. This would be a great place to revisit in the fall.

The trail takes you to the right of an outlet stream. In late June there was a bit of snow around, but it was very manageable. In no time, you’ll be standing in front of the first of the Southfork Lakes, though some distance up from the water.

Follow the trail across a soggy section of land heading for a rock face. Take the trail to the second of the Southfork Lakes at the base of the minor rock wall. In a few minutes you’ll be at the second lake.

You can hike across another rocky wall between the two Southfork Lakes by crossing a stream. If you want to hike to the far end of the second lake, you’ll find it’s easier going if you head counterclockwise.

If you want to continue to the summit of Southfork Mountain, follow the path of least resistance on the rocky area above and between the two Southfork Lakes. We had planned to do that, but the weather forecast wasn’t great, so we’ll come back as day hikers and tackle it another time.

Good signage right off the bat so you know you're on the right track
Good signage right off the bat so you know you’re on the right track
The crux of the Southfork Lakes hike used to be crossing the West Castle River without a bridge
The crux of the Southfork Lakes hike used to be crossing the West Castle River without a bridge
Good signage with mileage markers early on the Southfork Lakes hike
Good signage with mileage markers early on the Southfork Lakes hike
One of the expansive views before you head back into the woods towards Barnaby Lake
One of the expansive views before you head back into the woods towards Barnaby Lake
A small waterfall before Barnaby Lake
A small waterfall before Barnaby Lake
A beautiful view towards Southfork Lakes from Barnaby Lake
A beautiful view towards Southfork Lakes from Barnaby Lake
Stay to the right as you hike around Barnaby Lake
Stay to the right as you hike around Barnaby Lake
The last bit of climbing on the hike to Southfork Lakes
The last bit of climbing on the hike to Southfork Lakes
Looking down at Barnaby Lake
Looking down at Barnaby Lake
The trail in the foreground by the rock wall will take you to the second Southfork Lake
The trail in the foreground by the rock wall will take you to the second Southfork Lake
The first of the Southfork Lakes - note the tents to the left
The first of the Southfork Lakes – note the tents to the left
The second of the Southfork Lakes - and there is a trail down to it
The second of the Southfork Lakes – and there is a trail down to it

Camping at Southfork Lakes

Camping is permitted without a reservation at Southfork Lakes because it’s in Castle Wildland Provincial Park. The campsite must be at least 50 metres from any trail. If you have a campfire, dismantle the campfire ring – and be sure to pack out all garbage and supplies.

There are no facilities at Southfork Lakes. You won’t find bear boxes or poles, toilets, picnic tables, grey water disposal, or any other amenities you might be used to.

You absolutely need to be bear aware. Hang all of your food and toiletries in a tree – so don’t forget a carabiner, a length of rope, and a durable waterproof bag.

When we camped at Southfork Lakes we found a spot with a gorgeous view. Most of the level spots are on the far side of the stream exiting the first Southfork Lake. The pickings would be very slim at the second Southfork Lake.

Sunrise seen from our tent at 5:30 AM on June 30th
Sunrise seen from our tent at 5:30 AM
There is a sign pointing to toilets at Barnaby Lake - another popular spot for camping
There is a sign pointing to toilets at Barnaby Lake – another popular spot for camping
One of the better mountain views we've had camping in Alberta
One of the better mountain views we’ve had camping in Alberta
We can see Crowsnest Mountain from our campsite
We can see Crowsnest Mountain from our campsite

Photos from the hike to Southfork Lakes

These additional photos of the Southfork Lakes hike should give you a good idea of what to expect. If you want to climb Southfork Mountain, the Amoeba or Barnaby Ridge, aim for a calm day. The ridge wouldn’t be a lot of fun on one of the area’s notoriously windy days.

The last stop before Barnaby Lake for our dog to cool down
The last stop before Barnaby Lake for our dog to cool down
This picture will give you an idea about how steep the hike is to Southfork Lakes
This picture will give you an idea about how steep the hike is to Southfork Lakes
Fishing is very popular at Southfork Lakes - the water was warm enough on June 30th that no one wore waders
Fishing for golden trout is very popular at Southfork Lakes and the water was warm enough on June 30th that no one wore waders
Emerging from the easier forest section on the way down from Barnaby Lake
Emerging from the easier forest section on the way down from Barnaby Lake
The wildflowers were stunning under moody skies on the hike out
The wildflowers were stunning under moody skies on the hike out
The wildflowers were stunning under moody skies on the hike out
We probably saw a total of about 25 people – and most were day hikers
Some of the wildflowers we saw on the Southfork Lakes hike
Some of the wildflowers we saw on the Southfork Lakes hike

What to take on the hike

The mountains can be cold, even in the summer so pack layers. I’d recommend including adown coatand a raincoat that can double as a windproof layer. Takea hatand warm gloves.

There were flies and mosquitoes in the evening, so don’t forget theinsect repellent.

Takebiodegradable soapto do any washing. We hung awater filterfrom one of the small trees and that worked well.

I always takeGear Aid tapein case we rip our jacket, tear our tent or get a leak in the sleeping pad.

I love our3 person MSR Elixir tentwith two doors. They also make a two person and four person tent.

I swear by ourlightweight camp chairson a short trip like this where we don’t have to haul a lot of food.

We were happy to have our camp chairs at the end of the Southfork Lakes hike
We were happy to have our camp chairs at the end of the Southfork Lakes hike

More hikes you might enjoy in southern Alberta

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The Southfork Lakes hike and camping experience in southern Alberta

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