If you’re after an outing that offers a heady mix of mountain views and lakes, then you’ll enjoy the moderate Sparrowhawk Tarns hike. You won’t have any problem with route-finding on the Sparrowhawk Tarns hike if you follow the directions in this blog and check out the photos.
No scrambling is involved – merely a wee bit of rock-hopping. And most of the 13.8 km return hike is at a gentle to moderate grade. This hike seems to be under-appreciated as it wasn’t at all busy.
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Sparrowhawk Tarns hike summary
Distance: 13.8 km (8.6 miles) return
Elevation gain: 720 m or 2,362 feet.
Level of difficulty: I’d rate the hike as moderate. There is nothing technical about it, but there may be some easy boulder hopping if you’re off trail.
Time needed: 3.5 – 5 hours depending on your hiking speed.
Best time to hike: Do the hike before the end of August as the Sparrowhawk Tarns usually dry up over summer.
Don’t forget: Some years the snow lingers at higher elevations so always go prepared with the hiking essentials, and turn back if you’re uncomfortable. Gaiters, poles, and icers or microspikes are helpful early in the hiking season.
The Sparrowhawk Tarns dry up over the course of the summer, so aim to do the Sparrowhawk Tarns hike from about the third week of June through to mid-August though snow pack levels vary from year to year so plan your hike accordingly.
Come back again in mid-September if you want to catch the stands of larches dressed in their fall colours.
Sparrowhawk Tarns hike route descriptio
You’re in for a treat on the hike to the Sparrowhawk Tarns in Kananaskis Country. The trail climbs just 720 m (2,362 feet) over approximately 6.9 km (4.3 miles) – enough that you can be assured of some excellent mountain views.
I’d suggest that you take a photo of this route description or bring a map with you so you know which way to go at each intersection. There is flagging tape in places but it doesn’t clarify the route. Fortunately on the descent the route is much easier to follow.
Getting started on the hike
Follow the obvious trail from the parking lot at the Sparrowhawk Day Use Area to the Smith-Dorrien Road. Look for the trail heading up the hill on the other side of the highway. Take it.
In short order you reach an intersection with the High Rockies Trail. Cross it. Or if you need to catch your breath enjoy the view from the bench at the intersection.
Continue through pretty forest to reach the next intersection approximately 1 km from the parking lot. Go right to stay on the trail to the Sparrowhawk Tarns.
If you head left you’ll end on the much tougher trail to Read’s Tower and Mount Sparrowhawk.
The grade moderates from here until you clear the trees. You should see a stream on your right (as you ascend) in 5 – 10 minutes. It’s a good place to cool down and let your dog get a drink.
When you clear the forest, about hour into the Sparrowhawk Tarns hike, look for the bright pink flagging tape marking the entrance/exit to the woods.
Turn right here on a well-trodden trail and continue past a very large boulder. Be prepared for the sudden piercing call of marmots through the boulders. It shocked us the first time we heard it.
The rest of the Sparrowhawk Tarns hike takes you up through the boulder field. If you stay on the trail you’ll never have to use your hands. But if you get off it, prepare for some boulder hopping. You may need to put your hand down to steady yourself on the odd boulder.
The boulder section ascends three ridges until you top out by the first of the Sparrowhawk Tarns. Plan to spend a good part of the day exploring, checking out the other tarns, walking the ridges and simply enjoying the views.
The hike back to the trailhead
Retrace your steps to return to the trailhead. I’d recommend looking back several times on the ascent -picking out landmarks to make sure you have an easy time route-finding on the way down.
It took us under two hours to get to the first tarn and only about 90 minutes to get down to the parking lot. In total over a July long weekend we saw all of eight other hikers.
Sparrowhawk Tarns trailhead location
Zero your odometer at the Canmore Nordic Centre. Drive 22.5 km south on the dusty Smith-Dorrien (also called Highway 742) to the parking area at the signed Sparrowhawk Day Use Area. Spill over parking is on the road.
If you haven’t been hiking in a while and are prone to blisters, I suggest taking Compeed. I swear by the stuff.
Don’t forget bear spray. It should always be accessible – and that’s why I put mine in a holster on the waist strap of my pack.
Where to stay nearby
My post – A Complete Guide to Camping in Kananaskis provides all the specifics you need on where to car-camp, including whether reservations are required, costs, number of campsites and more. There is one car-camping campsite on the Spray Lakes.
In Canmore, you’ll find accommodation from hostels to B&B’s to high end hotels.