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The Headwall Lakes Hike In Kananaskis Country

The Headwall Lakes Hike in Kananaskis Country

The Headwall Lakes hike in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is a wonderful choice if you want a wilder, slightly more challenging hike than nearby Chester Lake. While the trailhead shares the same parking lot as the Chester Lake hike, the two hikes feel completely different.

On the Headwall Lakes hike you won’t see many people, perhaps 10% of what you’d see on a typical day on the Chester Lake hike. The trail to Headwall Lakes – while obvious, is still more difficult than it is to Chester Lake. And by difficult, I mean there is a steeper, narrow stretch with lots of handholds – but if you are a regular hiker, you won’t give it a second thought.

Peek a boo views through the trees on the trails in the Sawmill Creek area
Peek a boo views through the trees on the trails in the Sawmill Creek area

This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

Stats for the Headwall Lakes hike

Round trip distance: 14 kilometres to upper Headwall Lake 

Difficulty: Moderate

Elevation gain: 430 metres

Time needed: 5 – 6 hours

Map: Gem Trek – Kananaskis Lakes

Other considerations: Dogs are allowed on a leash. Take note of backcountry hazards noted below in the photo. Always carry the 10 essentials for hiking and a can of bear spray.

A perfect day in the mountains as far as the Bernese Mountain dog was concerned
A perfect day in the mountains as far as the Bernese Mountain dog was concerned

Route description

From the Chester Lake parking lot hop on one of the well-marked Sawmill snowshoe trails that double as hiking trails in the summer and fall. Maps can be found at every intersection! We started off on Frost Heave and took it to Snowdrift. From there we enjoyed a flatter section paralleling Headwall Creek. Then we crossed the bridge over Headwall Creek at 3.2 kilometres, 45 minutes to an hour into the hike, and climbed up the road steeply for a short distance.

When the road started to level out, about a half a kilometre from the bridge, we looked for a cairn on the left-hand side of the road. See the picture below. There is also an arrow made of rocks on the road pointing to the trail, but it is surprisingly easy to miss.

Good maps showing your location in the Sawmill Creek area
Good maps showing your location in the Sawmill Creek are – note Chester Lake TH at the far left of the map
The turnoff to Headwall Lakes is obvious if you follow directions
The turnoff to Headwall Lakes is obvious if you follow directions
Trail signage to scare you
Trail signage to scare you or at least make you think twice

Enter the woods on a narrow trail that leads through dense trees. After about 15 minutes in this section you will reach Headwall Creek – marked by lots of uprooted trees. Ahead in the valley you can see numerous mountain peaks. Immediately left is 3054 m high Mt. Chester and to your right is Mt. James Walker at 3035 m.

Once you leave the Sawmill Creek trails you end up on a narrow trail through the trees
Once you leave the Sawmill Creek trails you end up on a narrow trail through the trees
Looking in the direction of the Headwall Lakes
First big views at Headwall Creek, looking in the direction of the Headwall Lakes

From Headwall Creek hop on the trail that weaves through the forest, roughly paralleling the creek. Emerge at the base of a rockslide. In the fall, this was the only place on the entire hike where we saw larches in all their glory.

The only larch trees you see on the Headwall Lakes hike
The only larch trees you see on the Headwall Lakes hike

Follow the trail at the base of the rockslide heading for the notch in the distance. To reach lower Headwall Lake, roughly two hours from the trailhead, climb steeply through the trees and up over ledges to look down on the first lake.

Don’t turn back here as it’s only a 15-minute hike to reach the upper Headwall Lake. There is a various obvious rocky trail to follow that doesn’t require any special moves. On the day we hiked it, after the first snowfall of the season, our main aim was to get out of the wind to enjoy lunch. On a warm summer day, this lake would be a wonderful place to hang out for an hour. 

On the way to Lower Headwall Lake
On the way to Lower Headwall Lake
It's a stiff hike up to Lower Headwall Lake
It’s a stiff hike up to Lower Headwall Lake
Beautiful mountain views looking back to the Smith Dorrien Road
Beautiful mountain views looking back towards the Smith Dorrien Road
John hiking through snow on the way to the upper Headwall Lake
John hiking through snow on the way to the upper Headwall Lake

There is the option to continue hiking around the east shore of upper Headwall Lake – cue the people in the distance in the photo below. There’s lots of off-trail exploring to do here if you’re not interested in climbing Fortress Mountain or scrambling up the col and then down to Chester Lake. A good topo map is essential if you are planning to hike further.

Desolate landscape at the upper Headwall Lake on a fall weekend
Desolate landscape at the upper Headwall Lake on a fall weekend

The option to continue up Fortress Mountain

We did not scramble up Fortress Mountain but as you can see there is an obvious path that switchbacks steeply up the mountain. From upper Headwall Lake there is another 660 metres of elevation gain over 3.5 kilometres. This is a demanding hike – and one I would choose to do on a perfect summer day – and not after a fresh snowfall. Fortress Mountain can also be reached via a steep off-trail hike from Chester Lake.

 People seen on top of Fortress Mountain
I could see people on top of Fortress with my long lens

Finding the trailhead

From the Canmore Nordic Centre drive 41.5 kilometres on the mostly dusty Smith Dorrien/Spray Trail. The large parking lot is on the east side of the road across from the Burstall Pass parking lot.

If you are coming from Highway 40, continue south to the junction of the Kananaskis Lakes Trail, 50 kilometres from the Trans-Canada Highway turnoff. Turn right (southwest) onto the Kananaskis Lakes Trail. In 2.2 kilometres turn right again onto the Smith Dorrien/Spray Trail. Continue for 22.2 kilometres to reach the parking lot on the right. It is well-signed on the approach.

The return hike to the trailhead
The return hike to the trailhead

5 things that come with me on most hikes

I like the inflatable seat cushion especially when lunch is on cold rocks and snow!

Hiking poles come in handy especially on steep sections or when stream crossings are involved. Buy quality and consider weight. The lighter, the better in my opinion.

I always take a buff as it’s so multi-functional. It’s particularly useful on a windy day.

I don’t pack gaiters on every trip, but at some point on most hikes I usually wish I had them – and once the snow starts falling, gaiters are invaluable

If it’s a chilly fall hike a thermos with something hot to drink is a welcome addition.

Further reading on hikes in the area

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The Headwall Lakes 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

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