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The Hike To Three Isle Lake Hike In Kananaskis Country

The Hike to Three Isle Lake Hike in Kananaskis Country

If you’re looking for a long day hike or a backpacking trip in the mountains, within a few hours drive of Calgary, check out Three Isle Lake in Kananaskis Country. It’s a great choice as it also offers several options to continue beyond the lake – including the difficult but reportedly fabulous Northover Traverse along with the easy hike to South Kananaskis Pass and Beatty Lake. Fortunately the hike up to the lake is worthwhile in itself. And Three Isle Lake is also a pretty destination in its own right, at least when the water levels are high. What little mountain scenery I’ve seen at South Kananaskis Pass looks fabulous.

The 10.3 kilometre one way hike to Three Isle Lake starts by Upper Kananaskis Lake. It takes you first to the Forks Campground – a great destination for families and those wanting to do day hikes from the campground. Then a few easy kilometres later, you head up a steep headwall that will likely have you breathing hard, especially if you’re carrying a backpack. At least the views are marvelous. In total you climb 500 metres (1,640 feet) to reach the lake, with most of the gain after the Forks Campground. 

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

A sunnier view on the return hike
A sunnier view on the return hike

Finding the trailhead 

The trailhead starts at the kiosk at the north end of the North Interlakes Day Use Area, on the northeast shore of Upper Kananaskis Lake. To get there, drive south for 50 kilometres on Highway 40 from the Trans-Canada Highway. Turn southwest (right if you’re coming from the Trans-Canada) onto Kananaskis Lakes Trail.

Continue on the paved Kananaskis Lakes Trail (the Smith Dorrien Trail is not) past the turnoff to the Canyon Creek Campground, William Watson Lodge and Boulton Creek. (But go here after your hike if you want cold drinks and ice cream!) Do not take a left towards the Upper Kananaskis Day Use Area. Instead continue past the turnoff to the Interlakes Campground to reach the North Interlakes Day Use Area, basically at the end of the road. From the turnoff at Highway 40, it’s approximately 15 kilometres to the parking lot.

The weather forecast was off by 12C
The weather forecast was off by 12C – it was 8C when we started in early July

Route description – Upper Kananaskis Lake to the Forks Campground

From the parking lot cross the footbridge over the spillway and turn left onto an old road. Pass a turnoff to Mt Indefatigable – a trail decommissioned to protect grizzly habitat.

At 0.8 kilometres stay right on the upper trail. The lower trail is best used if you’re planning to hike the Upper Kananaskis Lakes Circuit – a very worthwhile day trip. 

At the next intersection, 2.2 kilometres into the hike, keep right and follow the rocky road beneath the steep slopes shown in the photo below. Continue hiking along the road, passing the Palliser rockslide. Reach a bridge over Invincible Creek, 1.6 kilometres past the last intersection. You have now hiked 3.8 kilometres. Mountain bikers must stop at this point.

Excellent signage at the beginning of the hike to Three Isle Lake
Excellent signage at the beginning of the hike to Three Isle Lake
Views of Upper Kananaskis Lake a few kilometres into the hike
Views of Upper Kananaskis Lake a few kilometres into the hike
The first major creek crossing on the hike to Three Isle Lake
Crossing Invincible Creek on the hike to Three Isle Lake

Continue on a dirt trail through old forest to reach a bridge over the Kananaskis River at the 5.8 kilometre mark. Skirt another rockslide at the base of Mount Lyautey. If you look up from that rockslide, you can just barely make out the headwall you’ll be climbing in short order.

The rest of the hike to the Forks Campground at 7.2 kilometres is flat and easy. We saw a lot of moose poop, especially when leaving the campground but no sign of the animal.

Crossing the Kananaskis River at 5.8 km
Crossing the Kananaskis River at 5.8 km
Crossing a large rockslide on the way to the Forks Campground
Crossing a large rockslide on the way to the Forks Campground
Hike through beautiful woods
Hike through beautiful woods
We passed a lot of moose poop near the Forks Campground
We passed a lot of moose poop near the Forks Campground – and in fact saw a moose on the drive out
You cross this bridge coming and going from the Forks Campground
You cross this bridge coming and going from the Forks Campground

The Forks Campground

The Forks Campground sits at the confluence of the Upper Kananaskis River and Three Isle Creek. It’s one of the nicer backcountry campgrounds I’ve seen and the perfect place for lunch. There are lots of picnic tables and even a fire pit with benches all around it. (Firewood was provided, at least in early July 2020, even though the park website said otherwise.)

At the campground you’ll find 15 campsites along with bear lockers and a pit toilet. It was very popular with families when we passed through it, probably because it’s an easy destination to reach. It’s also a good spot to do day trips from – like the up and back hike to Three Isle Lake, without the weight of a backpack. 

From the Forks Campground you can also head north on the Maude-Lawson Trail for 7.8 kilometres to reach the Turbine Canyon Campground. From there, more exploring is possible including a hike up to see the Haig Glacier or a trip to visit Maude Lake and North Kananaskis Pass. Both of those trips would be long day hikes from the Forks Campground.

There's a nice big fire pit at the Forks Campground
There’s a nice big fire pit at the Forks Campground

The hike from the Forks Campground to Three Isle Lake

The real work starts after the Forks Campground. The trail starts climbing about 10 minutes after leaving the campground. It’s gentle at first but it gets steeper, especially once you get onto the avalanche slope.

When we hiked it in early July, it didn’t take long to figure out we were following a bear. In fact I un-holstered my bear spray… just in case. Signs of a bear were everywhere once we crossed the stream pictured three photos below. There was plenty of fresh digging along with flowers strewn helter-skelter along the trail. They hadn’t even had time to wilt. About 15 minutes up from the stream crossing, a couple in front of us by just a minute, yelled down that they’d just seen the bear head into the forest.

The following day we also spoke to a man who had been bluff-charged by a grizzly near the Forks Campground a few years back. He didn’t carry bear spray then but quickly became a convert. (I would also recommend a bear spray holster so you can get to the bear spray FAST.)

Back to what’s ahead of you. 

Be mentally prepared for a stiff, hard climb up the headwall. There are some stairs in place to help. Don’t forget to look up periodically as this is a really glorious mountain landscape. When you get to the top of the headwall, you’re 10 kilometres into the hike – and have only 0.4 kilometres to go. 

Descend 30 metres (we were mostly on snow in early July) to reach a signed junction. Day hikers will want to go left to reach the lake. Campers head right to find one of the 16 campsites. 

Read: Tips for Staying Safe in Bear Country 

Lovely walking through a great swath of moss
Lovely walking through great swaths of moss
Pass an old debris flow
Pass an old debris flow
A section with a lot of bear activity
A section with a lot of bear activity
We knew we were following a bear when we saw freshly dug up earth and flowers helter - skelter along the trail
We knew we were following a bear when we saw freshly dug up earth and fresh flowers helter – skelter along the trail
Pass these waterfalls on the way towards the headwall
Pass these waterfalls on the way towards the headwall
Stairs on the headwall to help navigate the steep section
Stairs on the headwall to help navigate the steep section
Beautiful views about halfway up the headwall on the way to Three Isle Lake
Beautiful views about halfway up the headwall on the way to Three Isle Lake

The campsite at Three Isle Lake

There are actually two camping areas at Three Isle Lake as we discovered when we hiked to South Kananaskis Pass. They are about half a kilometre apart. They both have sets of bear boxes (way easier than hanging your food), picnic tables, earthen tent pads and an outhouse. 

I found the campsites to be nicely spread out and quite private, though I only found one with a view of the lake.

We discovered on the second day that there are two different areas at Three Isle Lake for camping
We discovered on the second day that there are two different areas at Three Isle Lake for camping – half a kilometre apart
Our campsite - with snow on the ground in early July
Our campsite – with snow on the ground in early July
Some of the campsites at Three Isle Lake in early July are quite muddy
Some of the campsites at Three Isle Lake in early July are quite muddy
The only campsite at Three Isle Lake I saw with a view
The only campsite at Three Isle Lake I saw with a view
There are bear lockers and picnic tables at Three Isle Lake
There are bear lockers and picnic tables at Three Isle Lake
Three Isle Lake at 7 AM
Three Isle Lake at 8 AM

The hike to South Kananaskis Pass

We did the 2.1 kilometre one way hike up to South Kananaskis Pass after breakfast. The climb was an easy 145 metres (475 feet) though much of it was on a very snowy trail.

To find the trail follow the lakeshore northwest from the first campground to the second campground. From the western most campground it’s easy to pick up the trail. Head up through sub-alpine forest, descend briefly to the lake again and then continue northwest on a gentle grade to reach the pass.

There’s a sign on the Great Divide that says Provincial Park Boundary – British Columbia. In BC you’re in Height of the Rockies Provincial Park.

Retrace your steps. We were back at Three Isle Lake in about 30 minutes, even with the snow.

Hike along a section of Three Isle Lake
Hike along a section of Three Isle Lake
At the end of Three Isle Lake
At the end of Three Isle Lake
There's a lot of snow for the first week of July
There’s a lot of snow for the first week of July
Glacier lilies in the sunny spots
Glacier lilies in the sunny spots
Me at the Great Divide - on the border of Alberta and British Columbia
Me at the Great Divide – on the border of Alberta and British Columbia
In BC looking in the direction of Beatty Lake
In BC looking in the direction of Beatty Lake where there is a campground. According to the BC parks website it is “a user-maintained wilderness campsite that provides 5 tent pads, a food storage cache, and a cooking area with benches and a table, and a pit toilet”
Very pretty landscape
Very pretty landscape – and expect the wildflowers will be incredible as soon as the snow has gone
Heading back to the trailhead on a much sunnier day
Heading back to the trailhead on a much sunnier day
The view of Upper Kananaskis Lake at the start and end of the hike
The view of Upper Kananaskis Lake at the start and end of the hike

A few things worth taking with you

Even if you’re a fan of a GPS, I highly recommend taking a paper map – for trip planning purposes and especially if you’re considering the hike between Three Isle Lake and Turbine Canyon campgrounds over North and South Kananaskis Passes. The Gem Trek Kananaskis Lakes Map is the one to get.

For the nature lover who wants to learn the names of wildflowers, the compact Central Rockies Wildflower guide is a great choice.

For those unexpected gear fails on a trip, Gear Aid Tenacious Tape Repair is the way to go. It will fix sleeping pads, rain pants, down jackets, tent flies, tarps and more.

And if you’re not a big fan of backpacking because of uncomfortable nights in a tent, consider investing in a deluxe pillow that weighs next to nothing.

For timely information on Kananaskis trails visit the Alberta Parks website.

Further reading on hikes in Kananaskis Country

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The hike to Three Isle Lake & South Kananaskis Pass

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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