Nestled in the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains on the Alberta-British Columbia boundary, is 5,625 hectare Elk Lakes Provincial Park and adjacent 11,700 hectare Recreation Area, a delicate sub-alpine area of outstanding mountain landscapes, natural lakes and remnant glaciers (north of Elkford).
Rugged, rock-faced peaks encompass the park. The mountains and glaciers of the north and west boundaries are a roll call of French leaders of the First World War: Mount Petain, with Petain Glacier, the largest glacier in the park, clinging to its flanks, Mount Nivelle, Mount Joffre and Mount Foch.
Petain, Elk and Castelneau Glaciers feed their melt waters via Nivelle and Petain Creeks to Upper Elk Lake, which lies mountain-bordered at an elevation of 1,800 metres (5,940 ft). Lower Elk Lake, about half the size of Upper Elk Lake, is 100 metres (330 ft) lower in elevation and about 800 metres (2,640 ft) to the southeast of the upper lake’s outlet. Both lakes are glacial gems. Their waters are too cold for swimming, but angling in them for Rocky Mountain whitefish, dolly varden and cutthroat trout can occasionally be productive.
Much of the park is above treeline. At lower elevations alpine fir, Englemann spruce and lodgepole pine predominate; interspersed with juniper, twinberry, false azalea, white rhododendron and dwarf huckleberry. Yellow violets, foam flowers and bunchberries add a touch of colour. In the alpine meadows are scrub birch, cinquefoil, Saskatoon and gooseberry with alpine flowers like fireweed, Indian paintbrush, blue violet, elephant’s head and giant ragwort splashing the area with colourful displays.
Wildlife is present in the park. Near the entrance are scores of chipmunks and ground squirrels. Beavers are resident near Upper Elk Lake and at Elkan Creek. Elk and moose frequent the meadows near the upper and lower lakes. Occasionally a mountain goat, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, grizzly bear or black bear may be seen by the observant visitor.
Bird life is fairly common. Spruce grouse are often encountered along the trails and ubiquitous members of the jay family seem ever-present to cadge and cajole visitors. A variety of waterfowl is transient in the lakes’ area.
Temperatures in summer may reach close to the 30C(86F) mark on occasion, with the average closer to 20C (68F). Overnight the thermometer often registers below freezing. The park is usually free of snow at lower elevations by mid-June, although the trails will remain wet and muddy until the first part of July. The lakes are ice-free by mid-June and remain so until late in November.
How to get to the park: Elk Lakes Provincial Park is located about 104 kilometres (65 mi) north of Sparwood. Turn off Highway 3 at Sparwood and go north on Highway 43 till you reach the community of Elkford, a distance of 35 kilometres (22 mi). From here, travel the gravel road on the west side of the Elk River. Approximately 47 kilometres north of Elkford the road crosses the Elk River and joins the Kananaskis Power Line Road. It is 5.8 kilometres (3.5 mi) from the crossing to the Cadorna Creek trailhead; the Elk Lakes trailhead is a further 16.1 kilometres (10 mi). Driving time from Sparwood to the park is approximately two hours.
There are several Ministry of Forests campsites located along this section of the road. This road has been upgraded to allow two wheel vehicle access to the park boundary. Driving time from Sparwood to the park is approximately 2 hours. Access to the park is also possible from Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.
Elk Lakes Park and Peter Lougheed Park share a common boundary along the Continental Divide. As the old powerline road to Peter Lougheed is closed to all public traffic, we have provided trails to link the parks together.
Park Entrance to Peter Lougheed Park via West Elk Pass:
Length 4 kilometres (2.5 mi), suggested time 1-1 1/2 hours, elevation gain 240 metres (792 ft). The trail climbs moderately through a mature spruce forest before opening onto a large open scrub spruce meadow. The trail parallels this meadow for about 2 kilometres (1 mi) before coming to the provincial boundary at Elk Pass. The parking area in Peter Lougheed Park is approximately 3 kilometres (2 mi) from the boundary. Hikers have the option of making a circuit trip back to the park entrance via Upper Elk Lake and Fox Lake Trail.
Peter Lougheed Park to Upper Elk Lake: Length approximately 7 kilometres (4 mi), suggested time 2 hours, elevation gain 300 metres (1,089 ft). From the Elk Pass parking lot in Peter Lougheed Park the trail follows the powerline road for a short distance. At Fox Creek the trail leaves the road to the right and follows an old track to the provincial boundary at Elk Pass.
At this trail junction, follow the trail to the right leading southward. The trail to Upper Elk Lakes skirts near the shore of Fox Lake and descends the south slope of Mt Fox to the Upper Lake. Excellent views of Elk Lakes, Elk Valley and surrounding peaks. For a more direct route to Lower Elk Lake and Park Headquarters, go straight ahead at the junction at Elk Pass.
Lower Elk Lake to Upper Elk Lake: Length 1.6 kilometres (1 mi), suggested time 1/2 hour, elevation change 76 metres (250 ft). The trail to the Upper Lake passes through meadows, mature spruce forests and rock slides. Exciting views of the Elk River and interesting geological formations near Upper Elk Lake.
Viewpoint: Length 1.5 kilometres (1 mi), suggested time 2 hrs, elevation change 91 metres (300 ft). Trail starts on the west side of the Upper Elk River above its entrance to Lower Elk Lake. It skirts the lakeshore and then climbs steeply to a prominent viewpoint. Trail is short but strenuous.
Along Upper Elk Lake: Length 2.4 kilometres (1.5 mi), suggested time 1/2 to 1 hour, no elevation change. A pleasant walk along the lakeshore. Excellent views of peaks, basins and rock formations on opposite side of lake. Numerous waterfalls spout from limestone walls above lake during run-off. Good fishing spots along the shore.
Upper Elk Lake to Petain Creek Waterfall: Length 4 kilometres (2.5 mi), suggested time 1 to 1 1/2 hour, elevation change 91 metres (300 ft). Easy hike. Beautiful view of the waterfall and the Castelneau hanging glacier. Large gravel outwash plains permit extensive wandering through the area.
There are several common routes in the park. They all share the same criteria. Generally, trails do not exist. Moderate scrambling and travel through fairly dense undergrowth and occasionally through tangled slides is required. These routes offer excellent scenic opportunities. Sections are not maintained and are not recommended for small children. Hikers travel these routes at their own risk.
Upper Lake Campsite to Coral Pass: A demanding hike but worthwhile. The Nivelle drainage offers superb views and some fine examples of fossilization. From the campsite (near the crossing) follow old trails trough the timber in a general direction paralleling Petain Creek. Long stretches of outwash plain are then followed, making travel easy.
At the base of Nivelle Creek is a snowfilled canyon – avoid the snow unless roped (Nivelle Creek erodes the underside, making it possible to fall through). Either the left or right hand side of the creek is accessible – some scrambling required on the right side. Pick you own route up. Coral Pass is located at the west end of the valley. Access to Cadorna Lake is possible.
Upper Lake Campsite to Cadorna Lake: A demanding hike that provides either a pleasant day trip to the pass, access to Mt Aosta for climbers or a link to Cadorna Lake. From the campsite (near the crossing) strike out in a southerly direction through the forest, following old trails. A large slide path is reached. For the next hour or so you must pick your way up the slide heading for the pass. As elevation is gained, vegetation thins and finally scree leads to the pass.
Superb views of Cadorna Lake and Italian group of peaks. Easy descent to Cadorna Lake. Caution must be used as several cliff bands interrupt your descent to the lake. Routes around them can easily be found. Generally it is best to head straight down as opposed to angling in the direction of the lake.
Lower Elk Lake to Fox-Frozen Lake Viewpoint: A moderate hike offering fine views of Elk Lakes, Elk Valley and Kananaskis Lakes. Very worthwhile. Follow trail to Upper Elk Lake at the outlet, cross the bridge and follow trail to West Elk Pass (Kananaskis Peak). Approximately 1.5 kilometre (1 mi) from the lake, the trail switchbacks up a slide path. From here you are on your own. Stay on the path to the top. Travel is easy though steep.
Petain Creek Waterfalls to Petain Basin: Length 4 kilometre (2.5 mi), suggested time 2 hours, elevation change 520 metres (1,716 ft). A strenuous hike giving access for mountaineering or pleasant wandering in the Petain Basin. A faint trail provides access. From where the waterfalls first become visible, continue up trail until it comes to a small rock band – 3 metres (10 ft) high.
Work around band on the left (west) side where the trail is visible. Approximately 100 m up, cross the usually dry creek bed (even though the trail appears to keep climbing) and pick up trail on east side. Follow trail to basin.
Camping: There are three areas where camping is permitted:
Park Entrance – camping on a large, grassy terrace set among lodgepole pine. Toilet and fire pit, Park Headquarters nearby.
Lower Elk Lake – toilet, fire pits, space for 10 tents on east side of trail.
Petain Creek – area extends from west end of Upper Elk Lake to end of gravel terrace on south side of creek. Campsites are designated by fire pits. Please do not make any new fire pits. Trees, dead or alive are not to be cut for any purpose.
Angling: Angling in the Elk River and Lower Elk Lake and to a lesser extent in Upper Elk Lake and Upper Elk River, for Dolly Varden, Rocky Mountain whitefish and cutthroat trout. Cutthroat average about 24 cm and whitefish about 22 cm. Very few Dollies are caught. Best period is right after breakup and from September to freeze-up. Fishing is poor during run-off (July – August).
Winter Use: There is limited winter use due to unploughed roads. It is possible to reach the park from Alberta via Peter Lougheed Park ski trails. Travel is fairly easy through the lower areas. Do not follow the summer hiking trail to Upper Elk Lake via Fox Lake since there are numerous avalanche paths along the way. Instead, follow meadows in a southerly direction until the powerline is reached.